Resistance that Grows
Perhaps we grow not by justifying our tactics to moderates, but by deepening our commitments to one another, and to militant struggles across difference.
“When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through, what Black people have experienced in this country since the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
— Angela Davis
Following the tragic news of Heather Heyer’s death at the hands of white supremacists in Charlottesville, vigils across the country sprang up to grieve and demonstrate opposition to racism. In Durham, North Carolina a queer black community activist was aggressively silenced and initially refused space on the official vigil program. In attempting to explain why this happened, an organizer wrote, “Unfortunately, [the] speaker ... could not commit to a key guiding principle behind this event, namely that we would not advocate for the use of violent tactics.” The very next day the same revolutionary anti-fascists who the vigil organizers had chastised took to the streets and, in less than two minutes, pulled down a confederate monument that had been standing in front of a Durham courthouse for nearly 100 years. Seemingly overnight, this disruptive action transformed what countless people across the country imagined was politically possible. In an interview with Democracy Now, shortly after being charged in connection with taking down the monument, North Carolina Central University student and member of Workers World Party, Takiyah Thompson shared the following, “you can’t keep your foot on people’s neck forever. ... People are going to rise up. ... And I’m not talking about writing your senator. I’m not talking about casting a ballot in a voting booth. I’m talking about voting with your actions.” In comparing the language of the vigil organizers with Takiyah’s words and actions we can see the fault lines drawing, and are given a choice; whose direction will we follow in this political moment?
Paradigms of liberal moderation are alluring because they offer simple answers to those who are less directly impacted by political crises and those who want to distinguish themselves as morally superior to the right-wing: good vs. evil, violent vs. not violent, love vs. hate, sensibility vs. irrationality. If you are not alive within a black, indigenous, undocumented or otherwise perpetually hunted body in the US, it is almost too easy to disassociate and pathologize aggressive resistance as unnecessarily inflammatory. As New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg tweeted while in Charlottesville, “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right.” Yet many of those condemning the “violence” of the left are the same people who will actively use the language of “Resist Trump.” It’s unclear what they imagine such resistance would look like because, in reality, triumphant confrontations of institutional racism or fascism have never been polite or waited to garner mainstream approval.
Arguing otherwise only justifies the complicity of prioritizing civility above direct confrontation. This is what Martin Luther King spoke to in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when he wrote, “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate ... who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” This complicity often legitimizes itself by siding with the law, taking the law as something neutral when it’s not – it’s always a tool wielded by dominant forces of power. As Bree Newsom also astutely explained in a series of tweets, “White moderates are the folks who thought harboring a fugitive slave was wrong because it was breaking the law.”
The white moderate may seem powerful, but their dominance is not inevitable. We do not have to cede political territory to them. If we pay close attention to the people most impacted in our communitiesand work hard to understand the material conditions all of us are up against, we can choose to learn how to participate meaningfully in the ongoing work of resistance. Aligning with direct confrontation of white supremacy and fascism can also be a practice of radical imagination and possibility and a home for shared pain and healing. In “Freedom Seeds: Growing Abolition in Durham, North Carolina” Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks us, “What if abolition is something that sprouts out of the wet places in our eyes, the broken places in our skin, the waiting places in our palms, the tremble holding in my mouth when I turn to you? What if abolition is something that grows?”
How do we build a resistance that grows rather than grows tired? Gumbs seems to suggest the answer lies in opening ourselves to radical complexity and ungovernable intimacy. Perhaps we grow not by constantly justifying our militancy to moderates, but by deepening our commitments to one another, and to militant struggles across difference. We should see this as a time to recognize that prisons and immigrant detention centers are contemporary iterations of concentration camps. A time to translate the countless hate crimes being committed against Muslims and Jewish people as cartographic of a broader program of imposed obedience to white supremacy, perpetual war, and validation of imperial violence overseas. A time to categorize police forces right now as paramilitary with the right to maim and kill Black people, of all ages, in broad daylight. A time to understand that the program to erect and maintain confederate monuments is also a program to further memorialize the foundational connective tissue of US land theft, genocide, and codified anti-blackness that the Nazis have always admired. Because once we grasp that “the weather is the total climate, and that climate is anti-black,” then it becomes clear that the shit we are fighting against is not just the current president but rather how the world as we know it will continue to take shape. And once we accept Fannie Lou Hamer’s mandate that “None of us are free until all of us are free,” we can begin to imagine something fundamentally, transformatively, fantastically different.
On Friday, August 18, I flew back to Durham to check in with friends who were dealing with death threats from white supremacists and intense state repression after taking down the Confederate monument. The Durham Sheriff’s department conducted raids on activists’ houses, and arrested nearly a dozen people with serious charges, what organizers are labeling “a witch hunt”. Within minutes of landing in Durham, I saw news spreading that the KKK would be marching through town. It took less than a few hours for hundreds of people to flood the streets, ready to face the Klan. The crowd was vast and varied: students, mothers, children, street medics, armed allies with Redneck Revolt, veteran organizers and some totally new to protest space, held the square in front of the old courthouse for hours; sometimes even drumming and dancing. There was never any mass showing of the Klan, but the resolve and solidarity of the community was clearly communicated.
In the past few weeks, you have surely seen several articles trying to answer the question, “What Is Antifa?” Almost without exception, they are comically out of touch; fixated on black clothing and a subset of street tactics, rarely ever mentioning the wide ideological and demographic spectrum present in current anti-fascist organizing. In Durham, before the Confederate monument came tumbling down, I knew antifa to be the people who got tear-gassed marching in the streets after police murdered Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte; I knew antifa to be anarchists who wrote hundreds of letters to folks locked up and raised thousands of dollars for prisoners participating in a mass strike to end slave labor (primarily in coordination with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee); I knew antifa to be Southern Marxist labor organizers who taught me how to talk to city workers at the gates when I was 21, before marching on the Democratic National Convention; I knew antifa to be mothers and daughters who bailed out Black women with Southerners On New Ground, I knew antifa to be queer, trans, Muslim, Black and brown revolutionaries, artists, lovers, and friends who have fed me, and held me when I was broke, heartbroken, sick, and disillusioned. The reason why Heather Heyer’s death hurt is not just because we are on the same “side” politically, in fundamental opposition to Nazism. It is because participating in anti-racist, anti-fascist actions introduced me to a rare kind of relational trust and understanding: that regardless of our specific ideologies, I am here in the streets with you, I am willing to face danger to protect you, because we are tethered by a belief in a world other than this, what Jose Muñoz would call the “not yet here.”
Those who draw false equivalences between white supremacists and anti-fascists often struggle to define the terms of “violence.” Violence in the US is foundational, institutionalized, and everywhere – even “law is inseparable from violence.” In these dangerous false equivalences no distinction is made between state sanctioned violence, and forms of community defense. Discomfort with anti-fascists, then, has more to do with who gets to use violence and to what end. Joe Arpaio’s ability to run an outdoor jail he braggingly referred to as a “concentration camp” will never be the equivalent of demonstrators physically preventing white nationalists from having a platform. For white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the so-called “Alt Right,” violence is the means and the goal, because their objective is the mass subjugation and eradication of non-white people. Anti-fascists are those who pose themselves as a threat to this mission, across a variety of tactics, to defeat those who want most of us dead. Twice in Durham, once during a Black Lives Matter action and the other in front of the County Jail this past May Day, I’ve seen cars plow through demonstrations while police stood by and did nothing; both times could have easily led to death or injury if it wasn’t for community members literally putting their bodies in the line of traffic as barriers to protect others, chanting “WE keep US safe.” Across the country, those engaging in anti-fascist organizing are also coordinating community defense and mutual aid. This organizing is not extracted from militant confrontation of Nazis and the Klan. It is a collaborative politics of defiance and care that underpin the worlds we imagine.
I’m not saying anti-fascist organizing in the US is without flaw or that the broader left doesn’t have plenty to do to get its shit together. I’m saying that those confined by the liberal rhetoric of “both sides are guilty” are missing out on the magic of this moment. Antifa is a growing network of interdependent generosity, a site of exuberance and rage, and the only home of my allegiance.
For updates on grassroots anti-fascist organizing in Durham, NC follow Defend Durham on Facebook and please consider making a contribution to the Durham Solidarity Center Freedom Fighter Bond Fund.