From Gods and Radicals by Christopher Scott Thompson, October 13, 2021
A Response to “What Happened to Anarchism”
If the people we fight against had their way, then none of us would be safe for another day. That’s all the reason I need to stand against them.
This post is a response to Rhyd Wildermuth’s “What Happened to Anarchism? (A Critique of American Antifa)”, which was published here on Gods and Radicals on September 7. As I am an anarchist and anti-fascist, Rhyd must have known I would disagree with his article. Still, I doubt he would have predicted the impact it had on me. After reading what Rhyd had to say, I was up until four in the morning wrestling with intense anger and sorrow because of his words.
After all, my family broke up because of my involvement in anarchism and anti-fascism. I didn’t see my kids for four months. I was forced to move so that I wouldn’t lose my children, leaving behind my home, my friends… everything.
In the past five years, I’ve been tear-gassed, flash-banged, chased by riot police, surrounded by Proud Boys. At one action, I was hurt badly enough that recovery took three months.
Still, I was one of the lucky ones. Some of my comrades have gone to prison, others have been gunned down in the street, others crushed by speeding cars. So, when one of my comrades says it was all for nothing, a meaningless sacrifice to defeat an unreal enemy… frankly, it hurts.
I’m not here to talk about that, though. That’s just the background, a context for why this means so much to me that I decided to write an article disagreeing with my publisher when he’s about to publish two of my books.
What I’m really here to talk about is why I think Rhyd is wrong about this, and why I think his criticisms of anarchism and anti-fascism are so off-base.
The Killing of Michael Reinoehl
Let’s start with Michael Reinoehl, an anti-fascist who killed a member of Patriot Prayer at an action in Portland, Oregon. According to Rhyd, Michael Reinoehl’s social media posts “had proclaimed an intention to use violence” – but the quote Rhyd uses doesn’t support this assertion. What Michael said was “It will be a war and like all wars there will be casualties.” That’s a prediction of what will happen, not a statement of intent. To anyone involved in the Uprising, that wouldn’t even have been a controversial prediction, because there had already been several casualties – among others, the two people shot dead just four days earlier at a Black Lives Matter rally by Kyle Rittenhouse.
As Michael Reinoehl predicted, the casualties have continued since then. Here in Minneapolis, Deona Knajdek was killed just four months ago when a driver intentionally rammed his car into a group of protesters. All of us who have been on the streets over the past few years have faced the real threat of lethal violence, so Michael Reinoehl’s words were simply an accurate description of what was already happening.
Did Michael Reinoehl “go too far,” as Rhyd suggests? I have no way of knowing, because I wasn’t there to see what he was responding to when he opened fire. I do know that the threat of being killed at an action was a real one. I also know that we’ll never know whether his act was reasonable or not. A federal task force assassinated him just a few days later. Incidentally, the protest at which Deona Knajdek was killed was a response to another assassination by a federal task force, this time of an activist named Winston “Boogie” Smith.
I Know It When I See It…
Like Rhyd, I was also involved in the alter-globalization movement some twenty years ago. One thing Rhyd is definitely right about: there was a lot of paranoia back then about infiltrators. After all these years, that doesn’t seem all that relevant to me. Most of the people on the front lines are different now, security culture has evolved a lot, and I don’t see a clear line between the paranoia I ran into back then and any major feature of anarchist organizing now. For one thing, most people have learned to be suspicious of anyone proposing big, dramatic, spectacularly illegal actions – because, as Rhyd points out, those people often turn out to be infiltrators.
According to Rhyd, “From 2009 to 2015, anarchists became largely irrelevant.” This seems like a very strange statement to me. It’s as if Rhyd has forgotten all about Occupy Wall Street (despite mentioning it just a few sentences before that). Occupy wasn’t an anarchist movement as such, but it was planned and put into motion by anarchists, and Occupy camps were run according to anarchist principles.
My own commitment to anarchism, dormant for several years, was revived by my participation in Occupy Minnesota, but I did have to wonder if other people thought of it in the same terms or if they also saw anarchism as having no relevance during the Occupy movement. I decided to check Andrew Cornell’s Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the 20th Century, where I found this: “After Occupy, commentators from other sectors of the Left felt compelled to acknowledge the ascendant influence of anarchism” – not exactly a description of an irrelevant movement.
Rhyd accuses anarchists of denying the existence of leaders within anarchist circles. According to Rhyd, “Antifa has leaders who will of course disavow until the end of their days that they are leaders.” This simply doesn’t match my own experience. Anarchists are not opposed to leadership, but to hierarchy and authority. Yes, I’ve seen people exercising leadership – to a limited degree – in a Black Bloc. I’ve never seen anyone with authority over the Bloc, and I reject the assertion that Antifa is in any sense hierarchical. I especially reject the assertion that any anti-fascist activity is coordinated centrally – how things are in Portland, Oregon has little relevance in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Rhyd says “Antifa is a specifically anarchist organizing tactic, rather than a general leftist one.” This is absolutely not the case. Yes, there are anarchists engaged in Antifa activities. There are also Marxists, and plenty of people who don’t identify with any specific leftist tendency. As one comrade told me over a beer once, “I’m not really interested in ideology. I just want to punch Nazis.” Now, that’s not me – my anti-fascism is definitely an aspect of my anti-capitalist ideology – but the assertion that Antifa is “specifically anarchist” is just not factual. In my experience, the far majority of anti-fascists understand fascism exactly as Rhyd describes it (“an immune response of capitalism”), but anyone willing to stand up to fascism is welcome to stand with me – whether they share my ideology or not.
According to Rhyd, “Trump was never a fascist, and neither really were any but a very small handful of the Alt-Right luminaries.” To say that this misses the point would be a massive understatement. Most people involved with the Alt-Right will publicly deny being fascists. They’ll also march side by side with guys carrying swastika flags, so what does it matter?
According to Rhyd, “what arose in the United States wasn’t fascism but rather plain old racism and nationalism”. I was at an action once where I saw a man wearing a Pinochet “helicopter ride” T-shirt. If you’re not familiar with them, these shirts call for the murder of leftist activists. The guy wearing this shirt was loudly denying being a Nazi, pointing out that as a Jewish man he could hardly be a Nazi. One of his own comrades turned to him immediately and said, “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
You can debate whether that’s fascist or not all day long if you want to, but I don’t care: I know a threat when I see one.
The Nature of Conflict
Rhyd mentions his concerns about several Antifa tactics, including doxing and de-platforming. He mentions cases where these tactics may have been misused, but the fact that a tactic can be misused does not mean that it’s not a valid tactic – any tactic can be misused. In my opinion, Rhyd’s objections to these tactics show a lack of understanding of the nature of conflict. To put it simply, if I use a tactic against you then you can obviously use the same tactic against me. That’s just how conflict works. Does it mean we should never use any tactics that harm the other side, for fear they will then use the same tactics and harm us? They already have every intention of harming us, and if we don’t want that to happen, then we need to stop them!
According to Rhyd, “Both Patreon and Facebook banned It’s Going Down and other anarchist websites at the same time that they banned far right groups, just as I had predicted would happen. The irony here is that many of those Antifa-identified groups had led the call for public pressure to get far right groups banned.” There’s nothing ironic about it: everyone involved knew that something like that might happen and made the strategic decision that it was worth the risk. When your priority is preventing harm, you have to accept some level of risk to yourself.
Everyone who doxes fascists is well aware that they can also be doxed, just as anyone who punches Nazis is well aware that they can also be punched. Everyone who tries to get a fascist organizing tool de-platformed is well aware that the same thing can happen to their own organizing tools. Conflict always involves both real and potential harm to both parties. That’s literally unavoidable.
What’s not unavoidable is to allow fascists to bully, intimidate, hurt, and kill people without doing anything about it. Let me give you an example: Sophie Labelle, the creator of Assigned Male Comics, was doxed by fascists and then targeted for a “troll storm” organized on 8chan. The stated purpose of this campaign was to get Sophie to commit suicide. When anti-fascists identified and doxed several of the people involved in the campaign against Sophie, the volume of harassing messages abruptly dropped, because the people involved were suddenly confronted with the real possibility of consequences. Would it have been more ethical for the anti-fascists to have stood aside and allowed the “troll storm” to continue? I am frankly not interested in that type of ethics.
Some of the incidents Rhyd mentions, I know nothing about. I don’t doubt that there are bad people out there who will misuse doxing, de-platforming, or any other tactic to fit their own agenda. I don’t know anyone like that personally, so when Rhyd describes the entire U.S. anarchist movement in those terms, I am honestly at a loss. I have a lot of anarchist and anti-fascist friends. They don’t do any of the things Rhyd describes.
When Rhyd describes Antifa as “a reckless, violent movement eager to fight an enemy that never really existed,” I think about the comrades who fanned out across Minneapolis during the Uprising to help defend our community while roving gangs of white supremacists fired guns at protesters and set fires all over the city. I think about my comrade Deona Knajdek, who had parked her vehicle in front of a protest to protect it from fascist attack – only to be crushed when a vehicle slammed right into it at 80 miles an hour. The idea that this enemy “never really existed” is frankly a fantasy, because we’re facing the reality of this enemy every day in Minneapolis.
Anarchy in Action
“To be an antifascist is too little; one is an antifascist because one is already something else. We have an affirmation to set up against this negation… work, equality, and social justice.” – From an article in Mujeres Libres during the Spanish Civil War
That isn’t the only thing we’re doing in Minneapolis, though. The media paid much more attention to the CHAZ/CHOP autonomous zone in Seattle, but the George Floyd Square Autonomous Zone in Minneapolis lasted much, much longer. This was a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood that went unpoliced and ungoverned for more than a year, protected by barricades guarded by anti-fascist volunteers, and organized by community meetings in the morning and evening. For several months, a sign at the South barricade announced the community’s only official rules: no violence, and no for-profit sales.
Very few of the people who lived in George Floyd Square would identify as anarchists. To me, that just isn’t relevant. An autonomous community, self-governing and directly democratic, is anarchy in action regardless of the ideology of the participants. In the Uprising, the working class of Minneapolis demonstrated how much is possible. We’re still a long way from achieving any of it, but I’m proud of what we’ve done.
In the past five years, I lost practically everything because of this struggle, forcing me to rebuild my life from scratch. Despite all that, I don’t believe for one second that the sacrifices I’ve made were worthless. If the people we fight against had their way, then none of us would be safe for another day. That’s all the reason I need to stand against them.