By Kitty Pryde, a member of Boston DSA
Content note: This post contains graphic descriptions of police and street fascist violence
This past weekend, I spent August 11 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and August 12 in Washington, DC, as a street medic for protests countering the Unite the Right 2 rally and commemorating the previous year’s attacks. A year earlier, I had spent the same two days in Charlottesville, as a street medic for protests countering the original Unite the Right. Then I went home to Boston, where over the course of the next week, the Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and there was a fascist rally that was opposed by tens of thousands of counter-protesters. I attended a vigil at the Holocaust memorial, and provided protest health and safety training to counter-protesters ahead of the rally, in a building where we got word midway through that there were fascists lurking at the door with cameras.
The organizers of that fascist rally, Boston Free Speech, have always claimed that they were and are mischaracterized, that they are benign supporters of free speech who disavowed what happened in Charlottesville that weekend. This has always been disingenuous. One of the intended speakers for that rally was Augustus Invictus, an attendee of Unite the Right. A few prominent figures from the previous Boston Free Speech rally had themselves attended Unite the Right. The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, founded by Kyle Chapman, who spoke at Boston Free Speech rallies, and founded the fascist umbrella organization, Resist Marxism (that Boston Free Speech was an original coalition member for), is a defendant in a lawsuit over the events of Unite the Right. It is a myth that Unite the Right was only the most overt nazis, though they were certainly there. Jason Kessler, the organizer, is a Proud Boy, from the portion of the far-right that tries to present themselves as ideological moderates. Anticom, the Pinochet-loving organization with a strong presence at Boston Free Speech’s first rally, was highly visible on both August 11 and August 12. ThinkProgress has documented both Boston fascists’ ties to more overt wings of the far-right, and the connections between them and the larger movement that produced Unite the Right (UTR) and Unite the Right 2 (UTR2) rallies. I write this both to provide a useful account for my comrades of UTR/UTR2, and to remind us of the importance of continuing to fight the far-right where we live, including this Saturday, when they march in Boston and other cities against “far-left violence.”
On August 11, I wandered downtown Charlottesville with my medic buddy and his partner. Police had turned it into an armed camp with security checkpoints. They searched bags and argued about whether I could keep my blunt-tipped first aid shears. I got to keep mine, but some other medics weren’t so lucky. We visited the memorial at the spot where a nazi drove a car through a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. I wandered through the stretch of the road, looking at spots where I had kneeled to provide first aid to the wounded, and standing for a time on the precise spot where Heather had been given CPR.
We took a break after that, and visited the group from Jewish Solidarity Caucus, of which I am a member, that was displaying an anti-fascist banner outside the synagogue and attempting to provide solidarity and reassurance to people leaving Shabbat services. Then we went to the University of Virginia campus, to get oriented with the area before that night’s planned student rally. I had been there before, but not in daylight, or in circumstances that lend themselves to getting oriented.
The police had barricades up blocking off the entire Lawn and Rotunda area, including the plaza where the rally was scheduled for and where last year’s fascist torchlight rally on August 11, 2017 had surrounded and attacked a group of mostly students. I had been a medic then, trying to track the progress of the march with the rest of my trio because I didn’t know when or where counter-protesters were going to show up and possibly need a medic. That part of the UVA campus, full of arch-covered outdoor quasi-hallways, is like a maze, and I described that confusing scramble through it to my companions, a year later, as “Nazi Pacman.” The scramble culminated in arriving at the plaza right before the torchlight march did, sitting down on a bench trying to look innocuous, and then being trapped there by the march’s decision to circle the counter-protesters at the statue. I was trying to look innocuous some more while they passed by us a few feet away, shouting epithets, giving nazi salutes. At one point, in response to one marcher yelling “You leftist pieces of shit!” at the three of us, another passing marcher, looking at us, yelled “Let’s kill some commies!” and other passing marchers watched us and laughed. I hoped they would stay in their formation, and given that their formation was circling the students, I felt craven, even at the time, for hoping it. As the attacks started against the students, we were able to get behind a bench, and wait for an opening to bolt through the increasingly chaotic crowd and get to where the injured people were gathering, where we treated them until the police, who had stood back during all of this, suddenly decided that they wanted to clear the plaza of the remaining few counter-protesters and medics, and advanced on us while we were treating a woman in a wheelchair.
A year later, the same police who had stood by and watched fascists attack, until they became the aggressors themselves, had made it so that I couldn’t go in and reacquaint myself with the place where it happened, in a low-key, well-lit setting. In the name of safety. I became increasingly angry and unhappy as we walked around the campus.
That night, the student survivors of 8/11/17 who were running the rally, refused to abide by the terms – only small clear bags allowed, only a specified number of people allowed, everyone must go through a checkpoint – that the university and the police had set, and started to hold their rally in a nearby field on the campus. A few fascists who showed up were run off, without physical altercation. Police declared the rally an unlawful assembly – on the students’ own campus! – and lined up in riot gear. The students marched, and found an amphitheater in which to rally. More police lined up in the amphitheater. Someone noticed that police were gradually surrounding the rally, so it turned back into a march, which turned into multiple marches. The one that we were in went downtown. We needed to drive to DC that night, so we left before the end, where police confronted and shoved marchers. The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how unnecessary all of this was, how the police could have just let student survivors lead a rally on their own campus! And how much more vigilantly they were responding to this, than they did to nazis marching through the campus, beating people with torches, pepper-spraying them, throwing tiki torch lighting fluid on them. I’ve heard some “well they were criticized last year for not doing anything, what do you expect them to do?” comments. If, as defenders of the institutions of policing usually claim, they were there to protect people’s safety, then I would expect them to prevent nazis attacking people, and to not bother a benign student rally. But defenders of the institutions policing are wrong in this claim.
In DC, we started out at the large coalition rally, providing aid to crashed skateboarders and people with heat exhaustion. Then we joined with the large march, working our way to the front to make sure that it had medic coverage. A contingent from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), just behind me, chanted to drumbeats, “Black! Latino! Arab, Asian, and White! Unite! Unite! Unite and fight the right!” The energy of the crowd was palpable.
The march arrived uneventfully at Lafayette Park. The Unite the Right 2 rally was being kept far away, by its protective guard of police. As usual, I have trouble imagining any leftist action, even a permitted one, being treated with the bells and whistles that fascist rallies get from the state. A few fascists were escorted away by police, and followed by portions of the crowd. I briefly saw a small group including a man with a canteen and a surgical mask, that I didn’t look closely at in the rain, but that I learned later, through photos, were part of a fascist “European heritage” organization from New Jersey.
My team eventually went around to the side of the park, where a number of unmasked Black activists and a racially diverse black bloc had assembled. I found out later that this was because this was where UTR2 organizer Jason Kessler was expected to enter. The group eventually started marching. Police started to follow it. My medic buddy and I had both been there on the day of the Inauguration protests, though neither of us had been swept up in the J20 arrests and prosecutions, and we became increasingly nervous about the possibility of a kettle and mass arrest. We walked on the edge, and when a large number of police on motorcycles approached the group from behind to box them in, we fell back.
There was no mass arrest, but I became alarmed and said so out loud, as the large group of police on motorcycles, only feet away from the protesters, started ostentatiously, threateningly, revving their engines, while pushing forward. I’ve seen a lot of awful behavior from police as a street medic, but I was still slightly stunned that they were threatening to hit a crowd out to counter Unite the Right 2 with vehicles, on this, the anniversary of the car attack at Unite the Right. Instead, they pepper-sprayed numerous people. We wrapped around the block and found people, some of whom had been pepper-sprayed, fleeing the area.
While all this was happening, I saw word that back in Charlottesville, police had prevented a march of mourners from getting to Heather Heyer’s memorial site, and that they had attacked a handful of community members. All of those security theater police precautions were implemented in Charlottesville in the name of safety. But whose safety were they meant to be promoting? Clearly not that of the people who had been the most affected by the lack of safety the year before. They were the ones being attacked!
People sometimes criticize anti-fascist work for being focused on street fascists rather than on institutions and structures, such as those of policing and deportation. But I don’t know anyone who does anti-fascist work who doesn’t understand that these are inseparable issues. Street fascists make all leftist organizing more difficult and dangerous. Institutions and structures both directly abet street fascist organizing, and oppress communities on a day-to-day basis. Street fascists seek access to institutions, to the levers of power.
Unite the Right 2 was a flop for the fascists, with the main issue being police response. And as a result, I have already seen similar commentary to what I saw after Boston’s and Berkeley’s large counter-protests a year ago. That there weren’t really any fascists, that their movement is pathetic and dead and unthreatening. Demonization of antifa. Assertions that when nazis rally we should walk by and laugh rather than countering them, because they are so small and pathetic.
But the primary issue, when it comes to the current wave of street fascism, has never been a few people throwing nazi salutes – as I said at the start of this, the wing of the far-right that publicly admits to being straight-up nazis was never the only show at Unite the Right, nor the original organizing force behind it. And since Unite the Right, we’ve seen the rise of the “‘Patriot’ Pinochet fans pretending to be benign moderates” wing of the far-right, the wing with plenty of fascist ambitions and nazi ties, and a taste for both street fighting and access to the political mainstream, which is able to draw in more people, and create situations like that in Portland on June 30 where they sent several counter-protesters to the hospital, precisely because they’re a big tent and people don’t understand what they are, what their organizing strategy is, how extreme their own views and their connections actually are underneath the “benign patriot” front rhetoric; how strong their ties actually are to infamous events like Unite the Right. The people providing the commentary seem to think that Unite the Right 2 was made small and pathetic by magic, or lack of interest in fascism, rather than by many hundreds of hours of organizing work behind the scenes, by consistent work against street fascists around the US over the last year, and by fascists’ understanding that thousands of people would show up to oppose them.
Oddly, even as they want to present themselves first and foremost as strong, contemporary fascists also have an interest in presenting themselves as small, a heroic underdog fighting off the vast leftist hordes against incredible odds, and also something that will play into mainstream “just ignore them” narratives and allow them to build. That has certainly been the narrative that they had promoted about the August 2017 Boston Free Speech rally. On June 2, at the Resist Marxism rally, a speaker from Boston Free Speech stated, among other things, that the counter-protesters would never have the courage to face them down badly outnumbered, as he had, if the numbers were reversed. When he said that, I thought about the Unite the Right torchlight rally, and the Nationalist Front charging through an anti-fascist line with bats and shields during Unite the Right, and the gloating over anti-fascists having been injured in Portland on June 30 of this year, and the constant, hungry, Pinochet-fanboy rhetoric. Indeed, I do not want those who oppose fascists to be outnumbered by fascists. We’ve seen how that plays out.
This Saturday, August 18, the fascists who were countered last year, in the wake of Unite the Right, by tens of thousands of people, are holding an anniversary march in Boston, as part of a national “march against far-left violence” happening in several cities throughout the US. They have tried to distance themselves from the Unite the Right rallies. I would encourage people of good conscience to come oppose them.
If you are interested in learning more about standing up to the far-right in Boston, Kitty Pryde will be speaking about fighting the far-right in Boston at a Town Meeting at the Arlington Street Church at 7pm on August 15th. You can find that Facebook event here.
There will also be a counter protest against fascist hate on August 18th at the State House. Details can be found here.