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Yes, There Can Be Successful Counter-Movements to Fascism

Shane Burley offers examples of successful intersectional movements to counter fascism.

Antifa members use shields during an anti-racist counter-protest on June 4, 2017, in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In his book on how we arrived at this flashpoint of offshoots of fascism in the United States, Shane Burley offers examples of successful intersectional movements to counter the growing scourge. In the following examples, he focuses on two counter-fascist campaigns, one in Oregon and one in Wyoming.

Resistance in Oregon

With the growth of white supremacist organizing and violence coming from the centers of college campuses from the Alt Right and rural areas of the country through the “patriot” militia movement, the wave of antifascist resistance is coming from all regions. While the most obvious brands of community opposition are centered in the urban core, this misses the vast majority of the country that has often become a playground for the far-right even against the interests of the working class.

Broad-based community organizations with a range of tools play an especially critical role in the rural areas that dominate the U.S. As the militia movement grows across rural America, so does its opposition. Through the 2015 Sugar Pine Mine and 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupations, Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project (ROP) defined itself as a leader by creating regional resistance networks as a community counter-base to the Patriot recruiting efforts. Formed in response to the anti-LGBT Abnormal Behaviors Initiative from the Oregon Citizens Alliance in 1992, which would have blocked government money to organizations “promoting homosexuality,” ROP has gone on to bring progressive campaigns to the more conservative areas outside of Oregon’s bigger cities.

When the Oath Keepers of Josephine County began their month-long occupation of the Sugar Pine Mine, frightened county residents began assessing the situation with ROP. They set a meeting time and began researching the Oath Keepers with the help of the antifascist publishing institution, Political Research Associates. Josephine County was experiencing a budget shortfall at the time, and that had depleted almost all public services. At the same time, the hard libertarianism of the Patriot groups was pushing a “No New Taxes” campaign that would further deepen the financial crisis. The Oath Keepers’ answer, as is often the case, was to create Community Preparedness Teams, a non-governmental institution, controlled by militia members, to take up the role of state services. By meeting community needs from their own ideological perspective, the militia presents itself as the answer to the current crisis, further embedding their own explanations and outcomes for the calamity the communities are in. Community engagement is then offered within their institutions, and people who want to be better stewards of their regions are often ushered into militia projects since they have already “proved their worth.”

The day after the Oath Keepers rallied in Medford in front of the Bureau of Land Management office, ROP and community supporters held a press conference where community leaders spoke about the fear of, and intimidation by, militias. The Oath Keepers tried to disrupt the press conference, shoving cell phones in organizers’ faces and revealing their behavior to a waiting army of media. Among the militia members to arrive was former sheriff Gil Gilbertson, who had become a nationwide militia celebrity through his role in the Patriot-affiliated Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. ROP created a signature campaign with a local paper, which received more than a hundred public petition signatures in the rural county within twenty-four hours. By bringing together those frightened by militia intimidation, it was enough to get things started, and if the Patriots were going to try and dominate the public discourse, then organizers would create counter-narratives to show that the militias do not speak for the community.

In advance of the Malheur occupation, locals in Harney County held public meetings to tell the militias to drop their mobilizations. When ROP got the message that the militias were heading to Bend on their way to the wildlife refuge, they organized a demonstration that “greeted” the group in front of local media. As the occupation was in full swing, ROP organized solidarity demonstrations in towns all around Oregon, bringing thousands into the streets to undermine militia talking points about local support, of which there was little. On the January 20 Day of Action, the voice of the public was made clear: the militias needed to leave. Shortly after, on February 1, Harney County residents came out in force to the county courthouse, more than doubling the number sent by the Patriots. At this rally “some people with the paramilitaries began harassing, threatening, and intimidating locals, including shouting in their faces and sticking yellow shooting targets on them.” The protests raised the profile of the opposition to the militias, shrinking the Patriot morale. For those residents feeling isolated, ROP’s strategy was effective in giving them back their voice, providing a network of support, and showing the militia that they were not welcome. In nearby Grant County, seventy people showed up to protest a Patriot meeting the Bundys arranged. While the militia tried to block the entrance, the group found a way in and staged a silent protest. With the support of ROP, they formed Grant County Positive Action, and went on to join Harney County protests and arrange community education events, letters to the editor and ad campaigns and to pressure the county to pass a resolution condemning the militia occupation.

ROP’s commitment to confronting the militias did not come without its blowback as organizers faced threats of violence, so much so that staff members needed security at their homes and all ROP events. Their experiences led them to create the Up in Arms guidebook that, besides giving detailed information about the militia movement, provides outlines for how to counter militia propaganda and protocols for organizing in response to the militias, including how to hold events, install security, and do research.

Reporting from Montana

Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) is similarly structured to the ROP, with a network of local organizations across the state building on progressive values such as “pluralism, equality and justice.” As well as putting forward policy initiatives and doing local education, they support victims of hate crimes, often through legal channels. MHRN also monitors and challenges extremist groups throughout the state. They have six affiliated local groups that meet individually, receiving support from the larger network, including funding and staff time. In 1995, at a time when as many as 20 percent of the state’s population was in support of the radical fringe, the MHRN started a landmark campaign against the growing militia movement in the area. Their plan was to narrow the range of support for the militias by continuing to highlight the long trail of violence and white supremacist ideas that floated inside the Patriot camp. They worked with groups like Prairie Fire and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment to address the rise of hate groups out of the “farm crisis.” This strategy of exposure helped to shift media representation and then public perception of the militia movement, giving the voice back to the people who felt terrorized.

In the Flathead Valley of Montana, Love Lives Here (LLH) has been organizing regionally as an affiliate of the MHRN. With hundreds of members across the small and medium-sized townships between the mountains, LLH began a high-profile set of campaigns addressing Richard Spencer, who called the Flathead Valley resort-town of Whitefish home. Spencer was living in a $3 million home owned by his parents for part of the year, the rest of the time renting an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, to be closer to Washington D.C. In 2014, shortly after Spencer was deported from the European Union for organizing a “pan-European” conference in Hungary, LLH began notifying residents that one of the most prolific white nationalists in the U.S. was sharing the ski lifts with them. After Spencer found himself in a fight with Republican strategist Randy Scheunemann at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, LLH started a campaign to pass a regional piece of legislation preventing Spencer’s organizations from holding conferences in their area. Business owners had already started telling Spencer not to return to their establishments, including an incident where a barista refused to serve him and his pregnant wife. City Councilman Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center for advice on how to develop a “no hate” ordinance, yet they ended up passing a weaker resolution in favor of diversity.

After Spencer became a household name in 2016, it came to light that Sherry Spencer, his mother, owned commercial property in the valley. While Sherry presented herself as simply the doting parent to a “political thought criminal,” her own track record of fundraising for fringe right-wing candidates, her appearance at the white nationalist H.L. Mencken Club, and the fact that Richard used her address as the IRS-registered headquarters for the National Policy Institute, made her suspect. A local activist began campaigning to have Sherry publicly disassociate with her son’s fascism and to sell the property that she was profiting from, with a suggestion that a small donation to the MHRN would be a sign of good faith. This incensed Richard Spencer who, in an act of ironic verbal gymnastics, identified MHRN as a “hate group” that was “extorting” his family. The Daily Stormer began a harassment and doxxing campaign against MHRN organizers and supporters, specifically targeting Jewish members of the Montana community who never thought they would see images of the Holocaust used to elicit fear at their synagogue.

Yellow stars with the word “Jude,” German for Jew, were placed over images of a local real estate agent and her twelve-year-old son. The harassment hit such a fever pitch that the Montana governor canceled a scheduled trip to Whitefish. As Alt Right and anti—Semitic literature began showing up in downtown Whitefish, neighbors became hardened in their alliance with LLH. Supporters of the Daily Stormer, which labeled LLH a “Jewish paramilitary organization,” called in threats to local businesses, like the boutique Buffalo Café, also submitting low reviews on Yelp to besmirch the commercial appeal of the town. Councilman Sweeney spoke out to the climate of fear that Alt Right trolls instituted during the 2016 Christmas season in Whitefish, saying “Why anybody would think it’s OK to treat another human being like that is beyond me.”

In response to the anti-Semitic attacks, LLH started a holiday campaign by handing out “Montana Menorah” cards that could easily be slid into windows, peacefully rallying the Menorah’s spirit as a memory of perseverance amid surrounding armies of persecution. Escalating, Anglin called for an Alt Right march in Whitefish for January 2017 against what he called the “Jewish” campaign of hate against Sherry Spencer. He promised to ship in two hundred skinheads from the Bay Area, including from the Traditionalist Worker Party and Golden State Skinheads—both of which have been mired in violent controversy—as well as an alleged member of Hamas. Anglin went on David Duke’s internet radio show to rally for an attack on the “Jewish power structure” in an act of pogromatic terror reminiscent of Kristallnacht.Despite arctic winds, LLH rallied the Flathead Valley on January 8, bringing together hundreds with speakers and musicians. The strategy was twofold: to bring the community together, and to reframe the larger conversation to one of a determined confederation of locals against the forces of organized racism. To do this they used softened messaging about compassion and diversity, creating a “Wall of Empathy” with notes of encouragement from around the country.

The Missoula IWW GDC and the Alliance of Intersectional Power organized the public action to confront the Nazis, which LLH shied away from. While some antifascist organizers were critical of the approach LLH took, including the questionable decision to forego physical opposition, their choices had utility. As with the rest of the MHRN, the regional organizations had done the long-term community building that is needed for creating an impenetrable wall to Alt Right recruitment. This lacked the final component, however, of the public action in opposition, but direct action groups could then build on the foundation laid by LLH so the “no platform” strategy had more potential. When combined, both approaches become syncretic and help build a mass movement.

Anglin was only able to get a sidewalk permit for the neo-Nazi’s planned Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, which they were calling the “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza,” after the man who assassinated King. Their permit was eventually revoked entirely, and Anglin promised to hold the march a month later, yet it never came to fruition. Antifascist organizers held their counter-demonstration anyway, shifting the focus to a broad-based community action against the Alt Right and the climate of fear that white nationalists had created in Montana. As one Montana organizer pointed out, the results were successful because of the role that each organization played, an approach that would not have existed without the integration of the multitude.

It may not have been a coalition in name, but it essentially acted as one: unity in purpose, diversity in tactics. By the end of the discussions, no one questioned the need for a public show of opposition and no one was using the language of outsider/insider… People have been won over to the idea that we actually need to talk about tactics, that we need to be in the same room, or at least on the same call if we’re spread out across the state, in order to debate.

Montana continues to be “contested ground.” Just a few months later an Alt Right politician, former Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) vice president Taylor Rose, ran for Montana House District 3. He amassed a following while writing for the far-right website WorldNetDaily, which also employed YWC founder and Wolves of Vinland member Kevin DeAnna. While Rose was certainly a fringe candidate, he received support from Montana Republicans like Senator Dee Brown. Richard Spencer himself has suggested he may run for a congressional seat in Montana, yet his infamy makes that unlikely.

Copyright (2017) by Shane Burley. Not to be be reposted without permission of the publisher, AK Press.

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