Antifa: Fascist Violence and Violence Against Fascism

They’ve got all the weapons; they’ve got all the money…It‘s all there.

~  John Lennon[1]

Political elections can have powerful cultural effects when infused with growing fear, deep anger, resentment of economic and social injustice, and racism. Diverse forms of social instability follow the displacement and ruined hopes for more and more people. The economic and political actions of the neoliberal economic elite have forced an intensified polarization of society along lines of race and class. Resentment, fear, and anger creep further into the political process, encouraged by narcissistic demagogic scapegoating.

Klansmen w.flag_Photo Credit.Martin_Flickr

KKK ~ Photo Credit: Martin / Flickr

As traditional forms of social control weaken under such conditions of political upheaval, social change, and stress, the exercise of power tends toward the violent. Violence can be cultural, psychological, physical, or any combination. The unfortunate surge of activity by racist “white nationalists,” neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups in the wake of the U.S. 2016 presidential elections exemplify this process. Violence is both contagious and addictive.

Neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and related white-nationalist elements had been constrained by a national culture that since the civil rights movement in the 1960s had explicitly rejected racism. Those constraints were already weakening when Donald Trump’s vitriolic campaign for the presidency attacked “political correctness” and continued his “birtherism” claims. Victims of racism, sexism, and xenophobia became that much more vulnerable.

Trump a the perennial candidate for public attention, continued after the election, giving bigotry implicit political permission to go public. The rise of extreme nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe accompanied social instabilities amplified by the flood of refugees from death and destruction in the Middle East, where European military units operate alongside U.S. forces.  Blaming the victim prevailed there as well as in the U.S. as the “sorrows of empire” spread throughout the industrialized world.

The Rise of Antifa

A small faction among the many protesters against the rising racist neo-fascist demonstrations under the Trump presidency, called “antifa,” meaning anti-fascism, rapidly gained attention. It reflected the growing political instability in the U.S., as well as a revulsion against authoritarian groups threatening a new rise in racist violence. Antifa members proclaim their dedication to destroying fascism “by any means necessary” for their “collective self-defense.” [2] They have fiercely defended those protesting the neo-Nazis in Charlotte and beyond. Cornel West reported that antifa members protected him and other non-violent protesters from violent neo-Nazi attackers there.

antifa_demonstrating

Antifa in Charlotte

Yet, in numerous historical movements for change, avoiding street violence has contributed to positive change far more frequently than “rioting in the streets.”

So-called militia and other extreme right-wing groups had strengthened during the Black Presidency. Trump had fed their growth by championing the racist “birther” denial of Obama’s citizenship and presidency The new surge of white nationalism once Trump took office was encouraged by Trump’s not so subtle embrace of racism and xenophobia. His refusal to condemn the violent racists of the neo-Nazis in Charlotte added fuel to the fascist fire.

Republicans and Democrats alike condemned Trump’s presidential pardon of the infamous racist xenophobe, Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, shortly thereafter. A federal court had convicted Arpaio of contempt of court for having defied court orders to stop racially profiling Latinos. Trump actively enabled racism and fascism repeatedly in his first months in office while attempting to suppress federal investigations of his secret financial-political connections to the Russians. The President’s behavior only amplified the growing instability and loss of social control in the U.S.

Illusions of Violence in the Corporate State

State violence can enforce some degree of social control under any political regime, for a while. However, as demonstrated in countless cases from Chile and Argentina to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others, any social order enforced by violence is inherently unstable. Dictators, occupiers, and would-be autocrats who incite extremist violence in a population often lose the very control they sought.

True social control emanates from cultural values and social relations that respect both individuals and groups. The rise of movements, such as “antifa,” within protests against neo-Nazis and the “black block” among peaceful protests like Occupy Wall Street, reflect how unstable the politics of social control became in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Antifa’s goal as a group, is to oppose fascism (racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.), “by any means necessary.” However, its model of change has one weak link – the illusion of the effectiveness of violence. The history of non-violent movements demonstrates its own efficacy and the self-indulgence and futility of street violence. It is important — strategically as well as morally — to align means with ends. Democracy cannot be ‘enforced’ by violence.

There is strength in numbers, but the violence of the state can crush large crowds if given an excuse. The ‘Black Block’ pseudo-anarchists did the Occupy Wall Street movement no good at all, harming it instead. Violence, even against mere property, becomes a two edged moral sword, no matter how high minded the goal. Those concerned with the rise of racist white nationalism and the like must organize community and cultural resistance, not physical confrontation (other than in pure self-defense).

Remember, the rise of neo-fascism in the U.S. and Europe today is a direct result of the degradation of democracy and the decline of economic and social justice. These take diverse forms, often expressed in domestic and foreign terrorism. The re-establishment of genuine social control in any society must find its strength in the cultural values of compassion and peace in its communities, not the extremist hate fomented by power elites struggling to maintain their control. Violence is both addictive and contagious.

In seeking peace and stability, look to overcome the sources (the 1% of the 1%) of extreme inequity, social, economic, and climate injustice, not to confronting the particular class of victims who express their misguided rage in evil ways. We can socially sequester the haters; but the system must be transformed if society is to regain control of its destiny, a vastly more difficult task.

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[1] In an interview by a 14 year old boy, filmed shortly before John Lennon was assassinated.

[2] Mark Bray, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2017) offers both a history of anti-fascist movements and an ideological argument for the rise of contemporary anti-fascist groups that confront neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the streets, in acts “of collective self-defense.” Antifa willingness to use “any means necessary” crosses the line from non-violent protest to street fighting. That is certainly problematic, though Cornel West reported that antifa actions in Charlotte had protected him and other peaceful protestors from violent attacks by neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part I

Almost everyone would agree that the world is a dangerous place these days. Technically, the U.S. has never fought a war on its own soil. Nevertheless, expanding the West and the capture of parts of Mexico were executed on the lands of others, as was the original establishment of the thirteen colonies of New England, all of which were then converted to “our soil.” We frequently observe outbreaks of violence and overthrow of governments elsewhere around the world. The U.S. often intervenes in those far away places, but always claims to be “spreading democracy” and protecting U.S. “interests,” or, more commonly these days, fighting a “war on terrorism.”

Our government projects the image of a worldwide policeman, “keeping the peace,” while secretly practicing torture and conducting presidentially sanctioned extrajudicial remote assassinations via drones. If it were not for occasional whistle blowers, we would never know. No nation has ever invaded the U.S., but we have invaded many. Yet, despite denials, our nation seems to increasingly engage in violence around the world and revere aggression as a matter of national and personal pride. Violence has been deeply rooted in the American culture since its beginning and continues to be reflected in everyday life as well as the mass media and its images of vanquishing “the bad guys.”

Domestically, there has never been such a surge of mistrust between the people and the institutions of law enforcement and justice as exists today. That mistrust has grown in parallel with the militarization of police forces and the legal favoritism toward the most powerful interests in the nation.. “Law enforcement” has become increasingly isolated from the people, as it moves ever closer to becoming the armed force of the power elite.

Our perception of violence has changed. Who now goes hitch hiking on the highways of American without fear? Indeed, who would pick up a hitch-hiker without fear? The mood of the country has changed since the 1950s. Crime rates have declined in recent years, but with no less fear of violence. What gives? Well, we know that a lot more guns are out there and we are acutely aware of the growing number of mass shootings at public locations such as schools and shopping malls. And, there are those rare but shocking shootings of police during ostensibly routine traffic stops. Despite lower crime rates, it is not unreasonable for police officers to fear the unexpected. So, we want them to be prepared for unforeseen danger. The old story of everyday police experience still holds – long periods of boredom occasionally but rarely punctuated by the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death crisis. Nevertheless, these days something is different.

During the Great Depression, the infamous bandits, Bonnie and Clyde, were the epitome of criminality but they were also cultural icons of rebellion in the eyes of the public just as the chaos of the times was surging and a sense of national instability had grown widespread. But Bonnie and Clyde’s status as criminal superstars arose from the creation of legend by the newspapers as much as from their actual exploits. They provided an entertaining distraction from the uncertainties of everyday life and the hardship of the times. But they were the exception. Fear of violence in the general population was not as widespread as fear of hunger, and fear of the general population was not prevalent among police, who were still considered, for the most part, “peace officers.”

Today we have fear of the growing instability of both economy and climate, in addition to the international political instabilities exacerbated by the “war on terror,” and all their ramifications for everyday life. We also fear the growing failures of political institutions to address the crises of economy, climate and domestic politics, as well as a vague but growing fear of violence. These fears extend even beyond the level of technical knowledge of economics, climate science, or crime – they pervade the public consciousness and the media whether fully understood or not. Vehement denial of societal problems stems from ignorant fear as well as from acceptance of propaganda.

All of this frames the growing concern about police violence, which parallels the constant stream of news of questionable killings of mostly men of color, but not always. The most recent shooting death of a mentally unstable homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque Police on the outskirts of the city, coalesced those concerns because it was so clearly seen as unjustified when the video recorded by the police themselves went viral. The department was already under investigation by the Department of Justice for its excessive number of police shootings and deaths in recent years for a department of its size. This tragic case provides a window of opportunity to examine changes in the role of police in our cities and how those changes may affect the future of violence in America. Part II of this essay will examine the illusions and facts of police action and training in this disturbing context.

The Death of Andy Lopez and so Much More

When I arrived in Santa Rosa, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking about the news reports I’d read about the police killing of the thirteen year old with the toy replica of an assault rifle in that town of 160,000 a few weeks before. It had been an uneventful trip and now we were driving around the area on a balmy December day.

We stopped at the Bohemian Market in Occidental, a small nearby town in Sonoma County. There I spotted a Sonoma County Gazette, “written by readers.”  Wherever I visit, I grab a copy of the local free paper to check out the culture and economy. Lots of ads for local stores, civic announcements, festivals of all sorts, and the occasional news story in such papers give a pretty good sense of life in the area.

In the December issue of the Sonoma County Gazette, I found no less than three articles and several letters to the editor, expressing views on the police shooting of Andy Lopez — some in response to a set of articles on the event in the November issue. Some actions had already been taken in response to citizens’ concern with probable over-reaction on the officer’s part on seeing a thirteen year old with a toy gun.  One proposal was for a stonger policy on police use of deadly force.

One writer argued that the City of Santa Rosa had a use of deadly force policy that unreasonably favored the officer.  When I read the part of the policy that was quoted, it reminded me of the “stand your ground” laws recently promoted by the infamous Koch brothers and their political action  arm, ALEC, and enacted into law in about 26 states.  As is well known now, these laws have the effect of excusing the use of the deadly force of a firearm when a person ‘feels potentially threatened’ by another in a public setting.

Neither citizen nor police officer should be allowed to kill anyone on the chance that they may be “dangerous.”  A steady stream of news stories about unarmed citizens shot by uniformed officers suggests a serious defect in the credibility of law enforcement in the nation as genuine keepers of the peace.  Among the articles and letters in the Gazette, blame was found in every party, from toy manufacturer to parent, child, officers, and department policies.  Yet something remained missing.

Guns are dangerous.  Guns in the hands of some persons are far more dangerous than guns in the hands of others.  The American culture of violence further muddies the waters when guns are involved in an issue.  We confuse “training” with wisdom.  When police academy cadets are self-selected by their propensity for violence, training will not fix the problem.  Most law enforcement institutions today still do not seriously screen applicants for appropriate psychological character.  One of my university students several years ago reported that most of the cadets he knew from high school were the guys who liked to beat people up.  These are the folks who are now Los Angeles Count Sheriffs — that’s the outfit the FBI investigated over this past year documenting massive violence against inmates and visitors to the LA County Jail, before indictments were handed down by federal prosecutors; some of those charged were high ranking, suggesting the very endemic culture of violence for which the LA County Sheriffs are so famous in minority and youth communities.

Stronger use of deadly force policies, more rigorous training, civilian review boards, and full transparency in police shooting investigations are all important.  But they are not enough if you want a compassionate thoroughly disciplined police force dedicated to the safety of all people.  Unfortunately, one commentator in the Gazette is right: combat veterans are trained to kill and to dehumanize those they see as the enemy — that is their experience, their outlook, and what they do.  Their high suicide rate  results from the irreconcilability between their life actions and the human values they once held.  They should have no place in any civilian police force.  A serious psychological screening would eliminate almost all of those who have killed professionally.

I learned to shoot guns as a boy — younger than Andy Lopez when he  was  killed — but that was decades ago when the NRA was all about safety and therefore self-discipline, not about promoting the economic interests of weapons manufacturers by pushing the sale of every kind of gun to everyone.  Twenty years later I learned, through the practice of Aikido, that centered calm compassion and clarity of purpose can diffuse many situations that might otherwise explode in violence.  That is not typical of police culture.  One important way for American culture to get over its obsession with violence and with guns is to establish genuinely compassionate and highly disciplined civilian police forces.  Unfortunately, the militarization of police in America — largely through the economy of the drug war — is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.