October 23, 2021 –
The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on
principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.
We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF
A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement
by Peter Little
|PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.
Portland has become a focal point for far-right groupings around the United States. The ongoing mobilizations against far-right activities in the city are vital and deserve support. The countermobilization in response to a Proud Boy rally on August 22nd had inspiring and positive elements, but were overwhelmed by developments which reflect underlying ideological and practical weaknesses within the antifascist movement. We need deeper critical reflection on the questions raised if the movement is to avoid being undermined by repeating mistakes of previous generations of antifascists.
Events of August 22nd raised questions of security, the relationship between front-liners and a mass base, and the need for accountability and discipline, particularly when it comes to the application of force in combating fascism.
For those of us who have lived through previous upsurges, the nascent antifascist movement and the concurrent rise of militance in defense of black lives have overcome stale and moralistic debates about pacifism. The abandonment of pacifism as an overriding strategic framework is an encouraging development but also poses risks, though not those which most worry pacificists. The movement’s emphasis on direct action and its distance from the electoral system are also significant in its radical potential. These emerging capacities for physically confronting fascist threats needs to be matched by a framework for moderating, holding accountable, and disciplining the use of force.
We must also acknowledge the limits of force in countering fascism. Absent a collective evaluation of the risks posed, the development of organizational forms to facilitate these capacities will exert unseen influences on the internal culture and politics of the movement, and will exacerbate already existing tensions between front line groupings and the mass movement itself. An examination of the compromises inherent in a move to armed defense is central to working out how to navigate tensions between the needs and interests of front liners and the mass movement which is foundational to radical antifascism and its most radical potentials.
Absent a collective evaluation of the risks posed, the development of organizational forms to facilitate these capacities will exert unseen influences on the internal culture and politics of the movement, and will exacerbate already existing tensions between front line groupings and the mass movement itself.
What are the limits to acceptable violence? Who determines them? How are they enforced? These questions are strategically, politically, and ethically important for how their answers impact the movement’s ongoing potential. They point towards well-worn but still inadequately addressed questions about the compromises political movements are forced to embrace in militarized conflicts where open, direct, and participatory democracy exist in tension with the repressive pressures that limit their viability. Our history is tragically riddled with mistakes on both sides of this continuum, and we don’t have to look far to see examples where decisions made under duress end up undermining the most liberatory potentials of our movements.
Our Enemies, and Us
The antifascist movement’s opponents in both the security apparatus and in the fascist movement will not be hindered by the ethical constraints that rightly limit the range of options for the antifascist movement itself. The compromises our movements are forced to make can so quickly begin to undermine their most liberatory potentials. Our attitude toward violence and the limits we place on it are part of what define us, and differentiate us from our enemies.
|PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.
The state has immense resources for repression and will employ layers of measures in an attempt to marginalize and disempower the most radical elements of the antifascist movement. Overt repression criminalizing the movement, outright violence such as the police murder of Michael Reinholdt, or collaboration with the far right may be the most easily identified forms of repression, but these initiatives always risk discrediting the organizations utilizing them if they are exposed. The security apparatuses would prefer to weaponize weaknesses within the movement, hoping to fragment and discredit it, and will attempt to employ all of the above methods in a strategic orientation that pushes the political basis for the antifascist movement into a malleable and reformist direction, thereby diminishing its most radical potentials.
The security apparatuses would prefer to weaponize weaknesses within the movement, hoping to fragment and discredit it, and will attempt to employ all of the above methods in a strategic orientation that pushes the political basis for the antifascist movement into a malleable and reformist direction, thereby diminishing its most radical potentials.
The far-right embraces hierarchy and inequality as reflective of a natural order. So, it lacks a humanistic ethic, and this removes restraint on questions of violence and force. Many camps extend this to an embrace of violence and terror. The left cannot do the same without abandoning the liberatory ideals which motivate us. Though global capitalism and the states whose apparatuses maintain it will be forced oppose fascist movements as threats to the existing order, the radical antifascist movement is unlikely to enjoy the kind of cover that the far right sometimes receives from the security forces.
|PDX 2020. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images. Use for educational purposes only.
All of this means that pending victory, we have to assume we will be physically and militarily out-resourced by our opponents. Given this, the struggle over popular support and to win significant sectors of society to sympathize with antifascism is essential. This means cultivating a base whom, though not fighters, sympathize with, support, and provide cover for the antifascist movement. This extends through a range of relations between militants and the larger base. Besides needing significant numbers of people willing to take risks confronting fascists in the streets, we also need those devoted to making repression of the movement by the state or fascists prohibitively costly, and other working to cultivate a mass culture of antifascism that is more appealing than the fascists in its prefigurative aspects.
This full-spectrum strategy requires evaluating our activity not just by its immediate impact on fascists in the street, but by how well it expands the base of support for the movement, while discrediting the enemy. We don’t win by force alone: an important element of what makes victory possible in the face of such odds is our ability to credibly act in ways more appealing, trustworthy, and worthy of support than the better equipped and resourced enemies we confront.
Defeating fascism will require the dismantling of the system that creates its potentials. The base of the US fascist movement is largely composed of a combination of struggling small businessmen alongside some number working class people who see their material conditions and their limited privileges eroding under the pressures of a faltering system. Though in places the fascist movement may receive some forms of support from elements of the capitalist class and its security apparatus, it has to be understood as an oppositional byproduct of Capitalist relations themselves. For every fascist who is chased off the streets, global capitalism is creating the potentials for many more. Repressing fascists will not defeat them, as the social relations that produced them will continue to provide the experiences and viewpoints which are fertile ground for fascist ideology. While its supporters may be motivated by ‘hate,’ or ‘backwards ideas,’ these ideas are also an expression of a perceived collective interest within a capitalist framework. A revolutionary anticapitalist alternative must develop a radical politic that can compete with and win the sympathies of those drawn to fascism, and must orient its priorities appropriately.
Repressing fascists will not defeat them, as the social relations that produced them will continue to provide the experiences and viewpoints which are fertile ground for fascist ideology. While its supporters may be motivated by ‘hate,’ or ‘backwards ideas,’ these ideas are also an expression of a perceived collective interest within a capitalist framework. A revolutionary anticapitalist alternative must develop a radical politic that can compete with and win the sympathies of those drawn to fascism, and must orient its priorities appropriately.
Acknowledging that we will likely be outgunned, out macho’d, and possibly even outnumbered by our enemies should not diminish the importance of developing a capacity to confront fascist threats or to defend communities: this is essential. And though there are no road maps for producing the concrete linkages between antifascism and a potential anticapitalist block, the mutual aid projects that have emerged in response to the fires and heatwaves in Oregon all offer encouraging hints of these possibilities. As pointed out by Garrison Davis and Robert Evans, the far right in Oregon enacted roadblocks and restrictions on movement and menaced journalists trying to report on events during the natural disasters of the last year, while the antifascist movement provided shelter, food, and direct support to those most impacted by these events. As indicated by far-right ‘mutual aid’ responses to disasters in the Southern United States more recently however, we can’t assume they will continue to act so stupidly.
In contrast to deepening a mass movement, events on Aug 22nd hint towards a trajectory of vanguard vs vanguard, with the mass movement increasingly sidelined by front-liner actions which prioritize the fighters and their objectives over the development of a militant, mass participatory base confronting the fascist threat. If fascism is a semi-autonomous right wing social movement, it needs to be countered by a left-wing social movement. The struggle against fascism cannot be reduced to a series of tactics or technologies. We don’t want a “standing army” of tactical specialists. We want a mass in motion, consisting of all the people willing to take those steps, with various levels of commitment and engagement. The contributions of those who for whatever reasons are not front-liners are as important as the activity of the front-liners themselves.
A World We Want to Live In, and How We Get There Matters
One notable aspect of Aug 22nd was that before the event, police and the city publicly abdicated responsibility for maintaining order. They were nonetheless present, and demonstrated the limits of their noninterventionist policies when an undercover officer emerged from the black bloc to make an arrest after a shoot-out downtown. This public retreat may reflect confidence in their ability to influence events from within the movement, and this likelihood further raises the importance of a set of agreed principles, of limits to violence, as well as accountability and discipline for all participants.
The partial withdrawal of state forces left open a particular hint of revolutionary possibilities — dual power. In such moments, our actions are important not only in accomplishing their immediate objectives of chasing fascists off the street, but as a demonstration of the politics and world we hope to see. Call it optics, call it realpolitik, but this matters immensely.
Popular support cannot be the sole metric for assessing the viability of an approach, but we cannot afford to ignore the multiple accounts from Aug 22nd where sympathizers who came down to support the action, accidental passersby, and workers in the neighborhood were questioned or felt menaced by black bloc. In one instance Chevron workers called police saying people were fighting with fireworks in their pumping station, causing them to worry about the dangers to the neighborhood of a potential gas explosion. (Police declined to respond.)
All of this points again towards questions as to the limits and potential costs of violence within the movement. Who are militants accountable to? How do the front liners maintain accountability to the movement as a whole? What will happen when disagreements within the movement begin to be resolved with force? How can individuals representing the movement be held accountable for actions like the attack on journalist Maranie Staab, without handing them to our enemies or embracing a punitive model of justice? But more importantly, how can these types of mistakes be identified and prevented in the future.
Violence and Authority
Violence, whatever the motives behind it, is a means for imposing one’s will on another human being, or group. This is an immutable reality, and one that idealistic slogans about opposing hierarchy and authority will not resolve. The antifascist movement must acknowledge this reality, and that some of its actions are a form of repression. Even if justified or necessary, there must be restraints and checks on the forces engaged in such repressive action. This includes accountability for the actions of front-liners, including an honest evaluation of and ownership for mistakes. It will not be easy to do this without exposing our fighters to additional risks, and it will not be easy to work out, given the multitude of forces looking to divide, fracture, or harm the movement — but methods that balance these concerns will have to be worked out.
Without clear agreements about the limits to the use of force, any group with a repressive capacity will tend them to exert an outsized influence within the movement. Anarchism and antiauthoritarianism are not exempt from these realities. The elevation of military tactics over a political strategy risk discrediting the movement as well as degrading democracy within it. It exposes openings for state actors to discredit the movement, stir conflicts between comrades, and breed divisions which destroy the movement. It also risks the isolation and abandonment of front-liners by the larger movement.
Tactical Realities and Political Implications
In moments of physical confrontation, conceptions of direct democracy, autonomy, and opposition to hierarchy will run up against real-world constraints. As acknowledged in this post action evaluation —Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements — on August 22, there was no capacity to collectively decide how to respond to the change in location announced by the far-right organizers, in the end splitting the crowd and leading to the embarrassing scene that unfolded in Parkrose.
This is not an argument against democracy, but that people’s common sense conceptions of how to function democratically under such conditions are now running up against the realities of work which requires both clandestinity and coordination of small groups with masses of supporters. Sweeping these questions under the rug with simplistic anti-authoritarian rhetoric does not resolve them — and continuing without grappling with these questions will lead to more of the kinds of setbacks we saw on Aug 22nd. This lack of discipline and coordination leaves the ground open to the kinds of debacles where an outnumbered group of antifascists march head on into defeat and members of the black bloc assault journalists or irritating but insignificant bystanders while Proud Boys attack antifascists only a block or so away.
At Parkrose, independent journalist Maranie Staub was filming the black bloc, and continued to do so after being asked to stop. When she continued to film, her phone was taken from her, and when she responded by confronting those who took her phone, she was thrown to the ground and harangued with misogynistic epithets.
This response to the security threats posed by her insistence on recording may be useful in examining some of the questions I’ve hoped to raise in this essay.
The attack on Maranie Staab has been defended as legitimate given her possible relationships with antagonistic independent journalists and the dangers of her exposing antifascists. But did it actually make anyone safer?
The response to Staab drew attention away from where Proud Boys were actively attacking demonstrators, exposed people to potential criminal charges, and attracted many more journalists with cameras. This was tactically self-defeating, and even if justified by another rubric, it can’t be justified on security grounds.
Furthermore, it is worth acknowledging that undercover officers were present and in black bloc that day, and likely had their own unseen cameras — not to mention the other cameras belonging to cops, journalists, fascists, or bystanders, which one can assume were present but out of sight. Good security cannot be predicated on the assumption that we can stop other social forces from predictably exercising their own agency.
Good movement security cannot be reduced to a series of tactics or technologies. Its core is a collective capacity to analyze threats and evaluate the costs and benefits of approaches to mitigating them. This requires accountability from all participants in implementing agreed solutions, and also includes accountability for the actions of the front liners to the rest of the movement, including an honest evaluation, acknowledgement of mistakes, and a collective discipline capable of preventing their repetition. This kind of discipline cannot mean limiting debate or criticism: its healthy application actually requires encouraging a framework where a diversity of ideas and approaches are encouraged for consideration. It does mean developing methods for holding the different components of the movement (whether individuals or groupings) accountable to a set of collective principles and strategies.
State and fascist repression will of course complicate this process, and throwing comrades with poor judgement or who make mistakes to our enemies will degrade trust and cohesion within the movement. Accountability and relative transparency will have to navigate this tension carefully, and there are no easy answers. Broadly, we can say that we need to find ways to subordinate the military aspects of the struggle to the political. That requires a tactical command structure that operates in the context of a horizontal political culture — autonomy and freedom in politics, but discipline within the organizations responsible for implementing strategy.
Peter Little is long time street-level anti-fascist – and is probably guilty of many of the mistakes and excesses that are criticized here.