Some of the anti-Trump protests in the US have turned violent, with black bloc activists aiming punches and M-80 firecrackers at both the police and high-profile alt-right opponents. Tim MacGabhann reports on these masked individuals – and on the broader Antifa movement, which has spread all over the US. Plus, we look at Chuck Tingle’s very different way of taking on the President.
It’s the punch that was heard around the world, synched up with everything from New Order and Nate Dogg to Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen.
Before January 20, white nationalist Richard Spencer was best-known for advocating the ethnic cleansing of the United States and for calling civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. a degenerate.
After it, when he was punched in the back of the head by an alleged anti-fascist activist, he became a meme, a joke, a byword for white supremacist discourse in the United States – and how to disrespect it.
Frustratingly, the sound of those gleeful remixes has drowned out discussion of the 230-plus anti-fascist (Antifa) protesters that were arrested and, in some cases, beaten by police at the Disrupt J20 protests, which accompanied the Trump inauguration in Washington DC. Mainstream media have been happy to debate the accepability – or otherwise – of punching someone like Spencer, who holds harmful views. The heavy-handed treatment of protesters, meanwhile, seems to have been ignored.
For their part, left-wing news outlets have reported that activists in DC spent up to nine hours being kettled and pepper-sprayed by riot police in the freezing rain. After being taken to lock-up, 209 people, including six acredited journalists, were accused of ‘felony riot’ – an offence which potentially carries a $25,000 fine and a ten-year jail term. It is what used to be called throwing the book at someone.
“This is unprecedented,” Taryn Fivek, a writer and organiser with the revolutionary Workers World Party, tells Hot Press. “Mass arrests and chemical warfare have happened in DC before, but never have we seen such grave indictments handed down. This is meant to scare people who want to protest on the streets.”
The ‘felony riot’ charges spring in part from the damage that was caused to property in DC: smashed windows at a Starbucks, damage to a Bank of America outlet, and a burned limousine.
Widely shared photos of the damage recalled the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle during the late 1990s, as well as the ‘black bloc’ tactics first adopted by activists in Northern Europe during the early ‘80s.
A BUSY YEAR
Back then, protestors took to wearing black clothing and ski-masks, or other face-concealing items, while on the streets. Originally thought to be a loose collective of anarchists, the modern US Antifa group includes a sizeable LGBTQ contingent - “Us faggots kill fascists!” is a popular clarion call - with chapters from major cities and rural backwaters alike taking to social media to spread the word.
This week, for instance, an Antifa call went out for people to counter-protest against a rally that’s being staged on April 29 in Pikeville, Kentucky by the Traditionalist Worker Party, which proclaims to be “fighting for faith, family and folk.” Those folk, needless to say, being white.
These protests can become dangerously confrontational. In June last year, six people were stabbed and dozens more injured when Antifa Sacramento clashed with TWP supporters at a right-wing rally in the Californian city. Rubber pellets and pepper-spray balls were fired by over a hundred riot police, who were responding to the “mass militant action”.
Urgent calls were also put out for people to block Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency vans in Phoenix, as a woman by the name of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was controversially removed from the country after living in the US for 22 years.
“Antifa combines radical left-wing and anarchist politics, revulsion at racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes, with the international anti-fascist culture of taking to the streets and physically confronting the brownshirts of white supremacy, whoever they may be,” Antifa NYC said last month in a rare media statement. “2017 promises to be a busy year for antifascists around the world.”
While it’s evident from Antifa blogs that their members coordinate and travel in support of one another, it’s not known how many black bloc activists there are or what type of command system – if any - they operate to.
THE RIGHT TO EXPRESS RAGE
So how violent are Antifa activists? A number of prominent Trump supporters, including journalist Cassandra Fairbanks, claim to have been threatened online by Antifa and/or had their home addresses and telephone numbers made public.
“Some of us know you very personally Cass, and know just how afraid you can really get. Be careful doll, for ur daughter’s sake,” reads a tweet sent to Fairbank by an account identifying as the Arizona Antifa Front.
Antifa supporters insist – convincingly – that this tweet came from a fake account, set up by alt-righters to discredit them. In a similar vein, Antifa NYC have suggested that either alt-righters or law enforcement agencies have set-up a ‘honeypot’ account to garner intel on activists who might get drawn into more than just casual exchanges.
“There are conditions in this country that make people want to smash up windows and banks,” Fivek states. “Oppressed people have the right to defend themselves and the right to express their rage.”
Donald Trump is in the White House, merily rehashing fascist tropes: the blunt nationalism of his red ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps; the divide-and-conquer populism that made scapegoats of Muslim, Latinos, and undocumented people; his steamrollering of reasoned debate through the medium of garbled tweets. As a result, for better or worse, leftists are losing patience with liberal discussion of their chosen tactics.
“People clutching pearls over the destruction of property are prioritising property over human life,” insists Jack Freyne-Reid, a UK-based writer and co-creator of left-wing podcast Reel Politik. “You get the sense that a lot of people analysing our present conjuncture don’t grasp the full seriousness of it. This explains why the liberal centre has proven so miserably limp in their ‘resistance’.”
Needless to say, Spencer isn’t the only far-right figure who has been targeted. Late last month, a thousand protestors forced the cancellation of a speech that far-right ‘homo-co’ provocatuer and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos had been invited to give at the University of California in Berkley, by a student branch of the Republican Party. Among the anti-Yiannopoulos protestors was a 100 strong ‘black bloc’, some of whom threw barricades through windows, shot M-80 firecrackers at the police and aimed blows at some of Yiannopoulos’ entourage. Cries of ‘Become ungovernable!’, ‘This is war!’, ‘No borders, no nations, fuck deportations!’ and ‘No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!’ reverberated around the campus. In all, 14 buildings were damaged.
Off campus, on neighbouring streets, ATMs were smashed, Starbucks and T-Mobile stores vandalised and ‘Kill Trump’ was spray-painted onto the front of a bagel shop.
“The rulebook has been thrown out,” one female protestor told local radio. “It’s absolutely acceptable to use violence. They are 100% certain to use it against us.”
Three days later, there were 11 arrests when Antifa members protested against conservative comedian, Gavin McInnes, at a New York University event.
All of this has been covered in the mainstream media. But violence against vulnerable minorities and leftists is less widely reported. The same day as Richard Spencer was punched, at a University of Washington event which Yiannopoulos was addressing, a 34-year-old anti-fascist was shot in the stomach by a hard-right supporter of the speaker.
“I would characterise fascism in 2017 as ‘legitimised’,” resumes Freyne-Reid. “That’s because nobody wants to think that the worst is already happening, that what happened in the 1930s could ever happen now in our calm and stable world.”
With Yiannopoulos denied a platform at Berkeley, and Richard Spencer reduced – for now – to tweeting dog-whistle racism during the Superbowl, it’s worth recalling what happened to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists after the October 1936 Battle of Cable Street.
When Mosley’s faction decided to march through the Jewish East End neighbourhood of London with intimidatory intent, they were met by a band of around 100,000 Jews, Irishmen, communists, anarchists, and socialists who beat the marchers with sticks, rocks, and sawn-off chair-legs. Kids and mothers chucked the contents of chamber-pots from upstairs windows. It’s a moment leftists cite as an example of how fascism can be defeated. But for Taryn Fivek, the fight doesn’t begin in the street.
“There’s work to be done by everyone,” she believes. “‘Antifa’ just means being against fascism, which you’d hope all fair-minded people would be.” In Fivek’s view, the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis is reminiscent of the post-crash landscape of the early 1930s.
“Capitalism is killing everyone: and fascism is a phase of capitalism in crisis,” she says.
Populations exhausted by a decade of austerity economics and deepening inequality are looking for an alternative narrative – and the media are only too happy to play to the alternatives found on the right.
“What’s new about the fascists now is that they’re setting the agenda on the right,” proffers Jack Freyne-Read. “They’re pretty tech-savvy in the way they’re going about it with a huge social media presence and the alternative news media they’ve created like Breitbart and InfoWars. Meanwhile, the mainstream media will afford any fascist who isn’t a drooling skinhead a platform for the sheer novelty of brutal ideas being espoused by someone in a nice suit.”
That media climate has assisted in the rapid proliferation of the extreme right across Europe. Marine Le Pen’s resurgent Front National party is challenging for the presidency of France; the Austrian presidential election came down to the wire between a far-right candidate and his Green opponent; and last December Geert Wilders in the Netherlands used his trial for incitement as a platform from which to propound his Islamophobic political agenda.
But if the outfits and haircuts are new, the ideas remain the same. “Regardless of whether fascists pepper their sentences with spittle and n-words or adopt pseudo-intellectual airs – whether their preferred motif is Pepe the Frog or a swastika – the fascists have the same talking points,” Freyne-Reid argues. “Their key tenets are ‘Political correctness has gone too far’; ‘feminism discriminates against men’; ‘anti-racism discriminates against white people’; ‘refugees are bad and terrorists’; ‘Mexicans are rapists and criminals’; ‘cops are great and it’s right when they shoot black people’; and ‘LGBT people are just whingers’.”
“Fascism is racism, fascism is sexism,” Taryn Fivek says. “Fascism is the promotion of toxic masculinity and rape culture. It’s especially keen on promoting toxic masculinity and rape culture to subjugate women. For example, these Pepe the Frog scumbags came out of something called ‘Gamergate’, which was basically a campaign of harassing the living daylights out of women online.”
So what is the best way to fight the rise of fascism?
“As a leftist, I want a society that belongs to the workers and the most oppressed,” Taryn Fivek opines. “I’m from Klu Klux Klan country, so I hate racists. I worked in the Middle East for a long time, so I hate imperialism. Societies that work for everyone are societies that work for the most oppressed: not the ones that work for the guys you see standing around Donald Trump and grinning like dogs.”
“We need to put all our energies into smashing fascism at all costs,” Freyne-Reid concludes. “Then we can take capitalism, the system from which fascism has mutated, with it.”