Recently, members of the Direct Action, De-escalation, and Security Committee of Boston DSA—better known within the chapter as DADS—have witnessed and been informed of a number of incidents within DSA that indicate the need for greater organizational solidarity around antifascist activism and the potential for internal political education on the subject. In the interest of demystifying what we do and why we do it, DADS members have authored this document.
One of the major wake-up calls for our team on this subject was the “How To Fight the Far Right” debate at the New England regional DSA conference, which several authors of this document witnessed or participated in, and which took place shortly after an incident at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference in which this same portion of the debate programming resulted in some delegates leaving the room. At the New England conference, the debate was divided into three subtopics chosen by the delegates: building class consciousness, confronting the fascists in the streets, and preventing the right-wing indoctrination of adolescent boys. While starting positions like “confronting fash in the streets” and “building class consciousness” need not be in conflict, the debate format encouraged people to treat them as adversarial. Perhaps predictably, the sub-debate on confronting fascists in the streets was the most heated, and revealed fundamental divisions among delegates. While we would like to reconcile these divisions, which is part of why we’re writing this, we feel strongly that the antipathy and distrust shown by some comrades towards antifascist organizing makes our work more difficult and our communities less safe.
GET INTO THE STREETS
While we don’t want to institute any litmus tests for participation in a democratic organization, the fact remains that comrades have wildly differing levels of experience with antifascist work, and individuals with less experience don’t always seem aware that they lack critical knowledge. We regularly see situations in which comrades have said, more or less, “I’ve seen antifa at protests” to establish credibility over other speakers, which clearly suggests that the other speakers must have even less personal experience than that—implying that opposing voices are just going off cool-sounding stuff they saw on the internet. This, unsurprisingly, is galling to comrades who have significant hands-on experience with antifascist organizing, both in the streets and behind the scenes.
There is much to discuss regarding how best to stop fascists from building power, and the comrades doing antifascist work constantly have these discussions on tactical, strategic, and ideological levels, with greater depth than a 90-second debate volley can convey. What are the fash trying to accomplish in a given action? How might certain tactics backfire? What is the role of public or media perception in a situation? All of these are important questions—and they must be asked again and again, because the answers are situational and constantly changing.
Taking an adversarial approach to such a sensationalized, misrepresented subject as antifascism is harmful to people who have experienced far-right violence, which unfortunately includes members of our committee and our chapter. Far-right violence is hardly unique in this regard; there are a number of issues where it’s harmful to victims of and witnesses to violence to have to politely listen to people for whom it is a completely abstract concept “debate” it by reiterating whatever myths and misinformation are floating around our dominant culture. Instead, as socialists we should attempt to build supportive structures around each other in fighting our common enemies, such as capitalism, nationalism, racism, and misogyny, rather than engaging in abstract thought exercises removed from the situation on the ground.
How to fight the far right should be a matter of discussion, not debate. Being able to talk calmly and rationally about difficult subjects is an important political skill, but debate and discussion are not the same thing. Looking at differing political ideas as a zero-sum game, whether within the constraints of a formal debate or as merely as a habit of mind to approaching political questions, can seriously deform a conversation where no up-or-down decision actually needs to be made. The “debate” approach encourages distinctiveness of opinion, rather than quality. Especially in a debate (formal or informal) that has no judges, no fact-checking, and no final decision being made, there’s very little in either the structure or the information at hand to incentivize finding consensus or even establishing commonly shared facts—but rather just to distinguish your remarks from the ones preceding. It is unfortunate that the debates and “debates” in which people air uninformed, insulting views tend to detract from less inflammatory, more productive discussions where knowledgeable comrades may disagree constructively. If the purpose of debate is, as it is so acclaimed in Western rhetoric, to develop our understanding of and sharpen our thinking around challenging topics, less artificially adversarial formats might allow for more creative thinking and better respect the variety of experiences comrades have with this subject.
THE ART OF FIGHTING WITHOUT FIGHTING
We particularly oppose the common mischaracterization of all antifascist organizing as reckless street brawling. While adventurists running around with no strategy is a risk at any mass action, the implication that that is the totality of antifascist street mobilization, masked or unmasked, is an insult to the comrades who have put hundreds of hours into the emotionally and intellectually difficult work of reading and analyzing fascist materials, providing security for DSA and other events, organizing street protests across broad coalitions of often mutually distrustful leftist groups, developing plans and contingency plans to minimize risk, facing down not just fascists but also police consistently more hostile towards us than towards fascists regardless of behavior, providing jail and court support to comrades who are arrested following an action, and of making space to debrief and comfort each other after a tense or fraught action. Much antifascist organizing, as with a lot of direct action organizing, takes place outside of public view for security reasons, which can lead casual observers or disinterested parties to buy into false equivalencies. Given the low level of common understanding of antifascism we have seen displayed in DSA, we ask comrades with limited familiarity with this work to speak with care and remain open-minded when weighing in on it. DADS members are always happy to educate comrades about antifascist work, but as it’s a large and complex subject, it can be extremely difficult to give an accurate portrayal of antifascist work in a soundbite to someone primarily informed by media misinformation.
Antifascist and security organizers within DSA should emphatically not be the Thin Red-And-Black Line—we are not a cadre separate from comrades. Rather, we are committed to skill-sharing and capacity-building through political education and low barriers to entry, advocating popular antifascism, and integrating with the overall work of building socialism. This is why we, as a committee, support many areas of direct action, and from our founding we have held training and education for all comrades as one of our primary missions. As with all areas of socialist work, some people will focus more on protecting our organization from fascist disruption than others, and we value being in an organization where comrades are engaged in, and have the opportunity to learn about, many areas of work. Those of us who do community self-defense work, whether as the primary focus of our organizing or as a small portion of it, have every right to expect our comrades to have our back, rather than impeding our work by denouncing it as “stunt activism,” as was the case at the Mid-Atlantic regional pre-convention, or intimating that antifascists are the moral equivalents of Nazis.
THE VIOLENCE INHERENT IN THEIR SYSTEM
We are also perturbed, especially as there are A11/A12 survivors on our committee, by the argument made in the New England preconvention debate that the Left has so far been “lucky” that antifa hasn’t killed anyone at a protest like James Fields killed Heather Heyer. For starters, the far right’s body count is much higher than just Heather Heyer—note, among many other examples, the recent massacre of at least 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA, by Nazis. This is because fascist ideology is explicitly united across factions by a belief, grounded in nationalism, that violence against “the other” is redemptive for a nation, consciously driving fascists to do more of it in service to their supremacist ideals. In Charlottesville, Heather Heyer was killed, and dozens of others wounded, deliberately, because that’s the point of fascism. It was not an accident, and it was not incidental. Violence is what they’re after; it’s not what we’re after. Furthermore, “both-sidesing” fascists and antifascists is a common centrist trope used to delegitimize the Left—a rhetorical tactic hardly limited to this one issue, but which has been weaponized in mainstream media and which is especially disheartening to hear from DSA comrades.
Fighting fascism requires different tactics and building solidarity across organizations and communities. While we are committed to confronting fascists in the streets, facing them down is not synonymous with throwing punches. Black bloc (or other masked appearance) and unmasked presence, small tactical groups and mass mobilization all have a role. DSA members can play many roles at street actions, antifascist and otherwise, including but not limited to: communications, medics, legal observers, marshalls, security, jail and court support, noisemakers, and behind-the-scenes planners/organizers. Beyond the streets, there is always day-to-day work to diminish fascist ability to organize in public to begin with; to spread security, de-escalation, and direct action skills throughout DSA and among allied organizations; and to keep ourselves, partners, and the community safe, at events and elsewhere. Regardless of any given comrade’s abilities or comfort level, everyone can contribute in some way to the fight against resurgent fascism.
One thing is clear: If we do not stop them from building power in the streets, then they will build power in the streets uncontested. It’s not as if the fash will just get bored and go home if antifa don’t show up—they’ll instead harass passers-by, especially those in targeted groups, and attack leftist and liberal events, as they have done previously, unimpeded. Attempts to hide behind respectability will not prevent them from targeting DSA; whatever it is that we do, they will hate us for it, because we are doing it as socialists, and in a comparatively high-profile organization. As many comrades are aware, DSA was on the “hit list” of Christopher Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant who was recently arrested for plotting massacres. This was glossed over in the press, but discussed by DSA members on social media, in an example of DSA members sharing information for mutual safety.
In the short time since the DSA membership bump in 2016, it has already racked up a significant history of fascist disruptions and infiltrations of events, both in Boston and around the country (such as Portland, OR, and Louisville, KY). The Boston security team was especially large at our pre-convention because of the expectation that local fascists, including people who have attacked DSA members, would be assembling within a few hundred feet of our Saturday location (and some did; fortunately, they did not spot us), and because of recent instances of physical violence against chapter members and targeting of Boston DSA for harassment. Some members of our committee declined to be pre-convention delegates because we knew that adequate staffing for the security team would require some people to take lengthy shifts, and some who were delegates gave up a couple of hours of their delegate time to do shifts. This again highlights the need for antifascist solidarity and a robust, participatory security culture, as having only a small subset of members continually standing guard can impact those comrades’ ability to fully participate in other chapter business. As socialists, we know that many hands make light work, and we know that we can and should all share in the responsibility to keep our organization safe.
While we have been upset to hear our work devalued by our comrades, knowingly or otherwise, we nonetheless remain optimistic about the potential for deepening our chapter’s understanding of antifascist issues and working collaboratively to smash fascism. To that end, the DADS team has been working with the Political Education Working Group to hold a reading series providing an Introduction to Fascist and Reactionary Thought, with the next series being held May 25th at the Rosa Parks Room of the Democracy Center in Cambridge, 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Please join us and work to more fully engage with the history of opposition to fascist thought and the lessons we can take from it into the future.