The Arizona rally against Trump in Fountain Hills, Arizona, on the 19th of March, 2016, was met with great resistance and critique from both the Left and the Right largely using arguments about “freedom” and “violence.” As these are important and seemingly misunderstood themes, I’ve chosen to weave analyses of them through this report-back.
Freedom is here understood as, “the ability to do something” and violence as “harm done.” Basically, violence and the repression of freedom are both really shitty and should be avoided at all costs, however community-defense in response to violence, and disruption of freedoms that are contingent on repressions of freedom, should be considered viable, if delicate, tactics in undermining fascism and its ilk. This is because community defense that is non-aggressive is less violence and more survival and any “freedom” that depends on the exploitation of an “other” should not be considered a freedom at all. These forms of resistance should only be considered the first step in any grounded antifa strategy. After resistance, must come long-term transformative organizing and praxis of alternatives.
There’s an old adage that basically goes, “We want total freedom for everyone as long as each person’s freedom does not restrict someone else’s.” At this point, there is inevitably someone who sort of tautologically states, “But what if, what you want to believe or do with your freedom is against what someone else wants to believe or do with their freedom?” The conversation generally stops there with a stoner-ish, “whoa that’s deep” kind of pause, but it shouldn’t. The solution is simple; there are different levels (scale and depth of impact) at which freedom can occur. If we look at the issue through a consequentialist, utilitarian, or just macro lens, we realize that a belief that is acted upon, that seeks to repress the freedom of a group, necessitates restriction because it oppresses more freedoms than it fulfills. “No platform for fascists!” is just a recognition that authoritarianism- and privilege-sponsored ethno-nationalism is a recipe for structural violence and genocide. So shutting down systematically conditioned hate and privilege, even if it pisses off many of those that benefit from it, is still the action that creates the most freedom. This is especially true in a capitalist and statist society where smaller groups of elites are given structural privilege of access and mobility through the direct expense and exploitation of those, often a few classes below them. This same logic applies, though, when speaking of, say, the privilege of poor whites over poor blacks. As long as a freedom comes at the expense of others, it’s not a net-impact of freedom. That which defends the freedom of marginalized persons through minimum thresholds of “violence” is self-defense.
We woke up at about 4:45am to pick up the comrades and drive to the rally in North Eastern Phoenix, Arizona. I went as an independent activist and anarchist not directly affiliated with any organizing bodies. Trump campaign organizers, we presume, put the rally way out from downtown Phoenix in a wealthy white neighborhood and early in the morning with an 8am doors opening time, to discourage the protests that they keep finding in city after city… and because the pro-Trump, and just generally slimy, Maricopa Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, lives there in Fountain Hills. We drove out with 4 people, 75 bottles of water, snacks, bandanas, signs (blank and drawn on), and first aid preparation.
A bit of context about Phoenix and Arizona will explain the extra need for street medics at this rally. Arizona is on the border of Mexico and is at the forefront of racist, xenophobic, and draconian laws. The situation is such that No Mas Muertes, an organization that seeks to give direct aid such as water and medical care to immigrants in la frontera/the borderland deserts, is constantly being raided, harassed, and surveilled by Border Control: slashing open their water tanks, cutting them off, threatening them, etc. This conservative, racist, xenophobia goes a step further in Arizona when racism is combined with not only, open-carry laws, also conceal carry, and even further that it’s a “Stand your ground” state, which basically means you can legally shoot someone first if you feel aggressed upon.We have not only the issues with individualized far-Right vigilante “justice” warriors (VJW’s?) but also those who, with the state’s legal blessing or at least blind-eye, form highly armed and racist militias. Phoenix itself has a particularly active far Right and white-supremacist contingent. Many of these group members make their presence well-known at the Trump rallies especially in Phoenix. So…. we brought first aid materials.
The protests began with prep followed by your standard liberal shouting and such on the sides of the roads with signs, a few miles from the rally. Chants such as “Whose state is this?” which was supposed to be responded to with “Our state!” is met with our half-enthusiastic, “No state!” I was kind of bored and feeling confused like, “Is this all we’re doing?” It became clear that there were, as usual, a split between the more liberal group of organizers/protestors and the more radical organizers/activists.
The core organizers for the whole larger event was a migrant justice organization called Puente. Many of their supporters were more on the liberal side but many were also amazing folks taking big risks. Further up the road, they organized a brilliant shutdown of the highway that involved three rows of parked cars with people chained to the cars without keys. This shutdown tactic massively slowed police evacuation of protest blockages and led to a total shutdown of the highway with hundreds of cars backed up. There were many intense moments in this action, including a Jeep ramming through protesters at one point. One brave protester U-locked herself to her car and after detainment was sent to ICE (Immigration Control Enforcement) just because her last name sounded Latin@, even though she was a U.S. citizen.
The area I was protesting was at the only other road into the Trump rally and was originally meant by the Puente organizers to be sort of a distraction from the action to shut down the highway. It was another hot desert road off of a major highway called Shea blvd. We were about 150 to 200 people, about a third of which with faces covered. There were folks of various faiths present as well as a few children. There were a few helicopters and your normal excess of police armament. Many people had pre-fabricated signs from the kind of infamous moveon.org saying things “united against racism” or “united against Islamaphobia” but many others made their own signs as well. There was much chanting even a somewhat discomforting U.S. American flag. We, shut down this street(Shea Blvd.) as well with a thick line of a hundred or so people. Those blocking the road were, at first, mainly black bloc-style anarchists, Latinxs, Native folks. Then slowly, once the more liberal or vulnerably situated protesters started realizing it was actually working, they timidly joined us. I went over and explained to the more liberal or vulnerably situated protestors that only the front-lines will get arrested and that we would get three warnings, so it was safe for them to add in numbers and still have time to escape arrest. We backed up the road all the way back to the highway (maybe 50 cars and trucks) effectively cutting off all routes to the rally for both Trump himself and the rally goers.
At one point, a women was nearing having a panic attack in her car because she had to go to a wedding and we were blocking her way, so I organized a path for her to break through the protest line with us still holding the cars behind her in. As she left, the awkwardly-just-standing-there police jumped into action thinking that she was an easy target for harrasment and, by virtue of our having let her through, demonstrating her alliance with us. They ran to her car screaming at her and banging on the window. I ran over between them and explained why we let her through and they backed off, but the damage was already done. The driver had gone into a full-blown panic attack from the initial tension of being blocked coupled with the fear of the cops yelling at her. Someone else had to get out of the car and drive for her. This was a pretty shitty scene. There was also a truck with dogs who I just made sure that had plenty of water for the dogs. Also there was a truck with horses and a fear of the horses getting overheated so we attempted at one point to get them through as well. We utilized the chant, “What do we want?” “Horses!” “When do we want them?” “Now!” As a cute means of getting the message through the crowd.
The actions were pretty exciting because we basically succeeded at disruption even though there are some critiques to be made. We received obstinate and vocal resistance to the blockage from every direction: liberals, conservatives, drivers, local landowners, a panicked bride (even though we let her party through), etc. but Trump was 50 minutes late to his own rally. Joe Arapio bemoaned the activists in his love ode to Trump and ensured that we would receive justice. I was happy to see the anti-fascist people and anarchists critiquing the liberal and nationalist chants and showing up with more direct signs such as, “Goodnight White Pride!” (an anti-white supremacy antifa slogan) and “No platform for fascism.” Even though Trump himself is more capitalist than classic third position Fascist, many of his views are strongly Fascist sympathetic which draws many openly Fascist identified people and groups to his support and events. We eventually turned around the entire row of cars through our blockage and just began marching in a throng to the rally on the overtaken streets. This is when about twenty cop and SWAT cars came up behind us, trying to get us off the road. We held for awhile but eventually broke formation. I almost got nabbed, and would have if it wasn’t for the quick thinking and acting solidarity of a comrade who grabbed me just before a cop, who had gotten out of his car was sprinting and reaching for me with handcuffs (True compañero identified!). At least three arrests were made.
Water and Freedom
I brought out the water bottles we had in our car, and after offering them to the protesters, I went down the lines of stand-still cars handing them out to people in the spirit of mutual aid and a recognition of the inconvenience we were putting them through. It was a PR move in part too because I wanted people to shed their fear of anarchists, and acknowledging and trying to ease the nuisance we were causing had the potential to win us a few more friends, or at least prevent me from getting shot. Mostly the people in their cars wouldn’t talk to me or accept them, though. Some even thought that I was selling them (which would have been such a shitty move). To be fair, I was wearing a bandana over my mouth even though I took it off to greet people. There was face recognition technology being used by the surrounding police including a large SWAT looking vehicle with a rotating periscope style device, tracking faces. I would say about 20% of people accepted water and about 60% wouldn’t open their windows or look at me. But of those who did speak with me, I was able to engage with several of them and talk. Even one person, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, had a conversation with me. I asked him, like many, why he was voting for Trump. He denied he was and didn’t offer any real political positions. He preferred instead to discuss his disagreement with the protest. We laughed and shared jokes while discussing politics. We even shook hands (which I know some of my comrades will condemn, but building such relationships helps to build a robust counter-recruitment strategy.. and again, it’s hard to tell who’s carrying a gun in Arizona).
I write about passing the water out as a return to the original theme of multiple layered freedoms. Many people on the Right and (U.S) Left critique road shutdowns as a tactic. At this protest we received extensive hostility from liberals and conservatives enthusiastically and dramatically condemning our choices. The critique from most (although there are more nuanced disability or poverty related critiques about some folks who have immediate health or unstable employment related needs etc.) is basically that in stopping someone from using a road, you’re shutting down someone’s freedom, which is hypocritical. This is more complicated than I think the Left or Right would like to admit. A first important note of course is that as protesters, we are not the government or the state, so arguments related to the First Amendment etc. are irrelevant. This logic of protecting some people’s freedoms at the expense of others is, however, the same sort of thought train that is used to justify the “War on Terrorism” or internment camps. These examples, however, are different in that they are state-based and collectivized xenophobic punishments. But the logic itself does have slippery slopes. It is true in blocking a road we are disrupting freedom of mobility. We are literally inconveniencing people. But the analysis never usually gets past that level. There is a block of freedom happening to disrupt a block of freedom that is many orders of magnitude larger and more dangerous, in this instance (or say in the BLM protests on the Bay Bridge in California), systemic white supremacy and a platform for instigations to collective violence against a variety of minority groups. I handed out water bottles because I regret having to inconvenience unaffiliated motorists even while acknowledging the importance of disrupting platforms for white supremacy. It’s a hot day in the desert. I don’t actually want anyone to get hurt, Trump supporters or otherwise. It is historically evidenced however that road blockages are often successful methods of getting fascist events shutdown, getting international media attention on issues of injustice, or as a bargaining tool.
There are non-negligible numbers of outright fascists, cryptofascists, and fascist sympathizers (even on the Left) organizing and arming in the United States alone. It’s no secret that white supremacy flourishes primarily when exposed to the light and when given platforms and declines in power when denied that ability. This is because the Right gains strength from visible dominance with its promise of turning the powerless into rulers, while the Left often gains strength from martyrdom and sense of moral superiority, gaining power and numbers from loss. When white supremacy or Nazism fails to deliver on its promises of power, it hurts the capacity to recruit. So therefore it is no coincidence that you see a non-negligible proportion of active white supremacists and neo-nazis coming out in support of Trump with his crypto-fascist ethno-nationalisms and conversely why the shut-down in Chicago reflects poorly on his image. Asking, “Who constitutes my fans?” is a compelling approach to understanding what vein of collective interests one is tapping into. Trump, for whatever reason, cannot understand why white supremacists support him. He swears that he’s, “the least racist person you’ll ever meet.”
There is a video that came out shortly after the protests that shows someone who looks suspiciously like me walking away from a stopped car in this action. The video then goes on to explain how spray .22 bullets are the best for dealing with protesters. He speciously argued, using this video snapshot as evidence, how protesters in situations such as this are intentionally threatening your and your families lives. He explains with disturbing cool how sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a snake and a protester, so you should use the same shells either way. Which is quite disturbingly funny considering what I was actually doing in his referenced video, handing out water bottles. I’m pro-self defense if that is what he was actually describing, but of course it’s not. What he’s doing is barely camouflaged calls to violence against left-leaning activists. If our platform was to commit violence, I might be more sympathetic to him, but of course it wasn’t. Our platform was for condemning violence. The car that I was walking away from in his video was, I think, the guy I shook hands with. The top comments on his video though speak volumes. The top commentor is some nazi guy in a speedo named “MoneyBags603” declaring, “We need a Hitler! You can’t have a nice yard without killing the bugs.” With the video creator “Dave Acton Checking In (whose picture is a Trump cartoon)” responding, “nicely stated.” Aside from the blatant genocidal nazi propaganda, his analogy doesn’t even make sense. Who kills all the bugs in their yard? That is impossible and pointless. I mean what do worms do to anyone? The second top commenter is a Cleveland cop recounting his excitement at throwing flash bangs at protesters adding, “Bring it in losers.” With his top response being, “You guys get all the cool stuff, huh.” The whole thread is practically an orgy of Trump sympathetic, anti-protester, chest-pounding, glorification of violence but I really hope it doesn’t get reported or deleted. It’s idiotic propaganda gold and a strong justification for actively standing against hateful Trump rhetoric and organizing Left community-defense.
As you can imagine, things got more intense at the actual rally. The protestors marched several miles towards the rally. The four of us got a ride for the last couple miles to the rally with a black woman and her son who was media but sympathetic to the protestors in part due to her friend getting shot by police. She was not let into the media corral despite having a press pass, she assumes because of her race. Going alone to the rally was a questionable tactical decision by us because we then found the four of us alone in a crowd of nearly 5,000 Trump-sympathetic white people and a shitload of visible police, mounted police, secret service, undercovers, snipers, etc. We were still wearing our bandanas and just generally sticking out due to our visible and invisible: queerness, transness, non-whiteness, poverty, literal dirtiness, etc. We took off our bandanas and walked around, trying to take it all in. It was a big outdoor space with a giant man-made fountain in the middle juxtapozed against a flurry of bourgeoisie attempts to hide the fact that this is a desert such as implanted grass and trees. Despite the vast space, it was pretty packed facing the landing where Trump’s helicopter was supposed to, but didn’t, land. We looked at the Trump buttons and paraphernalia with such gems as, “Bomb the hell out of ISIS!” and “Hot chicks for Trump!” We wandered around until we caught up with the mass of protesters around the other side of a big open outdoor space with a giant man-made fountain in the middle, where the rally was being held.
We felt scared, honestly…. It was way more daunting than I think any of us anticipated. Everyone was staring at us, especially at the non-white member of our group, even shielding and trying to protect their kids from them. The protesters made another tactical error by pushing themselves into the very middle of the rally thus completely cutting us all off from escapes and surrounding us by jeering and vocalizing threats of violence. Constant yells of “Go home!” were directed at all of the Latin@ members of our group. Even a sparse few Latino’s stood in the Trump crowd screaming toxically, “Legal Mexican’s for Trump!” There were lots of confederate flags including one guy with the whole back of his shaved head covered in a confederate flag tattoos and his girlfriend’s full, matching upper back confederate flag tattoo. On the middle of his sweaty, sun-burned head was also a tattoo of that poor spiraled far-right snake that apparently keeps getting tread on. This is the point to remember again that this is a conceal carry state with a very active far/alt-Right militia and white supremacist movement and we are in their territory, not ours, and massively outnumbered. I felt as if any altercation could quickly escalate into one of us getting shot. There had also been a call to arms by various far/alt-Right militia groups and umbrellas organizations. One group called the Lion’s Guard (Which although referring directly and intentionally to a Mussolini quote is also the name of a Lion King cartoon show) to subvert protestors at Trump rallies and specific calls to action regarding suppressing and intimidating the organizers this event. Trump doesn’t just condone violence, he encourages it by offering to pay legal fees of people who beat up protesters claiming that one black-lives matter protester needed to be, “roughed up a little.” He said, “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell- I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” This is the same tactics that Mussolini and Hitler used during their rises to power. They encouraged violence against any naysayers which is why many are comparing this aspect of Trump’s presidency to the “brownshirts and blackshirts” they utilized.
I have never felt more so what a Klan rally might feel like. This feeling was only exacerbated when two well known, skinny, white-boy, local nazi skinheads began making the rounds and circling us like prey and trying to start fights with people with loaded and triggering rhetoric. They both had full arm tattoos with skinhead symbology including the runes and a giant iron cross with a swastika on it. They were at the mosque protests and also put out a video claiming that they helped organize them. Trump’s history of violence instigation and ethnic nationalism makes him an easy lead to embolden white supremacists.
I mostly hung out around the back of our group, keeping an eye out to quell fights, as we were so drastically out gunned and out manned. Despite the constant screaming between protesters and Trumpers, and a few small scuffles, the rally went pretty well with no serious injuries or fights. The dicier situations were after the rally and in the parking lots. It was after Trump’s speech, of which I heard very little over the screams, and the crowds started to disperse was when the individual and more scattered fights started breaking out. We were very aware of the need to not leave alone, for fear of being recognized by either the police or a drunk and armed Trumper. Third mistake of organizing was that we did not have a good exit plan, so it was really messy. The skinheads were prowling and the cops were ignoring them. At one moment I even considered pointing them out to the undercovers but then realized I’d rather not cooperate with them at all and besides, they know skinhead symbology, if they wanted to monitor them they already would’ve been.
As we started trying to organize to leave, my core group met up with this Latino guy that we had met earlier at the action. He was clearly shaken up. We gathered up around him and ask what was wrong and he explained that he was trying to leave in the parking lot with his family and someone jutted their car in front of his and got out and pulled a gun on them. We consoled and surrounded him for protection as best as we could and tried to help him look for the other people in his crew that he came to find. Once he found them he split off from us and our four-person crew started to leave. As we walked away, I tried to avoid eye contact with the Nazi dudes as they are still swooping and hunting. These three big white guys walked past us staring at us heavily. The older among them says to the others, “Hey boys, you think we should take a few of ‘em out?” My girlfriend blew him a kiss and we walk away.
We meet up with the African-American woman and her son who was doing media work that we had met earlier and she offers us a ride to our car. She got side-tracked though when a white boy, about 16 years old, hocked a loogie at us. She went over to confront him and his mother, but also just tried to explain to them the hatred that she and her son had felt that day. They traded words for awhile while I hung out with her son. I asked him what he thought of the rally. He just responded, “Baaaaad.” Although I felt fear on behalf of the boy, his mom was looking out for him and she wanted him to experience this historical moment first hand. He’d literally just gotten back from Disneyland.
We got a ride back to our car. I gave the boy a Gatorade from our trunk and gave his mom a squeeze. We all took a deep breath and tried to start to comprehend the 12 hours of day we just had.
On Violence, Liberals, and Freedom
In the aftermath of this protest people, from all sides have come out critiquing us for protesting or for protesting in the ways we did. During the rally, I had countless trumpers come up to me with their opinions about our actions. Their was this one older woman in particular who insisted that we were disrupting her freedom to watch the rally. I pointed out to her “But those are literal neo-nazis right there!”, to which she responded, “They’re just exercising their freedom.” This exchange resonated as the complete failure of the freedom discourse at its normative level. Aside from the fact that she was literally defending neo-nazis, it struck me how biased her misunderstanding of freedom was. She wanted freedom for the skinhead but not freedom for the protester. She wanted convenient freedom. When I describe doing what I consider to be anti-racist/anti-fascist work many people have claimed that I as well want freedom for myself but not for those with whom I disagree. It’s a misunderstanding though. I’m super pro-free speech but as a non-statist actor it’s also my freedom to stand against violence and violent rhetoric. I also recognize a hierarchy of violence, am aware of multiple forms of violence, and believe in taking practical steps to undermine violence.
In terms of the hierarchy or degrees of violence, certain types of violence, such as white supremacy, have a degree of structural backing that gives them tread and greater impact. Violence does not exist in a political vacuum. That is why someone killing a cop goes to jail but a cop killing someone gets a vacation. That is why calling someone a “cracker” goes up the hierarchy of power and is not the same as using a slur for an oppressed group down the ladder.
This brings me to multiple forms of violence. Direct physical violence is not the only form of violence. Structural violence such as white privilege or statist militarization is still violence. Symbolic violence such as wearing a swastika is still violence. There is verbal, emotional, cultural, etc., the list goes on. These forms of violence can still exist in various hierarchies of violence, but still count as violence, and, again, does not exist in a political vacuum. So while shouting anti-white power slogans could be considered violence to white-supremacists, it would take an extreme perversion of logic to miss the implications of how much more severe shouting anti-black or brown slogans are. We were surrounded by very explicit anti-black and brownness. A swastika tattoo is not punching someone in the face; it’s punching them in the historical trauma which is in some ways worse. Not only is it meant to trigger, it’s also meant to incite and encourage further violence. This is why certain degrees of violence should be considered as viable tactics in undermining a larger and structurally-supported threat. Aside from just words or chants, this goes even farther when we realize that Nazis marching in the street etc. is so strongly correlated not only with violence, but also with literally building an army, that it needs to be shut down swiftly. So goes for leaders who create safe spaces for Nazis and white supremacy in general. When Trump encourages violence against protestors, when his fans assault protestors, when white supremacists are defended in his rally, it is time to consider that he is a viable threat to the safety of marginalized people and must be resisted as part of a larger process of transformation.
I agree with anarchists such as William Gillis when he wrote, “The only way we’re going to achieve a better world is with strategy, not magical moral energy that somehow makes everything better cuz gandhi particles. That strategy has to be *coherent* with our desired ends — we can’t just choose any willy nilly means like gulaging people into freedom — ends and means ARE interconnected, but they’re not 1:1. And part of ethics and morality is being intellectually vigilant. Not blinding ourselves to realities.” We should be exceptionally wary of violence and ratcheting effects and try to create prefigurative means evocative of the non-violent/non-repressive ends we desire, but this is not a 1:1 equation: we have to think about tactics and context. We already exist in a context of violence, just some forms of violence are accepted and others are frowned upon. There is, for instance, a war on black bodies. That should not be in question at this point. So the minimum level of violence needed to protect black bodies should be considered ethical, justified, and tactical.
In terms of these specific anti-Trump protests, we again see the visible flourishing of white pride, homophobia, racism, and the like. It’s a breeding ground for toxic ideologies so interrupting hegemonic narratives with diverse counter-narratives is essential. This played out in, at times hilarious ways, like when one Trump supporter yelled, “Fuck Hillary!” Out of an oddly common sentiment that we were somehow paid for by Hillary. A protestor in the crowd responded, “Yeah I agree. Fuck Hilary!” The Trump supporter was so confused that he stopped chanting. We as protesters didn’t have one set narrative. We constituted a vast array of political ideas and identities making it harder to sustain a hegemonic narrative in our presence.
Alternatively, we have a largely white, privileged, liberal contingent who condemns all forms of violence and through this condemnation, ignores context, history, and the current violence faced by others outside of their socio-economic statuses. Obviously we have non-white and marginalized anti-violence activists as well, and I support the importance of those activists and means. Personally though, I advocate for a sense of contextual perspective and community-protection and posit that not suppressing someone who is actively committing a larger violence is actually co-signing their violence. A friend of a friend, recently mentioned that he would never punch a Klansmen because he doesn’t want to ‘stoop to their level’ and be violent. To say that you wouldn’t stand against the Klan because you don’t want to be violent is to misunderstand violence. White supremacy is systemic and sure, your average skinhead is a poor manipulated foot soldier (plug for counter-recruitment here) but white pride is itself already violent and worse, it’s structurally-backed violence. In this protest the undercover sheriff’s literally ignored the neo-nazis and tried to arrest protesters. It’s similar to the woman who was defending the freedom of the skinheads to express their white pride. It’s never a freedom if it’s violating the freedom of innocents or coming at the expense of those marginalized.
With this understanding we can see inaction, when you have the power to do something, as what it is, a form of violence. That being said, violence is a failed ends. Antifas who just fetishize violence are pains in the ass with problematic ideologies. Wherever possible transformative structural and cultural solutions should be sought. The entrenched worldviews, coupled with structural conditioning, of racism and the like are mental viruses which makes the agent extra-susceptible to confirmation bias and more shut-off from alternative paradigms. To be able to hold the deeply nuanced contradictions and worldviews of those we oppose, we can learn to transform both our thoughts and theirs. This is not a happy liberal ending. The work is still rough, painful, and at times even violent but, we can pursue intellectual and emotional vigilance and uproot our own mental viruses of dogmatic certainty that make us susceptible to propaganda. We can then simultaneously take active stands against marginalization and hatred, in solidarity with those who need it most. We can never do this alone.