The Anatomy of a Purge: The Left Must Resist Demonization

In the immediate aftermath of the Alexandria shooting on June 14, the New York Times and Vice News joined the rising chorus of right-wing outrage with two pieces denouncing growing “left-wing extremism.” They failed to mention, of course, the rising tide of blood shed due to attacks by far-right activists before and since Trump’s inauguration, the current president’s own endorsement of violence on the campaign trail or the long history of right-wing forces urging their followers to embrace Second Amendment remedies as a solution to politics they oppose. On the surface, these shoddy pieces seem driven by a desire for hits, but lurking behind these words is the very real possibility of a new political panic targeting US progressive and left organizing and action.

Throughout US history, the forces of the left have suffered from numerous political purges, usually referred to as panics or scares, each of which were incited by incidents like the Scalise shooting. The first example was the suppression of the US Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World for their opposition to US participation in the First World War in the First Red Scare. This position was hardly unique to the left, with antiwar sentiment enjoying broad support in US society. The Wilson administration responded harshly with the notorious Espionage and Sedition Acts, giving the state the tools needed to smash organized opposition. These efforts culminated in the brutal Palmer Raids, spearheaded by the FBI, which broke the back of the US left as punishment for their opposition to the war and radical actions, such as the Seattle General Strike.

Similar fear-mongering was used to brutal effect during the late 1940s and 1950s with the Second Red Scare, better known as McCarthyism. Using the trials of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and the wave of strikes and labor actions of 1946, including the Oakland General Strike, as fuel, a new blaze was ignited. Many lost their jobs or were driven out of the country, radical elements of the labor movement were purged, and once again, the organized left was forced underground.

A similar push was attempted, with more limited impact, starting in the late 1980s and 1990s to tar the environmentalist movement with the brush of terrorism during the Green Scare.

Viewed with these recent examples of anti-left suppression in mind, the reaction to the Scalise shooting presents a very real threat to left and progressive activism. As was the case in past panics, there is a rising tide of progressive sentiment with increasing strength and traction. Between Black Lives Matter, the climate change movement and the Fight for $15, grassroots action is advancing with an energy, cohesion and fury unseen in decades. Resistance to the forces of the far right, similarly, is increasingly galvanized and determined as shown by the airport shutdowns, opposition to the anti-Sharia march and growing Antifa action. Even local and state governments are openly defying the federal government over the Paris climate deal.

In light of this, the Russia investigations that refuse to go away, Trump’s failure to pass Trumpcare, implement his infrastructure plan or build his wall, the current administration and Congress’ growing unpopularity, it should be no surprise the right will try to use Alexandria to justify decisively crushing all opposition. From their perspective, they are beset by foes on all sides who stand in the way of “Making America Great Again.” Nothing would be a more effective distraction with the bonus of eliminating all obstacles to their goals than firing up a new panic to consume their enemies.

In these times, it is absolutely critical those engaged in progressive and leftist organizing push back hard, fast and aggressively against any attempts at initiating a political purge. We must push back against false claims and exaggerations asserting leftist violence is somehow a greater threat than the proven, increasing wave of far-right violence. We need to educate our communities in effective civil disobedience tactics, defense against the far right and effectively thwarting malicious prosecution. We must also educate people in what we are fighting for, continue our work, expand our coalitions and refuse to be cowed by any attempts by the powerful to intimidate us. As every day since January 20, 2017, has shown, mass resistance is working. If we mobilize support, refuse to cooperate with abuses of authority and stand together, we can stop the new political panic before it starts.

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