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The Antifascist Question

As far-right violence continues, Republicans invoke the specter of antifa to crack down on the left

Earlier this month, after three years of death threats, Luis Marquez wrote his will. “A normal death threat starts off with ‘You’re the real racist’ or ‘You’re the real fascist. Fuck you, you piece of shit.’ Something like that,” he explained to me. And then there are the scary ones, like the man who sent him a message on Facebook threatening to torture and kill him, filming the murder and broadcasting it for all to see. “Those I take very seriously,” he said. “Would I have believed that threat three years ago? No. Do I believe it now? Absolutely. And for what, wanting people to be equal? Wanting health care for everybody? Education for everybody?”

Marquez identifies as a democratic socialist (“in the Rooseveltian model”) and a skinhead (“not a bonehead; a skinhead”). Since 2016, he has been showing up to organize, protest, and sometimes fight alongside other Portland antifascists. At first, he wore a mask, but that didn’t last long. “I’ve got a big mouth. It’s large and sometimes it has a mind of its own,” he joked. Soon enough, the fascists and other far right activists who intermittently descended on the city from its suburbs and rural surroundings were calling him out by name. He changed tactics and started protesting openly, which had its benefits: “In a city like Portland, there aren’t that many Latino antifascists. . . . For me, I think that white nationalists, nativists, need to see brown faces standing up to them, not cowering like they want them to.” But it also led to his face being used in memes promoting the far right’s “End Domestic Terrorism” event held in Portland the weekend of August 17: one featured Marquez and his partner with a bullseye over their faces.

Led by Joe Biggs, a former staffer at Infowars, and Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, about five hundred right-wingers returned to Portland that Saturday from around the country. It was their first show of force since right-wing pseudo-journalist Andy Ngo got roughed up at a demonstration in June and Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced a Senate resolution calling for the “designation of Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.” In the days prior to the rally, a handful of local reactionaries, including one who allegedly broke a woman’s vertebrae with a metal baton, were arrested on felony riot charges related to their involvement in a melee outside a leftist bar on May Day. Marquez was not the only antifascist I spoke to ahead of the rally who expressed that they were more worried about this rally than past events.

Aside from the new wrinkle of fascists receiving a police escort across infrastructure closed to everyone else, the latest Portland confrontation essentially followed the pattern that has held since August 12, 2017.

In the end, it was a more subdued affair than local antifascists had anticipated. Tarrio announced, in the middle of a planned speech, that he was “throwing a curveball” to those assembled: the rally was off, and the Proud Boys would be removing themselves from the city to grill and drink beer at a secondary location. The point of this move was to “troll” both the antifascists and the city of Portland—retailers and restaurants lost an estimated $3 million in revenue while closed for the rally, and the inflated police presence will likely cost taxpayers additional millions—by denying them the anticipated violence. Guided by liaisons from the Portland Police Bureau, Biggs, Tarrio, and his lieutenants led their hundreds of followers out of the park and across the Hawthorne Bridge, which had been otherwise closed to car and pedestrian traffic. The Proud Boys sang their Disney-derived anthem and cheered as they were greeted on the east side of the river by members of the white nationalist American Guard, whose founder has described himself as the Proud Boys’ “Indiana state representative.” Everyone gathered for a photograph, calling out “Uhuru!” and “USA! USA!” and “Respect the police!” Standing around in a parking lot afterward, they spent a lot of time explaining to each other that they had successfully marched for their freedoms, their Judeo-Christian values, and their families. “Go look at President Trump’s Twitter,” Biggs told the Oregonian. “He talked about Portland, said he’s watching antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success.”

Aside from the new wrinkle of fascists receiving a police escort across infrastructure closed to everyone else, the latest Portland confrontation essentially followed the pattern that has held since August 12, 2017: fascists, neo-Nazis, and their fence-walking allies announce their intention to descend upon a liberal city as a provocation, where they are subsequently met with resistance from a broad coalition of left-wing organizations, unions, and some liberal NGOs, whose counterprotests are in turn subject to heavy policing. Skirmishes may occur at the edges of these confrontations, but open street violence between opposing political groups has been limited in these large set pieces of late; that being said, fascists are more than happy to cheer on any cop who decides he’s tired of being called a “pig.”

If anything, the Proud Boys showed unusual discipline in Portland: Tarrio and other leaders issued orders, which were followed; medics treated the few injuries and marshals patrolled the edges of the crowd, keeping everyone in line. “This is a pure optics operation,” Tarrio told one contingent. “If you’re looking for fourth degrees this is not the event to do it,” referencing the rank Proud Boys can achieve by assaulting (or being assaulted by) antifascists. They acted strategically, even if their goals—make a show of force, but don’t cause any violence—appeared incoherent. “Antifa maintains a stranglehold on the Pacific Northwest locale,” the Proud Boys said in a statement following the rally. “The gathering was never about bringing carnage or violence to the City of Portland,” it continued, entirely unconvincingly, “it was about financially crippling the progressive hotbed until they take action against Antifa and showcasing the power of peaceful political action.” Tarrio added: “Mayor Wheeler should use the past few weeks of preparation and attention to detail as a template going forward. Either he takes charge and removes the scourge of violent domestic terrorists from his city, or we come back month-after-month.”

This newfound ability to act as an organized collective is worth noting: since the collapse of the Traditionalist Worker Party in March 2018, no single group has been able to consolidate control over the far right’s street presence; tactical missteps (like the gang beatings in Manhattan last fall) and technical difficulties notwithstanding, it appears the Proud Boys are developing the capacity to exert that kind of influence. One major difference, of course, is that while TWP flirted with insurrectionists like Atomwaffen Division, the Proud Boys are aligning themselves with the Republican Party. Tarrio, for example, is the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump; the organization’s events are promoted on the Trump campaign’s official website. As a GOP operative told New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel: “The Trump campaign is well aware of the organized participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events. They don’t care. Staff are to treat it like a coalition they can’t talk about.”

Even President Trump, not exactly a paragon of discretion, avoids stating his support for groups like the Proud Boys directly; however, twice this summer he has tweeted—including on the morning of the most recent demonstrations—that “consideration is being given” to naming “ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR,’” a clear reference to the Cruz-Cassidy resolution. That the text of that resolution spends as much time describing left-wing organizing against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as it does the kind of street-based antifascism that invocations of “ANTIFA” usually conjure is significant: the groundwork being laid here is not necessarily for the designation of antifa as a terror organization—though that may very well happen—but for the criminalization of radical left-wing politics more broadly. That’s a long-term project: the short-term effect is to signal to both non-state actors and the police that antifascist activists can be brutalized with impunity, or at least with the discursive approval of the president and his allies.

Even in cases where the far right has overstepped its bounds and the state has intervened, law enforcement takes the opportunity to surveil left-wing organizers. At the trial of two Proud Boys in New York City, who were convicted last week on charges stemming from the brawl outside the Metropolitan GOP Club last year, a detective testified that the NYPD had consulted with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in the course of monitoring antifascist activity. Meanwhile, an investigator with the district attorney’s office testified that his office had obtained a search warrant for phone records and shared images of protesters with a facial recognition company.

The far right’s gleeful deployment of “domestic terrorist” epithet against antifascists—even as one fascist murderer after another enacts (or attempts to enact) their own beliefs, explicitly—reaffirms that the vocabulary of the security state is of no use in confronting the real problem, which is not really “domestic terrorism” as such, but white supremacy, misogyny, and fascism. Efforts to expand police power in response to fascist violence will inevitably blow back onto those historically targeted by law enforcement. As Sam Adler-Bell recently wrote for The New Republic, “White supremacist police cannot be expected to police white supremacy.” The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) passed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the single most violent act of white supremacist violence on U.S. soil in recent memory, is an instructive example: not only has the law gutted habeus corpus and been leveraged to fill migrant detention centers (in combination with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act), but it has also been used to restrict Muslim immigration to the United States.

The groundwork being laid here is not necessarily for the designation of antifa as a terror organization—though that may very well happen—but for the criminalization of radical left-wing politics more broadly.

And yet, through all of this, reactionaries like Cruz and the Proud Boys show a more nuanced understanding of antifascist organizing than even some on the left. After the Portland rally, none other than Glenn Greenwald lamented on Twitter that antifascists had turned out to fight the Proud Boys and American Guard and militia members who had descended on their city rather than the Pentagon or corporations or American empire, betraying a shockingly ignorant understanding of who gets involved in antifascist organizing and why. Setting aside the fact that many of those who took to the streets earlier this month are deeply involved in campaigns against precisely those institutions, it is worth considering the fact that last year, when left-wing activists in Portland occupied space around an ICE facility in the city and disrupted its operations—an action that the Cruz-Cassidy antifa resolution specifically references—some of the very same fascists who rallied on Saturday showed up to harass and intimidate them, angry that the local police had not already cleared the activists out.

The inability or unwillingness to recognize how these phenomena are interrelated impedes our ability to fully grapple with them. American imperialism produces the disaffected veterans who become white nationalists and border vigilantes; the militarized police state produces Blue Lives Matter. A direct line can be drawn from Tucker Carlson’s ableist sneers to reactionaries and their disingenuously leftist allies mocking a photograph from Portland of antifascists facing down police: in the background, black bloc; in the foreground, a shirtless, heavily tattooed black man and two of his comrades in wheelchairs, defiant and unafraid.

The function of fascism, when capitalism is in crisis, is the destruction of workers’ movements that might apply the death blow; behind their cartoonish performance of hypermasculinity, fascists’ primary concern is the violent defense of capitalism and the racial order that maintains it. The real question, then, should not be how to make antifascism more palatable to mealy-mouthed liberals or reactionary leftists whose squeamishness is premised mostly on unserious—or even, to invoke a favorite accusation of such critics, bourgeois —arguments about aesthetics, but how to make antifascism a core principle of a mass, working-class movement. Without a mass working-class movement, antifascist organizing is doomed to failure; but without antifascist organizing, so too is a mass working-class movement.

Just as capitalism will not be defeated at the ballot box, fascism will not be defeated in the streets; nevertheless, electoral campaigns and community defense both offer opportunities to build toward something more radical and liberatory. Reflecting on three years of antifascist organizing in Portland, Marquez emphasized how much he had been transformed by the struggles convulsing his city. “Some of my best friends and closest comrades are trans. I’ve learned so much from them. I still misgender people, but I catch myself. Before, I would never have caught it—I wouldn’t have understood why people were mad.” Antifascist organizing, he continued, has “made me see misogyny. . . . Once you know the truth, you can ignore it, but you’ll know you’re a piece of shit for ignoring it.”

“I’m not so concerned with myself anymore,” he said. “I hear my comrades in distress and I want to help them.”