It has recently come to light that over 31,000 police officers were on duty in Hamburg during last summer’s G20 summit. Of all the footage taken that week, one photograph truly captures the spirit and quality of policing during the G20. What is it about this picture that fascinates us? In this essay, our arts desk editor analyzes the image, illuminating what makes it so strangely compelling.
The eye begins with the circle of the bicycle wheel. A circle is not a spiral. In the wheel, all spokes exist in perfect tension, extending toward a perimeter that can only go around and around. Circles fascinate us because they are perfect in exactly the way life is not: they are static, endless, utterly smooth. A circle is a closed system. A spiral is a system of dynamic movement. The Fibonacci spiral depicts the mathematical ratios that the growth of cells, the dispersion of sunflower seeds, and the eddies of water in tide pools all have in common. These ratios order the branching of trees, the fruitlets of a pineapple, the flowering of artichoke, an uncurling fern, the family tree of honeybees. They are the first words of the story of all life on Earth. When we lay the Fibonacci spiral across this photograph, the visual rhythms that convey the narrative snap into place.
Above the static circles of the bicycle, our story begins: colorful graffiti, a metal fence supplementing a low stone wall. Above the wall, a procession of police officers tumbles as though blown by an invisible wind. The first to pass over the wall is hunched like a bear, pinned to the sky like a constellation. Even as he rises he is falling: his muscles are limp and he faces the earth as if held by an invisible hook. We can’t tell how much of this motion is voluntary—is he leaping or being pushed?
The officer behind him remains a mystery. Upright and mostly hidden, he occupies a different world. For convenience, we can call this the past.
Moving forward, the eye meets two more foot soldiers of the state. We’ve reached the top of the spiral, where a strong vertical line bisects these figures—one jumping with arm upraised, the other with fingertips reaching earthward. Like combatants in a Brueghel painting, these figures are fixed in awkward and chaotic gestures. We can almost imagine them as one person duplicated at different moments along this cartwheel, then splitting off toward two possible futures.
In the first of these, the jumping police officer lands on his feet and staggers off into the upper right of the frame—the quadrant with people and buildings and pleasant lawns. Here, the birds sing and life is still ordinary. The posture of this staggering figure is familiar to us from zombie films. He lurches toward the bucolic scene. This is a horror movie: the thing that does not feel pain, that will never stop pursuing its quarry. This reading is borne out by the figure of the last officer we see on this trajectory: his foot hovers over a person curled into a fetal position on the ground. This last officer has escaped the pull of the spiral and has broken into a run. In this future, the monsters win.
To see the other possible future, we return to the climax of the spiral, where fate splits along the vertical line. This time, we begin with the falling cop, the one stretching out his arms as though he might dive into the earth, as if seeking forgiveness or escape. There are two ways we can move from here: we can follow the long arc of the spiral—through the running officer and down back to the ground—or plummet straight down. Either way, we arrive at the tangle of fallen police near the bottom of the image, at the center of the spiral.
Here, an officer lies face down with his hands trapped beneath him, one leg splayed upward in abandon. Another rests his helmeted head tenderly on the first one’s ankle as if curling up to sleep. The spiral tightens, reaching its apotheosis in the crook of the other officer’s elbow. We can imagine this elbow as the place a weapon might be cradled, or the frail neck of an arrestee. But here, this hollow is empty. The posture of the prostrate officer mimics the vulnerability of every person ever held to the ground by the police.
We cannot see the force that fixes the officers in place, but we can try to name it. The spiral gives us the clues we need, representing the dynamic growth of all life, order without domination, the possibility of any future.
If Orwell warned of a future in which a boot stomps on a human face forever, this photograph offers a glimpse of an alternate future: a Fibonacci spiral of police falling and being pinned by their own inelegance, into eternity. In this light, we might imagine their leap over the fence as a joyous act of self-annihilation, born of a desperate desire to render themselves harmless. Like Antaeus in reverse, these officers lose their strength in the earth’s embrace, and that is their salvation.
Forty-four years ago today, on September 11, 1973, a military dictatorship seized power in Chile via a CIA-sponsored coup. They murdered thousands of people without trial, tortured tens of thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands into exile in a series of atrocities that some Trump supporters openly fantasize about carrying out in the US. Today, the legacy of the dictatorship persists in the laws it passed and the cutthroat neoliberal policies it introduced, but also in the repressive policing apparatus that serves democracy the same way it served a dictator. And something else persists: a powerful resistance movement. In the latest installment of our series on student organizing, we interviewed an anarchist participant in the Chilean student movement, in hopes of offering a little perspective on what student struggles look like outside the US.
Answers courtesy of Samuel Cactus
Please trace the origins of anarchist participation in the contemporary student movement in Chile.
Anarchism boomed in Chile during the first two decades of the 20th century. In large part, the workers’ movement spread this ideological current through strikes such as the longshoremen’s strike in 1903, the meatpackers’ strike in 1905, and the famous miners’ strike of 1907 in Iquique. Anarchism began to decline during the 1930s due to the rise of Marxism on one hand and the rise of fascism on the other, while parts of the Left became more and more institutionalized and integrated into the bourgeois electoral system. Over the following decades, anarchism diminished in the workers’ movement until, by the time of the dictatorship (1973-1990), it had become a minority position, more readily found in small circles of intellectuals.
In the 1990s, anarchism began its rebirth in Chile alongside the emerging punk scene and the participation of encapuchados (masked ones) in university protests and street demonstrations. By this time, anarchism was no longer anchored to the workers’ movement; it was being reborn as a part of the counterculture in the streets, squats, high schools, universities, and other informal spaces, among the generations that came of age during the dictatorship while listening to bands like La Polla Records, Los Miserables, Fiskales Ad-Hok, Ska-P, and the like.
There was also the influence of the latter generations of combatant youth during the 1980s. By that time, young people had learned a lot about street combat in the course of resisting the dictatorship, although ideologically this often did not extend beyond opposition to the police. The influence of the heterodox Marxist guerrilla organization MAPU-Lautaro, for example, and the decline of more traditional armed Marxist groups like the FPMR (Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, the guerrilla wing of the Communist Party) and the MIR (the Revolutionary Left Movement) created a situation in which armed struggle was no longer centralized in the hands of groups that aspired to seize state power. As centralized groups declined, minoritarian groups and positions appeared that organized horizontally and practiced a low level of defensive violence.
This set the stage for the new generation of encapuchados that had been born in the 1990s to advance a new position and new kinds of action in the massive explosion of protest in high schools in 2006.
The first protests against university tuition hikes under President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) had begun to pick up steam in 2004. In 2006, the so-called “Penguin Revolution” broke out. This was the first awakening of students on a massive scale since the protests that took place in the 1980s under the dictatorship. This time, it was a generation that hadn’t lived under the dictatorship, a generation that grew up under democracy yet realized that the ghost of Pinochet was still present—that we were living under the normative framework imposed by Pinochet’s military government and their civil technocrats. We still are today.
At that time, in 2006, the Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE) created under the dictatorship was still in place. It secured a precarious education for the poor and a luxury education for the rich, creating a brutal class divide that manifested itself in the scores on university selection exams. At the same time, Santiago was wracked by generalized discontent generated by the introduction of a new urban bus system (“transantiago”)—a total disaster that had grave consequences for those who had to commute through the modern and bourgeois parts of Santiago.
Throughout the whole process of student rebellion, the question of the legitimacy of violence as a means of political expression came to the fore. The different responses to that question capture all the different positions you could find in this ideologically heterogeneous movement. A new generation of anarchist and Marxist youth differentiated themselves in those debates, emerging in the student protests and the traditional annual demonstrations of May 1 and September 11.
Violence has always been controversial as a method of struggle, but the contradictions within the current student movement center around this question. To put this in historical context, we can contrast these contradictions to the debates of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In the 1970s, the chief conflict in both the workers’ and students’ movements was about the dichotomy of reform versus revolution—for example, the MIR invoking the need for armed struggle versus the democratic reformism of the Community Party (PC). In 21st century protests in Chile, by contrast, the groups that utilize violence don’t just confront the police—they oppose every structure that centralizes political, religious, economic, or social power. This is why demonstrators sometimes target banks, pharmacies, governmental buildings, churches, fast food chains, and the like.
This is the consequence of the transformation from the dictatorship to the current model of Chilean society. Demonstrators are no longer simply arguing over whether reform or revolution is the best way to abolish the dictatorship. The tension between those who utilize violence against state power and property and those who seek to express themselves through the established legal channels is much more complicated.
One of the reasons for this is that social protest in Chile in the 21st century is heterogeneous and diverse. Many political tendencies cannot even agree on what it is they are disagreeing about. You have reformist sectors like the Communist Party, Revolucion Democratica, older groups like the MIR, and the whole institutionalized Left involved in the game of bourgeois electoralism; then there are Trotskyists of all kinds—Guevarists, old school Marxist-Leninists, neo-Marxists; and finally, there are all kinds of anarchists, including insurrectionary anarchists, individualists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-punks, and nihilists. This makes contemporary social protest in Chile complex. Yet with respect to violence, certain polarities emerge. In the moments of confrontation, two positions arise concerning these acts: those who support encapuchado violence against the social order (be they Marxist, anarchist, or otherwise) and those who react against it. For the institutional sector of the student movement, for example, encapuchado violence (what would be referred to as “black bloc” in North America) is an obstacle because it does not focus on “public opinion” and erodes confidence in the powers that the reformist groups seek dialogue with.
In and of itself, the student movement is a social-democratic and reformist movement that doesn’t seek to abolish the state, social classes, property, the capitalist mode of production, or patriarchal domination. Based in bourgeois institutions, it presents violence as counterproductive because rather than rupture, the student movement as a whole seeks an accord with power.
On the other hand, anarchists (who make up a large part of the encapuchados) do not seek a dialogue with power. Anarchists seek direct confrontation; they aren’t petitioning for free education from the state. These differences explain why disputes between institutionally coopted organizations and insurrectionary anarchists often escalate into physical confrontations.
In 2011, when the demand for “free education” became widespread, protest marches drew unprecedented numbers. Consequently, encapuchado violence, police repression, reformist organizing, and all of the tensions between these phenomena reached a peak, as did the student movement itself. The result was recurring physical confrontations involving “pacifists,” reformist students, and militants from institutional left parties over the question of violence and their different goals and positions.
The events of 2011 were a sort of climax resulting from all the accumulating lessons people had been learning since the 1990s. The scale of school occupations and student strikes was something new, but anarchists were hardly the only ones involved. For the most part, the occupations and strikes were intended to press for reformist demands, rather than to take power or as a step towards generalized insurrection. Anarchists made the most of the situation to propagate our ideas, address the newly mobilized students, and carry out actions. No doubt, this was a period of time in which anarchism grew—both in terms of encapuchado paticipation as well as the number of collectives, squats, books published, workshops, dinners, discussions, benefit shows, prisoners, and so on.
Of course, there are plenty of students who are neither Marxist nor anarchist, who simply adhere to the cause of public, free education yet nonetheless don the mask in order to confront repression. In 2011, just as in 2006, the police repression was so intense that reformist students and students who were not ideologically aligned also confronted the police—not with the intention of taking the offensive, but rather from the position of believing in rights, that is to say, reacting against what they considered to be “illegitimate” violence towards a legal movement that shouldn’t be repressed because it was democratic.
On the other hand, certain Marxist tendencies like Guevarists, Leninists, and Trotskyists legitimize encapuchado violence, but only in the service of their agendas—only in certain contexts, only as long as it is “approved of by the masses,” only as long as it’s not “individual action,” only when it is framed within the class struggle. One can identify many anarchists, even within anarchist organizations, who have more individualist positions and who believe in war against society in general (social war), beyond the class struggle. Other anarchists, such as those aligned with libertarian communism or more collectivist currents, also understand encapuchado violence as an expression of class struggle, but without as many conditions as Marxists. They don’t have as many problems with individual action if it is situated in a context of collective protest.
The debate around violence has even produced violence between the student demonstrators. Many times in many marches, in the middle of the confrontations between encapuchados and the police, anarchists and encapuchados have had to face legalist, reactionary tendencies trying to stop them, which almost always ended in phsyical confrontations between these two kinds of demonstrators.
What are the different anarchist tactics and strategies for participating in student movements?
Anarchists are involved in the student movement, but without making demands of the state. They participate with the goals of radicalizing the student struggle, propagating anti-authoritarian ideas, and joining in street confrontations. Many anarchists try to politicize their social surroundings at their high schools and universities, above all the comrades more identified with Bakuninism and libertarian communism. The more nihilist, insurrectionary, and individualist tendencies focus more on participating in street violence in the context of mass marches.
Right now, confrontational tactics are used wholly in the service of institutional petitioning, to put pressure on the government. They have no revolutionary goal, because the student movement itself doesn’t have any revolutionary goals.
Regardless, they were important because within the school occupations there were relations of solidarity, activities to benefit the strikes, benefits for prisoners, political forums and discussions, and the like. Lots of kids whose politics didn’t go beyond “free education” or “an end to education for profit” became radicalized by taking part in those activities. Furthermore, although the school occupations and strikes were directed towards a reformist goal, they were expressions of rebellion that defied the authorities and exceeded traditional forms of protest.
This was pretty interesting, especially in 2011. The occupations of universities and high schools served as spaces for libertarian book fairs, punk shows, and discussions; for the months that they existed, they were liberated spaces, where solidarities and horizontal relationships developed outside the dictates of capitalism and convenience. There were potlucks, collective mural-painting projects, books, fanzines, communiqués. There were also instances of resistance and confrontation when the police finally evicted the occupations.
How does the cost of education affect students in Chile? Does it shape who can go to school? Does it shape the politics and priorities of students? Is there anything that anarchist organizing can do about this?
In Chile, education is the driving force that reproduces and perpetuates class inequality and the domination of one class over the others. Beyond the economic aspect, there’s also the way that education serves as a form of domestication—being made to memorize things rather than think for oneself. There’s more math than anything else, with little time for history, and the history that they do teach you is a linear history comprised of events and dates that don’t require any actual thinking or questioning. All classes are indoctrinated to place blind faith in capitalism and authority.
What can anarchists do about this? Not much. The truth is that the demand for free education from the state is an institutional struggle of reformists, even though some more radicalized sectors take on this demand because they see it as a preliminary step toward a generalized struggle against capitalism. However, anarchists focus more on generating spaces of conflict and radicalization. The objective is revolt, not reform.
Talk about the cultural element of student resistance.
This can include murals, book and propaganda fairs, literature distribution (feria), art shows, and workshops. All of this takes place often, but it reached a high point in 2011. For example, there were workshops about subjects indirectly connected to the student movement—such as the laws that endure from Pinochet’s dictatorship, the logic of market-based education, and the solutions that the movement proposed, like establishing new educational laws that would eliminate the privatization of education.
Anarchists hosted workshops that went beyond demanding access to bourgeois jobs and a more “just” education. They proposed a libertarian notion of education outside the relations of authority and domination. The dynamics in these spaces were different than the dynamics inside squatted social centers, for example. The occupations of universities and high schools are almost universally anti-capitalist but diverse in terms of particular ideologies.
Anarchists were always a minority, both in the occupations and in the streets. Yet the marches were so massive—involving 300,000 people by August 2011—that although they were a minority, there were still A LOT of encapuchados. In terms of quantitative damage, they were genuinely a thorn in the side of the authorities, and the police were often overwhelmed.
Do you want to close with any stories from student struggles in Chile?
The first mass march of 2011 took place as a protest against hydroelectric dams in the south, in Patagonia, a project of the corporation HidroAysen. The government approved the controversial project; in response, there was an enormous, spontaneously organized march in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda. It ended in a big riot.
The pacifist and conciliatory sectors tried in vain to restrain the encapuchados. They ended up just leaving the march. By about 10 pm, almost all the reactionaries had left and only insurrectionary people remained on the streets. Looking down Alameda, the main boulevard through downtown Santiago, one could see various banks in ruins and hear the sounds of glass breaking from the storefronts of companies and institutions. A McDonalds was left in flames. It was beautiful.
The “encapuchado bike rides” (think: “black bloc bike rides”) were also beautiful. I believe three occurred between 2011 and 2013. They were promoted through social networks and by word of mouth. The police didn’t dare try to enter the bloc. The first two of those bike rides drew lots of people—I would venture a guess at 500 or 600 people in bloc, on bikes, destroying political and commercial advertisements and confronting luxury cars. The bloc started at Plaza Italia and, instead of heading downtown towards the presidential palace like every other march does, took off the other direction, towards Providencia, the center of bourgeois high society in Santiago, and finally arrived at the enormous Costanera Center mall—the tallest skyscraper in Latin America, a symbol of capitalist wealth. In the first two bike rides, they managed to enter the mall with their bicycles, chanting “Death to the state! Viva la anarquía!” and writing graffiti on the walls and windows of luxury stores.
But above all, the days of August 2011 were unforgettable. First, there was the day of double protests (day and night) on August 4, then the two-day strike of the CUT (Workers’ United Center of Chile), supported by the students and by labor unions.
On August 4, it was just students taking action, but with an enormous attendance. Starting at 7 in the morning, barricades went up in various parts of Santiago. During the afternoon, people confronted the police throughout the center of the city. In the end, there was no march—the government didn’t authorize it. Yet it was a day of massive, generalized protest, with caseroleos (people banging pots and pans) from their patios or out of their windows. This was unusual, having the support from the majority of ordinary citizens. Even hippies who reject violence were throwing stones at the police in response to the context of indiscriminate repression and authoritarianism.
The days of August were some of the few protests during that period in which violence was regarded as a legitimate tactic by wide sectors of the student movement. On all the street corners downtown, enormous groups of encapuchados were waiting for police cars to pass in order to attack them. There were barricades everywhere, and millions of pesos were lost as a result of the destruction of property. Those were the most generalized instances of revolt I have seen in my lifetime.
Further Viewing and Listening on Social Movements in Chile
In the three weeks since anarchists helped shut down the largest fascist rally the US has seen in decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth between new public support for anti-fascist organizing and a dishonest, fearmongering reaction spearheaded by the extreme center that plays right into the hands of far-right elements in the police and FBI. Now, fascists are shifting towards a strategy of decentralized attacks while the Trump administration prepares a new racist offensive against nearly a million residents of the United States. It’s more pressing than ever to learn from our victories in order to strategize for the next round. We spoke with a participant in the front lines of the clashes in Charlottesville about why an under-equipped anti-fascist contingent was able to defeat a more numerous body of fascists, how to halt the creep towards authoritarianism, and what courage means in these struggles.
In Charlottesville, on Friday night, August 11, if the torchlit march had not encountered any protesters around the monument or elsewhere—if it had been able to proceed without meeting any opposition—what do you think the consequences would have been?
Well, it’s easy to be doctrinaire when you’re speculating. I mean, any time fascists do something provocative without opposition, it sets a new baseline for them. It’s like, “Oh, marching with torches and chanting ‘Blood and Soil’ is a pretty low-key thing to do, let’s always do that at our gatherings from now on. It’s fun and easy!” But I think it strengthens their movement even more when they encounter opposition that they can easily defeat, which is what actually happened on Friday. If that had been the only event in Charlottesville, or if the rest of the weekend had gone the same way, it would have been a gift to their movement.
I try to imagine the perspective of a fresh young recruit. He’s posturing and puffing himself up, but he’s nervous too. He feels awkward putting on that white polo shirt, he feels nervous carrying a torch at first. But then he sees everyone around him doing the same thing, his voice is amplified by a hundred voices saying the same words as him, and that nervousness turns into elation. So right there, his body learns an important lesson: “When I feel scared, these are the people who make me safe. When I feel weak, these are the people who make me strong.” This is like church, you know. That whole process happens even if not a single counter-protestor shows up. He already knows that most of the world is against him.
If there’s tangible, physical opposition, the nervousness is going to be more intense, but so is that gut-level lesson learned from a victory. So when we confront these things, we should recognize that we’re raising the stakes. I think groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) fixate on that side of things when they try to discourage people from counter-protesting. I think their attitude is, we can’t do anything about these young men’s acculturation into hate groups, but we can deny them opportunities to really get hardened. Or maybe they think that acculturation happens in internet forums, not torch marches. I don’t know. I think anarchists sometimes understand this process better than sociologists, because we’ve been through something similar, in subcultural spaces or street marches or whatever.
Also—about what happened Friday night—we’re not static. Even when we take a loss that strengthens the movement we’re fighting against, it can strengthen us too. Friday night seriously shook people, but it probably made us more determined and smarter on Saturday. I almost want to say wiser. We knew exactly what kind of victory we needed to deny them, and we knew we would have to do it without the advantage of physical superiority. If no one had showed up to oppose them on Friday, maybe we would have made worse mistakes the next day, against a sharper adversary. There’s no way to know.
Why were anti-fascists not as prepared to respond on Friday night? Can you say anything about the motivations of those who still chose to confront the torchlit march?
The details of that march were announced much later, that’s the main thing. Also I think some kinds of counter-protestors are always going to stay away from a nighttime event like that, because it’s more likely to be crazy. Some people were prepared, but it was just different situations.
I do think Friday highlighted one weakness we have right now, which is that we don’t share much common culture around assessing our group capacity in the heat of the moment. I’ve seen this at other events too. Some of us are used to quietly running the numbers when we’re in a crowd and adjusting the approach accordingly., asking ourselves, you know, what are the odds we can successfully unarrest people if there are issues with the police? Or what are the odds we can physically prevent this group of white supremacists from reaching their destination? Other people, maybe people who aren’t drawing on the same kinds of street experience or think of their goals differently, seem to approach those questions morally rather than situationally. Like, we must not let them reach their destination, therefore we shall not let them reach their destination.
I’m not saying there’s a single correct way to look at it, but if we’re not having those conversations constructively outside of these crisis moments, it’s not good. Those conversations are part of building a strong movement culture.
On Saturday, it appeared that counter-demonstrators were outmatched by fascists in terms of muscle mass, equipment, numbers, and terrain. It was a terrifying situation. Yet anti-fascists did unexpectedly well in the confrontations. What do you attribute this to?
I think the antifascists had a deeper understanding of diversity of tactics. The presence of counter-protestors with a personal commitment to nonviolence was important, I think, and so were the diverse approaches of those who did use physical force, I mean as far as acting more offensively or defensively.
Unite the Right was all about image. They wanted three things: they wanted to look like victims of antifa/“SJW” aggression, to look like friends of the police, and to look like they were winning the physical battle in the streets. I think all those wires got crossed in Charlottesville because of the diversity of their opposition.
As a side note, we made a conscious decision not to do Saturday in black bloc. I think that helped in those specific circumstances.
So diversity of tactics was important. A lot of these alt-right people are scared of confrontation, even though they fantasize about power. You could tell that made it hard for them to psychologically switch gears; by the time they figured out how to deal with one kind of counter-protestor, the situation had changed and they had to go back to square one. They had to think too hard. They didn’t know if they were going to get punched or prayed at. And the whole time they’re getting pelted with paint balloons, and they just look silly.
Then you had macho types who reacted to that paralysis by going ham, charging in swinging by themselves. That was scary, because these were big dudes who understood violence, but it didn’t really serve their larger goals, and they lost fights because we would surround them and beat them back. It didn’t help those guys that their official rally was up a hill behind barricades.
Finally, there were the guys in full-on riot gear, plexiglass shields and clubs and face-shields, stuff like that. They had a hard time early in the day, marching into the park, because they couldn’t figure out what kind of confrontation they were in; they wanted to beat us up but they wanted it to look like our fault, and they came out worse on both counts. Later, they regrouped, and it seemed like they were ready to crack some skulls in a more paramilitary style: charge out of the park in formation and just trample whoever was in their way. I think that would have happened more if the rally had gone on longer, because they were starting to give up on the whole image thing. We should have had more tools to obscure their vision and keep them at a distance. But the cops dispersed the rally before it went there. I think we can take some credit for that.
This sounds weird, but I think anarchists might have better discipline than Nazis, at least in this kind of situation. Fascists had the advantage when things were really scripted, and a lot of them would have had the advantage in a one-on-one fight, but they were just clumsy when it came to navigating a complex situation. I guess what I’m talking about here is self-discipline. But it has this real communal aspect to it, because we actually care about each other and pay attention to each other, like not just our cliques and affinity groups, but also strangers. You can’t fake that. You can’t squeeze that out of an authoritarian ideology.
Some have reported that it was very important that there were guns on the anti-fascist side of the conflict, to discourage fascists from escalating past a certain degree of force. Others have expressed concern about whether guns can be a useful tool in struggles for liberation. Coming away from Charlottesville, what is your impression?
I don’t know if guns were an important deterrent as the day wore on. Maybe they were early on before things really started, when we were just milling around several blocks away. Realistically, if a Nazi had started shooting later in the rally no one would have had a clear shot before he emptied his clip, and once the gunfire started the crossfire would be hellish. So I guess it depends what kind of threat you think was deterred. Probably the deterrent effect was a factor in the open areas where more one-on-one fights happened—you might not pull a knife in the open if you think there’s a chance you’re being covered. But on that topic, the possibility of getting stabbed makes you pretty careful too. We were all thinking about Sacramento.
I can see an argument that the possibility of handguns mixed in the crowd would discourage the guys with shields and clubs from rushing in too aggressively. Maybe it put more pressure on them to stay in very tight formation, which limits how aggressive you can get with a club. I’m just speculating here—I still think the concern with image was a bigger factor for them. Anyway, that’s different from the militia-style, open carry rifles that some people had.
I guess I did see a neo-Confederate man in the front lines reach for his pistol and then change his mind when we yelled that he had a gun. He settled for an extendable baton instead. So that’s an example where knowing that you can be identified and targeted will convince you to keep your own weapon holstered. That deterred him from brandishing a gun, though. He really did have a self-defense mentality, even if it was a racist, delusional one; he was going to pull his gun to “deter” the mob he was facing. It would have been very different if his primary goal had been to kill people.
As soon as you start talking deterrence, you’re talking about an arms race. I think that’s a danger whether the weapons in question are guns, knives, or plexiglass shields. You lose the social character of the struggle and you lose the diversity of tactics. I don’t mind being around assault rifles, but I do mind the paramilitary mentality. We’re susceptible to that mentality when fear clouds our thinking.
If you get into an arms race with a bunch of scared people who have little or no experience of gun violence—I’m talking about antifascists as well as the alt fascists, we’re scared too—you’re creating an extremely volatile situation. All it takes is one jumpy person pulling a trigger.
Probably the only thing you can do is think very concretely about what you’re trying to deter. Reflect. What you’re doing has to be based in experience—yours or a mentor’s or something—and it has to be realistic about the big picture. Otherwise, you’ve just got a very risky security blanket.
Do you have any thoughts about what approaches we should expect fascists to take in the wake of Charlottesville?
It’s a dangerous time. They’ve already lost the battle to look like victims, so some of them will be happy to look like successful aggressors. That could certainly mean they go in the direction of clandestine attacks, but it could also mean they show up at these things looking like Roman legionnaires and they rush us first, hard. Our best defense is numbers, which maybe we have now. Obviously, there are tactical questions for us too.
On the other hand, some of them may try to move back toward a mass movement, and away from the fringe. They might stick to being the “pro-white bloc” at Trump rallies.
What do the events in Charlottesville mean for the strategy of Richard Spencer, who seeks to popularize a new “respectable” white supremacy?
He lost. His strategy lost. The President tried running interference for him, but it didn’t work. I mean, these suit-and-tie Nazis can’t change their character overnight, so they’ll keep trying the same rhetoric, but it’s going to be a dwindling audience.
On the other hand, that rhetoric does enable young alt-right recruits to remain in denial about what they’re signing up for. For the most part, they think they’re the Freikorps, but not the Final Solution. We should also remember, again, that clashes like the ones we’ve been seeing can harden these kids. So the ones who don’t drop out because of fear or shame are becoming a more dangerous kind of cadre. The respectability strategy is basically over, but the same individuals can now go about consolidating their gains.
Can anti-fascists take credit for the ouster of Stephen Bannon? Will his return to Breitbart and the grassroots far right embolden fascists and give them more momentum? Beyond the obvious strategy of “no platform for fascists,” what role should anti-fascist activity play in our struggle against the state, the chief implementer of totalitarian measures?
I don’t really care who takes credit for Steve Bannon’s career change, but I don’t really see it emboldening the far right. You know, the Democrats want to tell it like Charlottesville got Bannon kicked out, because that shifts the focus back to the Oval Office and out of the streets. It might have. I don’t know. I’m glad he’s out, but it’s not my focus. I’m not sure he cares whether he’s directing his movement from inside the institutions or from outside.
What I anticipate is that he’ll try to create a home for all the young people who don’t want to go to Nazi rallies anymore, he’ll push this “alt-left” nonsense, basically he’ll try to do a better version of Richard Spencer’s strategy. That means no Nazis, no Klansmen, just nice Midwestern church people who wouldn’t mind seeing the police gun us down. I’m not sure the momentum is with him now, but we’ll see.
As for the state. We’re still in the midst of an authoritarian backlash in the broader culture, alongside the white backlash. Trump draws on it, but so do his opponents. If you’re trying to get a popular mandate for authoritarian governance, you present yourself as the only force able to contain irreconcilable, violent conflicts within society. That’s what Trump was doing when he talked about the “many sides” of violence in Charlottesville, and I’m sure that’s what his centrist opposition will do when they try to replace him.
Anti-authoritarian can respond to that one of two ways. You can double down on the irreconcilable social conflicts, and say it’s our job to bring them out into the open and fight consciously from the side of the exploited—you know, refuse an oppressive social peace. Or you can dispute the state’s claim that it can resolve people’s conflicts better than we can resolve them on our own. Who does it serve when we perceive our conflicts as irreconcilable, and why do we have to listen to those voices?
Right now, people like Bannon are pushing a vision of a society threatened by deep, irreconcilable conflicts, but they’re not the conflicts a leftist would talk about. They’re citizen vs. alien, West vs. Islam, and so on. We can push for a different way of seeing the structural divisions in our society, and put our bodies on the line for those beliefs, but if that’s all we do we’re giving a lot of ground to authoritarians who want to be the neutral party. I’m talking about mom-n-pop authoritarians, not just the deep state. So I think we have to bring the idealist side of anarchism with us too: don’t just challenge the analysis of our society’s real conflicts, but challenge the state’s claim to protect us from each other. Challenge the belief that we have always needed protection from each other, and always will.
In Europe, one of the anarchist critiques of antifascism has been that it obscures the necessity of struggle against the state, capitalism, and other forms of domination. Do you see this as a risk in the US? Why or why not?
Like, we imagine that as soon as the last Nazi is dealt with, capitalism and the state will come crumbling down of their own accord, and trans women won’t have to worry about getting murdered for their gender? I don’t see that risk. If you just mean that antifascism can tie down anarchists and keep them from prioritizing the work they really believe in—well, of course it can. It’s a defensive struggle. Defense only works if you’re poised to counterattack, and our best counterattack will always be social movements for liberation.
What I do see is that our experiences of struggle deeply shape our imaginations. That’s true whether your experience is rioting, or community organizing, or fighting Nazis, or just daily survival in a world that wants to erase you. You start to imagine the whole revolution as just whatever struggle you’re used to, but on a larger scale. In addition, you may be limited by your learned instincts and the culture you build up around them.
That may be a problem for the generation that’s been radicalized in the Trump era. There’s the potential for a kind of creeping authoritarianism on the left—the revolutionary left I mean. You know, that whole mythology of the militant. It can obscure the necessity of struggle against—not the state of today, but the state of tomorrow.
But you know, we have a choice about that. We don’t have to be determined by our experiences, even if we’re shaped by them. We can have a more expansive vision of struggle. We can choose what we’re struggling for.
Clearly, it takes a lot of courage to physically confront armed fascists. What does courage mean for antifascists? What kind of courage should we be trying to cultivate? What are the risks of focusing on courage as a value?
Courage is being willing to die for the sake of victory. That’s a straightforward definition. And that is exactly what happened in Charlottesville. One of us died, and we had a victory. That might sound inspiring to some people, but to me it’s fucking nauseating, it makes me want to cry. I mean, I didn’t know Heather, I don’t know if she was preparing herself for the possibility of death. She’s not around to tell us if she wants to be a hero. I do know that some of us entered that weekend consciously accepting that we might die, or that our comrades and loved ones might die. When you take on that kind of mindset, it leaves some scars. I just can’t think about this question in an abstract way.
Some people talk about courage like it’s just a matter of inner righteousness or integrity or something. I disagree with that idea. You can be a person of great integrity, ready to go through the fire for your beliefs, but when it comes time to use the weapons at your disposal you’re too hesitant to make a contribution. Our understanding of courage should capture that readiness to step forward and act without guarantees. That’s why I say it’s about victory.
This isn’t about violence versus nonviolence. Some of the most courageous people I saw in Charlottesville were not throwing punches; they were dressing wounds, or praying, or standing alone in front of a line of advancing riot cops. Those people were all using the weapons at their disposal.
I guess the risk is that courage alone can’t guide you. I mean, courageous soldiers can fight imperialist wars, but that doesn’t make them right. Honor and sacrifice can fuel a spiral of meaningless violence. Sometimes the things that make you hesitate when you shouldn’t are also the things that make you reassess your direction when really you should.
If you want to back way up and look at it, courage is a warrior value, and anarchism is a peace movement. I mean that in the very simple sense that it’s about people treating each other right without being forced to. That’s peace. Obviously, there’s fighting involved too. I’m just not convinced that the things that make us strong in the face of adversity are always the things that make us good to one another, or that being ready for war makes you ready for peace. Maybe that just comes back to making sure that your vision of victory is really worth dying for.
Your smart phone knows more about you than anything else you own. A person can learn more about you and do more damage to your life by gaining access to your phone than they could by breaking into your home. What if you are forced to unlock your phone and hand it over to someone? We’re proposing that there should be a way to hand it over unlocked but without access to any of your private information and without access to do damage to you.
“Cop Mode” in iOS 11 is a brilliant feature — tap your home button five times and your phone disables Touch ID and requires your passcode to unlock. But as John Gruber and Jason Snell1 pointed out on The Talk Show, even if you have Touch ID turned off and you can’t be legally coerced to enter your passcode,2 you can be physically coerced. With enough torture, anyone will say or do literally anything to make it stop—see CIA black sites, Abu Ghraib prison, and Guantánamo Bay for proof.
There are many situations in which a person cannot be reasonably expected not to give up their passcode: a person entering a country who cannot risk getting turned away3 and a person being physically coerced,4 to name two.
In those situations, it would be useful if the owner of a phone could give an answer to the person demanding it of them without compromising their own privacy. Let’s call it Guest Mode.
How Would It Work?
Let’s say your normal passcode is 1234.5 This feature would let you create a secondary passcode, say 9876. When that secondary passcode is entered on your lock screen, your phone would behave as though you had entered the correct passcode, but it would launch into Guest Mode.
Guest Mode would make your phone appear as if it were a brand new phone in the factory default settings—kind of like private browsing / incognito mode, but for your entire phone. No third party apps. No web browsing history. No text messaging history. No cloud services signed into (iCloud, Google, etc). No photos or videos in your camera or photos apps. No saved notes. No payments in the App Store or for in-app purchases.
Guest Mode could do even more to protect you and your privacy:
Hide incoming network activity—your phone’s captor would not receive phone calls or text messages to your phone number.
Receive and log incoming network activity to your hidden primary mode—your text messages would be waiting for you when you could use your primary passcode again.
Our phones are not only windows into our lives, they’re windows into the lives of our friends, family, coworkers… into the lives of any of our contacts. You may think that you have nothing to hide, but you can’t say that for everyone that your phone can access. Protecting your phone’s data is also about protecting your loved ones.
Guest Mode for …Guests
On top of all of the reasons for privacy and security, there’s also the option of actually using Guest Mode for actual guests. You want to hand your phone to your kid. You want to let a lost tourist look up a map address or call a cab. Basically, anytime you want to hand your phone to someone else, but don’t want them to able to see all of your things. Guest Mode is perfect for that too.
Our smart phones are probably the most intimate object that’s ever been invented. They hold so much of our lives in them. They can do real damage to us if they fall into the wrong hands. A feature like Guest Mode would help protect us and those we care about. If you work at a company that makes smart phones or smart phone operating systems, please make this happen. This is an opportunity to use your power and privilege to protect people.
Please don’t use 1234 as a lock screen passcode. For that matter, don’t use a four digit passcode. 0000–9999 is only ten thousand permutations. An attacker could manually brute force that and unlock your phone. A six digit is only trivially more to remember, but increases the total permutations to one million! That still won’t protect you from an automated brute force attack, but it will dramatically improve your odds against a simple phone thief. ↩
As students head back to school for the fall, it’s a great time for young anarchists to form student organizations. But what if you’re not a student? Many young people can’t afford to go to school, yet have no better way to meet other intelligent people their age who also desire to create a better world. The following narrative traces the history of anarchist participation in student struggles in Atlanta through the eyes of a non-student participant. It shows how non-students can work with student groups to build momentum that spreads far beyond the limits of campus. To those who call this “outside agitation,” we counter: who has more right to occupy a school than those who already can’t afford to attend?
When I moved to Atlanta in 2010, I had no ambition of attending college. In fact, I’d already dropped out of high school. I didn’t set out to participate in student struggles on university campuses—but I also didn’t intend to sit them out.
Around town, various anarchist and communist groups were organizing to feed the homeless, hold meetings, provide practical skill-sharing resources, and sometimes attend small demonstrations. My friends and I were forming punk bands, reading groups, and shoplifting crews and attending art shows and parties. We wanted to live adventurously and to fight boldly alongside whoever was willing. Some of my student friends learned of a large demonstration against tuition increases at Georgia State University.
We attended and were surprised by what we saw. Out of this demonstration, a new student organization was formed. We decided to join it.
GSPHE: Participating Non-Ideologically in a Combative Student Organization
Georgia Students for Public Higher Education was a statewide autonomous student organization. There were chapters in Atlanta, Athens, Carrolton, and Savannah. This scope of organization is impressive even by today’s standards. GSPHE, at least the chapter I was a part of, was a formal organization but was not recognized officially by the university and thus did not have to obey its charters. We also did not receive money from the school.
Had my friends and I assessed whether to organize with GSPHE according to its ostensible ideological orientation, we probably wouldn’t have participated. The group was mostly comprised of liberals who wanted the schools to be cheaper and more accessible to immigrants, but were not especially concerned with the nature of the university itself and lacked a revolutionary critique of capitalism. A smaller number of influential members were socialists—some gradualists, some aspiring revolutionaries. We were a small clique of anarchists and punks; we joined in despite ourselves. It turned out to be the right decision.
In my experience, sharing beliefs with those you work with can shorten the time it takes to arrive at decisions; it can also make it easier to cooperate over long periods of time. But without the sincere desire to collaborate, no amount of shared ideology can make your group function properly.
How Did GSPHE Work?
Every chapter of the organization we had joined was free to make its own decisions and to collect and organize its own resources. We agreed on a few unifying principles and held annual convergences in Atlanta. This federation structure allowed for the maximum of creativity and collaboration under one banner. The criteria and terms of membership were explicit: attend two meetings in a row, then one meeting per month. This did not prevent GSPHE members from organizing with non-members.
Significantly, GSPHE did not ban non-students from membership.
Meetings and the Rotation of Responsibilities
Our group met in a large classroom once a week without official permission. We had a facilitator and a note-taker and always drafted an agenda together at the beginning of each meeting, although I suspected that the most dedicated members of the collective often prepared the items beforehand. This didn’t bother me, because we always had a chance to change the agenda.
Meetings sometimes lasted much longer than they should have. Sometimes we’d discuss trivial matters for far too long when we should have remained focused. As a result, sometimes consensus or majority was engineered or feigned just so we could end the meeting. When you’re working in a group that includes a lot of inexperienced people, I imagine that dynamics like this are completely normal. It takes a lot of practice to develop meeting skills, especially in facilitation and note-taking roles. This is why GSPHE always rotated tasks on a biweekly basis.
Rotating roles was important: it diminished the ways in which new or inexperienced participants were marginalized, while protecting those inclined to take on responsibilities from the tendency for resentments to build up against them. It helped to insure a greater sense of ownership in the organization and to help develop confidence and finesse among the entire group. Later, when GSPHE members were organizing with unaffiliated students and facilitating massive assemblies for Occupy Atlanta, these skills were indispensable.
The Struggle against Budget Cuts and Bans on Undocumented Students
GSPHE grew out of an announcement by the Board of Regents that they intended to raise tuition dramatically and make cuts to the HOPE scholarship, which ensures reduced or free tuition for high-school graduates with a high grade-point average. In October, hundreds of students blocked traffic on downtown streets and joined in chants against the budget cuts. This was before Occupy Wall Street, when protests in Atlanta were rarely able to block the streets.
In the following weeks, students and non-students met on GSU campus and held conference calls with students of different universities to form the group. Non-students like myself were not discouraged from participating. This was an advantage for groups like ours. Over the following years, university administrators regularly alluded to the participation of “outsiders” in student struggles, just as police chiefs threw around allegations about “white anarchists” at Black Lives Matter protests. In both instances, there was a degree of truth to their claims, although their discourse was built on dishonesty.
In response to this mobilization, the administration scrambled to convince everyone that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had falsely reported the fee increase. In fact, tuition and fees were increasing, and there would be cuts to the HOPE Scholarship, although not as much as had been reported. This proto-Trumpian maneuver served to pacify the general student body, but our group had already formed and we were committed to organizing together in some way. Working groups studied the intricacies of the budget cuts and presented on them to the rest of us. They also presented “teach-ins” in the lecture halls of sympathetic professors.
Later that year, in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, racist legislation was introduced to ban undocumented students from attending state colleges and universities. Students and community members mobilized in all of those places.
In Georgia, a new student coalition formed called Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA). GUYA was committed to nonviolent direct action and to symbolically petitioning the board of regents and GSU President Mark Becker to vote “no” on the ban. There was also Freedom University (FU), established as a coordination of professors and others to provide university-quality classes and curriculum to undocumented students so they could still receive an education at home and transfer the accredited courses to schools in states with less racist legislation.
GSPHE worked with both of these organizations, hosting rowdy information demonstrations in the courtyard of GSU, distributing propaganda to students, and organizing demonstrations. On one occasion, a few dozen of us sat in the President’s office for over an hour. On another occasion, students from the UGA and GSU branches collaborated to disrupt the Board of Regents vote on the ban, dropping banners and screaming at the conservative members of the Board.
GUYA organized more than one sit-in on major roads downtown. These were always organized bureaucratically (in the name of “safety,” naturally), but they always seemed to create a stir and usually caused substantial traffic delays for the government district downtown near the capitol. Unlike GSPHE, GUYA was connected to one non-profit organization and worked closely with many others. This substantially affected the culture of their organization, causing them to emphasize spectacular media stunts, respectability politics, and hierarchical organizing methods inside their organization and in the coalitions they formed with others. Because of this, GSPHE sometimes had difficulty working with them, while authoritarians groups like the notoriously self-serving Trotskyist International Socialist Organization were able to derive advantages from collaborating with them. However, neither group was more effective or bigger than ours.
In the end, unfortunately, we all failed to stop the budget cuts. Undocumented students are not technically banned from attending school in Georgia, but the bill passed bans them from receiving in-state tuition even if they were raised here. In addition, many schools have voluntarily banned undocumented students as a matter of policy.
Legitimize Yourself, There Is No Other Way
In any struggle, there are legitimate actors who can lay claim to recognized discourses of oppression to justify their rebellious desires and illegitimate actors who must conceal themselves with this discourse or present themselves as “allies.” This is a narrow line I have tried to walk, finding myself continuously with scant legitimacy in the discourses of left-wing causes. I know that I have legitimate reasons to struggle, but legitimacy is not distributed horizontally in the great game of politics. I don’t want to sign away my agency by presenting myself as an “ally,” and I don’t want to marginalize myself as an “outsider,” but the way I am positioned, it is sometimes impossible for me to act from within any of the identities on offer, such as “student.” People like me have to constantly struggle against the concept of legitimacy itself.
For the most part, the students I was working with concerned themselves with tuition and fee increases, transparency of the board of regents, the accessibility of resources to non-white students and undocumented students, and the like. These issues enabled them to understand themselves as oppressed people facing off with an aristocratic enemy. At the same time, this framework tended to sideline non-students and others with a more fundamentally structural antagonism towards the university system.
When organizing on university campuses as a non-student, I often found that I was willing to take greater risks than my student accomplices. I resisted the temptation to be judgmental about this. Students expect to be employed based on their degree—though this is less and less common—and sometimes face great pressure from their families to stay out of trouble. In our conversations, I often brought up the spiritual decay produced by schooling, the militarization of academic knowledge, and the role of the university as a capitalist enterprise—for example, the ways that universities accumulate real estate and drive gentrification. For me, the really important question was how to catalyze revolt in the downtown area, which has GSU as its center. Together, these discourses created a context in which others could recognize the legitimacy of my participation, without negating the validity of student struggles for accessibility and affordability.
Troy Davis: Student Struggles Begin to Spill beyond the University
Many groups mobilized when Troy Anthony Davis was to be executed by the State of Georgia for his alleged killing of a Savannah Police Officer in 1989. In early September 2011, Amnesty International organized a massive demonstration outside of the Capitol to call for a “stay” to the execution. Thousands of people arrived, including most of the members of GSPHE. At the end of the rally, members of our group used our drums and megaphone to help to initiate a breakaway march of several hundred people. The crowd was angry and desperate. Some people dragged trash cans and police barricades into the street. People in the crowd cursed at police officers. Although black power groups, antifascists, and animal rights groups had once maintained a combative street culture in Atlanta (see Appendix), this sort of combative energy had not been seen in the city in years.
That night, around 100 people occupied the plaza of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, including members of GSPHE. This was September 20, 2011, when the budding encampment at Occupy Wall Street had been reduced to a few dozen hardened activists and anarchists in its first few floundering days. The next morning was the date set for the execution. Amnesty International, rather than the police, evicted our occupation after thousands had been gathered for hours. The speakers misled the crowd into believing that a stay had been temporarily placed on the execution. The tension was rising higher and higher. Helicopters began to fly overhead. Police trucks began encircling the massive crowd. Prayer and singing was coordinated over the speakers. The Amnesty organizers stalled the announcement for many hours, deliberately withholding information from the potentially explosive crowd, likely in coordination with local or federal police. In fact, Troy Davis had been executed by the State of Georgia on time.
2011: The Return of Conflict in the Streets
When the Amnesty International organizers finally announced that Troy Davis had been killed, the crowd had already mostly dispersed. Many were crying. Quickly, anarchists, marxists, and student organizers met to discuss emergency plans. They agreed that militant street action was justified and organized a black bloc.
Almost nobody in that black bloc had ever participated in one before, and most participants probably would not have imagined they ever might join one before that moment. A few dozen people gathered and began marching aimlessly downtown, angry but without experiece. Eventually, the police grabbed several people and arrested them, but the crowd successfully de-arrested some of them. This event was not especially inspiring for anyone else, but it was an important moment for the participants. A threshold had been crossed.
Dozens gathered at the house of a GSPHE member to coordinate jail support. Our friends were quickly released from jail with minor fines. The conversations that followed became the basis of an intervention of great consequence in the following year. About 20 people discussed the need to go beyond attending meetings together—to see each other often, to study together, to live and work and share insights together, and to hold big meetings beyond of our little group on a semi-regular basis. We called this plan the “Atlanta General Assembly.”
And then, just in time, there was Occupy.
Student Interventions in Occupy Atlanta
At an early Occupy Atlanta general assembly, the very first week of October, there was a debate about whether to occupy a park. Meanwhile, in New York City, an Occupy Wall Street protest against the execution of Troy Davis was kettled by police who gratuitously pepper-sprayed some young women in the crowd. General assemblies like ours were cropping up in dozens of towns and cities. GSPHE members, accustomed to meetings and assemblies, played influential facilitation roles in these assemblies. A very small number of people convinced hundreds more to go through with what we all obviously wanted to do: illegally occupy Woodruff Park. The following week, we did just that.
I don’t believe we could have had this same influence if we had not developed skills organizing with GSPHE. I know it is common for angry militants to become frustrated with large crowds of liberals, to yell bitter slogans from the back or give up altogether on intervening. This is what many revolutionaries did in Atlanta and across the country. Having no experience agitating crowds or arguing in front of unsympathetic strangers, aspiring revolutionaries often fail to facilitate the emergence of combative possibilities in broader social movements. These anxieties and failures are normal; they have beset GSPHE members as well. Yet our patience and finesse helped to cultivate a more interesting organizing space during the Occupy sequence. Over the following months, this created a situation in which we were able to shut down banks, blockade streets, demonstrate against the police, occupy a home facing eviction, and carry out countless jail solidarity protests and black blocs.
GSPHE Eclipsed by Occupy GSU
With all of the attention and energy of GSPHE members focused on Occupy Atlanta, the student group completely dissolved. Former members of GSPHE and Occupy participants formed a new group called Occupy GSU.
Occupy GSU was more radical in its aims and discourse then GSPHE, although it didn’t last as long. We dropped banners on campus and threw thousands of fliers from the rooftops to cheering crowds below, we held street parties on adjacent streets and threw streamers and tinsel over the heads of police officers, we wheeled a sound system into the library during study hours to demand 24-hour access, and we organized for a walkout on campus.
From my perspective, the walkout was the peak of student mobilizations on GSU campus for many years. Dozens gathered on the top floor of the General Classroom Building. For weeks, we had been adorning the walls with posters and distributing our fliers to thousands. I don’t even remember what we were telling people we were doing it for. I’m sure the reasons were salient. We began banging drums loudly and chanting “WALK OUT, WALK OUT!” We opened the doors to the classrooms and waved students out to follow us, which many did. By the time we reached the courtyard, we were several hundred people cheering and clapping.
We should have pulled the fire alarm. We would have been thousands. Some did not want to because they only wanted people who “believed in the walk out” to attend. But that isn’t how desire works. Many people were glued to their seats, struggling with themselves about whether or not to go, uncertain of the consequences, and then the march was gone, the noise fading down the hallway, the teacher regaining control. All of those people would have had the perfect excuse if the fire alarm sounded. And what would the police have done? Never make the mistake we made. Always pull the fire alarm during a walkout.
The crowd was quickly attacked by a few police officers; they slammed one of the more vocal participants to the ground. A shoving match ensued, but we couldn’t get that person free. The crowd began booing, but that was it. Foolishly, he walkout marched to the board of regents. From that point, the stale architecture of the governmental buildings pacified the demonstrations by itself without any flesh-and-blood police being necessary. We should have had a better plan to stay where we were and to occupy the plaza itself.
Autonomous Resistance Continues on GSU Campus
By the end of 2012, nearly the entire network that had comprised GSPHE had graduated from school and left the student struggle or had abandoned it to participate in subcultural anarchist and Marxist networks. For most of the participants, the disintegration of the Occupy movement gave way to a period of in-fighting and hedonistic partying. This was a common feature of the previous cycle of struggle, in which flare-ups of social unrest would grip the country for months before giving way to lulls that lasted for years. Today’s cycles are different because so many struggles are blending together and the flare-ups are happening more and more frequently. In the coming years, however, there will likely be times of widespread pacification in which it is not possible to participate in large-scale rebellion, and those will be depressing times.
Some of the GSPHE veterans wondered to themselves why they had wasted their time in a student struggle anyway, being themselves non-students or having already predicted that the group would dissolve when the majority of members graduated. But from this perspective some years later, having some distance on it, it is clear that the organization was pivotal in building skills among a large network of organizers and cultivating an autonomous and confrontational culture of resistance on GSU campus.
The Anti-Racist Assembly
In 2013, Patrick Nelson Sharp attempted to organize a “White Student Union” on GSU campus. Sharp’s connection to white nationalist and Neo-Nazi organizations spurred GSPHE veterans, anarchists, communists, anti-racists, and others to mobilize against him. Posters appeared all over downtown debunking simplistic arguments for fascist organizing disguised as “free speech.” People organized an anti-racist assembly with the intent of creating an unfavorable atmosphere for racist organizing on campus. The organizers didn’t facilitate the assemblies, but they did prevent others from dominating them. This prevented opportunists from co-opting popular rage to direct it into authoritarian organizations.
The anti-racist assembly made the news many times. Eventually, we marched into the office of the Dean of Students, some of us in masks, and threatened to create greater disorder if the “White Student Union” became a university-sanctioned group. Sharp’s campaign temporarily stalled in a storm of scandal.
The following year, in 2014, the GSU administration announced that it would be selling the student-run radio station, WRAS, to Georgia Public Broadcasting for $100,000. Students had run the station autonomously since the 1970s; this was a barefaced attack on self-organized student life. Across the city, WRAS DJs and staff organized fundraisers and events to save the radio station—but they employed no strategy beyond publicly expressing their disappointment. Another group organized under the banner of DefendWRAS.
This group was the first group to organize a demonstration, something the pacified student staffers and supporters had never intended to do. The DefendWRAS group argued that the attack on the radio station was an attack on the autonomy of students in general, not just on the radio station staff. Over 100 people attended the protest; it blocked streets and stormed into the Student Center, temporarily occupying the bottom floor where WRAS records. Students, alumni, and others chanted and banged on lockers for several hours as snitches and cops gathered at the stairs; ultimately, they opted for leaving the protesters alone. Demonstrators vandalized bathroom mirrors and wrote graffiti on the walls of the building before dispersing without arrests.
Atlanta Antifa on GSU
Starting in 2015 and increasing drastically since then, white power and neo-Nazi stickers and posters have appeared on GSU campus and around downtown. Atlanta Antifascists meticulously documented this campaign and connected several GSU students to it, including Patrick Nelson Sharp, as well as non-students like Casey Jordan Cooper. Atlanta Antifascists have also documented the participation of several GSU students in racist demonstrations at Auburn University and elsewhere in the spring of 2017.
In early 2016, undocumented students occupied buildings at University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State University at the same time to protest the bans on undocumented immigrants enforced by these schools. The struggle against racism and white supremacy continues in many forms.
Turner Field Resistance
In 2016, GSU and the City of Atlanta announced the sale of the old Atlanta Braves stadium, Turner Field, to Georgia State University. The same year, GSU acquired Georgia Perimeter College—making it the biggest university in the country with approximately 55,000 students. This has made GSU a tremendous force in real estate markets. A nonprofit group worked with student activists and Peoplestown residents to set up an encampment outside of Turner Field at the end of 2016 to demand a “community benefits agreement” with Peoplestown neighborhood residents. Such an agreement would transfer profits from the sale and use of Turner Field to the residents of the neighborhood rather than Georgia State or its private partners and sponsors. In December, GSU students spread this struggle by occupying the Honors College building.
They were arrested, but this offers an encouraging model of how student struggles can intersect with the needs of those off campus.
Many people at colleges and universities will be looking to equip themselves with the means to fight in the coming years. This is already happening everywhere else, even in high schools. Others will be indoctrinated with discourses that convince them that it is foolish or wrong to resist. But it is always the right time to organize for revolt. Whether you are studying on a campus or you simply live in a town centered around one, do not hesitate to take advantage of the school as a place to get organized. Use the campus as a space to meet with others, study the conflicts of the day, and create spaces of freedom that others can expand. If you push at just the right moment, an avalanche of possibilities will pour forth.
Be decisive. Be bold. Just as we call on the courage of those who came before us, someday someone may have to call on your example. Don’t let them down.
Appendix: Youth and Student Unrest in the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s
The history of autonomous youth and student rebellion in Atlanta deserves a close study and analysis, for it is rich. Here, we must pass over the massive waves of revolt led by factory workers against the Klan in the 1960s, and the efforts of poor blacks to fight against discrimination and police violence during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. For now, a quick overview must suffice.
From the late 1980s into the ’90s, racist skinheads and neo-Nazis attempted to infiltrate the hardcore and punk scenes. Anti-fascist punks fought them courageously and drove them out of shows, often with knives or bats. Many of these same punks also engaged in conflicts with the “religious right” outside of abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood offices.
In 1992, rioting exploded in downtown Atlanta for three days in response to the insurrection in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of LAPD officers for their vicious attack on Rodney King. After a demonstration organized on Georgia State Campus, black youth burned cars and trash downtown, looted the Underground Atlanta shopping mall, attacked riot police and leftist pacifiers near Morehouse, and eluded pursuing officers all around Georgia State University. Later that year, hundreds of black militants occupied the General Classroom Building after a racial slur was written on a trashcan. In the wake of this struggle, the GSU African-American Studies Department was established. The same week, a predominantly non-black LGBT student group occupied the cafeteria to support the struggle of their black classmates and advance their own demands.
By the mid-1990s, the hardcore punk scene in the US had become very influenced by deep ecology, veganism, anarchism, and other radical political ideologies. In Atlanta, vegan straightedge hardcore kids often organized rallies and marches past fur shops on Ponce de Leon and in other parts of the city; participants frequently smashed windows and vandalized the stores, often while masked. In 1996, vegan activists and hardcore punks organized a militant action against the YERKES Primate Testing facility on the campus of Emory University. Riot police gathered to protect the facility from an anarchist black bloc of several dozen—an impressive number, three years before the protests against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle demonstrated the black bloc tactic to people around the US. Participants clashed with police, throwing stones and vandalizing their cruisers in an attempt to break into the facility. Police shot tear gas into the crowd to disperse them.
All of these clashes left traces in Atlanta—a buried legacy that we discovered as our own when we, too, began to revolt.
It’s worth taking a moment to review what anti-fascists have accomplished since Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources or sponsors has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. On Sunday, August 27, the same fascists attempted to hold another rally in Berkeley. In response to the murder of Heather Heyer during a fascist rally in Charlottesville two weeks prior, thousands of people converged to make the fascist demonstration impossible.
Imagine if the “Unite the Right” rally had taken place without resistance, and a thousand white supremacists had been able to march around Charlottesville unopposed. In that scenario, emboldened fascists could have presented themselves as a legitimate part of political spectrum, while preparing the way for more murders like the ones in Charleston and Portland. In that case, the government with Trump at the helm would be able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would be forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. We should be grateful that long before Charlottesville, forward-thinking anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.
But now that the struggle against fascism has arrived on a massive scale, it’s time to come to grips with the limitations the movement faces today. Every victory generates new challenges. Let’s explore the obstacles that the anti-fascist movement will have to overcome to succeed in creating a world free of authoritarianism.
The image at the top of the Washington Post article shows a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying anti-fascist demonstrators without provocation and then pepper-spraying people at random immediately before the photo was taken. If you look close, the attacker is wearing a shirt that celebrates Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet for murdering dissidents by dropping them out of helicopters. If you look closer, you can see that the anti-fascist in the picture has a stick, but is choosing not to use it, instead simply using a shield to block the fascist with the pepper-spray from carrying out further attacks. In fact, the Washington Post chose to use a photo in which the assailant’s right hand is not visible, so readers would not see the pepper spray he holds in it.
When the Washington Post portray such fascists as “peaceful,” suggesting that they are victims even as they attack people and glorify mass murder, this gives them legitimacy, securing space for them to recruit and to promote and organize further attacks. Why would liberal media outlets do this?
Journalists often determine the substance of their story in advance, and it appears that media outlets across the spectrum had determined in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess even before it happened. In the event, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15 altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.
The intention was clearly to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Two weeks of positive coverage of anti-fascists, during which various members of the clergy came forward to praise their efforts, were deemed to be too much. Heather Heyer’s murder had taken corporate media by surprise, interrupting their conventional narratives and proving that the threat anti-fascists had supposedly been blowing out of proportion was all to real. It took corporate editors two weeks to regain control of the discourse. As soon as they did, they reimposed their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.
This should put an end to any illusions we might have had that corporate media could side with anti-fascists. Outlets like the Washington Post aspire to position themselves against both Trump and his adversaries in the streets—to occupy what some call “the extreme center.” They are gambling that the current polarization of society is temporary, that they can be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with both sides.
Anti-fascists have to strategize about how to organize and legitimize our efforts to the general public without the benefit of positive media coverage. This is no easy task. At the minimum, it will demand our own grassroots media, at the same time that this media is under systematic assault from right-wing trolls.
This challenge is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of polarization, which is worth examining separately.
The Swinging Pendulum of Polarization
US society has been splintering and polarizing for years now, since the recession of 2008 if not before. The movement against police and white supremacy that burst onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 as Black Lives Matter generated a far-right backlash, which inspired a resurgence of anti-fascist organizing. In response, fascists gave angry liberals and anti-fascists a central place in their strategy, seeking to provoke them into reactive behavior that could be used to further mobilize the right-wing base. Milo Yiannopoulos used this strategy until it blew up in his face last February, when a black bloc of hundreds shut down his event in Berkeley.
Various fascist and fascist-friendly organizers also used this approach, baiting leftists and anti-fascists with a series of “free speech” rallies in Berkeley, Portland, and elsewhere around the country that won the nascent fascist movement notoriety and momentum. This movement appeared fully formed for the first time in Charlottesville—but the shockwaves of that debut drew many more people into the movement against fascism, changing the balance of power once again. The “free speech” rallies scheduled afterwards in Boston and the Bay Area were total washouts for the fascists.
In each of these cases, when the pendulum of polarization swung to one side, the opposing side was able to use the specter of that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. With the media narrative coming out about Berkeley, the pendulum has again swung away from anti-fascists to benefit the right-wing reaction.
So long as this pattern persists, every anti-fascist victory will produce an even greater threat from the far-right and the government. To break out of the pattern, anti-fascists have to figure out how to strike blows without equipping fascists to cash in on the resulting fear among right-wingers, or else to find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right. We can offer a few hypotheses about how to accomplish this.
The Myth of Symmetry
The allegation that fascists and anti-fascists are equally bad has been advanced most famously by Donald Trump himself in his response to the events in Charlottesville. He suggested that the problem was an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” refusing to say a word about the fascists who murdered Heather Heyer. This should tell us something about those who describe fascists and anti-fascists as symmetrical.
To equate those who fight for freedom and equality with those who want an autocratic state to enforce hierarchies is to reserve all legitimacy for the state alone—which is itself an autocratic position. It means celebrating the legalism of passive spectators over the heroes who fought the rise of dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Spain, Chile, Greece, and a hundred other nations. It means congratulating those who keep their hands clean while their neighbors are rounded up and imprisoned, deported, or killed.
We have to become adept at spelling out the ethical differences between fascism and anti-fascism, and all the justifications for forms of direct action that can actually be effective in this struggle. We need allies from many different walks of life who can help us make this case to the public at large.
The irony of a war journalist perennially accusing others of being driven by a lust for adrenaline should not be lost on anyone. It is worse still that Hedges, as a journalist, arrogates himself the right to pass judgment on the events in Charlottesville from a distance rather than deferring to people like Cornel West who were actually there putting their bodies on the line. But the true irony here is that Hedges purports to be warning against precisely the problem that he himself is creating. “By brawling in the streets,” Hedges alleges, “antifa allows the corporate state… to use the false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists.” Actually, it is Hedges who is equipping the state to do this, by attributing “the same lust for violence” to anti-fascists that he believes motivates fascists. He could just as easily use his soapbox to debunk this moral equivalency, but he lacks the moral courage—he simply cannot resist performing the same kind of “self-advertisement for moral purity” that he accuses others of.
Hedges needs to understand that it is not anti-fascists gaining ground that brings about fascist attacks and government crackdowns. If anti-fascists were not gaining power in the streets, fascists would still be taking advantage of the despair and resentment of poor whites, and the government would still be developing more means of repression—there would simply be no social movement to protect us from them. It is fundamentally paranoid, disempowering, and ahistorical to understand these developments as the result of anti-fascist activity. On the contrary, it is imperative that we build the capacity to act effectively in the streets before the fascists outstrip us and the government is able to centralize enough power to establish tyranny once and for all.
All that said, we also need to avoid offering our enemies on the Left and Right alike the opportunity to present us as a mirror image of our fascist adversaries. Let’s explore some ways we can go about this.
Identity and Containment
On one hand, it has been extremely useful for people in the US to learn from anti-fascist movements in other parts of the world. At the same time, the wholesale uncritical introduction of European models has created problems, chief of which is the containment of the struggle against fascism within a discrete identity, “antifa.” It has been a tremendous boon to the far right that they can describe anti-fascists without having to spell out the entire word “fascist”—it helps them to avoid the question of why anyone would oppose resisting fascism.
In German, abbreviations are common: national socialist becomes Nazi, anti-fascist becomes antifa. But in English, especially to those not familiar with the history of German anti-fascist struggles, the word antifa can appear alien and off-putting. At its worst, the German antifa movement has tended towards subcultural insularity; this is the last thing we need in the US, locked in a massive struggle with fascists and the government itself—a struggle we can only hope to win if ever-wider segments of the population are drawn into our side of the barricades.
Identity is fundamentally about distinguishing oneself from others. Anti-fascism, however, is for everybody. We should be careful not to insulate it within a particular demographic with a specific dress code and lingo. This is paramount because the far right are scrambling to depict antifa as a monolithic, hostile, alien organization. Our task is not just to build a network of groups, but to create an anti-fascist momentum that will spread contagiously throughout society at large, along with the critiques and tactics necessary for this fight. Specific antifa groups and the cultural cache of “antifa” itself can be useful in that project, as can black bloc tactics, provided we evaluate them as tools for achieving particular objectives rather than expressions of identity or belonging.
The Tendency to Militarize
As the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists intensifies, we are seeing more and more guns in the streets. Some people who were in Charlottesville reported that it was good that there were guns on both sides: it discouraged fascists from escalating physical conflicts past a certain point. Others report that most of the anti-fascists openly bearing arms were located some distance from the clashes. Some people who were in Ferguson at the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement say that without the treat of gunfire from the locals, the police would never have permitted the demonstrations happen. Others who experienced the trauma of having their loved ones shot before them counsel that the consequences of bringing guns into street conflict are weightier than most people can imagine.
Participants in the Syrian revolution report that for the first several months, the revolt created an open space of debate and possibility in which many people of different walks of life participated. Later, after the conflict escalated, power among the rebels accrued in the hands of religious fundamentalists, as they were the only ones who were able to consistently acquire military supplies—and from that point on, the horizon of liberation and transformation was closed. Sometimes, such escalation is inescapable, even if it closes the door to future possibilities; in any case, it is better to prepare for it now than to be suddenly caught flatfooted. But if our goal is to carry out a revolution rather than to fight in a civil war, we should not hurry the process of escalation—we should drag it out as long as we can. Most of the social changes we want to see cannot be brought about by guns.
Likewise, we should not imagine that coercive force can solve everything, nor permit fascists and state repression to put us so on edge that we see enemies everywhere we look and begin to attack people when it is not strategic. In the words of an elder anti-fascist veteran from Germany, fascist violence aims to exterminate, while anti-fascist violence aims to educate. We should not hurry to put fascist martyrs in the ground next to Heather Heyer. We must never risk coming across as bullies. It must always be clear that we are here to protect the public at large, not to assert our own authority or masculinity. When we are compelled to use coercive force, we must make sure that the ways we do so don’t centralize power or legitimacy within our own movement.
The Language of Terrorism
In the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder, signs appeared at vigils and rallies reading “White Supremacy is Terrorism.” While it is understandable that people wish to condemn her murder in the strongest possible terms, it is dangerous to use the language of terrorism to do so.
The framework of terrorism is constructed by the state to define who has the right to employ violence and who doesn’t. When we denounce white supremacists as terrorists, we mimic the verbiage of Senator Cory Gardner, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House.
Terrorist is used to designate those who are beyond the state’s control and cannot be brought into political alignment with the state. This explains why Heather’s murderer has not been charged with terrorism, while many anarchists who did not so much as scratch someone have received terrorism charges over the past decade and a half.
Using the rhetoric of the state reinforces frameworks and narratives that the authorities will ultimately use against us. This is dangerous to our movements and constitutes a betrayal of comrades engaged in struggles we’re often aligned with. Palestinians are labeled terrorists to delegitimize their struggle against the Israeli state. Like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, the YPG and YPJ in Rojava have been labeled terrorists. The language and ideology of the “war on terror” were carefully introduced into US political discourse in order to prepare the ground for the catastrophic invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The word terrorism comes to us from the Jacobin government’s brutal and merciless rule in France in the 1790’s—the term was invented to describe their “reign of terror” during which thousands were executed. Even though the word was coined for the Jacobins and that they wore it proudly as a badge, some historians today argue that the Jacobins weren’t terrorists because they were a state entity with legitimate power. This should give us a sense of the extent to which the discourse of terrorism serves to give the state carte blanche while delegitimizing all who stand against it.
There Is No Good Authoritarianism
Sunday’s far-right rally in Berkeley was promoted under the slogan “No to Marxism in America.” As with the far-right “March against Sharia,” there is no danger of the United States coming under a Marxist government any time soon. Like all totalitarians, fascists desperately need enemies even more oppressive than themselves to point to in order to convince people to join their ranks. There is an ominous symmetry between groups like ISIS and Western fascists, some of whom openly fantasize about a “White Sharia.” This explains their obsession with authoritarian Marxism.
In fact, the fiercest opposition to contemporary fascist organizing has not come from authoritarian Marxists, but from anarchists who oppose state power itself. This is inconvenient for many fascists in the US, who still need to present themselves as enemies of “big government” in order to appeal to US Libertarians and traditional conservatives.
If fascists are eager to paint all their domestic opponents with the broad brush of Marxism, we should not hasten to assist them. Yes, authoritarian Marxists have historically played a role in the fight against fascism, but they have hardly played it honorably. They began by betraying and undermining other social movements as early as 1871. If Stalin hadn’t sabotaged anti-fascist participants in the Spanish Civil War and other movements around Europe and then concluded a pact with Hitler, the Second World War would have unfolded much differently, and it might not have taken decades afterwards for grassroots liberation movements to recover.
If both fascism and authoritarian Marxism are experiencing a resurgence today, this is partly because the Millennial generation grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and too young to have grandfathers who fought in the Second World War. For many in the United States, totalitarianism is abstract, something to joke about on the internet. Some young people on the Left see the hammer and sickle the way many young right-wingers see the swastika: as a provocative meme rather than a blood-drenched symbol of oppression. Yet Stalin, too, carried out ethnic cleansing, as have many other authoritarian Marxist regimes.
One cannot consistently oppose fascism without opposing all forms of authoritarian government. This is not to say that rank-and-file members of authoritarian communist organizations can never be comrades in this struggle. Many of them are sincere people with the best of intentions—and clearly we need all the comrades we can get when we are facing down Nazis with guns. The point is that anti-fascists should oppose the leadership of authoritarian Marxist parties for many of the same reasons that we oppose fascists and other authoritarians. If you care about a member of an organization like the Bolshevik Party, you can express that care by making sure that his organization never comes to power—for if history is any guide, he will be the next up against the wall after you.
We must make it clear to the general public that we do not intend to impose a new dictatorship, but only to open and preserve spaces of freedom. There is no statist solution for tyranny.
Unfortunately, Heather Heyer is not the first person to be taken from us by fascist violence, and she will not be the last. In addition to being wary of the discourse of terrorism and the tendency to militarize our struggles, we should wary of the discourse of martyrdom and tendency to celebrate death in battle. We need to find ways to remember people above all for who they were, for what their lives gave to the world, not for how they died or what their deaths meant to the struggle. We should not begin to regard ourselves or each other as playing pieces to be exchanged for strategic gains.
We live in a society in which aging and death are concealed from most of us. If this struggle continues to intensify, more and more of us will be forced to learn what it is like to spend hard weeks in the hospital, to meet at funerals as well as outside jails and courtrooms. We should approach this as another opportunity to come to know ourselves and each other better, to recognize what is beautiful and worthwhile in life—the things for which we are fighting in the first place. We should not subordinate ourselves to the struggle, but recognize it as one of the ways that life pours forth abundantly within us.
Cutting to the Roots
The vast majority of the anti-fascist struggle does not take place in street confrontations. It takes place in how we raise our children; it takes place in the hard conversations at workplaces and family dinners; it takes place in the ways we relate to our neighbors, the ways we understand togetherness and belonging. To triumph, we have to make it possible for people of all genders and ethnicities and religions to work together to survive the ordeals of capitalism; we have to create movements that can offer everybody more than the fascists ever could.
Ultimately, a thoroughgoing anti-fascist movement should not focus on targeting fascist groups that so marginal as to stick out from the rest of the political spectrum, but the infrastructure through which any authoritarian program will be enacted. That is to say, it should focus on the state itself. If we simply fight defensive battles, the fascists will eventually gain the initiative. We should take the experiences of fighting together that we can experience in anti-fascist struggle as use those as points of departure to work together to solve all of the problems that we have. This is the way to take the offensive and move on to confronting the fundamental sources of oppression.
Some believe that life will go back to normal soon enough, and fascism and anti-fascism will once more be things of the past. But we fear that we have yet to see how far these conflicts will go, and that we have to invest ourselves in confronting them head on. The only way out is through. Double or nothing.
How do state and autonomous right-wing attacks reinforce each other? Why is the right escalating its campaign to repress dissent? And how can we counter this repression?
Prosecution and Legislation
While it’s nothing new for the state to repress protest, the past two years of legal and legislative attacks represent a substantial escalation against resistance movements. Since the uprising in Ferguson forced national attention onto racist police violence, the idea of Black communities, poor people, and radicals becoming ungovernable has inspired some and terrified others. Protestors inspired by Ferguson have blocked highways, occupied police departments, sabotaged pipelines, shut down airports, and disrupted Trump rallies.
But defenders of the economic and racial status quo have taken advantage of this to stoke white working-class resentment and suburban fears of disorder. Trump’s image as “the law and order candidate” capitalized on the racialized concerns stirred up by this wave of protest.
From day one, the new administration made good on its promises to crack down on protest. On January 20, over two hundred counter-inaugural demonstrators were trapped in a kettle and mass arrested. Rather than receiving citations or misdemeanors, they now face the prospect of decades in prison simply for being caught on the street during a march. Meanwhile, hundreds of cases from Standing Rock clog the North Dakota courts, where water protectors face fines and prison terms for their efforts to prevent private companies from profiting on the poisoning of Sioux people’s water supplies.
In addition to maximizing repression through the current legal system, politicians are expanding the law to further criminalize demonstrations. Nearly twenty state legislatures introduced anti-protest bills this year that range from troubling to downright bizarre. Arizona politicians attempted to allow the state to seize the assets of people arrested for protesting, while North Carolina legislators tried to invent something called “economic terrorism” and to force protestors to pay the cost of police efforts to repress them. North Dakota’s legislature passed a litany of new bills fed to them by the pipeline industry, from allowing police to use weaponized drones against demonstrations to increasing the legal penalties for a wide range of activity. This legislation went directly into effect against hundreds of water protectors.
Finally, this year, legislators in Florida, North Dakota, and Tennessee have attempted to pass bills allowing drivers to run over protestors without legal consequences. This is especially chilling in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
Every one of these laws emerged as a direct response to protests that were effectively disrupting the status quo. The sponsors of North Carolina’s failed anti-protest bill specifically cited the ferocity of resistance in Charlotte after the police murdered Keith Lamont Jenkins as their inspiration for the new law. The spread of highway blockades during anti-police rebellions prompted a wide range of legislation targeting the obstruction of roads, including the aforementioned “hit and kill” bills. In response to widespread indigenous and ecological resistance to pipeline construction, several new state laws would advance penalties specifically tied to disruption of energy infrastructure. These efforts by politicians to protect the interests of their corporate cronies and police attest to the threat that our movements pose.
But the state isn’t confident that legal methods alone will be enough to stem the tide of popular resistance. Enter the autonomous fascists, stage right.
Where police and legal restrictions haven’t sufficed to suppress demonstrations, the armed right-wing has stepped in. Beginning in states such as Arizona that have open carry laws and widespread gun culture, right-wing demonstrators had already been appearing at their own rallies visibly armed; yet until recently, they had rarely appeared at the protests of their political opponents. In 2014, members of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia, appeared in the streets of Ferguson toting assault rifles. While most politicians and law enforcement officials outwardly condemned this challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence, in some places the state began openly partnering with the grassroots extreme right. In June, the Multnomah County, Oregon Republican Party voted to allow Three Percenters to provide anti-protestor “security” for them at events.
Meanwhile, the alt-right and other fascists have slowly but surely escalated from online threats to violent attacks. The massacre that Dylan Roof perpetrated at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 failed to spark the race war he intended, but the following year, the election of a president who openly courted white nationalists provided the catalyst for increasing extreme right violence. Numerous media outlets reported an immediate rise in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim activity after Trump’s election, from graffiti to verbal harassment to physical assaults. Bigots have ramped up attacks on mosques from Minnesota to Tennessee, while a man spouting Islamophobia stabbed two people to death on a train in Portland, Oregon this spring.
While many of these attacks served as general intimidation against marginalized groups, protests against oppression have become a particular target for fascists. In 2015, heavily armed right-wingers fired into a Black Lives Matter occupation in Minneapolis, injuring five protestors; a bystander noted that they “were using police tactics.” During the Trump campaign, Trump supporters frequently carried out violent attacks on protestors; white nationalist Matthew Heimbach faced criminal charges this spring for physically attacking a young Black woman at a campaign speech. At a Seattle protest against Milo Yiannopolis in January, a right-wing Milo fan shot an anti-racist protestor in the stomach after threatening online to “start cracking skulls” of “snowflakes.” Yet antifascists and anarchists remained the villains in the discourse spread by politicians, police, and media pundits, even as right-wing attacks continued to escalate. This underscores that their goal is neither peace nor law and order, but maintaining their power against all who threaten it.
The murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is the latest event in this crescendo of hate and violence. We must understand her death in the context of the right-wing war on protest. It has been building inexorably towards this outcome for years.
If right-wing citizens hadn’t taken the initiative to begin threatening and injuring protestors, politicians in North Dakota wouldn’t have introduced legislation to protect them. The growing Three Percenter and militia movements aim to use force to secure the stability of Trump’s rule in the face of widespread resistance. The stories we’ve heard from the streets of Charlottesville—like so many other cities—show that the police are happy to let fascists do their bloody work for them on the streets.
And if the fascists go too far and provoke a popular backlash, as the murder of Heather Heyer has, politicians will attempt to use that to their advantage, too. By framing fascism and anti-fascism as symmetrical forces of chaos and disruption, as Trump explicitly did in his initial response, they present the state as the only force capable of restoring order—through more police, surveillance, and control. Whether they tacitly support or openly condemn vigilante violence, right-wing politicians aim to come out ahead either way.
What It All Means
Make no mistake: the people who want us to accept white supremacy, environmental destruction, and police murder are working together to keep us out of the streets. They’re using every tactic they can—from mass arrests to new laws to outright murder—because they’re afraid of our power.
They are going to such lengths because all over the world, people are coming together to threaten their privileges and profits. Countless thousands of us have clogged the arteries of capital, affirmed the value of Black lives against the brutality of the police, confronted pipelines and power plants, shielded our neighbors from deportation, stood watch against bigots at mosques, defended reproductive freedom, and organized across the borders they attempt to impose on our land and in our hearts. They know that unless they can terrorize us back into submission, their days in power will be numbered.
In short, the right declared war on protest because we have the power to take them down. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but it is possible, and they know it. They’re trying to raise the costs of resistance so high that we’ll listen to Governor McAuliffe and hide out at home while they continue impoverishing us, scapegoating immigrants and Muslims, brutalizing people of color, subjugating women, poisoning the earth, militarizing the borders, and escalating police surveillance and control.
The options are clear: take the streets to fight together, or hide at home while they come for us one by one. The choice is yours.
I am one of the thousands of people who confronted Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. I am a blue-collar person, with a job, family, and responsibilities. I would have preferred to do other things with my weekend. However, I had to ask myself: If these people are allowed to run roughshod over this town, what will they do next?
“We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists… They saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”
No, I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that “there was violence on both sides.” Of course there was. I might add that there were not murderers on both sides—but that’s not really my point.
I would like to ask a different question. What would have happened if there had not been violence on both sides? What would have happened if there had only been violence on one side?
On the night of Friday, August 11, 2017, I saw something that I never thought I would see, and that I hope I never see again: 500 Nazis and white supremacists marching across the campus of the University of Virginia while police did nothing, surrounding 30 counter-demonstrators who were holding hands around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and beating them with torches while calling them “nigger” and “boy.” By the end of the night, it was clear to me that the “Unite the Right” march had been organized for the express purpose of killing people on Saturday.
They are the reason Richard Spencer did not speak today. They are the reason the “Unite the Right” march didn’t happen. They strategically used violent tactics to incite the Nazis to violence, such that the governor declared a state of emergency before noon. Before the “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled to begin.
One could argue this meant Nazis dissipated into the streets faster making it less safe, but let’s be real: Nazis have been making these streets less safe for a long time. They would have been out and about soon enough with or without the antifa.
I was with a group of clergy committed to non-violence today. We did our part. We bore witness to the pain and hatred in this city. We provided pastoral care/support as needed, especially during traumatic violent acts. This was our determined role going into today. Yes, some clergy risked injury and arrest to stop the Nazis. They formed a blockade at the entrance, but they were overpowered by the Nazis. The police did not view us as threatening enough to shut things down, because again, we were no there to threaten.
The antifa strategically incited enough violence before noon to make the police declare it illegal to gather in Emancipation Park. Through this strategic violence they effectively made a previously legally permitted Nazi rally, illegal.
We may not agree with each others tactics. We may have had different goals, but if you’re looking to praise people specifically for shutting down the “Unite the Right” rally, praise/thank the antifa. Not the clergy and not the police.”
I do not want it be soon forgotten that American anarchists and anti-fascists shut down the largest Nazi and white supremacist gathering on US soil in decades. We accomplished this despite being outnumbered, underequipped, and literally fighting up a hill—at great personal risk and at a terrible cost.
What if things had gone differently? What if we had done as the mayor recommended and stayed away from Emancipation Park, so as not to “feed into a cycle of violence”? What if the rally had proceeded as planned? What if Nazis and white supremacists had been able to build momentum into the night? Based on what I saw Friday and Saturday, there is no doubt in my mind what would have happened next: they would have terrorized the city of Charlottesville. They would have left their leadership a degree of plausible deniablity, broken into smaller groups, and killed and injured any number of people in decentralized locations throughout the city. It was to be their Kristallnacht, their burning cross, their triumphant return.
Instead, they had to leave town in disarray in fear of us, the people of Charlottesville, and the police—in that order. They sent twenty people to the hospital and murdered Heather Heyer.
It could have been much, much worse.
These are dark and dangerous times. Nazis and white supremacists have shown that they are ready to kill and able to mobilize in great numbers, and they have the blessing of the President of the United States. They are well on their way to solidifying their position as the paramilitary arm of the Trump administration. These groups hope to be to Trump what ISIS is to Erdogan and what the Taliban is to the government of Pakistan: terrorist auxiliaries that provide strategic depth against enemies of the state.
On the other hand, Nazis and white supremacists discredited themselves completely in the eyes of millions of American people this weekend, as did their President by emboldening and defending them. The names and faces of many of those who participated in the “Unite the Right” rally are being broadcast on twitter feeds such as “yes, you’re racist,” and more extensive doxxing is undoubtedly soon to come. It seems a stressful and rather lonely moment for our opposition.
On the government side, Steve Bannon may or may not lose his job, as usual. As always, Trump is either on the ropes or on the verge of pulling off an authoritarian coup. It may be time for Americans of good conscience to resume the offensive, before this match made in hell has time to regain its footing and to consolidate further.
Donald Trump was elected head of state through the democratic process, of course, as was Adolf Hitler. He has the support of millions of people; so did Adolf Hitler. His government is in bed with people who dream about carrying out a second Holocaust and reinstating slavery, among other things. We have every right to topple this government if we can. It would be unfortunate to look back on this moment with regret, realizing that we missed our chance.
In my opinion, the high-water mark thus far of resistance to the Trump regime was the wave of airport occupations at the end of January, which set in motion a course of events that ultimately led to Steve Bannon being iced out of the foreign policy sphere by the few remaining adults in Trump’s circle. Unfortunately, they left Bannon the domestic sphere as his playpen, and the Deep State doesn’t care very much. No one is coming to save us.
What would it take to rise to this occasion? We would have to mobilize large crowds nationwide to shut down government infrastructure, prioritizing everything nearest and dearest to Bannon and his faction. Something like that might work. I don’t think it’s too late.
Of course, after Charlottesville, all such crowds will be considered soft targets by fascist murderers. We will have to demonstrate that we are able to exert deadly force to deter such attacks, as Redneck Revolt did admirably in Charlottesville.
If Americans of good conscience push hard enough, we may be able to force Trump to abandon Bannon and Bannonism. We might be able to topple Trump entirely. But under no circumstances will anyone with any self-respect ever submit to governance by Nazis. This government and its fascist allies should think carefully before they choose their next move.
In the spirit of Robert Grodt, who fought fascism in Raqqa, and in the spirit of Heather Heyer, who fought fascism in her own hometown—
It’s that time of year again, when students head back to school. With the government lurching towards tyranny and fascists killing people on the streets, it has never been more pressing to organize on campuses to promote self-determination and collective defense against oppression. This is especially pressing because from Berkeley to Charlottesville, the far-right has set their sites on campuses as a place to recruit future stormtroopers and suppress critiques of authoritarian power. If you are a student yourself, now is the time to lay your plans—whether that means founding a formal student group, coordinating an informal network, or at least preparing to distribute literature. To do our part, we will be publishing a series of articles exploring different examples of student organizing. In this account, a veteran student organizer relates the story of how an anarchist student organization got off the ground and everything you need to know to do it yourself, from filling out paperwork to organizing a Radical Rush.
In the Beginning
The idea for an anarchist student group ranked pretty low in my ambitions when I was accepted to the University of North Carolina. It wasn’t because I shared the long-term career goals of my classmates, nor their short-term goals of getting fucked up every weekend. The thing is, I had already been an anarchist for over a decade. In terms of my social life and political priorities, I was an anarchist first and a student second. Plus, the radical student groups I had encountered turned me off—they were short-lived carousels focused on intra-university reforms. I wasn’t invested in democratizing the university; I wanted to loot it and redistribute its resources for revolutionary purposes.
“On the other hand,” I told myself, “if I’m going to spend most of my time on campus anyway, I may as well make the most of it.” Besides, we had a good name: The UNControllables.
The UNControllables didn’t start as your typical student group. Three of us had spent a decade doing the DIY traveler thing. We only became students as a kind of late twenties punk retirement, the age at which better grants are available. The fourth person behind our idea was a spiritual omnivore graduate student that we met through Occupy who was doing his dissertation on Christian video games—in other words, a total freak. We didn’t operate with the same goals as other student groups. We weren’t about building campus campaigns or recruiting as many students as possible. We had our eyes on the money. Literally: Student Congress funds.
Before the group was even officially registered, the punks dipped out. It felt like a bad joke—a collective of two? As the last punk left, I felt especially betrayed. Hadn’t we spent the majority of our teens and twenties scamming and stealing? Compared to that, what was filling out a few forms to get our hands on potentially thousands of dollars? Perhaps it wasn’t a sufficiently antagonistic form of wealth redistribution for the punks, or perhaps they had joined the list, thousands long, of punks who really do treat college as a kind of retirement. In any case, then there were two.
Every group has to start somewhere. A traditional introduction to campus organizing would focus on collective practices: outreach, consensus decision-making, vision and strategy. Anarchism has a rich, diverse history regarding the question of organization, but for this account to be honest I have to admit that in the beginning we relied on a different kind of anarchism—the kind that values the initiative, the will, the irreducible self of that taboo subject that haunts anarchist history: the individual!
Basic guides to campus organizing presume you have a crew who are all down to collaborate and participate equally with you. If you do, that’s great! Unfortunately, sometimes there’s just one crazy firebrand and maybe their sidekick friend who has an idealistic opinion about Bitcoin and is into the Carlos miniseries on Netflix. Or maybe there are a number of student radicals who identify as anarchists, but choose to dedicate their time and effort to specific campaigns, like sweatshop divestment or gender-non-discriminatory housing, and don’t have the time for another group. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU!
The anarchist valorization of the individual was important when there were only two of us. We didn’t allow lack of membership to hold us back from taking action. If participation only serves to legitimize activity that we want to carry out regardless, then the imagined mass of participants is simply another authority we need to bypass in order to act.
This is not to say that the UNControllables always relied on individual efforts. But for a six-month period at the beginning, it sure depended on the work of two of us! If we had decided to give up because there weren’t enough members, we never would have had a third member, and eventually a fourth. And then, eventually, dozens!
The measure of success for any anarchist group shouldn’t be how big it is, but rather how well it equips all of its participants to maximize their individual potential. It’s worth remembering this, even after more people join—lest the group suddenly be reduced to a collective of two again. No need to get all Britta Perry about that shit.
Actually registering our student group was a piece of cake, even with only two members! In our registration we had to write something about why our group was unique and relevant. We researched how many books about anarchism, by anarchists, or from anarchist publishers were in the library as a way to argue that the university had already demonstrated a vested interest in the subject. We also cited professors who had published works touching on anarchism, especially anything published by the university. Lastly, we touched on current events and the resurgence of “anarchist” as a household word. After we got approved, we had to submit our organization’s bylaws and constitution. Literally, all we did was copy the RNC Welcoming Committee’s “points of unity” and some instructions for consensus decision-making from the internet and pasted them into a word document. It was that easy. When any online form included a field for “organization president” or any other office, we simply wrote, “We are a non-hierarchical organization.” This came in handy later when we faced more institutional scrutiny, since one way administrators try to pressure radical groups is by pressuring its officers or the people otherwise most officially associated with the group.
Finding a faculty sponsor was easy for us, as one of the school’s professors was on the board of our local infoshop. However, this is one part of the process that has a lot of potential for problems. Ideally, you want a faculty sponsor to be three things: supportive, hands-off, and tenured. On rare occasions, you might want your faculty sponsor involved in the group itself, but in general they stand to lose more from being associated with a rowdy group of troublemakers than they have to gain. Involving a professor can lead to power imbalances within the group, in which the professional limits on your sponsor guide what the group decides to do or not. This is also why you want your sponsor to be tenured, so it’s less easy for the university to threaten them in order to pressure your group.
In the end, all we really accomplished in our first year was officially registering the group and holding an interest meeting, an anarchist FAQ event, and a Steal Something from Work Day film festival.
Although we didn’t get a ton done in our first year, we did learn one thing: a little bit of détournement goes a long way on campus. People loved our name. So, for our next big idea we decided to employ more clever wordplay: Radical Rush Week. For those lucky enough to not know what a “rush week” is, it’s a week at the beginning of the semester during which fraternities and sororities recruit new members through ritual hazing, drunken oblivion, and competitive feats of conformity. It’s gross. On the other hand, we liked the idea of an intensive week of activity for new radicals at UNC to get acquainted with the rebel scenes on and off campus, so we dubbed our first big event Radical Rush Week.
Radical Rush Week was the UNControllables’ real debut onto the campus scene. We tried to organize with other student groups, reaching out and offering each a day of the week to fill with a workshop or activity of their choice. This didn’t really work. A lot of the groups were too disorganized to put anything together, but didn’t let us know that until it was time to publish the Radical Rush calendars. The one group that did take on a day—a “student power” communist front-group—didn’t reciprocate with ANY of their members attending our other events. Later on, we heard from a comrade who worked with them that their leadership was “terrified” of our organizing. Radical Rush Week was a success overall, but only in spite of the other student groups we reached out to.
On the other hand, including off-campus anarchist activities like our local Really Really Free Market, a workshop at our local infoshop, a books-to-prisoners packing day, and an off-campus punk show was an unqualified success. Throughout the UNControllables’ existence, drawing from the connections and experience of off-campus anarchists has been crucial. More experienced anarchists helped by suggesting speakers to invite and passed on lessons about organizing. Our off-campus connections also meant we had something unique to offer students, in contrast to groups who claim a radical view of the world but never step out of the university bubble.
When we organized Radical Rush Week the following year, we decided to fill it with events we wanted to see ourselves, rather than trying to make it representative of the campus activist scene as a whole. We were able to host the Stimulator from subMedia, an anarchist-feminist sex worker, anarchist panther Ashanti Alston, and a journalist who documented police surveillance of local anarchists—all on the university’s dime.
Going all anarchist worked out much better for us. By organizing events that we ourselves wanted to see, rather than ones we thought would “bring out the most people,” those of us in the group still felt like we got something out of the events that didn’t have a huge attendance. Since the events were explicitly anarchist, seeing the same faces at multiple events throughout the week meant we were able to build relationships with people on that basis and invite them into the group. The people who were attracted to our group after our second Radical Rush were more enthusiastic about working with us specifically. The previous year, most of the new members split their energy between multiple student groups, leaving just a handful of us to do most of the work—not exactly a collective dynamic.
The membership in our second year demonstrated another advantage to having an anarchist presence on campus—we attracted folks from a different social body than other local anarchist groups. In North America, there aren’t a lot of spaces that produce new anarchists. Mostly, folks get into it through subcultural activity or street protests. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The author of this piece would even go so far as to say that if we recognize that anarchist ideas and practices circulate within particular subcultures, we should put effort into keeping those spaces vibrant and rebellious. On the other hand, the fact that our group was made up of people who don’t fit the stereotype of young anarchists made it really special. All kinds of students flocked to our group: an adult student with a country drawl who fled the US to spend his teens and early 20s in China training in martial arts; the president of the school’s Muslim Student Association who learned about anarchism through a class on neoliberalism; a runaway from a fundamentalist Christian household who was squatting the university (he spent Thanksgiving break sleeping in the philosophy department); various students whose parents migrated to the US fleeing harsh conditions; and a local high school student who took advanced classes at UNC. We were our very own special kind of crew that didn’t fit into the popular culture on campus, but also didn’t fit the anarchist subcultural norm. On the other hand, most of our crew was white, which we eventually had to reckon with.
The DisOrientation Guide
After a few semesters, we learned two important lessons for campus organizing. One, the students’ workload grows as the semester proceeds; this makes it increasingly difficult to get things done. Two, the beginning of the fall semester is the sweet spot for attracting students to your group’s activities.
Consequently, we decided to pack the start of the fall semester with activity and outreach, even participating in boring official incoming student events—since we were, after all, an officially registered student organization. A word of advice: as wretched as official student outreach events are, it’s where a lot of disaffected students who don’t fit into the frat culture will end up. We met a lot of our members and collaborators at these functions. Table these events, get a good spot, be aggressive with your propaganda, sign people up to an email list. The main thing we handed out to students was a zine we compiled every summer called The Disorientation Guide. Seriously, a little wordplay goes a long way on campus.
The Disorientation Guide included the schedule of Radical Rush Week events, a map of town highlighting local DIY spaces and subversive projects, “ads” for local groups that folks could plug into, and—this UNControllable’s favorite part—a full summary of the last year of resistance in our local area. It was a perfect group project, since it involved clear tasks (writing, compiling information about local groups, layout, gathering art and images to use) that could be divided up and completed wherever each contributor spent summer break.
We include here a PDF of one of our Disorientation Guides as a template for other anarchist student groups:
Not all universities offer funding for student groups, but if yours does, GET IT. No offense to the young people reading this, but UNC had literal teenagers in charge of distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for student activities—it was easy to woo and impress them. Besides student government, there were a lot of other sources of grants and funding: individual departments, a body specifically for funding the activities of graduate students (including student groups they were involved in), the student union’s activity and entertainment board, and smaller funds for specific themes or topics that some of our events happened to fit. Each of these was hidden away on the internet in some nether URL and involved a slew of paperwork or electronic fields to complete, but they usually paid off.
The first semester that we asked for money, we had no idea what we were doing. Surprisingly, even though it was our first time, we did a lot better at correctly navigating the student congress bureaucracy than some groups that had existed for years. We came up with all the barely justifiable expenditures we could imagine within their funding-request fields: office space, office supplies, stipends for speakers, lodging for speakers, gas money, van rentals, printing funds, postage… you name it. We figured we’d make do with whatever money they were willing to give us.
In the end, we requested the second biggest budget of any group that year. Oops. Sorry not sorry.
Aiming high paid off. We got $4000 in funding that semester. Most of that money went toward paying for the visa applications and airfare for anarchists from Brazil to speak about the 2013 uprising there. Afterward, they were able to tour the east coast presenting on anarchism and popular struggles in Brazil. Funding wasn’t the only university resource we were able to support them with, either. Some faculty in the Latin American Studies department wrote up an official letter of invitation, which made it much easier for our comrades to secure visas.
But of course, haters gonna hate. Especially when those haters are College Republicans and they receive less funding than your anarchist group. That semester, Student Congress rejected a proposal by the College Republicans to bring a pro-fracking speaker to campus… bringing their approved budget down to a thousand dollars less than the UNControllables! This led to a ridiculous small-scale controversy in which they “protested” the next Student Congress hearing—pretty tamely by anarchist standards, we might add. They kind of just stood together in the far corner of the room, silently. Fox News eventually picked up the story, which allowed the College Republicans to crowdsource the funding for their speaker anyway. But we weren’t going to pass up an opportunity to humiliate whiny rich kids.
The following week, we sent out press releases announcing that, in a surprise turn of events, the UNControllables would be holding a fundraiser for the College Republicans in front of the Old Well, a drinking fountain inside a rotunda that is the symbol of the university. On the big day, we built a PVC “fracking rig” next to the Old Well and announced our scheme: “If the College Republicans want more money from UNC, why don’t we follow their advice and drill baby drill… starting right here at the heart of UNC! Frack the Old Well!” We held signs that said “Who needs clean drinking water anyway?” and handed out tinted, murky “fracked water” so passersby could experience the benefits of fracking first hand.
This stunt may sound dumb. It was definitely silly. But it was fun—and that little bit of fun went a long way for our group dynamics.
Here is our “Frack the Old Well” statement in full:
“Before we reveal our fundraising plan for the Republicans, we want to explain why an anarchist group would do something like this. In case you haven’t followed the ‘funding gate’ controversy, let me break it down for you. The College Republicans could not convince Student Congress that their events were worth more than our anarchist events. Specifically, student congress cut $5,000 for an event of theirs defending fracking, a method of natural gas extraction linked with cancer, polluted water, and climate change. Having had $10,000 cut from our own proposed budget, we felt their pain. It can be humiliating to grovel at the feet of government for a handout, while certain political bodies question whether you deserve access to such resources. The Republicans must truly understand now what it’s like for millions who are forced to turn to welfare to survive. Luckily for them, the College Republicans were quickly able to attract wealthy donors by complaining publicly about ‘funding gate,’ which got them twice what they were originally asking for from Student Congress. We applaud this solution, and encourage the Republicans to share the names and addresses of their rich donors so poor people everywhere can redistribute private wealth until nobody even needs government handouts. Obviously, the Republicans have access to corporate money to bring their pro-fracking speakers to campus anyway, but they would prefer to use money generated from the rest of us, especially if it takes away from radical causes. However, anarchists at UNC have brainstormed a lucrative fundraising scheme for the Republicans that achieves all these goals—frack the Old Well!
“If fracking is such a good idea, why not start right here at UNC with the center of UNC, the Old Well? Supporters of fracking like the College Republicans ignore the consequences of devastated land and polluted watersheds, since they’re not the ones with water coming out of their taps that you can literally set on fire. They emphasize the economic benefits for landowners and small businesses, who can gain a few temporary jobs in exchange for forcing the rest of us to kiss clean drinking water goodbye.
“By bringing hydro-fracking to UNC, we can allow the entire student body to enjoy the benefits of natural gas extraction: poisoned water, fire hazards, accidental spills, free floating carcinogens, and plenty of profit for the rich at the expense of you and me: something Republicans love. The College Republicans complain that Student Congress reveals a liberal bias, but when it comes to sacrificing our health and environment for short-term profit, Democrats and Republicans have put their differences aside to find common ground. The Obama administration has praised fracking, while Democrat governors from Jerry Brown to Earl Ray Tomblin are jockeying to see who can sell out their people and their land for the quickest buck.
“But we’re not just focused on the College Republicans here. If this fundraiser is successful, we’re going to bring a proposal to the Board of Governors that students in the entire UNC system can solve the budget crisis by fracking their own universities. The state legislature is far too busy to help students who will have to drop out if tuition keeps rising. Instead, they’re hard at work closing women’s health services and giving tax breaks to corporations. So let’s do our part by fracking the Old Well right here in Chapel Hill. Hope you’re stocked up on bottled water.
“Honestly though, the true rivalry brought out by ‘funding-gate’ is not between liberals and conservatives. The true rivalry is between the haves and the have-nots. The rich at this school, like the rich throughout the rest of society, are used to getting their way and used to getting our money. But things are changing at UNC the way things are changing in Turkey, in Brazil, in Spain and Greece and northern Africa. That’s why we applied for Student Congress money, to bring participants in these movements to come speak and help us understand how our struggles are connected throughout the world. People everywhere are standing up against exploitation and oppression, and if the College Republicans want to use our money to further advance the interests of the rich, at the expense of our land and our health, they better be prepared for a fight.”
Not only did it feel good to have fun together, but the “Frack the Old Well” event showed that a sense of humor was really healthy for our group overall. We carried out a number of other fun stunts. We organized a “march against bullshit,” we distributed call-and-response sheets to disorient the fundamentalist Christian preacher who would lambast sinners in the middle of campus, we sent loads of silly letters to the school newspaper. Yet the most over-the-top response we ever got was when we decided to troll the student union’s screening of The Purge: Anarchy.
One of the ways the university vainly tries to keep students from getting shit-faced obliterated every weekend is by offering free screenings of recently debuted movies. When we heard that The Purge: Anarchy was coming up, we felt like it was our personal duty to defend the good name of anarchy, or at least the good reasons for it to have a bad reputation. We wrote a letter to the editor announcing our intentions to troll hard and set up a table in the lobby with real anarchist riot porn. The following day, the assistant dean of students started calling the letter’s authors, and continued to do so each day up until the movie. We were getting nervous that the university was going to take this a little too seriously.
Then, another problem arose—we pirated a copy of the movie and it turned out that The Purge: Anarchy is actually pretty fucking good! It’s basically a class war movie where the protagonists side with an underground army of poor black revolutionaries set on overthrowing the oppressive, racist ruling class. Fuck yeah!
So, rather than trolling the movie as hard as we originally planned to, we took a cue from the A for Anarchy project and used the movie to promote our ideas. But we still trolled a little bit. We printed pamphlets with one anarcho-geek’s review of the movie on the inside, and an “audience participation” guide on the back.
When we showed up early to stake out a good spot for handing out flyers, we were surprised to witness a squad of armed police officers with bulletproof vests and a bomb-sniffing dog exiting the theater. The officer with the dog then confirmed with the ticket takers that everything was “clear.” The cops remained in the theater for the rest of the movie. It was so fucking weird. However, it did make for a lot of fun whenever our crew of anarchists and sympathizers, rolling deep by the way, cheered and applauded the “purging” of a government tool in the movie. The letters-to-the-editor section for the following week was filled with back-and-forth letters about whether the police presence was justified or “an unnecessary show of force… threatening violence and courting tragedy.”
And Then It Got Real
We were able to be so silly with The Purge: Anarchyand “Frack the Old Well” responses because they didn’t really matter to any other group. On the other hand, with the rising Black Lives Matter wave of actions in the fall of 2014, we found that we had to put more consideration into how we would interact with the other groups and people who were also invested in responding. At the beginning of the semester, a couple newer UNControllables reached out to some of the black student organizations on campus to put together a “Support Ferguson Resistance Rally.” The various organizations involved had different expectations about how it would go
When the rally turned into an unpermitted march that blocked the main intersection in town, one of the co-organizers from a black poetry group grabbed the crowd’s attention and shouted, “This is not in the spirit of Ferguson! It is a time for healing! We should be mourning!” After a tense moment, folks began to yell back:
“This is how Ferguson is mourning!” one protestor responded.
“In Ferguson they mourned by burning down the QT!” another said.
“This IS how I mourn!”
For the rest of the march, participants respectfully debated with each other about what kinds of responses were needed in the wake of police murders and popular rebellion. Looking back, this probably should have been how the rally began, rather than defaulting to anarchist habit and hurrying to march. Later that fall, at the rallies in response to the non-indictments of the cops who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, these discussions took place collectively before people stepped off from the rallying points. In one case, the discussion was limited to people of color. Not rushing to march and first holding an assembly over what to do meant these later marches had considerable more buy-in from participants for the confrontational tactics used at them, including highway blockades and scuffles with the police—way beyond simply blocking an intersection for a few minutes in a small college town.
While the face-to-face discussions towards the end of the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally were respectful and engaging, a Facebook thread of dismissive bickering appeared afterwards and got totally out of control. Both sides of the Facebook argument were left less willing to trust each other moving forward, including between UNControllables members. On the one hand, some UNControllables thought the march was hasty and the defense of it on Facebook disrespectful. On the other hand, one of the people who helped organize the march felt hung out to dry after putting in their best intentions and effort. Worse yet, the two sides of the Facebook argument seemed to run along racial lines, with one side blaming white anarchists for their discomforts with the march, and white anarchists on the other side posting defensive tirades. The division between the two sides ran deep and led to some members not speaking to each other for weeks.
In addition to the internal conflicts, this was the first semester that our group finally came up against the state and university authorities. We found out that the university copyshop where we made all our flyers was handing over copies of our materials to the police. The dean of students was harassing us and asking to speak to us individually. The Durham Police Department released a report after the Black Lives Matter marches blaming out-of-town anarchists for directing all of the illegal activity at the march, mentioning the UNControllables, by name, as part of this supposed cabal.
This signaled an uptick in surveillance. Not to say it was high quality surveillance: when it came to describing what exactly anarchists did at these marches, the Durham PD wrote that, “the anarchist element will commit acts of anarchy.” Ooookay? More frighteningly, a couple of people close to our group were arrested and ended the semester facing charges, although not for UNControllables-related activity.
Concluding / Beginning
We hope that this short history can inspire similar anarchist student groups, so it may seem counterintuitive to end this story on the dour note of repression from above, conflict between us, and bleak prospects ahead. But I want to end on this low point precisely because it wasn’t the end of our group. Through two years of collective organizing and mutual aid, the relationships within the UNControllables had grown to a point that we wanted to learn from our mistakes and improve our efforts together. Rather than abandoning the group when faced with conflict and repression, everyone chose to talk through the disagreements and support each other through the hard times.
In response to the fallout from the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally, we had an hours-long discussion to repair the relationships within our group and discuss how to interact with other groups in future organizing. Let me put that another way: instead of cold-shouldering each other and dismissively bickering over the internet, 21st century teenagers got together, in person, to talk out their disagreements! Also, some of us took away the lesson that if your chief goal with an anarchist student group is to appropriate resources, it’s best not to brand confrontational engagements of questionable legality with your group’s name.
Three years after this low point, the UNControllables is still around. In fact, when Trump won the election, the very same tactic that sparked conflict in the Support Ferguson Resistance Rally—occupying the main intersection in town—was the go-to tactic everyone used to demonstrate resistance against the Trump regime. This time, it lasted for hours. Pushing the envelope is not always popular or easy, but it can open the popular imagination to more ambitious possibilities, in preparation for times when everyone recognizes the importance of challenging the status quo.
Despite the rough patches, not to mention various embarrassing mistakes made in the course of being a young group with young members, the UNControllables was one of the easiest anarchist projects I’ve participated in, and it had direct results. We were able to redistribute resources in support of anarchist struggles all over the world. We attracted new anarchists from social bodies that had little-to-no recent anarchist presence. We opened up other rebel students’ imaginations about what resistance can look like.
We hope that this account will encourage anarchists who find themselves attending universities to do the same.
Appendix: Six Questions with Today’s UNControllables
To follow up on this history, we caught up with current members of the UNControllables and asked them a few questions.
Has the fact that the UNControllables has a five-year history done anything to help or hurt current organizing?
Our history as a student organization in many ways emboldens us to keep acting and keep fighting. We’ve been lucky enough to have past members pass down organizing knowledge while simultaneously acknowledging the ways the UNControllables has changed with different members and adjusting to different contemporary needs.
Speaking as a group that existed for a few years before the Trump era, and continues to exist now, what kind of advice would you give to others who want to start campus anarchist groups?
Know your history. Know the history of the university. Know the history of your town or city. Investigate deeper into what led to the problems we have now and how that relates to your specific context. There’s a lot going on right now, but grounding yourself in your place, diversifying your tactics, and collaborating with other groups can help a lot.
How do you balance your crazy, revolutionary aspirations with the banal, day-to-day rigmarole of accomplishing a university education?
Everyone has a different way of balancing university education and activism, but in general, we try to implement a division of labor where different members “bottomline” different tasks that they have time for, in order to work towards our goals and objectives. Volunteering for the role of bottomliner means holding the primary responsibility for making an event happen, hopefully with the assistance of whoever else is available and interested.
What can non-university, off-campus anarchists do to help spur the growth of anarchist student groups at their local universities?
The distribution of information about anarchism and liberation movements is one of the best way to help spur the growth of radical student organization, by giving students an introduction to radical politics. Beyond this, off-campus anarchists can help by collaborating with student groups on presentations, workshops, and skill-sharing sessions.
What role do you see student groups playing in the anarchist movement as a whole?
Radical student groups can act as an introduction to radical politics for students who haven’t been exposed to theses ideas before, as well as providing education and information to those who want to learn more. At the same time, they act as a catalyst for campus activism and provide an organizational structure for planning other kinds of action.
Being so funding-centered in terms of your organizing, did the money ever cause problems in the group?
Given the nature of our organization, the funding we receive from student government is always precarious. Even with the funding we get, it’s not uncommon for us to have to find ways to scrounge up more to cover all of our events and activities.
Courageous demonstrators pulled down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina yesterday. In the face of state indifference and racist backlash, they took matters into their own hands; within minutes, they had demolished a century-old symbol of oppression. Now that the statue is down, what will it take to uproot the foundation it stood on? What can this defiant gesture tell us about how to take on all the other problems we face?
In Durham, protestors showed what anyone can accomplish with a ladder, rope, a few friends, and courage. Uprooting the base—the root causes of white supremacy and our powerlessness over our own lives—will take longer, but it demands the same fundamental principle.
Why had the statue stayed up for so long in Durham, a liberal city with a nearly half black population? A local government spokeswoman cited a state law prohibiting them from altering memorials, saying, “I would assume that the only thing possible are steps to reverse the law.”
If you believe in the legitimacy of the state—if you believe the only way to make change is through representatives and laws—then yes, that’s “the only thing possible.” In that model, our country will remain as entrenched in white supremacy as our rulers decide it should be. What could illustrate our powerlessness better than being forced to see a symbol of our degradation every day, unable to imagine a way to change it ourselves?
But as anarchists, we believe that all of us deserve to determine our own destinies. We believe that there is nothing inherently legitimate about the actions of those who hold state power, nor anything inherently illegitimate about defying the government. We don’t accept that the only way to dismantle the physical legacy of white supremacy is to wait for the state legislature to do it. If we possess any sort of freedom today in this society, it is the result of all the times people defied and overthrew governments, not because of the times they were obedient. If not for disobedience, we would still be living under the rule of kings. This is why we believe that the best way to make lasting change is by taking direct action to bring about the world we wish to live in.
This is true for any change we wish to make, from toppling a statue to toppling a president.
In response to their courageous action, the North Carolina governor tweeted,, “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.” That seems unlikely, considering that after nearly a century of begging politicians, the statue remained in place—representing the very same racism and deadly violence we saw in Charlottesville. In Durham, even with a black mayor and a majority-black city council, the statue stood just as solidly as it had during the Jim Crow era of all-white government.
There are two ways to change an unjust law. You can ask lawmakers to amend it, or you can break it together in a way that makes it unenforceable. Which approach is more empowering? The former concentrates power in the hands of a few; the latter disperses it to everyone. The former frames leaders as the only agents of change; the latter enables all of us to determine the shape of our lives and our communities.
We can apply this logic of direct action to all the problems we face.
Rather than begging Trump—or Obama, who oversaw more deportations than any previous US president—to adjust immigration policies, we can defend our neighbors against raids, establish sanctuaries, and tear down borders.
Rather than pleading for a leader to appoint a liberal judge to make decisions about our bodies for us, we can take control of the knowledge and infrastructure we need for reproductive health care and bodily autonomy.
What all of these approaches have in common is a commitment to struggling for freedom using methods that spread power rather than concentrating it. As former Black Panther and anarchist Ashanti Alston put it, we need “all power to the people and all power through the people.”
We shouldn’t wait for presidents, governors, or bureaucrats to give us permission to change the world. We shouldn’t defer to authority figures. From the civil rights movement to the Stonewall Rebellion, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Gezi Park in Istanbul, freedom has always begun from the point at which courageous people broke the law and took their lives back from their rulers. The chief obstacle to these movements has not been the violence of the state, but the passivity and compliance of other citizens.
As people rise up to tear down statues around the country, let’s strategize about how to tear up the foundations of the system that prevents us from making the most of our lives. Direct action, without laws or representatives, isn’t just more effective to win immediate victories like removing racist monuments. It can be the foundation for a free world beyond white supremacy, capitalism, and the state.