Defense in the Name of Liberation

Fascism is pleading a struggle against communism as an excuse for the war. But with the fascists everything that does not belong to fascism is communism.

Dolores Ibárruri

A crowd of tens of thousands of people descended on a capitol building on a bitter cold January day. Stirred up by fears stoked by far right ideologues after a crushing loss in a recent election, they came in droves to make it clear to the illegitimate liberal legislators in the capitol that they would not go quietly. An infamous neo-Nazi was seen milling about the crowd, and Infowars was there in force, their contingent lead by Alex Jones himself.

It was Monday, January 20th, 2020, Martin Luther King Day, in Richmond, Virginia.

This march was organized by Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). After Democrats took back control of Virginia’s House of Delegates and expanded their majority in the state’s Senate the previous November, Van Cleave sought to send a message to the new governing majority and Gov. Ralph Northam that VCDL and pro-gun activists would not allow any new legal restrictions on firearms without a fight.

The first lobby day of a session in Virginia falling on Martin Luther King Day is something of an informal tradition, as many people have the day off for the federal holiday. In this instance, the day’s domination by the VCDL and its allies seemed almost a calculated insult, as a brief perusing of photos from the crowd posted by antifascist researcher Molly Conger showed a array of neo-Confederates, Proud Boys, and other far-right formations mixed in with the usual crowd of pro-gun Republicans. Jovi Vai, a man best known for getting egged for parading around New York City while wearing Nazi regalia on May Day 2019, was in attendance, as well as the original ‘gun girl’ Kaitlin Bennett and Alex Jones.

Estimates of the crowd range from 22,000 to 50,000 being in attendance. While there was minimal physical violence the day of the event near the state capitol, we have heard stories from antifascist organizers from the area stating that neo-Confederates spent the evening before the lobby day assaulting Black people on the streets of Richmond, and they assaulted at least one Black person after the lobby day event in broad daylight.

It was a massive show of force for the VCDL and provided plenty of space for fascist groups to propagandize to people who might be receptive to their message. It was also nothing but a taste of things to come a little under a year later, on January 6, 2021 and just two hours north on I-95.

The last four years saw a dramatic unleashing of far-right sentiment that has long bubbled just beneath the surface of US politics. Emboldened by a president that refused to give even the slightest condemnation of racist violence, fascists began to take on a new visibility unlike anything seen since the days of the Black Legion and the outset of the third-era Ku Klux Klan. Time and again, this visibility has had deadly consequences.

That is because these rallies and marches have impacts that reach far beyond the individual buildings and streets on which they occur. Far-right groups like the Proud Boys have been known to seek out victims in the streets after rallies, even if they had nothing to do with any antifascist counter-demonstration. That makes these groups not simply a danger to electoral democracy, but to the safety of our communities.

Some might read this and wonder why, if these groups are such a threat, we are not suggesting that individuals reach out to their local law enforcement agencies. To put it simply, we are not suggesting that because doing so would invite danger upon already marginalized and oppressed communities. One of the relatively unsurprising pieces of news that came out of the Capitol assault on January 6th was the number of police officers from agencies across the country who were active participants in the effort to overturn the elections.

Unsurprising, of course, because the police have shown little more than disgust and a lethal disrespect to the communities they purportedly “protect and serve”. Such disdain was perhaps best expressed by then-Portland (OR) Police Chief Danielle Outlaw in an interview with conservative talk radio host Lars Larson after an antifascist counter-demonstration against the Patriot Prayer group:

“I tell you, ‘Meet me after school at 3:00. Right? We’re gonna fight.’ And I come with the intention to fight. And then you get mad because I kicked your butt. And then you go back and you wail off and whine and complain.”

You will not be surprised to know that Outlaw is now the police chief in Philadelphia, nor will it shock your senses that her police department has already applied deadly force against vulnerable people of color and had to have a new tattoo policy implemented after an officer was caught with a Nazi tattoo.

But Outlaw is but one piece of a larger history of police brutality against anyone who does fit the state’s ideal of a “model citizen”. Whether it was Black people marching for their rights in the 1960s, Latinx people demanding equal treatment in Southwest Texas in the 1970s, Native Americans occupying Alcatraz and Wounded Knee during the same period, or the new movements for liberation that are ongoing as I type these words, the police have always acted as the spear of the state’s response to such demands. Relying on them to protect us from fascism is a mug’s game that will only do more harm.

So, then, what should we do? Our answer to that is a form of organizing known as community defense.

Community defense can span a range of actions, but the gist is that it exists to defend oppressed communities from the systems that would continue their subjugation in a capitalist society. As stated above, these systems use the police as their predominant means of disciplining the working class, and the working class of color in particular. In response, community defense is solidarity made most real, because it requires that we place trust in our neighbors to meet the basic needs of life, and to protect us from those who would seek to degrade it.

The most notable recent example of this, perhaps, would be the Black Panther Party at their height in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are such a visible example because of the images that we have been shown in our education about the group: young Black men in all-Black couture, milling through the streets of Oakland — and the California State Capitol in Sacramento — with semi-automatic weapons slung around their shoulders.

Without question, this was one aspect of the Panthers’ community defense program. But there were many other aspects that do not get talked about as much. One example is the Free Breakfast for Children program. While free nutrition programs are a ubiquitous part of the public education infrastructure in the United States today, they were close to nonexistent in the 1960s outside of some rural school districts for whom breakfast was served to the rural poor. The Panthers worked with local Catholic parishes in Oakland to devise the program and coordinate the distribution of breakfasts to low-income families in their communities. By the end of 1969, over 20,000 children had been fed by the program. The program was so successful, in fact, that the administrator of the National School Lunch program admitted to a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing that the Black Panther Party had fed more children than the entirety of the state government in California

In Chicago, the local branch of the Panthers — led by Fred Hampton — created five free breakfast programs just on the West Side alone. In addition to that, the Chicago Panthers also set up a free medical clinic and encouraged blood donation drives to combat sickle-cell anemia, a disease that can cause swelling of the extremities and blindness, and is more prevalent in Black communities than any other. These efforts led to the growth of the Panthers in Chicago and elsewhere, and led J. Edgar Hoover to declare that the Panthers were “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country”.

But the Panthers were not the only group that practiced community defense, and it was not always done without arms. You can go back to Bogalusa, Louisiana and the joint effort of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBCJ) and the International Union of Timber Workers (IUTW) to organize the Great Southern Lumber Company in 1919. There, the unions fought not just the company and the Southern Lumber Owners Association, but the white paramilitary organizations in the region who sought to violently repress a rare interracial union organizing effort in those times, groups that were often supported by the SLOA and composed of, “Bogalusa’s leading business and professional men,” whose stores and businesses were remoras to the SLOA’s shark.

The lumber workers, fresh from service in World War I and witnesses to what would become the Red Summer of racial violence, took up arms to defend themselves and their union brothers. The union drive eventually stalled after the killings of November 22nd, where an armed company gang murdered J.P. Bouchillon, Stanley O’Rourke, Thomas Gaines, and Lem Williams in the streets of downtown Bogalusa. Sol Dacus, the Black leader of the organizing effort at Great Southern Lumber, barely escaped to the swamps of southeast Louisiana with his life.

As the Civil Rights Movement began to take shape, more community defense groups would pop up across the South. Perhaps taking a lesson from the bloody history of the community, Bogalusa became the birthplace of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which also established chapters elsewhere in the South. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Joe Mallisham organized Black veterans of World War II to protect the nonviolent Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee. Robert F. Williams transformed the NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina into an armed defense group in 1957 after threats were made against the organization’s leadership.

The gains made through nonviolent resistance in the Civil Rights Movement were assisted, in part, by the armed self-defense groups that refused to let any harm come to the movement’s leadership and the communities they represented.

You will hear from some quarters that the first thing every left winger should do with their second stimulus check is go out and get a gun. We have never been shy about our support for workers arming themselves to defend their communities and their comrades, but this is putting the cart before the horse. We support an armed, organized left, but we have always been of the opinion that the emphasis should fall on ‘organized’ over ‘armed’. The fact is, and this is going to sound pedantically obvious, that firearms are dangerous. Bringing them to your next action with no plan of how to use them, no understanding of when to use them, and no idea of what you should do after you have had to use them is a recipe for disaster. At best, you get a couple of photos that go viral on Twitter.

At worst, two Black kids get gunned down by people claiming to be fighting against the system of oppression that kills kids like them every day.

So before anyone even begins to talk about armed community defense, they need to have an understanding of what they are defending, who they are defending it with, how they will be able to maintain this defense, where the struggle is, and when they need to show up. In a lot of cases, adding flashy displays of firearms ain’t just unnecessary, but might actually be counterproductive depending on the communities in question. If you are part of a majority white organization looking to show up in support and defense of a Black community, you best make sure you have built deep relationships of trust with those folks before you show up with your AR-15 and wearing a plate carrier with your favorite political patches on it.

Even before your group has spent enough time training to safely carry firearms in stressful situations, there are other complementary skills that you will need to develop alongside your skills with a gun. Basic first aid and medical skills are just as useful at a nonviolent protest or at community events as they are necessary for carrying around firearms. Being able to stop bleeding with an Individual First Aid Kit is just as useful to keep someone from dying of a gunshot wound as it is for keeping someone losing consciousness because they cut their hand in a community kitchen. Being able to treat burns, sprains, heatstroke, and hypothermia all might be useful during protests the whole year round, alongside social events and mutual aid efforts.

But fair warning, while medical skills are not especially risky ones to develop, those practicing them at protests quite frequently end up targeted for arrest and harassment by law enforcement or assault by far right groups. After all, the main difference between a Proud Boy wielding bear mace and a cop wielding OC spray is whether one is paid by the government to harm someone or not, and the treatment for each is basically identical to the other.

More than anything, if you are looking to get involved with community defense organizing, you need to be thinking about how to do it for the long run. Threats grow and change with time but they rarely ever go away forever. Sometimes you win and victory is so thoroughly outnumbering your opposition at a counterprotest that they never come back, as it was with Jason Kessler’s Unite The Right 2 in Washington, DC on August 12, 2018. Sometimes, the only thing you can try to do is contain the damage through open source intelligence efforts (OSINT) by monitoring social media or having people in the crowd, as you don’t have enough people on your side to safely counterprotest, as was the case on the VCDL Lobby Day in 2020.

What you cannot do, though, is stay home and hope it goes away. Because it never, ever will.

January 6, 2021 in Washington was a calamity.

It was not a calamity because thousands of people stormed the capital, showing insufficient reverence for one of the principal temples of America’s civic religion. It was not a calamity because people berated elected officials, or pushed back the cops. It was not a calamity because it showed just how fragile the guardians of the current order are when they do not prepare to clamp down on dissent.

It was a calamity because it was a horde of far-right cranks, neo-Nazis, affluent Confederate irredentists, and wannabe fascist paramilitaries kitted out in gear that costs hundreds of dollars that stormed the US Capitol. It was a calamity because a crowd of thousands tried, through violence and terror, to overturn whatever degraded shreds of democracy exist within this country’s system of elections, resembling nothing so much as the campaigns of terror undertaken by Redeemer Democrats in the post-Reconstruction South against the very concept of multiracial democracy. And it was a calamity because it showed just how thin the police’s blue line is when they support the aims of those looking to steal an election through force of violence rather than votes.

It was a calamity because it was a predictable calamity, one that entirely too many people did not take the threat of seriously when they damn well should have known better.

All of this was foreseeable. Five years ago, we wrote, “The core of a durable and national fascist movement in the United States is forming, and it’s here to Make America Great Again unless we do something about it.” Seven months after that, we wrote, “All of this history underlines a basic truth: electoral politics in a liberal democracy are not enough to stop (or even contain) a fascist political movement.”

Whatever setbacks the events of the past month have dealt to the parade of fascists that Trump has consolidated in his time in office, make no mistake: they will not be going away. They have tasted the nectar of state legitimacy and power, and they want more. And even though the mouthpieces of big business like the Business Roundtable or the National Association of Manufacturers have temporarily jettisoned Trump and his most ardent supporters, the major tyrants of capital will eventually come back to working alongside the horde of petty ones like those that stormed the US Capitol on the 6th, if they ever truly stopped to begin with.

These people are not to be debated, because to debate them is to legitimize the notion that some of our neighbors are worth more than others, and that those who are not worthy deserve little more than an unrelenting jackboot on their necks for all time.

The forces of reaction, repression, and revanchism can only be defeated in the streets. We got us, and that is the only way it has ever been.

(This was written jointly by Douglas and Bryan.)