Standing where I am now: Five years since the streets of Charlottesville

Aug 11, 2022 | Committees, PEWG blog, Political Education

Chalked messages of love and courage on the pavement

Where we left off

Five years ago I was at the counterprotests to Unite the Right, the fascist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, that culminated in a car attack that killed Heather Heyer and wounded many others, some quite seriously. I wrote about this for the PEWG Blog four years ago. I don’t need to rehash all the same things here, but I do want to reflect on the five years since.

I wrote that post from four years ago in part to promote the antifascist action that was coming up on August 18, 2018, and the educational panel ahead of it. As the post itself mentions, I was a speaker on that panel: Boston DSA’s speaker. It was a strange experience. I was used to protecting myself by being unnoticed. Being a speaker effectively made me a sort of VIP, one of the people that the security team – headed up by a dear friend and comrade who had been punched and stabbed at an antifascist action two weeks earlier – was there to safeguard. Some fascists did indeed show up and try to get in, albeit for apparent reconnaissance purposes more than mayhem. I didn’t know about it until the panel was over, because the security team did a great job. One guy that we’d never seen before did get in and record audio, but he wasn’t able to take video because, by his own admission, he knew that the security team would notice and bounce him.

The past and the present

On August 9 of last year, I was in Nashua, NH, hanging around outside a school board meeting with a handful of other people, including three other Boston DSA comrades. We were there in case fascists tried to crash or intimidate it. More than an hour into the meeting, the Nationalist Social Club (NSC-131) marched in, identically dressed and chanting in a group. The subset of people there who were active antifascist activists, including the four of us from Boston DSA, got in front of them. They came in shoving, grabbing one guy by the collar. We were able to arc their march to the other side of the street, so that our whole group was between them and the building. As we faced each other from across the street, one of their chants – presumably in recognition of it being two days before the anniversary of the A11 torchlight march – was “Jews will not replace us.” This was all pretty jarring for me, a direct reminder of being afraid that I would be dragged into a torch-wielding mob and mauled or killed. It brough up that same feeling of needing to be innocuous. But however unpleasant a walk down memory lane that was, it was still a memory rather than a repeat. I’ve put in a lot of work to prevent a repeat.

When I say that I’ve put in a lot of work to prevent a repeat, I mean some weeks where I spent 40+ hours doing antifascism (on top of my normal job). I mean time behind the scenes, time spent doing outreach and education, time spent in the streets. I mean getting in between our people and a guy swinging a hammer. I mean taking injuries and pepper-sprayings from both cops and fascists.

Which makes it all the more demeaning when people exclaim “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” in response to a 4th of July weekend march by Patriot Front (see an actual antifascist comrade’s statement on that), or in response to rallies from NSC. It also makes it all the more demeaning when people imply that commitment to antifascism is measured by whether you talk tough online or in street propaganda, whether you put “punch all the nazis” in your Twitter display name, or whether you have the right aesthetic. Or when people imply that because I don’t dress in black, that I owe a non-mutual gratitude toward those who do, or that my antifascist work is inherently lesser than theirs. Or that you need to be able to win a fight – something that’s always going to be unlikely for me for disability-related reasons – in order to properly be an antifascist.

NSC has gotten a lot of attention lately, in Boston and nationally, after they protested a Drag Queen Story Hour in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and their founder and leader Chris Hood was arrested for attacking a counterprotester. They recently protested another Drag Queen Story Hour in the Seaport as well. A lot of people seem to think NSC is a new player (they aren’t – they started as the New England Nationalist Club in 2019 and have been active monthly for nearly a year and a half) and indicative of things “getting worse” in the Boston area vis-à-vis the far right. The transphobic threat aimed at drag queens has escalated over the last several years alongside a far-right obsession with hunting “pedophiles.” We badly need to develop effective means to address that threat as escalation manifests locally. But in a more general sense of how the Boston area is faring in the face of fascism, the alarmism is wrong on more than one level. I remember what Chris Hood was doing in early 2018. He was building the Boston-area chapter of a different neo-Nazi group, Patriot Front (which he founded). He was part of an alliance that included Proud Boys, militias, American Guard, and a future 1/6 Capitol Riots arrestee who helped beat up counterprotesters in Portland later that year. That alliance was aiming to be an East Coast version of the ones centered around Patriot Prayer that caused so much damage to so many people in Portland (if you look closely at the ThinkProgress article, you can see that infamous Portland-area goon Tiny Toese was in its chat). Its goals never came to fruition.

A theory interlude

I see a lot of confusion and debate about what antifascism is and what its role in the left is. Whether it needs to take on a wider range of evils in order to be justified. My position is that antifascism is reproductive labor for liberatory movements that the far-right would attack and disrupt, and for the multiracial, multiethnic, multigender working class to which it would lay waste. It’s the shield to the sword, and it’s okay that it’s not the sword. Antifascism is also unusual (though not unique) in our organizing, in that it pits organizer vs organizer, rather than organizer vs existing system. That necessitates different, if overlapping, strategies and tactics, compared to what’s needed to take on the status quo. That’s okay too – it’s part of being “the shield.” I sometimes see people devalue antifascism precisely because they see far-right organizers as small potatoes. But as organizers ourselves, who believe in the power of organizing to literally remake society, we of all people should understand why far-right organizing, in all of its ideological and strategic tendencies, is dangerous. Fighting it is a specific, highly detailed task, and it needs no larger justification.

Another misconception that I see frequently about antifascism is this idea that if enough people in a community just mobilize and say they don’t want fascists in their community, the fascists will go away. A radical version of this is the idea that if you go hard enough against one fascists rally, really shut it down, they’ll never come back. I suspect that many of my readers are leftist organizers. Would you stop organizing because a bunch of people expressed opposition to you one time? Would you leave a city that you had goals for, and never come back, or abandon a campaign that resonates with the people you’re trying to organize, because your opposition shut down a single rally? This is not to say that there’s no value in individual mobilizations (a sustained effort, after all, is made up in part of individual mobilizations). But to successfully undermine, disrupt, and even eventually break fascist organizing, antifascism requires sustained, multi-pronged work. Sometimes daily work.

It requires understanding the far right, too, in its many ideological and strategic forms. How do you analyze, prioritize, predict trends, when you don’t understand what you’re fighting? No more “we don’t need to know anything about our enemies or what they think” nonsense dressed up as antiracism. No more trying to fit every far-right group into the mold of either the Klan or the National Socialist Movement, or pretending for the sake of 101-level online talking points that all far-right groups have the exact same orientation (either pro or anti) toward the state and/or police. And I am begging everyone to please read about the multiracial far right, its dynamics and its gender politics, and then to stop pretending that everyone on the far right has the same primary motivating chauvinism. Or worse, that queerphobic and transphobic groups are merely using queerphobia and transphobia as a cover for their true evil, white supremacism, as though viciously reactionary gender politics were not also far-right ideology.

Onward, redux

Reading through this reflection, it feels a bit like a litany of complaints. But I mean to end on a hopeful note. There’s no happily ever after, and the last few years have unfortunately brought a lot of new people into the far right. But I’ve seen new people join the work to fight the far right, become organizers, build their skills, and do a great job. I’ve seen people do things they never believed that they would be able to do. And I’ve seen the impacts of that – the crumbling of fascist organizations, coalitions, and actions, the gradually-increasing public awareness, the interest and involvement from people I never would have expected to join in antifascist work. In 2018, we contained fascists who tried to disrupt a trans youth rally and pro-immigrant rallies. This year I’ve seen both those events happen without incident. In 2017, I saw a torchlight march end in a brutal attack, saw hours of street brutality, saw Heather Heyer die and a lot of other people get badly hurt. Now, many of the fascist groups that participated in those events, and even the ones that rose in their wake, have declined or disappeared thanks to the hard work of antifascists.

If there’s any message that I’m trying to convey here, it’s that that this work matters, and that people can learn to do it. You don’t have to be some kind of stereotypical badass (I’m not!). You just need to be willing to put in the work, to think through what you’re doing and why, to learn and develop and reflect. To quote the comrade whose statement on the 4th of July Patriot Front march I linked to above: “Our work is amplified when we work together, and to do that takes the sort of trust built only by shared struggle and shared vision of a better future. I have spent many years working with Boston DSA. Here, and in other organizations, is where you can find the people you can work with to make a difference.”

Donate to the fund for survivors in Charlottesville who still have ongoing medical and psychological needs.