|The American Black Block made its bow at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests--is today's Antifa movement just a cover for the same street fighting radicals?|
Note: Once again my reflections on Charlottesville have taken long than anticipated. In this last post I look at the relationship of the Antifas and the Black Block as well as other participants in the events, especially the clergy and religious contingent. I still failed to tag all bases. Tomorrow I will re-visit my much reviled Free Speech absolutism in light of what we learned. But that will be ancillary to this series which concludes today.
The “There” where Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville was with the Anti-fascists—broadly speaking—who Donald Trump famously tagged as one of the “many sides” guilty of violence. He walked that back for a nanosecond and has since jumped back on the theme with both feet. Although much of the media dutifully denounced moral equivalency, many seem to give it back handed credence in spates of articles, editorials, and yammering head commentary wringing hands and pointing fingers at the Antifa in particular as reckless and violent.
Much of that comes from identifying Antifa with Black Block Anarchists who have been smashing windows and street brawling—frequently piggy-backing on other much larger and non-violent demonstrations. Their black clothing, masks, and banners have become familiar across the country. With probably only a few hundred hard core participants and occasional I-wanna-do-that drop-ins the attention they receive is far greater than their actual influence on a far-wider movement of resistance and protest.
The Black Block first emerged in the 1999 protests to the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington which took local authorities by surprise resulting in millions of dollars in damage and over 500 arrests—most of them of people not associated at all by the estimated 200 Black Block anarchists that initiated the violence. Since then the Black Block has been a controversial part of numerous demonstrations notably during the Occupy Movement in Oakland and other West Coast cities and on the fringes of anti-police protests following shootings or deaths in custody and Black Lives Matter actions. In January a small group broke away from much larger anti-inauguration protests in Washington. The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pursuing heavy felony charges against more than 200 people arrested that day, most of them by-standers, non-Black Block protestors not directly involved, and journalists covering the event.
The Black Block that emerged from the WTO demonstrations was inspired by a long tradition of street brawling in Europe that goes back to the French Revolution. Although the Great Railway Strike of 1877 and other late 19th Century featured pitched battles the American labor movement quickly learned that the armed power of the state easily crushed such rebellions and destroyed or eroded public support. The labor union movement, including its most militant components like the IWW learned to organize strikes and other manifestations in ways that could maximize the economic power of workers while generally avoiding inviting violent repression as much as possible. This was simply practical.
The Civil Rights Movement, which inspired subsequent liberation movements and mass protests, developed the ideas of passive resistance, civil disobedience, and non-violence into an effective model for protest. While there were always those who chaffed under the restrictions and discipline of non-violence and advocated militant self-defense like the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, and others, few if any advocated planed street violence as a revolutionary tactic. The great urban riots were seen as understandable outbursts of pent up rage that often ended up destroying Black communities and invited a permanent army-of-occupation stance and mind set by police.
In the ‘60’s one group of White radicals, looked longingly at the riots and thought they could be a revolutionary model. The Weatherman faction of SDS was made up mostly of the sons and daughters of America’s ruling elite—Bill Ayers, scion of Commonwealth Edison’s top honcho and Bernardine Dohrn being the prime examples. I knew met some who became Weathermen at a movement center for high school students that we all helped operate during the Democratic Convention protests of 1968. Ted Gold and Diana Oughton were killed when their bomb making factory in a Greenwich Village townhouse exploded 18 month later.
|The Weathermen on the march in Chicago in 1969 during the Days of Rage right before all hell broke loose. The Revolution as a temper tantrum was a dead end.|
Radicalized by the Vietnam War, and the rise of the Black Panthers and Black Power movement, and filled with text book daddy issues and self-loathing fetishized the violence of the riots in Detroit, Newark, Chicago and other cities. The envisioned themselves as a vanguard of a youth revolution sparked by their example. They famously sang I’m Dreaming of a White Riot at a gathering and made that vision come true during the Days of Rage in Chicago in October 1969. Point of disclosure—I was nearly pulled from a bicycle and beaten during that rampage when I accidentally rode into it while peddling to my North Side apartment from classes a Columbia College which may have tinged my opinion of them. When that epic temper tantrum failed to spark uprisings around the country, the Weathermen went underground after a War Council in Flint, Michigan and undertook a campaign of arson and bombing.
The Weathermen were a dead end in American radicalism. No one followed it their footsteps—which were generally regarded as disastrous or adopted either their peculiar Marxist ideology or their methods.
The early Black Block people, two generations removed from the Weathermen, were probably only dimly aware of them. Their inspiration came from the streets of Paris, Athens, and other European cities where anarchists broke from mass anti-austerity protests to smash windows, overturn and burn cars, and battle police. Because they eschew recognizable public leaders and seek as much as possible to shroud their identities, we don’t know as much about who the Black Block is as we do about the Weathermen. From those who have been arrested and charged we can see that they mostly are not drawn from the elite strata of society as the old SDS radicals. Many were students, often drop outs, had ordinary middle or working class backgrounds. Some were part of the downwardly mobile middle class faced with diminishing expectations—the same circumstances that may have led some of their parents and grandparents to become Tea Partiers and Trumpistas and some of their contemporaries to pick different demons and drift to the Alt-right.
We do know that they a mostly—sometimes overwhelmingly White. That has been a particular sore point in many Black communities when they injected themselves into the spontaneous protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere after police shootings. They also often broke away from large peaceful protests organized by both civil rights movement veterans and the younger leadership represented by the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM has castigated the Black Block for not being good White allies and following the lead of Blacks organizing their own resistance. Black Block members in turn have accused both traditional community leaders and BLM leadership of timidity and being complicit with their oppressors.
I have been critical of the Black Block for those reasons as well as their susceptibility by virtue of the very anonymity they adopt to provocateurs. It was old Wobbly wisdom that when trying to sniff out a police or company spy, “look out for the first one to pick up a brick.” The coordinated attack on the Occupy Movement by the FBI and other federal agencies in cooperation with local police was filled with just that and was used to squelch a popular and growing movement and clear out Occupy camps around the country. BLM suspects the same.
Currently Alt-right trolls, with or without the aid of Justice Department dirty tricks, have established several phony Antifa Facebook pages and Twitter accounts filled with outrageous statements and threats of violence that both the conservative and mainstream media duly report as gospel. Not only that, the faux posts inflame the naive and suck them into doomed acting out.
|Variations of this flag and symbol are used by Antifa activists all over the world.|
But are the Black Block and the Antifa on the streets of Charlottesville really identical? Clearly there is some overlap and the cosmetics are similar—the use of black clothing, banners, and sometimes masks. But the Antifa are clearly much broader and focused more directly on community self-defense and direct confrontation with racist thugs than on mindless rampage. The IWW/GDC which has been among the most cohesive and visible elements of the Antifa movement has clearly made that distinction. Many of those now joining the Antifa movement have no ties at all to the Black Block.
But the protests to the Alt-Right in Charlottesville were much wider than just the Antifa. Who else was involved?
|Largely led by young women Black Lives Matter was an important and disciplined part of the Charlottesville response to racism and White Nationalism.|
Black Lives Matter, with its young, largely female leadership was front and center from the beginning of planning. Eager to make a strong and united showing, they began careful organizing and planning weeks in advance, including training non-violence for community members and outreach to others, particularly potential White allies, to make sure everyone was on the same page. They were very concerned that the Antifa contingent might disrupt their plans for aggressive but peaceful confrontation. Many community members of all races responded to the BLM call and marched with their placards and t-shirts. As we have seen, in chaos in the streets after Emancipation Park was closed both groups were often thrown together and, on the whole, made accommodation for each other.
Traditional Civil Rights leadership was, as traditionally been the case, represented by the local clergy which began organizing responses back in May when Richard Spencer organized the first White Nationalist protest to the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and again for the failed Klan rally in July. Soon after that Congregate CVille, a new coalition of local Black congregations, mainstream Protestants, Jews, and others was formed to confront the Unite the Right call. In the spirit of Martin Luther King at Selma the group sent out a nationwide call for religious leaders to come to Charlottesville.
More than 1000 responded. Dozens of Unitarian Universalists including newly elected UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray; Rev. Jeanne Pupke, Sr. Minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond and recently another candidate for UUA President; Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, an organizer, strategist, and musician; Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, the UUA Southern Region Congregational Field Staff person; and local ministers of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, Rev. Erik ‘Wik’ Wikstrom Lead Minister and Rev. Alex McGee, Assistant Minister.
|Rev. Carlton Elliot Smith, second from left, and UUA President Susan Fredrick-Gray, third from right joined scholar activist Cornell West in the black suit in the front ranks of religious leaders linking arms in Charlottesville.|
The UUA with the leadership and prodding of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism has been undergoing extensive soul searching, self-reflection, and education on White privilege and is committed to being a strong and respectful ally. Under the familiar yellow banner of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, UUs have been prominent in many protests and demonstrations including Black Lives Matter protests and the new Civil Rights movement represented by the Moral Monday campaigns. In Charlottesville UU ministers could be identified by their yellow stoles or yellow clergy shirts.
Similar movements are afoot in mainstream Protestant denominations, especially the United Church of Christ (UCC), Episcopal Church, and United Methodists, all of whom sent large contingents to Virginia as did Jewish organizations, the Muslim community, and Catholics. Except for those influenced by the liberal Sojourner group, most Evangelical churches were notable for their absence.
Local and visiting clergy were provided special training in non-violence, with extra attention for those who were willing to be arrested for defying police orders not to block access to Emancipation Park by the Neo-Nazis. In the end the civil disobedience training was not employed—instead of arresting the ministers, the police withdrew and exposed them to attack by the armed and enraged racists.
See my first post in this series for a detailed account of what the ministers experienced in Charlottesville.
As a Unitarian Universalist layman and social justice activist I would have been with the religious contingent if I had been able to go to Charlottesville despite my old connections to the IWW. I am not a pacifist but am generally committed to non-violence as an effective form a protest. But then, we have never been faced with the possible rise of a real fascist movement with the powerful backing and approval of the President of the United States and a major political party before. That changes everything. Old assumptions have to be examined and weighed by alarming reality.
But in the days following Charlottesville UUs at Tree of Life Congregation in McHenry organized a vigil against hate and fascism. It was one of thousands of similar actions across the country largely organized by religious communities. In other cities folks joined massive street marches and occasionally confronted other Alt-Right events.
|As in Charlottesville Antif, Black Lives Matter, and other activists will continue to share confrontations with a growing Neo-Nazi/White Nationalist/KKK movement and the administration that empowers it.|
Last weekend in Boston as many as 40,000 mobilized in the streets against a few dozen Ku Klux Klansmen and this week when Trump staged a pathetic mini-Nuremburg rally in Phoenix ordinary community members, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and religious groups were thrown together. And we will be in the future. It may be a sometimes uneasy alliance, but it is not going away.
In a report of our McHenry vigil, I shared a new poem that reflected on this. Ordinarily I would not repeat verse so quickly in this blog, but it is more germane here than where it was originally posted.
|Reds break up a Nazi beer hall rally in 1930.|
Munich and Charlottesville
August 13, 2017
So is this how it felt on the streets of Munich
when the strutting Brown Shirts
in their polished jackboots,
Sam Browne, and scarlet arm bands
faced the scruffy Commies
in their cloth caps
and shirtsleeves rolled up
and battled in the beerhalls,
parks and streets.
All of the good people, the nice people
cowered behind closed doors
and wished it would go away—
all of the liberals, the Catholics,
the new-bred pacifists of the Great War,
the professors and doctors,
editors and intellectuals,
the Social Democrats,
even—my God!—the Jews
who had not gone Red—
a pox on both your houses they solemnly intoned.
Hey, buddy, in retrospect those damn Bolshies
look pretty good,
like heroes even.
Things look a little different in Charlottesville,
in brilliant color not grainy black and white
and the Fascists can’t agree on a
Boy Scout uniform and array themselves
golf shirts and khakis, rainbow Klan hoods,
biker black and studs and strutting camo.
But the smell, you know, that stench,
is just the same.
The question is—do you dare be a Red today
or will you close your doors
and go back to your game consoles
and cat videos.
Which will it be, buddy?