What will protest look like during a fascist power grab? Kelly Hayes talks with Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It is and How to End It, about what protesters will be up against in the coming days and what it will take to win.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
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The election is now only a few days away, and organizers and activists around the country are working to get out the vote and preparing to defend the electoral process itself. The Trump administration has been fairly transparent about its plans to invalidate millions of votes and to prevent any transition of power from taking place. We know Trump has the support of people like attorney general, William Barr and Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who can manipulate the law on Trump’s behalf. We know he has unprecedented support from police departments, and we also know that his civilian supporters like the Proud Boys are on standby, ready to who knows what to turn the election and its aftermath upside down. In the face of these threats, organizers around the country have formed working groups, action councils, and various other game plans to respond to what’s happening. We have been sitting in meetings and holding teach-ins. We have been swapping ideas and sharing resources because we all bring something different to the table, and the one thing that nearly all of us have in common is that we are off the map of our experience. It’s easy to say that if Trump tries to halt the ballot count, we should all be in the streets. But what does that look like, and what would it mean? Today’s guest is my friend Shane Burley. Shane is a journalist and author of the book Fascism Today: What it is and How to End It. Shane, thanks for dropping by to talk about fascism again.
Shane Burley: Thanks for having me on.
KH: How are you doing?
SB: Um, well it’s October, 2020. I just want the whole thing to be over.
KH: That is entirely fair. Well, it’s 9:00 p.m. in Chicago. So given the late hour, and our proximity to the election, I hope you don’t mind if I drink.
SB: I think drinking is the absolute correct decision.
KH: Well, the absolute correct decision sounds like a solid jumping off point. So we’ll go from there.
Diving in, given what we know about Trump’s plan to invalidate millions of votes, the mobilization of right-wing vigilantes and the GOP’s overall strategy, what kind of protest do you think will be needed in the coming days?
SB: I think what’s needed in the coming days is whatever it takes to get huge, mass numbers of people out there. That generally requires some kind of coalition effort. But that means getting organizations, people, all kinds of constituencies, how people group themselves up, how people think of themselves, it’s going to require everyone out into mass spaces. And so I think that’s going to mean all hands on deck, all approaches necessary, anyone and everyone.
KH: With mass action, or any protest, the threat of police violence and repression is real. We know that we could see violence play out in the streets. But we also know police do not have to brutalize or terrorize people to inflict grave harm these days. In the age of COVID-19, with the second wave on the rise, incarceration is a potentially deadly weapon. Jails, prisons and detention centers have frequently become hot spots for COVID-19. Back in the spring, a study published in Health Affairs analyzed the relationship between jailing practices and community infections at the ZIP code level in Chicago. They found that, “jail-community cycling was a significant predictor of cases of [COVID-19], accounting for 55 percent of the variance in case rates across ZIP codes in Chicago and 37 percent of the variance in all of Illinois.” The study found that jail-community cycling “far exceeds race, poverty, public transit use, and population density as a predictor of variance.” The authors of the study suggested that the cycling of people through Cook County Jail was associated with 15.7 percent of all documented COVID-19 cases in Illinois and 15.9 percent of all documented cases in Chicago as of April 19, 2020.
We also know that police, like most Trump supporters, are often maskless, and totally reckless when it comes to physical distancing. So the police have a biological weapon at their disposal, with the second wave rising, and I think we need to be as aware of that as we are of any weapon they have at their disposal. Because what’s happening in this country’s cages is a major escalation, and it’s a fascist escalation. So we have to strategize knowing that, which also doesn’t mean staying within the lines. Because one cannot obediently stop the rise of fascism. It makes me think about all of the ways that people claim public space at protests. Sometimes surrender is part of the process. Sometimes it is not. What are your thoughts on getting arrested during all of this?
SB: I think that we have. Well, we have hundreds of years of evidence, but we also have very close to evidence of how the police treat protesters because we’ve had mass uprisings since May, and the police have absolutely brutally assaulted protestors every single night. Out here in Portland, where we seen over 130 days of protest, there’s been an all out assault on protesters, beatings with batons, impact munitions, really toxic smoke and chemical weapons, federal officers using snatch and grab techniques. A lot of times, this is what’s simply for like violating dispersal orders or standing in the road or throwing water bottles, or lighting trash fires, things that simply no person could look at the situation and think that any of that force is warranted. So, there’s a lot of reasons the police act that way. But one of the reasons is that there’s this general sense of turmoil that they have to put down dissent, otherwise something even more profound is going to happen. And of course they believe the hype about BLM and antifa or whatever, whatever they think is going on. But coming around the election, that feeling is only going to intensify and mass actions are not going to be just [handled with] kid’s gloves by the police. And so I think people should think really long and hard about the real vulnerability that they allow themselves when they do civil disobedience, like, you know, laying down on the road and accepting an arrest.
KH: Absolutely. It’s important for protesters to understand that they are never safe from arrest, but we all have different risk tolerances. In a particularly fashy moment like this one, I think the way to disobey is to be too big to be stopped. If the cops want to arrest people, they will arrest people. They deal out violence at their discretion. That defines and informs their whole existence whether people want to admit it or not. But protesters can move in many ways and with varying objectives. People don’t just block roads by laying down in traffic, right? They also block roads by moving freely. People can move unpredictably. People can move like water. And sometimes protests cause governments or businesses to shut themselves down, and that’s a shutdown too, so I think people should think in functional terms, in terms of disruption. What is our leverage? What do we have the power to do? Because when a power grab is happening, the point is not to raise awareness or appeal to anyone’s conscience. It’s to take power, to flex power and to establish that you have leverage.
SB: There’s nothing that’s going to happen this year that will change the course without as many people as possible. And so, I think people in that way, can think of organizing strategies and direct action in particular as ones that are built from the mass of people. So if we’re thinking about direct action and we want to grind business as usual to a halt to show the significance of the people, to actually show that we can have community coalitions, ourselves, and community coordination, ourselves, so we can protect ourselves, and create mutual aid and do all the great things that we could do by disrupting the system that’s working against our interests, that has to come from the large mass of people, because we’re talking about large state apparatus that can totally disrupt small groups of us.
I think when people are thinking of strategies and tactics, they should think about like, what do large numbers of people have the capacity to do? What kind of direct action works in plain sight? Which is exactly what we’re doing. And I think that looks like maybe space occupations. I think it looks like huge mass marches that shut down the roads and things like that.
I think it looks like, even within those mass spaces, even creating kind of counter institutions, like “here, we’re taking a space to create a mutual aid support” or “helping people get different things they need and related to COVID,” there’s all kinds of versions of this, but it’s going to require everyone. And so I think that that’s how people should start thinking about this. What kind of strategies require a hundred people? What requires a thousand? What requires 10,000? What requires a hundred thousand people? Because that’s the scale we’re talking about.
If we think about the kinds of direct actions that will, like if the goal now is to freeze things, to shut them down, and that in and of itself creates an absence of state and corporate power, the most direct way to do that is a strike. So strikes, you know, all over the place would be the kind of thing that could totally grind that to a halt, that could totally create, basically a freeze in the situation.
And that requires large masses of people. That’s the essence of it, actually, it’s not successful with a smaller group of people. It never will be. That’s the virtue of it. So I think there’s always, when people are organizing, and they’re thinking of like, what’s a really good strategy for a situation, they always sort of give up a certain amount of militancy for a mass [action] and they have to kind of choose that. And I think in this situation, we’re looking at something where masses are the only thing that matter. We’re really dealing with something at a mass scale. Sometimes people are dealing with small, local, specific issues that are a manifestation of a large one.
This is one that’s going to be shared by all people all over the place in a lot of ways. So we should try and think of a way to use that to our advantage.
KH: So y’all have been through it in Portland and as we move into this really scary moment, I’m wondering what lessons you might share with the rest of us.
SB: Well, I think the first one is the one we kind of talked about is that you can count on police violence and you should expect police violence.
And so people should accommodate for police violence by making sure that if you’re having big protest actions, that there are people who are like street medics, and they can help you with injuries or you know how to get out of a space. And have protective clothing, if you can afford it and maybe create systems to make sure everyone can afford it.
All those sorts of things I think are important. They’ve always been important, but I feel like they are especially important now. I’ve been going to demonstrations for, I’m not sure how long, 15 years or something, and this is the first time where I don’t feel comfortable going without a bulletproof vest on.
So, it’s different now. And I think that’s a difference that’s being shared. There’s an escalation, both from Trump and also just from the way the police responding and the way the state’s responding. And there’s a whole kind of series of things that are escalating the crisis. Not to mention the kind of a third element of a three-way fight: the far right, who are coming around at these protests. So that’s the second thing I would say is to expect these sorts of vigilantes on the fringe. You know, I was talking to Vicky Osterweil, a couple of weeks ago and she said something that, I mean, it should be obvious, but I think it’s not is that, you know, people are talking about the Proud Boys and other far-right groups, these white vigilante groups, as being a kind of new threat, that is sort of taking on part of the police’s violence. They’re basically engaging in bonds with the police, [with the police] not intervening in a lot of cases. And that was true in Portland and August 22nd, there was a big far-right rally. They attacked [leftist] protesters, and it was the one time that the police refused to intervene on that protest.
And so people are kind of surprised by this, but you know, like she said, historically, that is a normal dynamic. It’s one that’s actually really dependable. There’s far-right vigilantes from the Klan forward that engage in a certain amount of social control, not always with the direct police coordination, but with a sort of like, they fill the void that the police have created for them.
And it was only really up until like the late seventies through the eighties that mass incarceration really developed to a point where the police were their own vigilantes to a degree. And that has started to shift a little bit. So I think that’s something people really need to consider. And those are the sorts of things that make coming in and out of protest spaces, really scary. It makes being a reporter, exceptionally frightening, because they had been singled out so completely, by the far right. And also maybe that’s the third point is that, you know, being a reporter will not make you safer, having a press badge, having press all of your equipment is not going to make you safer from either the far right, or the police, maybe even especially unsafe, so that’s something to always keep in mind. But I think, you know, more than anything, one of the things that’s happened here in Portland is that the protest has sustained for a very, very, very long time. And part of that, what sustained it for so long, was that protestors had a real shared experience of being, of receiving police violence.
And that common experience really was a binding agent that kept the protests going. But now we’ve actually at the end of a four year cycle where we have a common experience. It’s not the same, it’s not… like white leftists in the streets are not having the same experience, but we do have a common language and we have some degree of commonality.
And I think that can act as a binding agent at these protests that people should really think about. And then I think the other thing is that when we saw the protests, formal organizations kind of fell away over time, which has its pluses and minuses. But I think people are going to have to find a way to keep organizations involved because organizations represent groups of people and we need large masses of people, and also organizations are often built on a particular type of strategy. Sometimes it’s a good strategy. Sometimes it’s a bad strategy, but we need an all hands on deck. So I think finding a way of keeping them engaged in the long term is a tough thing that autonomous social movements don’t always do well.
KH: So what you said about the, the police and their dynamic with white supremacists. It got me thinking about Trump’s relationship with the police and he has a pretty unprecedented backing from police unions. He has repeatedly offered police legal cover for acts of violence he says should or should have occurred and he has pardoned a disgraced, murderous military officer and a torturous former sheriff to make his point. What role do you see his relationship with the police playing in what happens in the next few days and weeks?
SB: You know, there’s that old line that the boss is the best recruiter for the union?
Well, the police are the best recruiter for the anti-police protests because they’re just beating people so spectacular every night. So it doesn’t make any sense. When you think about that, unless you think about them as people who think of the protestors, probably correctly as their opponents, that they don’t see themselves as part of the community.
They see themselves in opposition to it, and that they are fighting for a particular type of power, a particular interest, a set of interests, their own, and Trump aligns with those. I think Trump has a vision of the country where certain types of people and certain ways of thinking have hegemony and having a militarized police that’s autonomous, that thinks for itself, that has its own vision of the world, is something that’s in his favor. I mean, police unions are the most reactionary element of the police themselves, which is saying something. And so it’s not a surprise that they’re going to support Trump and they become the linchpin of a law and order strategy. That is basically one of those bread and butter things that the GOP has to recruit people.
So I think it just makes sense that that’s how they get energy. The other piece of this is that, you know, and I wrote this for NBC, like they are, the GOP is really building this vigilante identity in their voter base. And I think if on the one hand they do this because that sense of being a vigilante, meaning someone who kind of breaks the rules to solve bigger problems. That kind of person is really engaged, and that really engaged person will go out and vote and will tell the people to vote, they’ll do things that help the GOP’s electoral chances, but they also engage in violence. It also sends a message of acceptable violence, and that kind of idea of acceptable violence is at the fundamental core of policing. And so there’s a lot of sort of concentric circles here that make up the image of what kind of citizenry is in the Trump imagination, and it’s about people who use violence to initiate social control.
KH: So what advice do you have for people right now who are, you know, trying to process these events, trying to figure out how to interact with them, trying to figure out how to make sense of the next few weeks.
SB: Well, I think that the first thing is, you know, I talk a lot about like eschatology, and the end of the world and stuff, but I’m not a tremendously pessimistic person. I think that what we have now is what we have always had, which is the ability to come together and build something new. And that is true now, if there’s Biden or if there’s Trump. That is always going to be true. And so I think what happens right now is that we are in a crisis. It’s likely one that we’ll replicate over the coming years because of the instability that we live with institutionally. And that requires us to create really strong community bonds inside organizations that are meaningful to us and social networks that are meaningful. That means mutual aid networks. That means solidarity networks. That means working with your union or your church or whatever it takes to have strong things where you can depend on other people to work with you, because that is the kind of thing that vibrant society is built on. That’s actually the dual power. It’s just us when we’re together.
And so I think, you know, what gets us through these things is the same thing that makes a mass action successful. Lots of people willing to come together and do something, support one another, to take risks with one another, to take risks for one another, to take care of each other when they need it, to make social bonds more significant than the alien kind of coercive world we live in.
And so I think what people should do in the next couple of weeks, Gosh, I hope I can take my own biases to talk to other people, to figure out what they need, to figure out methods of communicating, to figure out ways of getting people the stuff that that’s going to be really necessary in the coming weeks and to really dig in.
Cause it’s going to require this for a long, long time. In fact, this is, should be the new, permanent way of being to survive. It’s going to require doing it together. We do not any longer have the luxury of kind of being stuck in like suburban enclaves that are generally safe, even if they’re alienated. Our alienation will no longer keep us safe.
So I think that this can be the first step of just building those strong bonds to rely on one another.
KH: I couldn’t agree more. What you said about how this situation will likely replicate itself — I know it’s not what people want to hear right now. Because a lot of people are hoping we can get rid of Trump, and then everything will be okay. And while I do think things will be better, and that a lot of lives will be saved, everything that delivered us to this moment will still be in play. So if we don’t radically reorganize some things, we’re looking at a nightmare of this flavor — maybe in four years, and in some ways, sooner. You know, I was leading a workshop recently with some folks who asked me what the difference would be between organizing under Trump, if he holds onto the presidency, versus Biden, if he replaces Trump. And I told them, it’s really a great question, because whether we’re talking about neo-liberalism or a fascist state, we’re looking at a world in which mass surveillance facilitates mass criminalization. And when we pair that potential for mass criminalization with the kind of mass displacement that is inevitable with so many evictions and so much financial collapse, we are talking about mass disposal. Under Trump, that displacement and disposal will be aimed at destroying scapegoated people and their communities. Under neoliberalism, that reshuffling and disposal would just be structural maintenance — like where do you put people who no longer have any place in a society? As businesses close and jobs disappear and fewer people can access housing, those people become a threat to the system if they are not contained and controlled in some way. Because when the economic dynamics of a society can no longer sustain its existing set of social relations, struggle and reorganization are inevitable, as Ruthie Gilmore tells us. And that struggle occurs at all levels. The people who don’t fit into society struggle for something that includes them, that allows them to endure, and they fight to reorganize society on those terms. And the people who govern these misfits, who no longer know how to contain them, struggle and reorganize to make sure they’re not a problem. Because the first function of authority is to maintain itself. And none of this is a personality or character assessment of Biden (although I have my opinions about that too), it’s the reality of a system. There’s a reason that prison reform is bi-partisan, and there’s a reason that both parties want us to think that we’re closing prisons when we’re really just outsourcing confinement into people’s homes left and right.
So, I hope people will kind of hold that in their minds, as much as they want to believe defeating Trump will save us. Because if we can remove Trump, that will be a great victory worthy of celebration, and I believe his removal is one of the great moral and political imperatives of our time, but it will be the start of a new chapter, not the end of a story. And our best chance moving into the future, is to build bonds of solidarity. That’s what’s going to help us to survive in disastrous times, which is something I appreciate about your work, Shane, that you, you always emphasize that for us, and I really appreciate you for that.
SB: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
KH: So this episode, I believe we’ll be airing on Friday. So folks will have the weekend and it’s going to be a tense time. Some people will be very busy, but some people will be looking to fill their time constructively. So we’re going to have some resources in the show notes, including some virtual trainings people can take on some different organizing topics. There’s also an activity for a remote protest event I am co-organizing that I want to take part in. So I wanted to ask. Is there something you would recommend to folks check out this weekend?
SB: So yes, there actually is. There’s a bunch of folks on Friday and Saturday doing a performance of Bright Room, over Zoom. It’s a play about the Weimar Republic and it will be starting at 5:00 PM Pacific time on Friday. That’s the first act and I will be in a panel after the act is over. And then on Saturday at 5:00 PM, Pacific time will be the second act and, I will send you over the link for it and you can put it in the show notes, if that makes sense. I’m not going to say too much, but it is a very upsetting play, but it is one that’s really informative. And I think it resonates a lot right now. And I think people will really enjoy it.
KH: So it will be in the show notes, maybe with a content warning that it’s very upsetting? And if any of you need something that feels more uplifting or that involves skill building or practical exercises, you can find that in the show notes too. Basically, however you want to handle this, we’ve got you covered. We will also have info on a remote rally some friends and I are co-organizing on November 2 that will take place over Zoom and Facebook, that I think will be a good option for people who can’t be in the streets — because as much as we all wish we could be out there, not everyone can be out there in-person, especially with COVID in the mix. It’s going to be an issue-focused night, rather than a Biden-focused night, so if that’s your speed, I hope you will join us. Because while we do need a lot of people in the streets, we need to link up in all ways and all spaces, to build the power, energy and spirit that we are going to need in these times.
Shane I want to thank you so much for joining us today. I deeply appreciate it.
SB: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I’m always happy to come.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today and remember our best defense against cynicism is to do good. And to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
“Remove Trump NOW: A Remote Rally” is being held November 2 at 6 p.m. CT. You can register here. Participants are also invited to submit selfies or photos of their pets featuring a “We Will Remove Trump” sign that can be found on the rally’s Facebook event page. The images will be used during the event. This remote rally will include ASL interpretation and live-captioning. This event is issue-oriented. It is not a Biden rally.
Bright Room — An Online Reading by the Faultline Ensemble:
Tony Kushner’s play Bright Room is the story of a group of Berlin artists who experience Germany’s descent into fascism. The first act of the play will be performed Friday, October 30, at 8 p.m. ET, with the second act performed Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. Today’s guest, Shane Burley will be speaking on a panel after the first act is staged on Friday night. You can register here.
As promised, here are some videos of some workshops and trainings. Every community is different, but these resources can help give you a sense of how others are learning and putting skills into practice:
This deescalation training from ShutdownDC “will provide tools for navigating stressful situations, introduce the skills Care Bears and De-escalators use, and help participants understand their risk tolerance communicate their boundaries so they can go into protests with confidence in themselves and their community.” The training will run from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
Miss that one? Then you can watch this previously recorded deescalation training from the American Friends Service Committee on “proven techniques for countering violence, whether it comes from a single person or a group of people.”
Want to attend a direct action training? You can watch this direct action training with activist and author Lisa Fithian. The training was filmed earlier this summer and hosted by NorCal Resist.
Some recent episodes of “Movement Memos” that you might want to binge this weekend:
Other Organizing Tools and Resources:
If you’re ready to go deep on safety planning, this detailed checklist might help. This document also includes a list of organizing and direct action-related resources.
Lisa Fithian’s Toolboxes provide tips on a variety of organizing topics, including how to talk to strangers, dropping banners, taking public space, and how to hold an assembly.