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Determining a Threat When You’re the Target: A Response to Several Authors

An essay by Emmi Bevensee about antifascism, free speech and political violence.

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Originally published by Center for a Stateless Society. Written by Emmi Bevensee. Support this author on Patreon.

Note: Enough is Enough is not organizing any of  these events, we are publishing this text for people across the US and Europe to be able to see what is going on and for documentation only.

Read all our reports about antifa; here.

Determining a Threat When You’re the Target: A Response to Several Authors

Common Ground

It’s worth mentioning that there is some shared intent here. I take issue with Jason’s framing of it as being ‘liberal’ but appreciate his search for common ground. I assume that we are all:

  1. Opposed to fascism: Although we debate its exact boundaries, there is a clear center mass that we are all opposed to.
  2. Opposed to the state and using it as the means of defeating fascism: We are anarchists and libertarians. We distrust any scheme the state offers as a defense against fascism because we know that more often than not they are traps and often lay the foundation for fascism anew. As an extension, we are critical of strategies that (explicitly or implicitly) rely on state violence such as the military, police, Border Patrol, ICE, or SWAT including those that expand the capacity for state violence such as many forms of legislative reform. We don’t call the cops and we aren’t snitches.
  3. Opposed to unprovoked violence: We will debate about the exact nature of aggression and self-defense but I think that it is worth noting that none of us are excited about the prospect of widescale violence. We are reticent and thoughtful about violence even if we debate what is morally or strategically advisable and necessary.
  4. Opposed to racism, nationalism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and the like: We disagree about how to reduce harm, create positive norms, and what to do about the various forms of bias (structural and interpersonal) and discriminatory violence but we all do seek to minimize or destroy these viruses.
  5. Support freedom and liberty: We all recognize that positive freedom is the complicated antidote to the repression and populism of fascism and authoritarian domination.
  6. Support the protection of communities at risk of fascist violence: We see fascist gangs and white supremacy, whether state sanctioned or not, as being antithetical to our values and seek to eliminate harm against those it targets even though this ‘protection’ may look different to us.

By mentioning these, assumedly, shared values I am not seeking to gloss over our differences which are dramatic. I mention them only to emphasize and encourage good faith in the recognition that we do have some shared goals.

On War and Violence

As antifascists, it should be clear that our brand is empathy and liberty. We stand not only on the side of love, but also on the side of joy. We fight nazis because we want a world where speech can be free. The contradiction of a shallow first glance fails to capture us. Sometimes the best way to maximize freedom and liberate love, is to resist that which would destroy or silo them into inbred cesspools of homogeneity. When we punch nazis, or spend years researching, infiltrating, and exposing them, we do it for love, not out of a vulgar brutalism. Don’t ever let someone steal that truth from us.

I also think it’s important to mention that I have experienced homophobic and transphobic violence. By mentioning having been physically and verbally assaulted for a marginalized identity (primarily for being a visibly queer transwoman) I am not trying to play a trump card that functions as an epistemic closure. Direct trauma is after all, not the end all be all of understanding a thing. But it does offer certain insights that can get lost in the abstracted discussion of justifiable threats to violence. Fear often functions as a set of biases towards action or paralysis, for better or worse. This trauma-based fear can lead to reactionary behavior or subtlety depending on the nature of the wielder. But in my direct experience, and the experiences of so many of my networks, the speed with which a situation shifts from anti-trans hostility to physical aggression can be the blink of an eye, and generally is. Sometimes you don’t have any warning and it comes seemingly out of nowhere. When, particularly libertarian, critics of antifa discuss the importance of awaiting the initiation of aggression, it often betrays a lack of experience with real-life, non-philosophical violence. I find myself thinking, “What would make you happy? Do you want us, the targets, to make scouting teams that, follow every single nazi around town until they reach their homes? Do you realize how impractical this is?!!” It’s not just impractical, it’s impossible. We do our best to minimize harm which sometimes means minimizing fascist threats. When you’re a hunted minority it’s easy to develop paranoia when there are, in fact, a lot of people that want to kill you, and even more people unwilling to go that far, but delighted by the possibility of harming you in any number of other ways.

I’m also a well-trained firearm owner. As the bathroom bill movement ramped up in the U.S. there was a concomitant call for people to kill and murder transwomen they found in women’s bathrooms. Because of my occupation, I found myself in public women’s bathrooms a lot constantly paranoid and knowing my rate of passing as cis is roughly half. As problematic as passing is as a concept, coupled with a variety of other surface or contextual indicators, passing is often the difference between being able to pee unhampered and being accosted (while still needing to pee). My experiences of intense transphobia and trauma stretches back as far as early childhood but as fascism began to more substantively rear its head again in the mainstream U.S. (and global) political landscape, things changed dramatically. I’m also a denizen of the internet which means I’ve been dealing with transphobes brutal desire to maim, rape, and murder me for a long time. But seeing that cesspit congeal into a coherent movement with physical street fighting operations, goose-stepping down main streets echoing Nazi slogans and throwing Roman salutes, I began to feel another echo. I had seen this before, but differently.

In my time living in a Kurdish area on the Turkish side of the borderlands with Syria, I came to be deeply involved with a wide range of activists from the Syrian revolution who had widely differing positions but all of which were generally opposed to the authoritarian regime of the father and the son–the Assads. I moved there under invitation in order to support a variety of local activist efforts and ended up also working in free migration issues. Somewhere in my heart I had hoped to learn some deep lesson that would make the appeal of non-violent direct action seem more viable as a core tenet of my anarchism. Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was quite the opposite. I left with a greater certainty that in situations where fascists come to takeover your village, that not only will the state not save you, they’ll exploit your death. Pacifism will get you and everyone you love killed. You will fight, flee, or die and many will die regardless. Wherever possible fascist movements will congeal rabidly into fully-fledged military movements, tactictly employed by the state to destroy minorities and imagined fifth-column subversives and enforce fascist rule. The myth of palingenesis draws in brutalists from across the world to fight for a disgusting dream. War isn’t just cruel, it’s the intense magnification of the worst crimes of which societies are capable. These crimes are then reiterated, again and again, forming complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the inability to bury your dead, much less grieve, compounds. Warfare is a tragedy so far beyond comprehension that it defies the transmission of experience between those who’ve seen it and those who haven’t. Fascism means a uniquely brutal form of warfare that many remember and many forget.

Upon arriving back to the states I knew more deeply than ever that the state will repress legitimate anti-fascist community defense and yet, that we needed it intensely. Many that oppose my ideas in this exchange will no doubt support robust community and self-defense efforts. On the other hand, I am of the ilk that is happy to read about anarchists destroying Golden Dawn offices in Greece or killing their leaders in the streets. I smile not because I enjoy violence. My neural architecture is corrupted by my various domestic and international exposures to violence. I am opposed to it in the most visceral and logical sense. I’m an empath who will puke at a stranger’s blood loss. I have even written extensively about the role of peacebuilding and transformative tactics in long-term antifascist strategy. I am happy not because I’m a vulgar brutalist, but because I see meaningful defense. I am happy because the alternative is a carnage far worse. I am happy because I subsequently read about a former Golden Dawn member stating that “The only real threat to Golden Dawn is the anarchists.” I am happy because I smell, hear, and see a much more dramatic outbreak of violence as currently teetering on the brink of the possible and I wish, deeply that we were more prepared to stop it. I am happy because it frightens me that we might lose and I get some hope from our victories.

The casual observer may see an anarchist murder some Golden Dawn member, who has no swastika tattoos and is wearing a suit and thinks (as Will rightfully described), “My goodness! They’ve killed that innocent business man!” The conservative outrage machine would post pictures of the nazi doing community service for little Aryan children. The liberal sympathy machine would raise money for his neo-nazi wife. Little would they all know that the anarchists had been following him for years as he attempted to organize (yet keep his hands clean) the firebombing of African bars in echoes of the pogroms against guest workers by civilian “police” forces in Poland. When commanders such as these, die or drop-out of organizing after doxxing, so too does their organizational memory, their leadership acumen, and their connections.

We, in the so-called Western world, may not yet be on the brink of war as it is deeply known by those in the so-called Global South. More often we export our war. However, anyone who has lived in real U.S. American poverty has seen glimpses. Many of us have lived amongst gang warfare, racialized by a thriving legacy of Jim Crow era policies and structural racism. Working class anti-racists fight to hold their lines in the race rules of prison. Whether we are already in the race-war the fascists (and many leftists) think they want or not, matters less than the realistic dynamics of how violent confrontations work. Violent conflict is a battle not an egalitarian anarchist (or liberal) conversation. Ethical corruption is constantly perversely incentivized. Anarchists don’t understand war. We care too goddamn much to fully embrace the sociopathic bloodlust needed to play a violent team sport and win. Even the consequentialists amongst us (such as myself and Will) draw certain hard lines that lose us points where brutality wins. Even as I support broad defense I recognize that we must embrace voices of restraint lest we fall into cognitive, affective death spirals.

Responses

In violent conflict the rules of engagement change. This is not a free pass. We are no longer anarchists if we abandon the empathy and love of liberty that characterizes and weakens us against ultra-violence. I respect both Jason and Grayson. Despite several years of frustrated mutual plunking of keys at each other on these topics, I appreciate their calls to thoughtful reticence and engagement. I acknowledge that they notably attempt to deeply engage, and even meaningfully frame comprehension of the positions they argue against. They, and others in their ideological vicinity, have impacted me in the sense that their thoughtful (even if occasionally wildly wrong-headed) conclusions represent aspects of my own consciousness and the problems at play that are worthy of attention.

Other antifa critics such as Babcock relegate their critiques to Libertarian and Republican echo chambers through their lack of exposure to the nuance present in antifascist groups. While burning a Marxist (and Trotskyist) caricature of a predominantly anarchist movement, he ironically casts the world into a quite dialectical binary of liberal and illiberal motivations conveniently creating a perfect team based trench system to defend or dismiss. This kind of rote simplification is worse than a strawman, it’s disingenuous. No one in this mutual-exchange is an ML, but many may be socialists. Grant does not show a great amount of exposure to the distinction between libertarian-socialism and Stalinism. Further, those that advocate punching nazis are not somehow illiberal authoritarian communist monsters bent on gulaging anyone with a different perspective. His lack of exposure is again exposed when he tries (possibly ironically?) to play an idpol epistemic closure in describing antifa demos as a fundamentally masculine endeavor stating, ““One of the advantages of nonviolent tactics, in contrast to street brawling, is that people who are not able-bodied men are full and equal participants in the fight, rather than being relegated to support roles. ” Fun fact about actually existing antifa groups, there are tons of femmes, neuro-diverse people, queers, trans folks, and people of color involved and generally in the front lines. The particular groups with shitty masculinist track records often get ostracized by the larger networks. The assumption that only men can fight and that situations of physical confrontation innately relegates non-men to support roles, speaks for itself. More offensive though than these naive assumptions is his repeated notion that anyone who would want to use violence against nazi political assembly is primarily motivated by a desire for violence. In the response section I hope to see Grant increasingly engage with the real people he faces instead of some authcom strawman.

Conversely, I see Edelhoss making a similar mistake from the opposite direction. Placing a primacy on the involvement in antifa groups as the only form of antifascist activism and assuming that everyone who doesn’t or isn’t involved is an “ignoramus.” There are lots of ways to support antifa groups without being a member (send them intel, flyer, cook for them, babysit, provide them self-defense training, etc.) although I am in full agreement with you that membership does generate certain nuance and knowledge about the depth of care with which the majority of longstanding antifa groups approach their work. But, while I disagree incredibly firmly with many, or even most, of the critics of antifa. I won’t go so far as to lump them all into a category of idiocy even if I do think some of their ideas are disastrously wrong or limited.

A common critique of antifascist political violence (the smarter critics recognizing that this is only a small, but important short-term piece of what antifa groups do) is that it militarizes and popularizes the fascist movement amongst mainstream republicans and fence-sitters while creating martyrs. There is of course truth to these critiques of anti-fascist action broadly speaking, such as that some people are sympathetic to the perceived extremism of antifa and are drawn to fascism as a result. But these people that would be drawn to fascism, were already drawn to it, that’s how attraction works. Another part of this critique is that getting doxxed or beaten can in some situations lead to increased group cohesion amongst fascists or fence-sitting conservatives caught in the crossfire. Well sure, when you get smashed in the head by someone you certainly don’t think, “My god maybe they do have a point!” but this is a gross simplification. Tons of military history and conflict transformation research studying the “radicalization” of terrorist groups backs this idea up. But these are often looking at foreign invaders, occupying far-flung lands with a history of colonial exploitation, then creating a huge swath of civilian deaths through things like nightly drone bombing campaigns and the like. This is wildly different than what more aptly resembles a civil conflict (mostly with sticks and pepper-spray) even with the knowledge of global geo-political meddling. As far as martyrdom goes, Da3esh (ISIS) has plenty of dead martyrs but Raqqa has fallen. Might never makes right, but it can spell a tainted kind of victory.

Although the person punched and doxxed at a rally might become radicalized, it’s not about the one person, it’s about the people who decide not to partake as a result. The same way that infiltration is designed not just to reveal information but also to create inner panic. These are of course statist war-games. But that doesn’t make them ineffective. In fact, in hierarchical organizations such as many neo-nazi orgs and gangs, it makes them more effective. Should we constantly check our compass of efficacy and ethics? Of course. We need strong accountability. But hand-waving the situation just allows escalation, and escalation means death and extreme suffering.

When Jason describes the importance of distinguishing between peaceful and violent nazi rallies, he acknowledges the need for readiness for defense, but seems nearly dismissive of the ease with which we can recognize patterns and draw predictive conclusions especially with regard to certain specific nazi groups such as NSM, Identity Evropa, or anything that draws in the “Proud Boys.” Obviously not every III-percenter rally is motivated by white supremacist violence but we can see through the word games that other groups employ to mask their genocidal lust. Just because not every nazi event featured violence doesn’t mean it’s not a pattern. That’s not how correlation works. Every historical nazi rally didn’t end with a Romani or guest worker pogrom (or the Munich Putsch) but the ones that did were devastating beyond all reason. Most of Hitler, Mussolini, and the National Front’s early rallies were framed as proper upstanding citizens types of events. Traditionalists love to see themselves as clean and proper. Yet given the chance, there is regular anti-minority violence at these rallies aside from the sheer trauma that these festivals of intimidation provide.

As I have said on many occasions, counter-recruitment, skilled rebuttal, and liberal hugs can be very strategic. I support the one-two punch of antifa pushing back a nazi incursion and then liberals scooping them up and kindly pointing them to the fact that they have literally become nazis. The beautiful cases such as Derek Black are important, even as they are completely and wholly unfeasible as central organizing principles for a movement that intends not to get slaughtered. Grayson keenly pointed out the historical interplay between more militant and more pacifist movements, stating:

Many advocates of violent action acknowledge this, and propose that violent and nonviolent strategies be employed simultaneously. They observe that nonviolent strategies like those of Gandhi or King were employed side by side with violent strategies that made them more appealing to those in power. There are few things worth considering in light of that observation. It doesn’t establish any particular advantage for violent or nonviolent action. It also seems likely that there are relevant differences between strategies aimed at changing established political institutions and those aimed at effecting broader cultural change (the two are, of course, not totally independent). Lastly, it seems to assume that violent and nonviolent actions generally interact harmoniously rather than antagonistically. That assumption is clearly unwarranted.

Although I agree to an extent with this take, I don’t think that we need to, or are arguing for the dominance of political violence in our tactics. Further, I think that the antagonism he describes is that often, the peacenik contemporaries of social movements often end up being the ones who collaborate with the state in the repression of radical community defense. In my personal experience, just about every single protest has some white hippy mom who goes to the police to help identify the “violent anarchists” completely of her own accord. This is not to say that all non-violent direct action activists are this particular breed of loathsome. In fact most of the committed ones, disagree as they may, would never facilitate state violence against their more aggressive fellow demo-goers. But nonetheless, when Jason and authors point to Gene Sharp, it is is of course timely to reference Gelderloos and his research on how certain forms of non-violence in the wake of Gene Sharp, have actually served to cede huge symbolic victories while maintaining the complete structure of deep marginalization in tact, such as when a dictator is overthrown and a new leader inherits their brutal secret police operations.

As we said in my opening essay, fascism is dangerous not because it’s true, but because it appeals to many people. It has an inherent hook. Because of this inherent hook, public debate with nazis is dangerous. In terms of debate, although often inadvisable, if you’re going into it there are a lot of strategies. Some of the most important and contradictory ones are to troll harder, be incessantly earnest, make sure to control the framing of the debate, cede no ground, be better at their game then them, define the terms, know your shit, expose the brittleness of their meta-strategies, don’t let them corner you, keep your cool, be calloused (as in have already done your time in the troll mines so you’re not shocked by incredibly violent and terrible shit), be strict and serious but clearly maintain that you are fighting for joy and love. Our opening essay stands similarly to Jason when he writes:

Of course, intellectual confrontations with fascists are not as simple as the best ideas automatically winning through the pure light of reason. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, fascists do not engage in good faith. They deliberately misrepresent both your ideas and theirs, having mastered subrational forms of communication to silence reason and amplify prejudice. These conversations can look like a normal debate to unsuspecting onlookers, who can mistake the fascist’s sophistry for bold truth-telling and find themselves infected….. Their goals are in pushing things away from sincere debate and into sophistry and violence. This can’t be too obvious, so they try to mask every attempt at subverting rational discourse as engagements in it. Their attacks on liberalism are almost always parasitic on it, gleefully saying their enemies smashed up a “free speech” rally, or balking at “triggered” interlocutors who supposedly can’t handle reasonable conversation. Their apparent arguments are often red herrings, so critiquing them on their own terms is fruitless.

Relatedly, in his discussion of belligerent rationality, Grayson points out how, much of the modern alt-right couldn’t really care less about whether race is actually a meaningful biological distinction. Fascism is a power movement first and foremost not a truth movement. They’re trolls but we too can troll. One of my favorite examples of political trolling that was non-violent and effective was when a liberal group called Deutschland Exit that helps to counter-recruit neo-nazis made a fundraiser where every step that nazis in a particular rally took, was sponsored by donors to donate to the organization’s efforts. So in effect, the longer the march, the more money they raised for counter-recruitment efforts. In the end, the nazis raised over 10,000 Euros for the anti-extremist org. Clever underminings like this, while not capable of being the only pillar of defense, are excellent methods of taking the wind out of their sails.

With regard to the many battlefields of engagement with nazis, Jason argues that:

All these tactics must be practiced with serious care. Do not argue with fascists unless you’re skilled at cutting through sophistry; do not go to rallies armed unless you thoroughly trust your judgment in relevant situations and know how to properly use that weapon. You must know what you’re getting into, and where your talents place your comparative advantage in the anti-fascist division of labor.

While this is true, this is also a time of learning. Newfound radicalism is always annoying and reckless. No doubt the influx of baby antifa groups and new found anti-nazism will sprout some tremendously cringey, or even dangerous mistakes. But that is no reason for people to stop. That is reason for mentorship, guidance, practice, research, experimentation, and debate.

One of the topics that Jason and others and I fight about that has not been addressed here is the void of what could be considered truly reliable quantitative research on the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance to fascist movements. Unfortunately, it is far too high of a variable problem with too little by way of controls or clean comparisons to do proper data collection. However, although anecdotes do not constitute repeated evidence, they are a type of information. We do know that in the period where there wasn’t antifa groups, white supremacists controlled more neighborhoods in both Paris and Portland and that as antifa groups began to sprout up and apply a range of techniques to deal with the threats, the incidences of violence committed by these groups in those very same areas decreased as it became harder for them to carry out business as usual. Of course these are not perfect data points but they are still a kind of evidence and in lieu of other stronger evidence it is important to weigh them appropriately. What’s more, these invaluable histories of resistance are quite well documented and not only by antifa groups themselves but also by very serious historians of antifascist activity.

In discussing the role of the internet in modern no-platform battlefields Jason writes:

Consider the takedowns of the Daily Stormer and Stormfront; p. Predictably, both sites are back online. When fascists’ profiles get shut down on payment sites like Patreon or Gofundme, they just create their own explicitly fascist-friendly alternatives. Fascists will have websites, and some of those websites will be able to fund their activities.

But this is still a type of victory Jason. Push them farther into their own servers and they have less DDoS protections and things like this, making them more vulnerable. If they’re forced into the deep-web, sure they may retain some anonymity but they also lose a huge body of the populace who won’t or don’t know how to access the unlisted, or hidden-service web. Also, not all platforms are created equal. The point is also about normalizing the dismissal of fascist speech as inane. We don’t need the ideas to not exist– that’s impossible and undesirable– we want them to be relics that are looked upon with disdain and disinterest. In the long-term, none of us want to be fighting nazis tooth-and-nail. In the long-term, I do believe that fascists should be able to speak on the street-corner freely as long as they pose no real threat but we’re not there yet. It’s a deformed ideological market that privileges cruelty and the path towards positive freedom is a treacherous and narrow road.

The Right to Fear

There are a number of topics that I did not address in this essay either because I believe they’ve been well covered by other writers (such as slippery slope fallacies and the diversity of what antifa groups actually do) or because I think they would be distractions (a philosophical debate about consequentialism and deontology). However, it’s worth mentioning in no uncertain terms, that the fear that minorities feel about fascists is not only legitimate, it’s real. When discussing strategy and the efficacy of resistance against fascism I won’t play the reactionary leftist game of saying only the most brutal and oppressed are the most serious and legitimate, but I also won’t cede ground to those for whom the possible deaths of people like me and those even more at risk are but a minor philosophical point that distracts from the purity spiral of their ideological doctrine. While hopefully no one here would be so reckless, I say it because it’s common. The stakes are incredibly high. The targeted beings have a right to be triggered, to make mistakes, to garble and confuse their talking points even as we strive to hold each other to a higher standard. Objectivity is often the luxury of the removed after all, whether through healing or lack of exposure. When Alex remarks on the white cis-maleness of much of the left-market anarchist and libertarian milieus I am sure it is not to silence but to question. How can we best protect those at risk? How can we honor the experiences of those that have suffered and hold the memory of fascism and racist violence in their bodies? The answer isn’t brutality but it also isn’t ideologically “pure” rigidity. It’s very possible to be culpable and have clean hands. But amidst these dire tensions, there is common ground. I trust that people here all hate fucking nazis and want to see fascism wiped from the earth. In building a world free of fascist power, where liberty, empathy, mutual-aid, and that (James) Baldwinian love reign, I hope that we can keep our priorities in order. We don’t just want to survive, we want to build a world where we can thrive. Destroy nazism to cultivate empathy and freedom. Punch a nazi for love.

 

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