Elise Hendrick is originally from the USA and a much-travelled activist, commentator and speaker of a number of languages. Rebel Breeze interviewed her to ascertain her reflections on recent nazi upsurges and the response to them, in particular on the North American continent.
Rebel Breeze: Elise, go raibh maith agat for agreeing to this interview. With regard to recent events, you will recall that after nazis planned a rally in Charlottesville, ostensibly against “Islamicisation” and events ended in the deaths of two anti-fascists, a number of comments emerged in social media and from some politicians, criticising the anti-fascists for staging a counter-rally. Firstly, do you think these comments had any validity?
Elise Hendrick: In a word, no. It’s really hard to express in words the level of dismissal that that ‘criticism’ merits, because a verbal response already honours it too much. A look at the people making those ‘criticisms’ tends to show that they’re actually coming from political allies of those the antifascists were protesting.
RB: Can you give some examples of what you mean by this?
EH: One example is a video blogger by the name of Tim Pool, who tries to maintain an air of journalistic detachment in his condemnations of Antifa tactics, but who has turned out to be on very good terms with neo-Nazis, including those who organised the pogrom in Charlottesville (discussed various times on the anarchist/antifascist website It’s Going Down).
One really amusing case I happened across was a thread about Antifa on US left author Paul Street’s Facebook page, in which various people showed up to make utterly outlandish claims about who antifascists are and what they stand for. I hadn’t seen any of these names before, so I decided to check out their Facebook pages to see who I was dealing with. It turned out that one of them had at the top of his Facebook page a post praising his friend Garret Kirkland, who was the organiser of the shambolic white supremacist rally in Boston.
Even when a lot of these media ‘critics’ aren’t actually tied to fascist groups themselves, they often make arguments that either trivialise or justify fascist violence or seek to create a moral equivalency between fascists and those defending their communities from fascists. One of the most notorious (and irritating) examples of this is Lee Fang of The Intercept, who, despite claiming to be an ‘investigative journalist’, has shown no interest in fact-checking rumours spread by neo-Nazis as well as a remarkable lack of curiosity about who militant antifascists are, what they actually stand for, and what they have to say about the accusations against them. He outright refuses to acknowledge the reality of violence by fascist groups, and constantly seeks to reduce the political conflict between fascists and those opposing them to a bunch of equally reprehensible people who just like punching each other.
Fang and others like him would certainly recoil at being called fascist sympathisers, but their dishonest and ill-considered arguments do fascists a great favour.
RB: Given that you think people should indeed present themselves to oppose public events organised by fascists, what are your thoughts on the debate about whether the anti-fascist opposition should use physical force or instead should be peaceful?
EH: What I find interesting is that there are basically two separate discussions going on. On the one hand, there is a surprisingly well-thought-out and sophisticated discussion about the role of physical force alongside other means of resistance to fascist mobilisations, how best to go about it, how it should be organised, and how best to coordinate it with other forms of action. I’ve been struck, as someone who has long been extremely critical of the lack of a real tactical/strategic discourse on the left both in the US and in Britain at just how self-reflective and serious these discussions have been.
This debate gives me hope, because it’s people actually doing what we should have been doing all along: Working out what our objectives are, working out broadly what’s likely to help us get there, and then figuring out the details and reporting back on practical experience with implementing that strategy. On the other hand, you have people who will gatecrash these discussions to tell you there needs to be a debate on tactics. They never actually let us in on what they would like to contribute to this debate, except for a belief that everything would be better if the central committee of whatever newspaper cult (whether it’s the ISO or the SWP in the UK) they’re in were in total control of the resistance.
In that sense, you could say that what we have is a combination of a vibrant debate and a rapidly developing political consciousness combined with a power struggle being conducted by representatives of groups that have managed to keep a lid on left organising despite token numbers and few actual ideas. I can only hope the rank and file of these groups are beginning to realise that their ‘revolutionary vanguards’ are treading water here and haven’t got a clue what to do in this sort of situation. The difference between those ‘vanguards’ and the rest of us is that the rest of us are at least willing to admit that we’re just getting acclimatised. Self-appointed vanguards feel a need to pretend they know everything already, even when no one believes it.
As for my own thoughts about the approach to take, I think we’ve seen enough at this point, both in the current struggle within the US and going back over the entire history of fascism wherever it’s shown itself, to know that no antifascist strategy is complete without actually being willing to engage the fash in combat. Fascists are experts at using liberal tolerance against liberalism, and any space they’re not kicked out of is one where they will build strength until no one is able to occupy that space without their blessing.
We also can’t rely on the state, because the cops tend to sympathise more with fascists than with the left and those the fascists target. In the current situation in the US, the level of sympathy is particularly striking: the various police ‘unions’ overwhelmingly supported the campaign of Donald Trump and all it stands for. What’s more, the FBI’s counterintelligence section has issued an advisory (declassified with significant redactions) against FBI agents sharing any intelligence of any kind on the far right with local police departments because of the degree of far-right infiltration of the police. The advisory offered little in the way of detail, but FBI counterintelligence won’t be issuing that sort of blanket advisory unless the infiltration they’d uncovered was pervasive.
So what we’re facing is an armed, paramilitary movement of genocidal racists who have determined that it’s now or never. They’re never just protesting, no matter what their lawyers will tell the court. In their own internal discussion, they describe the current situation as a ‘war’, and not a metaphorical one. When people like that assemble in your town with their guns and truncheons and the blessing of the police, you don’t invite them to chat over tea and cakes. You make sure they have a long convalescence in which to regret their choice of venue.
RB: Not all our readers may know about the presence of armed fascists in Charlottesburg. Can you say a little about this and also about whether it could have been expected?
EH: It not only could have been expected, it was in fact expected by those who showed up to oppose them. White supremacists have been showing up armed to their own and other people’s protests for a few years now. The far-right ‘Oathkeeper’ paramilitary, one of the more professional white supremacist paramilitary forces in the US today, made a point of brandishing semiautomatic rifles at Black Lives Matter protests against racist killings by police. Since the current cycle of far-right mobilisations began, they and other paramilitaries routinely show up, heavily armed and in paramilitary uniforms, to provide security and intimidate the opposition. In the various fascist attempts to establish a presence in Berkeley, they’ve shown up with guns, knives, clubs, and other weapons. They also repeatedly attacked antifascists by driving cars directly at them. It bears noting that Charlottesville was not the first car attack by fascists in the US; it was the first successful car attack.
So some, if not all, of those who showed up to oppose the fascists in Charlottesville will have been expecting to face an armed racist mob. The level of violence displayed by the fascists, however, does seem to be significantly higher than in previous mobilisations of the past year. Where in other places, the violence has tended to be limited to a few punch-ups, the ‘Unite the Right’ mob in Charlottesville attempted to carry out a full-scale pogrom, brutally beating anyone in their path, especially people of colour. In addition to Heather Heyer, who was killed when a fascist drove his car into the counter-demo, Tyler Magill, a University of Virginia librarian and anti-racist organiser, was beaten so badly about the head and neck with a tiki torch that he spent several days in intensive care before dying of a stroke. This is why I’ve insisted on referring to the fascist mobilisation in Charlottesville as a pogrom, rather than as a mere ‘rally’.
Interesting note: The left video journalist collective Unicorn Riot managed to infiltrate the planning group for the Charlottesville pogrom on the chat platform Discord, and has released the text of the chat between the various organisers. One of the things discussed in advance of the day was the legality of attacking counterdemonstrators with cars. I’m not sure to what extent the antifascist contingent were made aware of the content of these discussions in advance of the day, but in any case, a substantial number of those who turned out to oppose the fash in Charlottesville were aware that they’d likely be facing an armed mob, even if the level of violence itself was surprising.
RB: Do you see any role at all for peaceful opposition? Canada, Boston and Barcelona all saw fascist rallies swamped by peaceful (apart from a few incidents) demonstrations in opposition.
EH: Certainly. This is an important question because there is this misconception I’ve seen in many places that militant antifascists – much like those republicans James Connolly once described as the ‘physical force men’ – think that the only tactic that should be applied is main force. There’s no one seriously advocating that force should be the only form that opposition to the far-right mobilisation should take, even though antifascists are frequently caricatured as believing this.
My view, and that of pretty much every militant antifascist I’ve ever read or discussed the matter with, is that we need all sorts of tactics deployed in order to deny fascists space in which to organise and to counteract them politically. The same people who acquaint fascists with the pavement one day will be protesting peacefully, organising their workplaces, helping out with Tropical Storm Harvey relief, or any number of other efforts the next.
The thing to remember about Boston was that everyone present had Charlottesville firmly in mind. The fascists there had seen the humiliating defeat they suffered (leading their leaders to whimper into the cameras about how scary it all is), and half of them ran away before their rally even got started. Those who remained were outnumbered by a factor of something like 100 to 1. In a situation like that, there’s not really much need to prove to fascists that they’re outclassed; only the utterly suicidal would try to start some shit under those circumstances, and your average fascist isn’t all that interested in becoming a hero of the cause.
There were, of course, militant antifascists present at the Boston rally, as there are at pretty much any antifascist event anywhere in the US. The fash were unharmed because no one saw any particular need to engage them directly.
This brings me to one of the things that have really impressed me about the antifascist mobilisation in the US. I have long been quite critical of the lack of any real tactical or strategic thinking on the left in the US and in Britain, where, for so long, the one-size-fits-all tactic has been the A-B march, and the only metric of success is how many people showed up. The tactical debate amongst militant antifascists has massively enriched – and to some extent, really started – the tactical debate on the left in the US.
If you look at sites like It’s Going Down, you can read reports from antifascist groups of their actions. They are almost invariably quite thoughtfully written, and tend to include a detailed analysis of what worked, and, even more importantly, what didn’t work and why. The tactical discourse amongst militant antifascists is one of the first times in recent history I’ve seen tactical decisions on the US left discussed openly and orientated around specified objectives, rather than simply saying – like many of those on the left who today are condemning direct resistance against fascism – ‘our march against the invasion of Iraq was a great success; pity the invasion still went forward’.
RB: Looking ahead, how do you see the fascists and the State responding to these setbacks for them? And what do you think the antifascist movement should be doing?
EH: The fascists seem to be fairly uncertain how to deal with the unexpected degree of resistance they’ve been facing. There’s been a fair bit of the usual internecine shit-slinging, and divisions have become more evident. We’ve seen one of the major white supremacist paramilitaries, the III% group, issue a stand-down order to their members telling them to cease providing security to neo-Nazi events. It’s too early to tell for certain what the rank-and-file reaction to that will be. Given that they were providing security for fascists in the first place, there was clearly a fair bit of support for doing so, so this might cause a split in the group. Indeed, a recent report of III% forces teaming up with neo-Nazis in Yellow Springs, Ohio, suggests that not everyone in the group intends to comply. Of course, the stand-down order might also be complied with, in which case the fash will have lost a significant portion of the firepower that makes facing them in the US more akin to a standoff with the UVF than the BNP.
It may also put pressure on the other major paramilitary group backing them, the Oathkeepers, to do the same. One thing that is definitely clear is that the fash are worried, and looking to adapt their tactics. One interesting bit of information that came out of the Unicorn Riot dump of the chat logs of the organisers of the ‘Unite the Right’ pogrom was the suggestion that people should wear ‘Make America Great Again’ caps in order to create the impression that antifascists were attacking common-and-garden Trump supporters rather than armed neo-Nazi cadres. That suggests an awareness that the only way to maintain any level of public sympathy with them is to ensure that a least some of their number appear to be ‘normies’, as they are called in fash parlance.
Meanwhile, it took only a fortnight after the Charlottesville pogrom for the media and the political class to go on the offensive against antifascism. The Washington Post published an article claiming that a ‘peaceful’ right-wing demonstrator was attacked by Antifa. What they left out was that this same ‘peaceful’ demonstrator can be seen on video pepper-spraying random people without provocation. In a particularly dishonest move, the WaPo selected an image of the altercation in which the fascist’s right hand, which held the pepper spray canister, could not be seen.
The Washington Post on 28th August doubled down on this by publishing an editorial by Marc Thiessen that explicitly states that antifascists are ‘the moral equivalent of neo-Nazis’, a view that not long ago could only have been published in a holocaust denial publication like the ‘journal’ of the Institute for Historical Review. Meanwhile, a possible direction state repression could take is exemplified by the suggestion by the Mayor of Berkeley, California, the site of a recent failed fascist rally and massive counter-protest that was brutally repressed by the police, that Antifa should be classified as a ‘gang’ under California’s draconian ‘gang’ laws.
Not unlike the standards for “proving” IRA membership prevailing in the 26-County Special Criminal Court, these laws allow pretty much anyone to be classified as a ‘gang member’ or a ‘gang associate’ based on the flimsiest of evidence. If you’re related to or friends with a ‘known gang member’, or are mentioned in a ‘gang document’ (i.e., a letter written by someone classified as a ‘gang member’) you automatically become a ‘gang associate’. You become a full ‘gang member’ based not on actually being a member of an actual gang, but on the number of boxes like this that are ticked.
Using this exponential guilt-by-association approach, prosecutors in California have issued injunctions against gangs that don’t even exist, making it an offence for communities to assemble and friends and family to stay in touch. This hasn’t happened yet, it’s important to note, but it’s certainly plausible. If the ‘gang’ and ‘terrorism’ laws are brought to bear against antifascists, it will be the hardest test the movement has faced thus far. Whilst any such designation would be open to legal challenge on the grounds that it seeks to outlaw political activity, I reckon the key will be to stand in solidarity with the communities already being attacked with these repressive laws.
If antifascists successfully avoid being subjected to these laws, and decide on that basis not to make common cause with those who are targeted with them, not only will that disconnect us from communities that are under attack by fascists and the state (whose target selection criteria are remarkably similar), but it would also mean that, if cosmetic amendments are made to the laws to make it easier to target antifascists, we would have denied our solidarity to those whose solidarity we may ultimately need.
I don’t see an easy answer to this one, and I’d probably be reluctant to be all that public about it even if I did in order to avoid the state catering for our response before we’ve even begun to prepare it. What’s clear is that a community defence movement based on direct action like the growing antifascist movement in the US will have powerful enemies. As for what antifascists should be doing going forward, I think the key will be not to rest on our laurels, keep improving our intelligence work, and build strong relationships with the communities under fascist attack (which are often also the communities antifascists are coming from). We should look at the current struggle against these relatively small and weak fascist groups as valuable experience for the much harder community defence work that also needs to be organised.
Also, we will need to do better at exposing what hides behind the euphemism ‘alt right’. One recent poll suggested that the overwhelming majority of respondents had no idea that the ‘alt right’ were a bunch of armed white supremacists and fascists. As such, educating the public on the views and activities of these groups will be essential.
Washington Post referred to (dated 28 Aug) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/08/28/black-clad-antifa-attack-right-wing-demonstrators-in-berkeley/
Anarchist News and Analysis site referred to: https://itsgoingdown.org