Modern democracies are organized around a set of principles and ideas known as "normal politics." In the United States, this takes the form of widely shared norms that view political violence as unacceptable, a belief that government should be transparent, a respect for existing political institutions, elected officials should be held accountable by the public, the rights of citizens are to be respected, and that consensus and compromise should be the basis of good political decision-making.
Of course, in practice such high minded values and beliefs are often discarded. For example, the United States has a long history of political violence. And to resolve fundamental questions about democracy, equality, and opportunity for all citizens required centuries of struggle — and American democracy is still very much a work in progress.
The election of Donald Trump represents a fundamental challenge to America's standing norms about democracy and freedom. He is a plutocratic fascist who does not respect democracy. Trump has also encouraged violence against his political enemies. Trump also rejects the idea of a free press. In all, Donald Trump is a symptom of a much bigger problem. The public is experiencing a crisis of faith in America's existing social and political institutions. The Republican Party and movement conservatism are reactionary and revanchist. They also have no respect for consensus or compromise as they work to advance a radically destructive and backwards looking ideology that exists outside of empirical reality. For modern American conservatives, politics and ideology are religion. As such, their beliefs cannot be challenged or undermined by appeals to reason or logic: faith is by definition a belief in that which cannot be proven by empirical means. The rise of Trump and the Republican Party's full-on embrace of extreme right-wing politics has also encouraged a resurgence of fascism and overt white supremacy under the banner of the so-called "alt-right." Donald Trump and the forces he represents have also inspired resistance. In total, this political moment represents a major challenge for "normal politics" in the United States.
How should the American people respond to this crisis? Do old norms about non-violence still hold true when confronted by fascists, white supremacists, and other members of the far right-wing? What of free speech? How do the intersections of class and race create opportunities — and challenges — for creating alliances and resistance in the Age of Donald Trump? Is "working class" solidarity even possible in America?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with "Andy" and "Mike" from the antifascist and labor rights group the Chicago General Defense Committee, Local 3. The General Defense Committee is associated with the Industrial Workers of the World and describes its mission as "the aims of this organization shall be to provide defense and relief to members of the working class who are being persecuted for their activity in the class struggle."
What do you think the average American does not correctly understand about antifa and those others who are actively resisting the so-called "alt-right" and other fascist groups in this moment?
Andy: I think people get confused about the term “antifa." It is an organizing strategy. Antifa is not a group of people. It has a long legacy in this country of people resisting white supremacy from slave rebellions all the way to the present. I think there is confusion around tactics such as "black bloc" or "masking up". And maybe there is a misconception that if someone is at a protest and they have a mask over their face, it means that they’re trying to destroy property or harm someone through violence. Really, it’s about protecting ourselves from the alt-right and general repression from the state as much as we can. Every situation does not call for the same response and we’re seeing anti-fascists use a variety of tactics for community self-defense. I think the rise of the General Defense Committee (GDC) is a good example.
There is also a deep reluctance on the part of the mainstream American corporate news media to tell the truth about all of the violence and threats from the right-wing in this country. People have already been hurt and killed both during Trump's presidential campaign and through the first few months of his time in office.
Mike: We cannot necessarily rely on the state or politicians or the police to stop the rise of right-wing violence and . . .
Because there’s a huge overlap where there are police who are members of these right-wing organizations. And one cannot forget that historically, police also do the work of the state and the plutocrats.
Mike: Exactly. I think for us, we realize that building solidarity is the only way to really develop the ability to resist right-wing violence more generally. We really can’t look to the state to protect us. We have to do that ourselves and that takes time and energy.
Most people choose to be bystanders. Why do you think some choose to become actively involved in the struggle against fascism in America while others decide to stay home?
Andy: I think the question of, "why do some people stay home?" is something that we’re constantly confronted with and trying to address in our work, because there are not enough of us. Why did I get involved? It’s clear that working class people across this country are under attack. For me it wasn’t a decision of whether to defend myself, or defend my community, or defend people I love that have a lot less privilege than I do. It was more about what does that look like strategically? Who are the people that I want to do this work with? Joining the GDC was the most clear path, because it’s not just a single-issue group. It’s really looking at all of the things that are keeping the working class down.
Mike: For me personally, I also think it's about, "what kind of a world do you want to live in?" I feel like values of self-determination and just mutual aid, kindness, and solidarity are values that I want to put into practice. I want to do that by working with other people. I think the GDC is a vehicle for that and it is a way to have authentic solidarity with other working class people.
For you, what does it mean to be "working class?" Do you think that the idea of the "working class" was misrepresented by the American news media and others during the last presidential election?
Andy: For me, being "working class" means that you have to sell your labor. It means that being a worker is about solidarity. It’s about doing what you need to do to feed your family. It’s not about oppressing someone else for your own gain. That’s what it means to me. I think in today’s day and age the true meaning of "working class" does get lost. "Working class?" "Middle class?" How are we talking about these things? I think you’re right in that the alt-right, fascists, whatever you want to call them, are co-opting language around the "working class". I think that certainly we need to be centering the struggles of black and brown folks here in this country, but we also have to recognize that rural white folks are ripe for the picking by right-wing extremists. You’ve got to be focused on at least counter-recruitment there as well. White people really have an obligation to do that work.
Any serious student of American history will tell you that most of the violence in this country has been by conservatives, authoritarians and the broader right-wing against liberals, progressives, people of color, gays and lesbians and labor. But today's mainstream American corporate news media wants to engage in a type of "both sides do it" false equivalency narrative. That must be very frustrating for you and others who are fighting fascism here in the United States.
Andy: I don’t think I could have said it better than you did. You are correct in that Donald Trump is really emboldening the alt-right to escalate their violence against anyone who is getting in the way of their ability to spread their beliefs. The alt-right is also capitalizing on misconceptions about the people who are organizing against them. Of course, this makes it harder for we as anti-fascists to organize and grow. I also think that people are not dumb. They understand the threat of the alt-right. They understand that the stakes are high. I also think that maybe more people than we give credit to understand that this level of threat demands a certain type of resistance. I mean there is a reason why the video of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face got millions of views on YouTube and most of the comments on Twitter were overwhelmingly positive.
Mike: For example, what happened several weeks ago in Portland with the killings by that white supremacist is really just a legacy of right-wing violence against marginalized people. And it is the product of the kind of organizing and rallying that the alt-right is doing now. They’re advocating violence. Truly.
Where do you think Americans got the bizarre idea that you can hug Nazis and that will somehow stop them? Or that you can hug fascists and somehow that is going to derail them?
Mike: The idea of non-violence has in some ways taken a turn for the worst over the preceding decade. I guess people don’t want to confront the fact that violence actually occurs all the time. For example, there’s a certain level of violence often committed by the state that’s "legitimate." Violence is also far removed from many people. But other communities have to confront it on a day-to-day basis. I think for a lot of people they just don’t have to confront it. Violence is outsourced to other people and they get to lead comfortable lives not having to think about it. But the whole country was made from violence, from genocide.
How do you position yourselves in terms of the debate around the boundaries and limits of free speech?
Andy: I think that’s a really important question. This debate around the constitutional right to free speech is ultimately a question of whether the state can protect everyone’s ability to say whatever they want. We do not really think that people should be able to say whatever they want. Obviously, we think that words have power and may lead to harm. History has shown that. Again, the state and the law are really not the way to prevent right-wing violence. To be clear, free speech just means that the state cannot arrest you for what you say.
Mike: It doesn’t mean that other people can’t disrupt your harmful speech or otherwise stop it from happening.
Conservatives — especially at such right-wing disinformation propaganda media outlets as Fox News and elsewhere — do not seem to understand that free speech does not mean speech without consequence.
Andy: That is exactly right. If people are upset about consequences or getting shut down, that is not an attack on their free speech. That is an attack on the harm that they’re doing to our communities, and it’s a clear attempt to prevent future violent attacks by racists or people who aren’t white men of a certain orientation and type. Really, when the right-wing is claiming the protections of free speech, they’re looking for the state to give them the freedom to basically take away other people’s freedom. We can’t really have it both ways. The alt-right and their allies can cry about it, but ultimately, if they continue to espouse their awful rhetoric, there are going to continue to be consequences.
Mike: Ultimately, the irony here is that what the alt-right or the right-wing or Neo-Nazis — whatever you want to call them — really desire is their freedom to espouse gravely harmful things and to get away with being able to take away other people’s rights to live as they choose. We have to step up and offer a vision for a world that is based on solidarity, mutual aid, kindness, caring and humanity which I do not think those groups offer.
With social movement work and other type of activism, there is often a good amount of training involved. For example, "here’s how to respond when confronted by the police"; "here’s what to do if threatened with violence or arrest;" "here’s what to do if injured." What type of training does the GDC provide?
Andy: I think that there are a few layers to this question. One layer is how do we prepare people to be in the streets when it could be dangerous. There are a few ways we prepare. There are certainly people that are going to be more in the front and thus more in the line of danger. Those people are trained. They are careful. They have a high level of trust with the people that they’re working with and they’re prepared. Not everyone is going to be in that situation. There are people who show up to actions who are handing out fliers, that are there with their kids, talking to folks, holding signs and banners, bringing water, or are trained street medics. There are different roles for different people. People are definitely trained in that capacity. Depending on what you’re interested in, there are people here in the GDC and elsewhere that can mentor you.
What do you think the future holds?
Mike: I think the resistance will continue. And as far as the Chicago GDC goes, we just want to connect with people who are wanting to resist the right-wing and its desire to limit people’s ability to determine their own lives and live free of violence. As far as I’m concerned, we’re going to be working towards projects that develop our ability to work together in solidarity with other members of the working class
Is the worst yet to come? Or are folks like me exaggerating the threat posed by Donald Trump and his supporters?
Andy: I think Trump has emboldened the alt-right. I also think that it is only going to get worse which is why we really need to organize and defend our communities. We are going to continue to see the growth of the resistance, and the growth of groups like the GDC and other groups who are working to protect our communities.
Mike: I have a lot of faith in people to resist against the kind of world the alt-right and other fascists are attempting to create and advocate for. We’re doing our part to collaborate with people who see such people and groups for what they are and that want to stop them.