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Fighting Cops and the Klan: The History and Future of Black Antifascism

Fascists have often used law enforcement as their personal Gestapo to commit atrocities against those they hate.

New Black Panther Party members join with others to counter protest a neo-Nazi rally in Trenton, New Jersey, April 16, 2011. Although the efforts of Black racial justice organizers are not always classified as "antifascist," Black activists have actually been working against fascism for centuries. (Photo: Bob Jagendorf /Flickr)

New Black Panther Party members join with others to counter protest a neo-nazi rally in Trenton, NJ, April 16, 2011. Although the efforts of Black racial justice organizers are not always classified as antifascist, Black activists have actually been working against fascism for centuries.New Black Panther Party members join with others to counter protest a neo-Nazi rally in Trenton, New Jersey, April 16, 2011. Although the efforts of Black racial justice organizers are not always classified as “antifascist,” Black activists have actually been working against fascism for centuries. (Photo: Bob Jagendorf /Flickr)

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“The fascists already have power,” prison abolitionist and Black Panther Party member George Jackson said in 1971. “The point is that some way must be found to expose them and combat them.”

Recently, images of (mostly white) radicals engaging in “black bloc” tactics — wherein groups of protesters dress in all black clothing and masks in order to conceal their identities — have grabbed the attention of the US mainstream media, piquing the public’s interest in antifascism, or “antifa” for short. Militant, left-wing opposition to fascist groups and ideas, oftentimes including the physical confrontation of fascists, is re-entering the American political imagination. But while many people think of white anarchists breaking windows and punching Nazis when they talk about antifa, Black folks in the Western hemisphere have essentially been doing antifascist work for centuries. It just hasn’t been recognized as such.

“Living as a Black person in America every day is an antifascist struggle,” Trevor, a Black activist with the antifa group NYC Anarchist Action, told me. “Any day you could end up on the plantation, which is the prison system. So every day is a war to some degree.”

And with Donald Trump in power and the neo-Nazi and white nationalist coalition that calls itself the “alt-right”on the rise, the history of the Black liberation struggle, along with the activism of today’s Black antifascists, can provide the US’s growing antifascist movement with valuable lessons on exposing and combating American-style fascism. I spoke to some Black antifa activists and asked them for their thoughts on the past, present and future of Black resistance against fascism and white nationalism.

For the people I spoke to, history shows that the Black liberation struggle includes the struggle against fascism.

“Historically, a lot of the work that Black people have done has been antifascist,” Mike Bento of the anti-police brutality group NYC Shut It Down told me. “From the anti-lynching campaigns in the early part of the last century up through to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Black Panthers: These are all antifascist movements.”

Bento began doing traditional antifa work when he spent a few years in London beginning in 2010. It was there that Bento and his comrades began confronting fascist groups like the British National Party and the English Defense League in the streets and physically stopping their marches. The experience helped him realize that fascism isn’t just Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or skinheads with swastika tattoos in Europe.

He recalls an incident on election night in 2008. Bento was in California protesting against Proposition 8, a ballot measure making gay marriage illegal, when a passer-by gave him a wake-up call.

“I was holding a sign that said ‘No on Prop 8,'” Bento said. “And a white dude in a big truck drove by and said, ‘Go back to your neighborhood, you faggot nigger!’ He literally called me a ‘faggot nigger.'”

The symbolism of this happening on the same night that Barack Obama became the first Black president wasn’t lost on Bento. The moment crystallized for him how the different kinds of discrimination and oppression are connected and how US fascists would continue to remain a threat despite the country electing a Black man as its leader.

American fascism is no recent phenomenon, either. Bento notes that the US, with its foundational culture of white nationalism combined with its long tradition of scapegoating and state repression of people of color, has always been a fascist state for Black folks. Even before the Black Panthers or the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Black activists like Mabel and Robert Williams were fighting the most brutal forms of American fascism by arming Black people and teaching them how to defend themselves from the Ku Klux Klan.

This is why antifascist work “has always been important,” said Gem Isaac of the Black-women-led, anti-police-brutality group Why Accountability. Her group recently organized a march in New York City against white nationalism on Inauguration Day where protesters marched from Harlem to Trump Tower, shutting down streets and chanting against Trump and the police on the way there. Isaac points out that Black people have long been at the forefront of many areas of social and political life, including antifascism.

“We talk about the Civil Rights Movement, but we can go back further than that,” Isaac told me. “When you talk about Nat Turner or Sojourner Truth, to take up arms against your oppressor and push back against them, that is antifascist work. When you talk about Nanny of the Maroons in the Caribbean or the Haitian Revolution, that is antifascist work. History has shown us, time and again, African people participating in antifascist work.”

Isaac, along with another member of Why Accountability, also showed up at New York University on February 2 to help shut down a speech by fascist hipster Gavin McInnes. This practice of disrupting and shutting down fascist meetings and speeches is known as “no-platforming” and is a quintessential antifa practice aimed at stopping fascists from organizing and thus preventing and defending against far-right violence.

“You had Gavin McInnes being given a platform by NYU to come in and, in my opinion, do a recruitment session,” Isaac said. “Being allowed to come, under the guise of free speech, so you can eventually bring violence against other people and have it upheld by the local police department — that is violence.”

Isaac also brought up tactics like doxxing (in which people’s private information, such as their full names, phone numbers or addresses, are published online in order to encourage abuse) and targeted online harassment, which are used by alt-right trolls, as more modern forms of fascist violence. Black women have been especially targeted in these kinds of online attacks, as illustrated by what happened to comedian and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones in July 2016. Racist online trolls, angered at the idea of a Black woman starring in the Ghostbusters movie, began endlessly harassing Jones on Twitter, flooding her account with racist and sexist comments shortly after the release of Ghostbusters. About a month after this harassment began, Twitter banned Breitbart editor and fascist troll Milo Yiannopoulos for coordinating the online attacks. Jones’ personal website was then hacked with photos of her driver’s license and passport posted up on it. The hackers also posted alleged nude photos of Jones.

“What’s happened is the actions of the KKK from yesteryear have now moved to a digital platform,” Isaac said. “So instead of burning a cross at your house, which they still do depending on where you are, they’ll dox you, threaten to release information about you, or they’ll post unflattering photos of you on white nationalist websites. So the tactics have shifted but the outcome that they want — for violence, harm or death to come to anyone who opposes white nationalism — is all the same.”

Colin Ashley of the racial justice group Peoples Power Assemblies has experienced this kind of violence firsthand not just for being Black but also for being queer. On the night of December 17, 2016, Ashley and a group of friends had just left an activist party in Manhattan and were chanting slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” and “We’re here! We’re queer! We’re fabulous! Don’t fuck with us!” They were soon approached by a group of men chanting “Trump!” who then made racist and homophobic remarks to them. One of the Trump-supporting men pointed specifically at Ashley and yelled: “He’s a fucking faggot!”

“As we chanted back at them, they were following us from the event that we were at, one of them took a swing at one of my comrades,” Ashley said. “I jumped in to defend them, and we were then basically beaten and attacked by this guy and his friends that night.”

Pictures of the aftermath showed Ashley with a swollen face, a bruised eye and blood on his clothes. The attack exemplified for Ashley how the most marginalized groups of people, groups like immigrants, LGBTQ folks and Muslims, are often the main targets of fascist violence. This vulnerability to fascist violence, whether it be in the form of street harassment or deportations or incarceration, is also increased for people who are part of more than one marginalized group. Black immigrants, Black queer people, Black trans folk and Black Muslims all have to be extra careful of politicized bigotry putting them in physical danger.

“We know full well from the history of this country that once fascistic nationalism takes hold, the most marginalized are the ones who become blamed, targeted and systematically oppressed,” he said. “There may be this sense for some people that it’s just immigrants or just Muslims, but it’s not going to stop with these groups.”

The case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman attacked by a Nazi in June 2011, is emblematic of the constant threat to marginalized people posed by fascists. Much like Ashley, McDonald and a group of friends were confronted by another group of people spewing racist and transphobic remarks at them. One of the women in the other group smashed a glass in McDonald’s face and punched her. After a fight between the two groups broke out, the woman’s ex-boyfriend assaulted McDonald, whose face was already bleeding from the glass, and threw her into the street. The man, with fists clenched, began pursuing McDonald. She quickly pulled a pair of scissors from her purse and stabbed the man in the chest as he lunged towards her. The man died. He was later found to have a swastika tattooed on his chest. McDonald, now seen by many as a hero and antifascist icon, went to prison for 19 months of her 41-month sentence, despite having obviously defended herself against a racist, transphobic Nazi who was threatening her life.

But despite these cases of street violence and online harassment, all of the activists I spoke to insisted — like the Black Panthers did before them — that a primary perpetrator of fascist and white supremacist violence against Black people has always been the police. In her autobiography, the legendary Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur recounted how much the New Jersey State Troopers resembled and spoke like actual Nazis. Despite calling them “fascist pigs” for years, the cops “shocked me by the truth of my own rhetoric,” Shakur said.

Recently, the Intercept reported on a 2006 FBI report showing that white supremacist groups have long been “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.” When a Philadelphia cop was photographed last year at the Democratic National Convention with his Nazi tattoos in plain sight, Internal Affairs cleared him of any wrongdoing. And during the presidential campaign, the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union, proudly endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Cops and the Klan have been working hand in hand for much of US history: from the KKK allying with Southern police during the Civil Rights era in order to more easily commit murder to the modern-day infiltration of law enforcement by the KKK. This has, in turn, shaped Black resistance and given Black antifas a unique perspective on fighting fascism. Daryle Jenkins of the One People’s Project, a group that monitors racist and far-right groups, can tell you everything you need to know about fascists and white supremacists in the US. And though he’s spent about 30 years keeping an eye on right-wing groups and even been individually targeted by them, he points to the police as a major source of white supremacist violence against Black people.

“Whenever you see a cop beating somebody down on the street or slamming people up against a wall, that’s part of it. And everybody keeps forgetting that,” he said. “I think that one of the biggest problems that we have is the fact that the fascists use law enforcement as a way to get at those that they hate. They basically look at law enforcement as their own personal Gestapo.”

The close relationship between police and fascists is why Trevor, Bento, Isaac and Ashley are all part of groups that focus on state violence against people of color. All of them have also personally experienced or witnessed violence from police.

Trevor has been harassed and stopped and frisked simply for being Black. Bento was once racially profiled and had a gun put to his head by a cop. Isaac has seen Black activists physically assaulted by police while trying to file a complaint against police. Ashley had a cousin who was killed by police.

Though Jenkins can’t imagine large numbers of Black people embracing the black bloc tactic in the struggle against cops and fascists, he does see similar tactics occurring in more broad-based Black antifascist work.

“When you see what happened in Baltimore, when you see what happened in Ferguson, that’s our antifascist work,” he said, referring to young people battling it out with cops in the streets of both those cities in response to high-profile cases of police brutality. “It just hasn’t been called that.”

In the future, Ashley hopes to see Black antifa activism being called that, and hopes to see the label “antifa” being used to describe more than just breaking windows and punching Nazis (though he’s not necessarily opposed to those things).

“Yes, there’s something beautiful and powerful about direct forms of resistance that are more aggressive and straightforward; but also, part of antifascist work is establishing alternative ways of being,” Ashley said. “In many ways, people of color, Black people especially, have always kind of done that in this country out of necessity. But I think it needs to be expanded, and I think it needs to be named as antiracist, antifascist work. Both of those are part of our liberation struggle.”

The other activists agree, but none believe that establishing those alternative ways of being will be easy. Trevor, who sees the Black Liberation Army as the model for fighting against fascism, has no illusions about the consequences of trying to smash fascism, and stressed that in this struggle, conflict will be inevitable.

“The coming conflict is going to be a lot more intense, because the reactionaries have reached the height of power,” he said. “It’s very serious times now.”