One of my closest high school friends was a white supremacist skinhead when we first met as teenagers. He would have cheered at Donald Trump rallies with each call to deport Mexicans and ban Muslims from entering the country. He would have agreed with Trump that the Black Lives Matter activist in Alabama deserved getting roughed up. He would have heard and understood Trump for what he is, a right-wing leader mainstreaming racist hate, and he would have felt validated, rather then repulsed by it. We weren’t friends at this point. I was scared of him and looked away when he looked at me.
My other close friend was a charismatic anti-racist social justice activist rooted in the working-class anarchist vision of a commonwealth of socialism and democracy. Rather then avoid the racist skinhead when they ended up sitting next to each other in science class, my friend, the anarchist, engaged the skinhead with questions about his beliefs and eventually said, “Look, we’re both working-class, and racism is screwing you over, leading you to blame the wrong people for the problems you’ve named, and I want to argue with you, because our ideas are better.”
They argued for weeks, and in a few months, the former skinhead had traded in his white power music for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Two years later, we were all marching, along with dozens of other white kids from our high school, against racist police brutality after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, in Los Angeles, where we grew up in the suburbs.
I am not surprised by the popularity of the Trump/Cruz/Ryan-led GOP. I grew up surrounded by racist, right-wing Republicans who blamed every problem on immigrants and “Black women on welfare,” all the while bemoaning me for talking about corporate power and the structural inequality that has screwed over white, working-class communities like my extended family for hundreds of years. But I also grew up with my parents laying seeds about the courage of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., and I had friends who refused to let white supremacy claim other white people without a fight.
My friend the anarchist believed that racism goes after white working-class people, like our families, and tries to turn their economic insecurity and humiliation under capitalism into a raging inferno of racist, homophobic and sexist hate that fuels ruling-class ambitions of money and power. He said our job – as revolutionaries who know another way is possible – is to fight for our families, to fight racism, to steer other white kids away from the trap of white supremacy and to join in liberation movements that unite people under the banners of equality and justice.
As teenagers in California, we stood on street corners in the 1990s protesting attacks on immigrants, LGBTQ people and abortion clinics. We were spit on and had bottles throw at us. Grown white men in suits drove by sieg-heiling us. We were scared, but we were also defiant, and we stuck together. We imagined ourselves standing up against the nightmare of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and saying, “You cannot have us, and we will fight with everything we have, to save as many people as possible from the hell you create in our lives.”
With the rise of Donald Trump, coinciding as backlash to the growing Black Lives Matter movement on the move, as backlash to the continued march for gender equality, as backlash to the continued march for LGBTQ rights, I keep thinking of my friends from high school.
The former skinhead is today the father of two multiracial children, whom he is raising to be proud of their Mexican and Hawaiian ancestry, as well as of the white anti-racist tradition from the abolitionists to today. I think of his family and know that they exist in part because a working-class anarchist kid had seen racism and the humiliation of capitalism devastate people in his own family and decided to do something about it. That anarchist kid picked a fight pitting white supremacy against collective liberation, and collective liberation won.
To be clear, there were other racists my anarchist friend tried to engage who weren’t open to conversation, and he moved on. He didn’t waste his time arguing with trolls. He knew this was about building a multiracial liberation movement and shifting power, policy and culture. And he wanted to bring along as many other white working-class kids, moms, families and communities as possible, both to end the racist violence (structural and individual) that white communities support, and to eradicate the poison of racism that turns white people’s capacity to love into an engine of hate.
We will fight the Trump-led GOP in every community, in every state, and we will win. We will build a majority for racial, economic and gender justice, and we will be courageous even when we are scared, because our values – when put into practice – open up the possibility for a healthy, democratic society that values the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnection of life and the sacredness of the planet.
To white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and its supporters, we say: You cannot have us; we will fight you, and we will win.