Blue MondayColumnsDemocracy 2.0EssaysFeature

Further Thoughts on Antifa

Counter-Violence is not Self-Defense

Last week I published a piece that received a great deal of attention: “Antifa is Not a ‘Terrorist Organization,’ But That Doesn’t Make it Good: Thoughts from Bloomington, Indiana.” Over the past week events have continued to unfold in Bloomington. And so I’d like to furnish an “update.”

On the one hand, my piece has generated some interesting discussions, the main point of contention of which centers on the question of whether “Antifa” is a form of self-defense in response to the presence of dangerous and armed racists.

On the other hand, “antifascist” organizing continues apace in Bloomington. A rump market has been set up on the east side of town, where a small number of vendors now set up on Saturday mornings, in protest of the downtown community market. No Space for Hate continues to advocate for the removal of Schooner Creek Farms from the main market and indeed, apparently now calls for a boycott of the entire main market on the grounds that it is a “space for hate.”

On the other hand, the main community market continues to function. While attendance has been down significantly in recent weeks, there was much activity at the market this past week, with live music and a very diverse crowd.

And while the sense of confrontation of weeks past has abated, the market continues to be a tense environment.

The Bloomington Police Department were out in force, a very visible presence, and for many at the market, myself included, a reassuring one; for they were not alone. There were clearly a number of “Three Percenter” men on hand. While they did not congregate together, they could be seen around the market, noticeable by their shirts emblazoned with “NRA” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Also present, apparently, was a notorious Chicago-based neo-Nazi, who served as an “assistant” at the Schooner Creek Farms vegetable stand.

These people were present, and their presence should be frightening to everyone who cares about human rights, civility, and safety. But they were basically unobtrusive, and did nothing but stand in place.

The same cannot be said of the Antifa who were also present. Their main tactic was to stand immediately outside of the market, lining both sides of the narrow market entrance, telling people seeking to enter the market that they should not go in because the market was “racist” or “fascist.” Some reliable sources told me that some of them were armed with visibly sheathed knives, but I did not see any weapons. (Note: as these people earlier marched from the Courthouse to this location, they did encounter an angry motorist; the incident is recounted here; it does not seem to have been a white supremacist attack, though some of the marchers were understandably frightened, because the atmosphere is tense and there is real danger of violence).

This was how the situation looked to me at two different moments:

[These Antifa people made very clear that they did not wish to be photographed up close, and so these photos were taken, by me, at a distance.]

Occasionally a few of the Black Bloc people walked through the market and then returned to their spot outside. I watched some of them actually approach the Schooner Creek Farms stand, give the vendor the finger, and say “Nazi motherfucker” while walking by (I also saw the vendor simply shake his head in disgust).

This is the current situation in Bloomington.

Look at the photos above. Do they look like “self-defense” to you? Who, exactly, is being “defended” here? And from whom?

To be clear: we live in a scary and anxious time, and people have reason to be concerned about the danger of racist violence.

Bloomington has dealt with the active presence of racists before. In 1998 a group called Bloomington United was formed to respond to the distribution of fliers by the World Church of the Creator, a now-defunct neo-Nazi group (for the record, I was one of the founders, and the chief publicist, of the group). Bloomington United organized a major sign campaign, a series of public rallies attended by thousands of citizens, a series of town hall forums on a variety of themes (racism; LGBT rights; anti-semitism in the public schools; the situation of the Latinx community); and “study circles” on racism. In October 2002 Bloomington United adopted the tactic of “Every Minute Counts” to respond to a march in downtown Bloomington by the Campbellsburg Old Paths Baptist Church, a homophobic and racist group. The group encouraged Bloomingtonians to keep their distance from the demonstrating church group, and instead to pledge small amounts for every minute the racists were present. The effort raised over $300 during the hour that the demonstrators basically shouted to themselves, and then Bloomington United further publicized the fundraiser as part of its broader campaign to promote the idea of “a safe and civil city.” (In April 2018 the group experienced a revival; while I am a supporter, I am no longer involved).

In recent days a number of writers have loudly proclaimed that it is wrong and foolish to expect people to do nothing to defend themselves from white supremacy.

I agree.

But there are many ways for a community to actively respond to the presence of hate groups and to proactively challenge racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and hatred (One useful source is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.) Each situation is different, and requires a different set of responses. And because no “community” is a harmonious association in which everyone feels and thinks alike, in every community there will be disagreements about how to respond, and there will be different kinds of responses adopted by different groups.

As I said in my original piece, Bloomington is not Portland. I also said that “neither Bloomington nor Portland is . . . the New York city depicted in Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York.” Both observations are important. I do not believe that organized counter-violence — which is always another way of describing organized violence — can ever be justifiable in a constitutional democracy, however flawed. But the Portland situation is obviously fraught, and the danger is real, and some forms of social self-defense seem justifiable in situations where hundreds of armed white supremacists are descending on a community (I would distinguish between “self-defense” and deliberate efforts to physically confront white supremacists who have a permit to march, to antagonize or threaten them, throw things at them, or seek to provoke a violent confrontation).

But in Bloomington no such thing occurred. In Bloomington the “danger” that sparked the initial outrage, the boycott, and the escalation of demands that the city remove the vendors consisted in nothing more than the fact that one couple had “white identarian” sympathies and associations (and, it can be inferred, subscribed to some very vile ideas and had some very bad friends).

In my earlier piece, I discussed the reasons why the city government cannot simply remove the vendors because of their beliefs or associations. I also discussed the dangers of violent escalation.

One argument that has been made is that while there was no physical danger, the mere presence of racism is dangerous, and there ought to be no public space for hate of any kind. This argument clearly implicates larger arguments about how “racism” or “hate” is defined and what is justified in response to these things. The vulnerability of targeted groups is real. But I hope most people would agree that if “hate” is defined as “whatever any person from a marginal group feels is hateful,” and if we then demand that there is “No place for hate,” we are in a situation where any individual has a veto power over public life. This is a recipe for moral and social solipsism, perhaps well suited to an era in which our most intimate relationship is with our smart phone or computer, but not well suited to a democratic society.

Beyond this consideration, let us further consider the “logic” of the demand to forcibly remove the vendors because of their “white identity” beliefs and friendships.

If we support their removal on these grounds, must we also support the removal of Amish vendors who arguably practice a form of life that denies important rights to women, children, and dissenters within their closed and patriarchal communities? Must we support the removal of Catholic vendors, because the Catholic church plays a fundamental role in promoting patriarchy and homophobia? Where do we draw the line? I share with some local antifascists a love of Cuban food and music. But Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship that treats terribly its LGBT community and jails dissenters. Perhaps any musical group or vendor that has ties with Cuba ought to be excluded from public spaces?

Yes, this appeal to a “slippery slope” sounds cliché. But some clichés articulate a real problem.

And the demand to remove people from public space because of their beliefs or affiliations is truly problematic. Especially in Southern Indiana.

“White identarianism” is a repackaged form of racism and white supremacy. But a great many “low information” citizens do not understand this. There are many reasons for this lack of understanding, including the deep roots of prejudice and racial segregation in U.S. history; the success of right-wing media in disseminating racist messages; and the racism of the current President of the U.S. “White nationalist” ideas are thus increasingly prevalent in much of the country, and especially in rural areas of “Middle America.”

The Schooner Creek vendors apparently identified with Identity Europa. One of them participates in chat rooms where she engages in the kind of ritual complaining about how “hard” it is for “white people” that is voiced every day by Tucker Carlson on Fox News to an audience of tens of millions. The ideas are vile. They are also pervasive. And they are not going to be “defeated,” in any sense, by trying to exclude a couple from a market or by dressing up Black Bloc garb and obstructing the movement of passers-by.

In 2016, 56.4% of Indiana voters — over 1.5 million people — voted for Donald Trump.

In 2018, over a million people voted to elect a far-right ideologue, Mike Braun, to the U.S. Senate, in a campaign in which Joe Donnelly, the Democratic candidate, chose to run by mimicking much of Braun’s xenophobic rhetoric.

Trump won almost 60 million votes in 2016. He will surely win over 40 million in 2020, regardless of the outcome. Forty million. How many of these voters nod their heads in approval when Trump spouts his racism and xenophobia? How many speak some of the language of “white identity” either unprompted or when prompted? How many participate in chat rooms or Facebook threads in which they complain about how “hard” it is to be “white?”

In my earlier piece I cited a recent Atlantic essay by David Graham, “Trump’s White Identity Politics Appeals to Two Different Groups.” Graham’s piece centers on the empirical research of political scientist Ashley Jardina, and particularly her recently-published book White Identity Politics. This research was neatly summed up by Jardina in a 2017 Monkey Cage piece entitled “White Identity Politics isn’t Just About White Supremacy: It’s Much Bigger ”: “the whites marching on Charlottesville were only a small segment of a much larger population for whom the politics of white identity resonates. The vast majority of white Americans who feel threatened by the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazis.”

The point here is not that “white identity” is not dangerous. It is very dangerous, precisely because it is so widespread. Obviously, there are many interfaces between hardcore racist and neo-Nazi groups such as the KKK, and Daily Stormer; vaguely “white supremacist” groups such as the Proud Boys; affiliates of White Identarianism; and the many millions of people who cheer Trump’s racist speeches. All of this is racist and dangerous. But the dangers are not all the same.

Such distinctions have been missing from much “antifascist” rhetoric here in Bloomington.

If the city of Bloomington could exclude from public space all people who value “white” identity and consider it “threatened,” how many tens of thousands of people in the immediate vicinity would be required to move, or at least to close their businesses, or give up their jobs?

Let’s take this thought experiment a bit further. The most significant danger posed by the racist groups listed above is that they are armed and violent. The group most responsible for this state of affairs is not a self-defined “racist” group at all; it is the National Rifle Association. How many people belong to the NRA in Indiana? Surely more than belong to the ACLU or DSA. The NRA claims at least 5 million members nationwide. That is a potent mass movement of sorts.

Is it possible to ban all members of the NRA from the Farmers’ Market? Of course not. We can’t even ban their right to carry arms in the Market — because the NRA has a great deal of power in the state.

In this situation, what is accomplished by centering a campaign on the removal of one vendor even if it means the disruption and destruction of an entire community market? What is accomplished when Black Bloc seek to intimidate; when the liberal mayor who refuses to remove the vendor is denounced as a supporter of “racism,” and his police department is denounced as a “Gestapo,” and, by implication, all of those local citizens who continue to visit the market are figured as “racists” or at least as “complicit in racism” (for, as one Facebook friend informed me, according to Ibram X. Kendi, there are only two essential possibilities, “racism” and “antiracism”, and since I am not an “antiracist” of the approved type, I am therefore a “racist”)?

What is accomplished? Nothing good.

It might seem otherwise. But appearances can be deceiving:

This sign was held at the Market this Saturday, with no sense of irony.

The antifascist “comrades,” who lined both sides of the Market entrance claim to be “building a more inclusive Bloomington.” And so they denounce the elected liberal government, and everyone not them, as “racist” or “fascist,” and seek to economically disrupt and weaken a community market that has been in existence for decades.

What kind of inclusion is this?

We are now in the domain of the absurd. It is truly sad that Trump and his minions have so poisoned our politics that some well-meaning people choose to channel their legitimate indignation into the playing of such theatrical roles. Because their play-acting scares people and sows unnecessary division and disrupts a very civil local farmer market where small producers and ordinary citizens mingle and buy and sell and children play and musicians busk.

But the real problem goes beyond the situation in Bloomington, and is more broadly political: the failure to seriously reckon with the pervasiveness of racist forms of “white identity” that have become more or less “ordinary,” that do not eventuate in mass shootings or beatings or scary marches, and cannot be reasonably considered criminal or even violent in a legal sense, but which are dangerous, in civil society but especially in politics.

Readers of my columns know that I do not favor a strategy of appealing to the right, and I do not favor a politics of “dialogue” with far-right groups or their supporters.

But I think it is crazy, especially in a state like Indiana, to deliberately alienate and antagonize anyone who is not an “antiracist” or “antifascist” as this is defined by a small group of sectarian activists. For this kind of so-called “politics” is simply inflammatory, and inflationary, reaching not simply to white supremacist groups but to those who hold “white identity” ideas or even just identify as “white,” and to everyone — whether they be longtime activists in the ACLU or NARAL or NAACP or the AFL-CIO or the Democratic party — who does not subscribe to the “antiracist” party line.

I have often disagreed with Noam Chomsky on important issues. But he had it right in a 2017 interview in the Washington Examiner:

As for Antifa, it’s a minuscule fringe of the Left, just as its predecessors were. It’s a major gift to the right, including the militant right, who are exuberant. . . What they do is often wrong in principle — like blocking talks – and [the movement] is generally self-destructive. . . When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win — and we know who that is. That’s quite apart from the opportunity costs — the loss of the opportunity for education, organising, and serious and constructive activism.

Chris Hedges, too, has criticized Antifa, for the ways it flirts with violence, and obstructs more substantial forms of broad-based political organizing. Aviva Chomsky’s “How (Not) to Challenge Racist Violence” says it best:

Over the years I have come to see more and more of what Adolph Reed calls “posing as politics.” Rather than organizing for change, individuals seek to enact a statement about their own righteousness. They may boycott certain products, refuse to eat certain foods, or they may show up to marches or rallies whose only purpose is to demonstrate the moral superiority of the participants. White people may loudly claim that they recognize their privilege or declare themselves allies of people of color or other marginalized groups. People may declare their communities “no place for hate.” Or they may show up at counter-marches to “stand up” to white nationalists or neo-Nazis. All of these types of “activism” emphasize self-improvement or self-expression rather than seeking concrete change in society or policy. They are deeply, and deliberately, apolitical in the sense that they do not seek to address issues of power, resources, decision-making, or how to bring about change.

To observe this is not to imply that it is not important to respond to racist violence. It is important — to respond to it intelligently, and with a sense of responsibility for intended and unintended political consequences.

It is also not to imply there is any neat consensus about “issues of power, resources, decision-making, or how to bring about change.” There is no such consensus, even on the very broad left. And this is why political debate and dialogue are so important.

But while the message of “No Space for Hate” is admirable, many of the means being employed to promote this message are self-righteous, implying that everyone who is not with these particular means are somehow on the side of “hate,” and that only those on the “right side” of the metaphorical “barricade” are concerned with justice. This approach is needlessly polarizing, in the wrong places, and it is thus politically counterproductive. But it is also dangerous in its own way. For those who fight injustice with a spirit of zealotry can all too easily themselves become the oppressors of tomorrow. Albert Camus, who experienced fascism and worked in the French Resistance put it best in The Rebel: “Virtue cannot separate itself from reality without becoming a principle of evil. . . that is why humanitarian cant has no more basis than cynical provocation . . . Rebellion, on the contrary, sets us on the path of calculated culpability.” Calculated culpability: an awareness of the limits of even the best engagements, and of the dangers associated with believing that your group — your Class, or Nation, or Party, or “antiracist coalition” — alone has right on its side.

In Bloomington, and in the U.S., we will need real coalition-building to successfully fight against injustice and to promote a more democratic politics.

It is important to know that there are people with racist “white identity” views among us; that they share ideas online, associate with one another, and support far-right political causes; and that some of them have connections to bona fide hate groups. (Yet anyone with eyes wide open who has lived in Southern Indiana, read the letters to the editor of the local paper, seen the Confederate decals on pickup trucks, or ventured into a local bar, has long known this.) It is also important to know that in the surrounding counties there are so-called “patriot” and neo-Nazi groups that actively promote racism and whose members sometimes practice intimidation and violence.

And it is important to take the proper measure of these things and to act vigorously against them. Through real public educational campaigns; efforts to change bad laws, especially bad gun laws, and to support good laws, that promote civil and voting rights enforcement; efforts to improve relationships between police departments and citizen groups so that vulnerable communities are made to feel safe; and through the defeat of Trump and his Republican party.

It is my hope that the current melodrama being played out in Bloomington will give way to better dialogue between local groups that share many common commitments to equality, so that the hard political work of achieving greater justice can proceed.

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Previous post

Turkey’s Authoritarianism and Crisis Management

Next post

A Letter from Hillsborough