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No Platform For Islamophobia: How Austin Shut Down ‘March Against Sharia’ White Supremacist Rally

Posted in Austin, and Journalism

It was called the “March Against Sharia,” but thanks to a lot of very loud Austin activists this white supremacist gathering could barely speak, much less march through the city.

The openly Islamophobic gathering was part of a June 10 national day of action organized by ACT For America, a hate group that uses fearmongering about the mythological spread of “Sharia law” in America as a way to foment hatred and violence against Muslim people.

As with every similar gathering in Texas since the election, from the March 4 Trump to May Day, the event attracted a range of fascists, neo-nazis and far-right nationalists that makes these events virtually indistinguishable from one another. Whatever the ostensible reason for gathering, whether it’s expressing loyalty to the president or opposing immigrants, these events essentially promote the same white supremacist agenda.

Signs commemorate the victims of the Portland stabbing at a June 10 counterprotest against the Islamophobic “March Against Sharia” in downtown Austin, Texas. An activist in a mohawk, leather jacket and face paint holds a sign that reads “Nazi Trumps Fuck Off.” (Flickr / Ann Harkness, CC license)

The “March Against Sharia,” in particular, was also part of an ongoing effort by the far-right to hijack concepts and tactics beloved by the left. In addition to generally mimicking genuine human rights rallies, ACT and their supporters claim to be “feminists” and imply that opposing “sharia” is a way of supporting the LGBTQIA community.

Of course, these same people are silent when trans people are killed or assaulted in their communities, and actively support “bathroom bills” and restrictions on reproductive health care and birth control. It’s all a ruse — an attempt to disarm their opponents on the left and take up the cultural space they once occupied, similar to the current prevailing use of “free speech” in American political discourse.

Happily, there were few who could hear their message, because of the overwhelming numbers that came out to show their support for Austin’s Muslim community and their opposition to far-right bigotry.

Building bridges to oppose hate

Saturday was the culmination of weeks of organizing, bringing together a diverse and sometimes unstable coalition of the left in Austin. Not only was it important to local activists to show that our city is united against bigotry, many of us also saw it as an opportunity to respond to previous fascist victories. After May Day, in particular, many people wanted to show that their tactics of intimidation are far less effective when we present a unified front.

Like most cities, Austin activists often fight among ourselves but we knew our success on Saturday depended largely on bringing out overwhelming numbers. Initially, there were numerous conflicts between groups over diversity of tactics, particularly from more center-left liberals which wanted to limit how other activists responded. Although these issues continued to arise periodically during the lead up to June 10, we found that keeping the lines of communication open across ideological lines helped to smooth over differences in approach. Numerous meetings and back channel communications kept intelligence and tactical discussions flowing. As an example of how broad our coalition grew by the end, the liberal group Pantsuit Nation Austin actually endorsed our more confrontational tactics just a day or two before the final counterprotest after we explained that staging a separate event might put everyone at risk.

Organizers with Muslim Solidarity ATX, which notably protected the “Muslim Capitol Day” earlier this year, facilitated a press conference nearby at the Governor’s Mansion, attended by the mayor and diverse speakers from Austin, including representatives of the Muslim community. This probably reduced our numbers somewhat, but also gave people an alternative to attend if they felt unsafe at the more confrontational counterprotest, including Muslims who were fasting from Ramadan. But a number of folks joined us after that event ended, and many of Austin’s activist Muslims were among our numbers as well, despite the difficulty of protesting for hours without water in the Texas heat.

In addition to just mobilizing people, we hoped to encourage everyone to work together to drown out the fascists by handing out bandannas and whistles; we passed the hat around at our meetings so that we could order them online in bulk. The whistles were a simple way to make noise without relying solely on chanting, and the bandannas created a sense of shared identity among the crowd while allowing more seasoned antifascists to blend in better. A front lines bloc, dressed in plain clothes rather than black bloc (but with masked faces) were prepared for self-defense and anti-fascist action with shields and sticks, allowing us to fill out our numbers with those who were less militant but still opposed to Islamophobia.

A group of well-known Austin area fascists and neo-nazis arrive to support the June 10 anti-Muslim ‘March Against Sharia’ at the Texas Capitol, including a man in a LGBT For Trump shirt and rainbox cape, a woman in a Ku Klux Klan-like white sheet and MAGA hat, and a man holding a Thin Blue Line flag in a 1488 (neonazi slogan) helmet). (Kit O’Connell, CC license)

Drowning out fascism & running Nazis out of Austin

ACT’s Facebook event didn’t have a high RSVP count, and we hoped that multiple March Against Sharia events throughout the state, plus a bizarre “false flag” event in defense of Sam Houston would keep our fascist opponents from repeating the events of May Day.

Even so, I felt the tension among my comrades as we gathered early on Saturday. We knew that fascists and militia members had already gathered at the Capitol, increasing my nervousness. Then we saw a beautiful sight that lifted all our spirits as we walked down Lavaca to the capitol grounds: the “front lines” bloc marching out from their gathering place to confront the fascists with their banners, flags and sticks waving, bright yellow construction helmets reflecting the sunlight. Composed of some of the fiercest of local communists and anarchists united together, we knew we’d have their determined and unyielding protection throughout the day.

My affinity group intended to operate in a support role by handing out bandannas and whistles and looking for other ways to back up the crowd, rather than on the actual front lines. This allowed me to tweet and share intelligence via Signal with other activists when it was safe to do so. For most of the day, we were stationed just behind and to the side of the Capitol gate. The layout of the protest meant we were still in the thick of things at many moments, essentially protecting the “rear” of the protest as individual fascists, right-wingers and neo-nazis broke away from the main rallying point.

We were frequently forced to stand firm against these smaller groups of fascists, such as the old man in the red shirt who described to my femme comrades how he hoped their bodies would be mutiliated. While this event was theoretically opposed to female genital mutilation and in support of LGBT rights, the fascists in attendance had no problem making frequent use of sexist, homophobic, transmisogynistic, racist, or ableist slurs (I was carrying my cane), further illustrating their hypocrisy and true, genocidal white supremacist agenda.

The ACT rally was initially just a couple dozen people, but their numbers quickly swelled to about 50. At the event’s peak, they were still outnumbered by 300 or more in the counterprotest. Despite whatever principles ACT claims to represent, they had no trouble standing side by side and chanting with literal nazis and fascists, including a woman wearing a white sheet and MAGA hat and a man who had arrived carrying a “thin blue line” flag and wearing a helmet emblazoned with 14/88.

Despite the presence of local fash known for their violence, we stood firm. The march never happened, the scheduled speeches never happened, their chants were drowned out, and at the end of the four hours of loud protesting the fash brigade slunk off under police escort: the Troopers led them into the Capitol in order to “use the bathroom” and they never returned. Soon after, the rest of the rally began to trickle out in small groups, confronted all while they left by angry, whistleblowing antifascists.

Cops & fascists go hand in hand

While we won the day, there were certainly moments when it could have gone very differently, and the potential for intense violence felt close at hand.

Opposite the Capitol gates, alongside Congress avenue, a group of armed militia members in khaki stood watch, while on the other corner armed Communist “Partisans” watched the militia. At one point, a group of outlaw bikers from the Republic of Texas biker rally gathered outside the police barricades and considered whether to get involved.

The day’s worst violence came at the hands of the State Troopers, who midway through the protest abruptly replaced the Austin Police on the front lines with Troopers in armored riot gear. They violently beat and shoved activists back as they arrived, thinning out the counterprotest’s numbers both through sheer brutality and by forcing the front lines out of the shade and into the direct sun.

We cared for multiple dehydrated and stunned people in the aftermath. At other times, it seemed like Austin Police were preparing to sweep the counterprotest with their horses to allow the march to leave. I suspect the militancy of the front lines bloc in holding their space helped prevent the police from aiding the fascists in marching, in addition to blocking the movement of the fascists themselves.

An activist holds a sign at the June 10, 2017 counterprotest against an Islamophobic rally in at the Texas Capitol which reads, “‘Pop Quiz’ guy: You’re standing with an ACTUAL nazi in a 1488 helmet. Ask him what it means. Dumbass.” (Kit O’Connell, Creative Commons license)

While it’s unclear to what degree the police and various law enforcement groups collaborated with the fascists, they were definitely on friendly terms. Troopers continuously made offensive jokes at our expense, and before the protest multiple activists caught them closely conferring with militia members, a disturbing echo of events in Portland where Oathkeepers assisted Department of Homeland Security police in an arrest.

Our victory was a fairly decisive one, with the fascists forced to disperse while the counterprotest took to the streets on their planned march route. However, not only can we expect the fascists to attempt violent retribution if we give them the opportunity, we can also expect escalating violence from the police, who will be better prepared for armored antifascist activists in the future.

Lessons for Antifascists

  • In times of intense conflict with the far right, it may be possible to create coalitions among groups who normally disagree on tactics. While there were still a few “peace police” at the event trying to control what tactics people used, they were largely ignored and insignificant in their influence.
  • Handing out bandannas and whistles was a great way to build unity at the protest. The fascists hated the whistles, and the bandannas helped get new people familiar with the idea of “masking up” to protect your identity and create a sense of purpose during these kinds of actions.
  • We’re seeing increasing rifts within the far-right coalition, with infighting among fascist, nationalist and crypto-fascist groups. Let’s continue to point their own contradictions to them and see what happens.
  • By contrast, we still need bigger coalitions, increased respect for diversity of tactics and more intersectionality on the left. While we mobilized hundreds, our numbers should have been even higher and our next battle will not likely be so easily won by a direct confrontation.
  • Infowars-influenced “journalists,” both those who actually work for the website and their pathetic hangers-on, are rapidly proliferating. They should be ignored, be disrupted from conducting interviews and gathering intelligence, or have their lenses blocked as appropriate in each moment. Umbrellas are useful here. Look for more about the “fash media” in an upcoming issue of Gonzo Notes.
  • While I don’t support “accelerationism” (the idea that Trump and the disasters he brings about are good because they can provoke revolution), the struggle against fascism is so raw and intense in Texas right now that it is creating allies where they wouldn’t normally occur. Let’s use that, and see if we can’t build long term common ground.

Other coverage

Masked antifa activists face off against armored Texas State Troopers at the June 10 counterprotest to the March Against Sharia in Austin, Texas. (Flickr / Ann Harkness, CC license)

 

No Platform For Islamophobia: How Austin Shut Down ‘March Against Sharia’ White Supremacist Rally by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2017/06/15/how-austin-shut-down-march-against-sharia.

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