This letter to the editor that I co-wrote with a comrade was submitted to the Boulder Daily Camera. However, it was not published. I’m publishing it here, with a slight expansion in the second to last paragraph.
EDIT: It has since been published, and can be seen here.
A lot of confused ink has been spilled over the role of “antifascists” (ANTIFA) in the recent string of protests and riots. We have a recent writer to the Daily Camera complaining that the “true fascists” are the protesters, prominent intellectuals like Robert Reich dismissing antifa at UC Berkley as right-wing agent provocateurs (a baseless claim), and various popular voices complaining about “violence” at protests. The accusation that antifa are “no different” from the fascists is broadly cast.
That last claim is unfaithful to language. The nationalist ideology of Fascism (including Nazism) systematically murdered tens of millions of people; started the most destructive war in history; and were legitimized in their rise to power by the conservatives and liberals of their time through their appeal to lawful order. Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism that liberals during the rise of Hitler would “fact check” Nazi claims about Jews, as though they were anything but rationalizations to begin with. Those appeals to sensibility failed the millions who were later killed. “Free speech warriors” who defend fascist speech on idealistic, non-historical terms ignore this. In fact, in order to maintain the logic of this equivalence, one must assume that fascist speech is of at least equal value to non-fascist lives. But if we are to learn from history then we cannot afford to make those mistakes. The reality of speech in this country is that speech is not free, it is purchased. Hence the over representation of moneyed interests in politics. For those who feel they lack a voice, riots become their language.
“Violent” is the word hurled at any action seen as dysfunctional to the power structure, irrespective of actual behavior or results. We see real violence every day when people are deprived of health care, when families are torn apart by ICE, and when innocent people in other countries are murdered because the U.S. arrogates the right to attack anyone, anywhere, at any time on the loose accusation of terrorism. We see violence in how the police treat the poor and the homeless, and in how the legal system treats people of color. There is tremendous violence in how our president approaches women. There is violence being committed against the environment by DAPL and other corporations. But because these violences are used to defend existing power structures, they aren’t called violence, they are called business or politics. It’s only when windows are broken and hats are burned that the bellicose accusation rears its ugly head.
All ideologies embrace some violence to meet their goals. The violence of liberals and conservatives is primarily institutional. The claim that action against this institutional violence constitutes aggression is hypocritical unless the claimants eschew violence in all forms. Paradoxically even pacifism, by enabling non pacifists, is guilty of permitting their violence. What must be asked is not, “are they violent” but rather “why?” In what ways are the prevailing ideologies violent by refusing to take a stand? At what point is destructive action aggression, and at what point does this action represent self defense against pervasive, systemic violence? Self defense is permitted to prevent violence, as should be action against structural violence. Can there be progress in the age of Trump, or mere damage control? Ideally we wish for order and an end to seemingly mindless chaos, but order without justice is tyranny. For many, violence is not some notion to be discussed, it has already been thrust upon marginalized communities. To tell them to stay calm, while the system that created their suffering discusses whether or not their oppression exists shows an almost pathological social detachment.
Those like Robert Reich who accuse masked rioters of being provocateurs can’t seem to imagine that anyone would actually riot in this country. As a man awash with financial and intellectual privilege, Reich would have to confront the necessity for radical change if he were to see the riots for what they are. Therefore he must dismiss rioters and antifa as planted agents for lack of deeper insight. Reich said in a CNN interview regarding the UC Berkley riots that he “wouldn’t bet against” the likelihood that Milo himself planted these agents in a deliberate attempt to show that “there’s no free speech on college campuses.” Such a claim as this, which asserts the truth as the very opposite of what it appears to be, would seem to require some kind of evidence or actual argumentation in order to be respectable. Reich provides none, merely saying that he “had never seen them [the rioters] before.” As the overrated Christopher Hitchens rightly said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
To those liberals concerned that antifascists are hijacking “their” protests, my response is that the antifa are both the vanguard and a component of the protest ecosystem. They represent the frustration of longtime activists who have lost faith in the system. Standing around holding signs and chanting slogans is insufficient. Direct action against the violence of the regime can disrupt violence, and the collateral costs of windows and hats pale in comparison to the real oppression otherwise enabled.