I’m old enough that I can remember when even showing up to oppose fascists was considered controversial. Never mind the fact that the best way to stop racist scum from organizing in public is through a strong show of resistance, or that NOT having a show of resistance on the ground helps fascists in their goal of portraying themselves as a popular movement. The finger-waggers believed that the best response was to stage a counter-protest miles away and try to draw attention to that one… or to simply ignore the baddies and hope they went away. In this line of thinking, anyone who tries to mount an effective opposition by so much as showing up as a form of resistance to white supremacy is considered an instigator. Take away the fluffy rhetoric and the advice is clear: the best solution, it was thought, was to let the Nazis have the street.
The rhetoric slowly shifted to the point where it was deemed acceptable to oppose fascists publicly, so long as that opposition was entirely non-violent. Eventually, over the years, self-defense was also deemed acceptable… so long as it was agreed upon as self-defense by all affected parties, including critics thousands of miles away who are completely uninvolved but happen to have strong opinions and a very loud voice.
These determinations are collectively made by people outside of the action. In addition to tired moralizing about ethics, people who have never lifted a finger to oppose fascism suddenly claim to know what is and is not effective. Antiracist/antifascist groups infiltrate white nationalist listservs and pick up chatter from people on the inside. Of course it’s likely that they have a pretty good idea of what is and is not effective on the ground. They’re probably not too keen to advertise that fact both for safety reasons and for practical ones. Somehow, external actors (or more accurately, non-actors) think that they have solutions no one else has thought of, although they have no data or experience to back it up other than out-of-context platitudes from history books and regurgitated comments on YouTube videos.
Over the years it appears that the Overton window has shifted, slightly, making it somewhat socially acceptable for anti-fascists/anti-racists to at least show up to an event alongside Nazis in any attempt to defend their own communities. But the discourse has gotten so confused that it’s shockingly not uncommon, even in otherwise radical circles, for people to draw a false equivalence between people preaching genocide and people opposed to it.
It’s not that this overly simplistic line of thinking doesn’t manifest itself elsewhere in our society. In the backwards public school system, when a schoolyard bully picks a fight and their target fights back, both kids are punished with suspension. “Who’s the real bully?” one might ask. Is it the kid who picks on people that he perceives to be weaker? Or is it the kid who does what he can in his power to avoid becoming a victim? Obviously, defending oneself is entirely different and far more defensible than being an aggressor. Even this overly simplistic analysis shows how ridiculous conflating the two sounds. And yet the alt-right propaganda portraying antifascists as fascists is so pervasive that it’s even trickled down to leftist circles that are otherwise somewhat reasonable in their assessments.
The level of arrogance that people who maybe took a single history course in college have in thinking they alone can solve problems with changed tactics—when they’re not even aware of the issues—is astounding. Track some Nazis for a decade, and then we’ll talk. It’s equally astonishing when concern trolls cry about antifascist activists targeting the wrong people. Of course there’s always the possibility of collateral damage in any situation. That’s why so many warriors defending their communities take a lot of precautions. Spend a few years looking through garbage cans, intercepting internet traffic, and hanging out in the cesspools of the internet to compile information, and then we can have a conversation about appropriate targeting. Meanwhile, we have Nazis pretending that they’re mere Trump supporters in a somewhat successful attempt to paint antifa as indiscriminately violent. Surprisingly, the same level of concern doesn’t seem to apply to the myriad fake antifa social media accounts or doctored videos of supposed melees from years ago that antifa was never responsible for.
Others fixate not on whether appropriate people are targeted, but on punch politics. One would think from the pervasive, ongoing critique that the exact seconds before when a fight starts is of utmost importance–that it is an optics battle rather than an ethical dilemma centered around who exactly threw the first punch. Or maybe it’s armchair quarterback analysis over whether the level of violence used on specific individuals is commensurate with the extent of their activities. These are all great conversations to have within an individual group mounting strong resistance towards white supremacy. People on the ground who can analyze exactly what happened based on what information they had, who was responsible, what they think is most effective, and what they feel comfortable with. After looking at what went well and what could be improved, they can let that intel and assessment guide their decisions moving forward. That’s about 50000 times more useful than a misguided analysis by people who aren’t privy to those conversations. How dare they presume otherwise.
People want to draw the line at whether or not it’s okay to punch Nazis. Or to pre-emptively punch Nazis. Or to punch Nazis when they’re not, in that very moment, harassing Jewish and Muslim worshippers, assaulting people of color, or murdering people with cars. Never mind the fact that letting Nazis run amok leads to an increase in net violence, so preaching passive resistance isn’t exactly nonviolent. But even if Gandhian tactics were somehow more effective, the truth is that there’s been pushback against ANY act of resistance or attempt to lessen the impact of fascist groups. And that’s something that I’ve found interesting about the ongoing antifa debate. It’s that somehow every action—no matter how innocuous—that helps empower communities and keep their most vulnerable people safe is considered by some to be unacceptable.
This isn’t to say that that the critics are insincere in their concerns, or that their wrangling with the issue isn’t well-intentioned. But while people are making judgments about the praxis of groups they’re typically not even involved with, those groups are making a positive impact in their communities.
When antifa chapters educate venues about bands that want to rent out their space, critics cry about speech…even when venues have every right to refuse to do business with them….and even when doing nothing leads to massive violence as fascists attack people of color in the streets. (Again, this is why those plugged into a local network might know an inkling or two more than ignoramuses preaching strategy on Twitter.com.)
When antifa identify fascists and inform their employers that these people are advocating genocide—another legal and nonviolent tactic—critics balk that this, too, infringes on speech, as if advocating for ethnic cleansing is just a different but equal political belief and if it wasn’t for people demanding accountability that we would all get along.
It’s almost as if ongoing critique would do more to effectively silence resistance and enable the proliferation of fascism. That’s what happens when people without their finger on the pulse assume that they understand what’s going on in a group they’re not a part of and know better than everyone on the ground. It’s what happens when people who purport to want to make an impact decide to do nothing other than waiting for the perfect idea and criticizing everyone else who’s taking meaningful action. Evil doesn’t stop until it is stopped. The very least that non-actors could do is get the fuck out of the way.
People join fascist groups because it makes them feel powerful and strong. A strong showing of dissent can crumble that illusion. This has been documented again and again and yet is somehow overlooked by people who care more about whether Pelosi condemns antifa than they do about what happens to the most vulnerable people in their community. When Nazi fetishists and cosplayers become aware that there’s a price to pay—whether that’s losing friends, being identified publicly, getting fired from a job, or meeting resistance when trying to rush a group of antifa at a protest—they often leave the group, and potential members are deterred. At the very least, the startling realization that organizing publicly has consequences has been all that it’s taken to drive many people underground. We saw it in the 80s. We saw it in the 90s and we saw it in the 00s. We’re seeing it now.
There’s a reason why fascists do their level best to hide under the guise of patriotism. It’s the same reason the Klan wore hoods. People who are ignorant and not steeped in history, no matter how well-intentioned, tend to fall for well-crafted crypto-fascist propaganda. They tend to see grey areas that aren’t really there. They tend to think they’re being critical thinkers when they’re walking into a trap. And they’re too proud to even see it.
Perhaps it’s time for the antifa critics to put down their megaphones and take a look at the effects of their own actions and inactions. Whether they’re unwittingly repeating fascist propaganda or otherwise preaching against effective resistance from behind a keyboard, maybe opposing resistance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.