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What Is American Fascism And Who Are The Antifa?

Posted in Act Out!, Austin, Creative Commons, Journalism, and Video

Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield co-wrote this segment of Act Out!

Welcome to Act Out! I’m Eleanor Goldfield and this is your tipping point.

You’ve seen them on TV: black clad activists marching against, and even openly fighting with neo-nazis, nationalists, and white supremacists. Since the election, antifascists have seemingly been everywhere online and in the media. Some call them terrorists, while others call them heroes, but really they’re just humans like you and me. Humans who hate fascism.

Graffiti depicts a red and black flag in a circle, labelled Paris Antifa. July 16, 2014. (Flickr / Jeanne Menjoulet, CC license)

Who are the antifa, where did they come from aaaand what, really, is fascism anyway?

A question that’s no longer simply academic: across the U.S., and indeed, in Europe too, far right forces are growing in power. Whether they call themselves “nationalists” or claim to be opposed to “radical” Islam while targeting innocent Muslims for threats and violence, the bad old days are coming back round again on insanity’s loop.

Armed fascists march along a street in downtown Austin, Texas, part of two larger groups surrounding a radical march. Some carry Confederate flags or assault rifles. (Oh Shit! What Now! public domain image)

May Day in Austin, Texas. As part of a full day of events celebrating the traditional international workers’ holiday, a coalition of communists and some anarchist supporters had planned a march through downtown, similar to radical May Day marches that happen in cities like Portland. Small events like it had occurred in the Texas capital in 2015 and 2016.

But this year, a group of fascists had another idea. Heavily armed counter-protesters converged on the radical march from two sides, surrounding them and preventing them from effectively moving through the downtown area. At times, they violently attacked. At least one activist was sucker punched.

Many of them were the 4chan trolls, the denizens of the online message board that once gave birth to the Anonymous hacktivist collective, but since then has taken a dark and dangerous turn. These groups are now a regular disruptive presence at Texas protests, and one of them, William Fears, is known to have brandished a knife at Indivisible activists in the Houston airport during protests against Trump’s Muslim ban.

Joining these Pepe the frog worshipping douchebags were members of Open Carry Texas, a 2nd Amendment Rights group known for intimidating displays of firepower during local festivals and even in restaurants. And standing side-by-side with them were members of White Lives Matter, which the Southern Poverty Law Center called “a neo-Nazi group that is growing into a movement as more and more white supremacist groups take up its slogans and tactics.”

And, lest you think I’m exaggerating by calling them fascists, here’s more footage of Texas nazis behaving badly.

That a march by communists, socialists and anarchists would draw out a diverse coalition of far-right and fascist groups should disturb you, not just because of the potential for violence against activists like you and me. It’s also because it’s a sign that right-wing groups are working together and becoming more organized, and more determined than ever to stomp out the left.

And this kind of thing isn’t just happening in Texas. Organized fascist, far-right groups are marching, rallying, and targeting leftists from Portland to Oakland to Boston. And these groups are diverse in age too, bringing together not just aging Klansman who’ve shucked off their white sheets, but young people radicalized on the internet in places like 4chan and Reddit. And hearkening back to last week’s free speech episode, this isn’t about letting people have their dissenting opinions. This is about people coming to peaceful events looking to literally beat progressive values out of people. And that — that’s not free speech. That’s fascism.

But Eleanor, you’re just throwing that word around – what REALLY is fascism, and how does it appeal to so many people at a time like this?

Well, according to the Google, fascism is “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.”

Now as we’ve covered in the past, our system of government is pretty squarely an oligarchy and plutocracy — forged by capitalism, sprinkled with authoritarian snowflakes that show up whenever a black person is standing on a street corner or something equally egregious. I’m not here to say that we live in a fascist state. I’m here to say that we live in a state with fascists — social organizations of nationalistic, right-wing extremists.

Donald Trump applauds while standing in front of U.S. flags on a campaign stop in Phoenix, Arizona. August 31, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore, CC SA license)

So you may have heard talk of how Trump appealed primarily to impoverished white people with so called “economic anxiety.” And while some working class whites did vote for Trump, and the Democrats and Hillary Clinton should be criticized for failing to bring in many poor whites who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, historically these groups frequently vote for Republicans regardless of who the candidate is.

As reported by The Nation, “The voters Clinton really lost—the ones she was targeting and relying on for victory—were college-educated whites. Most polling suggested she would win these voters, but she didn’t, according to exit polls: White men went 63 percent for Trump versus 31 percent for Clinton, and white women went 53-43 percent. Among college-educated whites, only 39 percent of men and 51 percent of women voted for Clinton.”

Hitler poses with members of the Nazi party, in front of a swastika flag. December 1930. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-0289 / Unknown, CC SA license)

And historically speaking, these are exactly the groups we’d expect to see supporting nationalism, white supremacy, and the Nazi Party in Germany. While working class people have supported these movements, the leadership, and the bulk of their members, have always come from middle-class people, or people sometimes referred to as “declassed.” They aren’t the powerless working poor, who are just as likely to band together against fascism as to join it. Rather, they are upper middle-class bosses, land-owners, and farmers, people who gained a small amount of power under capitalism only to see it stripped away by the continuing consolidation of wealth under the richest 1%.

Donald Trump makes an “OK” with his hand in front of supporters at a rally on June 18, 2016. (Flickr / Gage Skidmore, CC SA license)

Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” appealed to many members of the white poor, but even more so to businessmen and ranchers who loved his promises to drive out foreign capital and foreign businesses and restore them to the power they held decades ago before the rise of globalization and neoliberalism. Indeed, after decades of neoliberal policies stripped the middle class to the roots, these “declassed” white men saw Trump as a hope for something different, and a return to power.

In a “day after election day” article in the Guardian, author Naomi Klein explained the rise of Trump like this:

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. … At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness. For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable. Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. … Elite neoliberalism has nothing to offer that pain, because neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.

And we the people have to take some blame on this for allowing such a grotesque rise of anti-intellectualism and fact-fear drive us into the arms of a psychopathic, dim-wittted clown but through this analysis, we can recognize not only what led us here – i.e. neoliberalism – but also where we could be headed.

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan shake hands at the U.S. House of Representatives on February 28, 2017. (Wikimedia Commons / Office of the Speaker, public domain)

Our unfolding brand of fascism presents itself on two fronts: it starts at the government level, with hard right-wing legislation designed to hurt the poor and vulnerable, like Trumpcare, the overpriced and loophole filled replacement to the Affordable Care Act, or the brutal budget Republicans want to push through, which slashes the safety net for millions of Americans who need it most, like children, veterans and the disabled. Of course it seeks to do this with no shortage of jingoist flag waving, military posturing and God Bless Americas. Outside of the halls of the mighty maniacs, fascism is more overtly supported and grown in the streets.

Already back in early 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on the rise of hate groups — in 2014, SPLC counted 784 hate groups compared to 892 in 2015, a 14% increase. Last year, that number increased again – to 917. Couple this with the more than 1,000 bias incidents within Trump’s first 34 days of office — i.e. attacking women wearing Hijab, people of color, women, etc. — it’s clear that indeed as this headline notes, fascists of all stripes are feeling free to express their hatred openly.

At a Trump rally, supporters salute a U.S. flag emblazoned with Donald Trump’s face, reading “Make America Great Again.” Phoenix, Arizona on June 18, 2016. (Flickr / Gage Skidmore, CC SA license)

Now, for those of you reaching for a history book to thumb through Germany in the 1930s, it’s important to note that while history repeats itself, the style and details always change. This is not post-World War 1 Germany, nor is it Italy under Mussolini. With that in mind, here are a few mainstay characteristics of fascism as listed by the Holocaust Museum. Take a look and consider the US today:

  • Powerful and continuing nationalism,
  • Disdain for human rights,
  • Supremacy of the military,
  • Rampant sexism,
  • Controlled Mass Media,
  • Obsession with National Security,
  • Religion and Government Intertwined,
  • Corporate power protected,
  • Labor Power suppressed,
  • Disdain for intellectuals and the arts,
  • Obsession with crime and punishment,
  • Rampant cronyism and corruption,
  • and Fraudulent elections.

(Note: Snopes reports this list originates on a poster for sale in the Holocaust Museum gift shop, rather than a formal museum display)

Now if you’re thinking – wow, that sounds like the wet dream of today’s Congress, you’re not wrong. Luckily, just as there is a history of fascism, there is also a history of anti-fascism.

A masked figure holds a tiny doll dressed in black bloc, which in turn holds a tiny red and black flag. (Flickr / Sonia Golemme, CC NC ND license)

Antifascism has its origins in pre-war Germany, when socialists and anarchists fought nazis in the streets, trying, but ultimately failing to halt their rise to power. After the war, they reorganized again into neighborhood groups called “Antifaschistische Kommittees” or even “Antifaschistische Aktion” or antifa for short. As outlined by Loren Balhorn in Jacobin magazine, antifa fought the remnants of the Nazi party, while also helping rebuild German society. For example, antifa in the city of Braunschweig “printed a twelve-point program demanding, among other things, the removal of Nazis from all administrative bodies and their immediate replacement with “competent antifascists,” liquidation of Nazi assets to provide for war victims, emergency laws to prosecute local fascists, and the reestablishment of the public health-care service.”

While the antifa banner fell out of favor during the middle of the 20th century, the work of fighting fascism continued. While they haven’t always used the label, groups like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Brown Berets organized to defend their communities by any means necessary, whether that meant armed struggle, or providing breakfast for hungry school kids. Antifascism saw a resurgence in the 80s and 90s, often through the punk scene, the Anti-Racist Action movement, and groups mobilizing against white supremacy throughout Europe. Antifa grew even larger as an organized movement at the dawn of the 21st century, inspired not just by new movements of white supremacists, but also by the anti-globalization movement and the successful use of black bloc at the famous “Battle of Seattle.”

Black Bloc activists carrying black flags march in Quebec on May 1, 2012. (Flickr / Alexis Gravel, CC ND license)

Black bloc, a tactic that involves activists masking up and wearing near identical black clothing to hide their identity, has come to be associated with antifa activism. But the tactic does not belong to any one radical group, and has been used for a variety of purposes, from yes, confronting fascists, to disabling dirty energy project equipment.

And though militant, black bloc confrontations are sometimes an effective tactic of the antifascist movement, and they are just one among many. Antifa take part in creating art and music, reading groups and classes, graffiti and street art, intersectional coalition building and even dressing as clowns to make fascists look like the fools they are. In one recent example that shows the potential diversity of tactics, antifa in St. Paul, Minnesota came together with a broad coalition of leftist groups to block attempts by a racist South African group to recruit at a Trump rally. Ultimately, they nonviolently forced the Trump supporters to denounce the fascist group through social pressure and sheer overwhelming numbers.

To be effective, antifa must be prepared not just to fight when necessary, but also to provide appealing political alternatives when both the Republicans and the Democrats have failed to deliver on their promises to the people. At moments like this one, fascism can be dangerously appealing, even to former leftists. As Don Hamersquist wrote in his essay “Fascism and Antifascism,”

In this country, particularly, radical anti-fascists must be prepared to compete ideologically and every other way with fascists who present themselves as revolutionary and anti-capitalist and who orient towards the same issues and constituencies as the left.

Remember, the opposition to trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership came from both the far right and the far left, but the right had very different reasons for opposing it than we did.

Two activists in black clothes and black bandannas photographed at a rally on May Day 2012 in Portland Oregon. (Flickr / Karney Hatch, CC license)

To sum it up, antifascists believe that we’re all on the front lines of this battle, that fascism is a real and growing force, and we must stop it from bringing back the days of genocide, no matter what. That doesn’t mean we all have to be ready to punch nazis. Whether it’s covering up racist graffiti, confronting racists or protecting marginalized and vulnerable people in your community from hateful behavior, contributing to bail funds of arrested antifa, or being willing to shout down and shut down nazis in your city, we all have a part to play in this fight.

As Naomi Klein wrote in that same post-election article, “People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.”

So whether you identify as antifa or fight fascism under a different banner, let’s work together, fight together and build together — on the front lines.


What Is American Fascism And Who Are The Antifa? by Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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