|In Charlottesville Antifa mingled with other counter-demonstrators opposing the Unite the Right White Nationalist/Neo-Nazi'KKK rally.|
Note—Last week in part I of this series I looked at the relationship between a growing and empowered Alt-Right/Neo-Nazi/KKK movement, Trump, and Trumpism. Today we look at that other side that the Cheeto in Charge says was equally to blame. Who were the counter-protesters anyway—Terrorist, terrorist, anybody got a terrorist?
In the chaotic hours Saturday afternoon as events unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia around the Unite the Right marches and rallies, I sat at a computer in Crystal Lake, Illinois trying to make sense of it via internet live feeds, news bulletins, and social media posts. Early in the afternoon a garbled report from the scene was posted on a Facebook page for Wobblies—members of the Industrial Workers of the World, my old union outfit. A Wob had been killed it said and several other badly injured when a car rammed a group of Anti-fascists. Contradictory reports followed—three had been killed, the victim was a 16 year old girl, she was and was not an IWW member. No matter, word that she was a Wobbly quickly spread and was repeated in numerous sources, including some news accounts, and repeated the next day in remarks by Black Scholar and a leader of a religious counter-protest. Cornell West.
Cell phone video from several angles was soon posted and we got to witness the horrific incident over and over. Even as sporadic street fights continued, national outrage spread. Condemnation of the violent and frightening hate groups that had descended on the Virginia college town was nearly universal, despite tight lipped silence from the White House.
By late Sunday evening it was clear that there was only one death associated with the car attack and that the victim was a young Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer. IWW members were scrambling to determine if she was actually a member of the union. When hit she had been with, or at least among, IWW members. The union has no chartered branch in that city and a handful of individual members. The Wobblies she was with were from the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. Some thought, or assumed, that she might be a member from somewhere else who as attracted by the group’s distinctive red and black banners and flags. At General Headquarters (GHQ) in Chicago no membership record could be found and a search got underway through as yet un-posted Delegate reports that might show that she was newly signed up. Nothing there either. The last dwindling possibility was that she was on a Delegate report that had not yet been sent to GHQ.
|Heather Heyer commemorated in a mural painted on Charottesville's Free Speech Wall.|
By Sunday we knew more about Heather Heyer. Images of her smiling face lifted from her social media posts had gone viral along with the words of her last Facebook Post—“If you are not angry yet, you haven’t been paying attention. She was a 32 year old single woman with deep local roots, a wide circle of friends, and a good job as a paralegal for a busy law firm. She had also, apparently, long been concerned with and outspoken about social justice issues—racial injustice, White supremacy, gender bias, and patriarchy. But as well as anyone can determine she did not belong to any specific organization.
She had frequently attended marches, rallies, and demonstrations especially the massive actions since the election. Like so many millions of others she was ready to heed a call to action without necessarily being a day to day activist. She was one who might be called a member of the ready individual reserves for social action.
It is unclear, but likely, that she joined counter protestors at either Richard Spencer’s Take Back the Park action in May or the KKK rally in July. At any rate, she was determined to join the pushback on the Alt-Right’s big unity march. On Friday she told a close friend and co-worker “I want to go so badly but I don’t want to get shot. I don’t want to die.” Despite these reservations she showed up on Saturday along with another work friend.
Did Heather Heyer and Marissa Blair intend to join the anti-fascists—those ready to oppose the Neo-Nazis and skin heads with force if necessary or did they end up among them by happenstance?
To answer that we may have to look at just how the two to three hundred folks who were targeted by the rogue driver got to where they were and who they were.
Earlier in the day both side geared up for a confrontation over Emancipation Park where the statue of General Lee still stood. Under a court order the Unite the Right rally had a permit for a rally at Emancipation park. Some counter demonstrators had a permit for a near-by park but no one expected that they would stay there. Declared Anti-fascists were determined to take to the streets to confront the hate groups regardless of permits. Local and national religious leaders had been trained in non-violence and civil disobedience and were committed to attempting to try and prayerfully block access to the park. Many expected not only possible violence from the Neo-Nazis but arrest by police.
About eighty of the clergy took up a line in the street outside the park which was had a wrought iron fence a few yards across a sidewalk and some grass. They sang and prayed and then knelt facing several self-proclaimed security guards in camo armed with semi-automatic weapons, members of white nationalist Militia groups. The streets started to fill with both Alt-Right marchers, many of them carrying shields and armed with poles and clubs, and counter demonstrators of various stripes. Several fights and melees had broken out.
As the appointed hour approached a group of the ministers and scholar/activist Cornell West moved to block the gated entry to the park by linking arms across a sidewalk at the top of a short flight of steps. (More about the ministers later). A phalanx of White Nationalists carrying death head shields violently pushed their way through the clergy. Nearby Black Lives Matter members were under attack. The shaken clergy attempted to re-form their line to prevent another wave from entering the park. A group shouting obscenities slurs, and threats while brandishing clubs and other weapons prepared to charge them. Some of the clergy members reported that they were sure they would be killed.
|An Antifa contingent, including members of the IWW--note banner on the right--protected threatened clergy|
That’s when a group of Anti-fascists arrived. At first some of the clergy thought that the black clad, helmeted new arrivals might be more Nazis. Other tried to turn them away. Instead the Antifa shielded the ministers giving them time to escape safely then took their place trying to hold entrance blockade. The next day West acknowledged “The antifascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”
Shortly after that the City declared an emergency, canceled all permits, and ordered all demonstrators and all sides out of the park. Using massed forces, shields, and tear gas police cleared the park and adjacent streets forcing all sides to scatter in smaller groups onto side streets and nearby thoroughfares. Brawls continued and spread. Groups of counter demonstrators chased clots of fascist, White thugs attacked isolated Blacks and small knots of counter demonstrators. It was a violent game of cat and mouse in the city.
And after clearing the park, the police mostly pulled back and let violence unravel without intervention. Authorities would later claim they were simply overwhelmed and that the Neo-Nazis in particular were better armed and equipped.
That was how Heather Heyer and her friend found themselves a few short blocks away after a running battle or two. The crowd she was with by accident or otherwise was diverse. The crowd included members and supporters of Black Lives Matter; a group from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a Marxist/Trotskyist tendency; the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), moderate Social Democrats descended from Eugene V. Debs’ old Socialist Party whose numbers have recently swelled exponentially with people energized by Bernie Sanders; the IWW/GDC contingent; and a number of unaffiliated local residents like Heyer.
It was clearly an assemblage created out of the chaos around the park and by chance, not by internal cohesion. Although all, I am sure were ardently against fascism, not all would be comfortable to be labeled Antifa, which is understood to be willing to use force not only against Neo-Nazis and the like, but against police brutality and other threats to working class and minority communities. And even if they did agree on self-defense might not be acknowledged or welcomed by those who self-identify as Antifa, who tend toward anarchism and can be disdainful of both those who they consider merely reformist and those they think are authoritarian vanguardists.
The IWW itself is not an anarchist organization, but has always had anarchist members and has had historic relationships with Anarcho-syndicalist unions around the world. It’s black and red banners are the colors of militant international syndicalism. The General Defense Committee is open to non-IWW members and has tended to be more anarchist than the parent organization in recent years. The GDC has evolved from its original role as an auxiliary organization to raise defense funds and provide support for “class war prisoners.” It now has several active locals many of which have moved to an emphasis on worker and community self-defense in the wake of nationwide attacks on the Occupy Movement, police brutality protests, and Black Lives Matter confrontations. In doing so they have become identified with the Antifa movement.
|This unofficial logo is now widely used by IWW General Defense Committee (GDC) locals.|
In some cases Antifa street militancy has run afoul of traditional civil rights leaders and organizations and others who are philosophically and practically committed to non-violence. Even the younger activists who have led the Black Lives Matter have been critical that aggressive or violent Antifa action not only because they are used to discredit the movement and potentially risking the safety and freedom those engaged in peaceful protest. On the other hand, in the deeply racially troubled Twin Cities and other places the GDC has made strong alliances with militant community members.
Even within the IWW the GDC’s identification with the Antifa movement and militant street actions has been controversial. Some traditionalists view it as a distraction from on the job organizing and building effective solidarity unionism. They have proposed reigning in the GDC and bringing it more directly under union administration. Supporters of an aggressive GDC have responded furiously and even proposed drastic structural changes that would weaken the General Administration and decentralize authority. Although most IWW members are likely to fall somewhere between these poles, the controversy has roiled the organization for months. In the aftermath of Charlottesville both sides have dialed back their rhetoric and respect for Anti-fascist action has grown.
That internal drama aside, the IWW/GDC contingent that day was the only part of that crowd that fully identified and met the expectations of the label Antifa. Heather might have gone to the very recognizable black and red banners that day because what she had seen made her want to fight back or even because she felt they were her best protection in case they were attacked again. Or maybe by a stroke of fate she just happened to be standing There.
Part 3 Tomorrow