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Searching for Safety in a Right-Wing Nightmare

Let’s face the future together, as bravely as we can.

Yellow smoke fills the air as a U.S. flag is raised at the start of a Proud Boys rally at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon, on September 26, 2020.

Part of the Series

With the threat of right-wing violence and other chaos hanging over the election, what does personal and community safety look like? In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks about nonviolence, self defense and the relationships we will need to survive.


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.

As an organizer who’s been talking about fascism for several years, I have been contacted by a number of people recently who are concerned about community safety. With the election only two weeks away, the threat of right-wing violence and other manufactured chaos has many people deeply concerned. Reading people’s questions and worries, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Lisa Fithian a couple of years ago, when she was advising some of us on what to do if we were faced with live fire in a protest situation. “Get low and behind whatever you can.” She cautioned us against standing up behind a pole or something similar. “You have to get down,” she said. “What direction are the shots coming from,” she asked. “Is the gun pointed at people, or toward the air?” She said that if we couldn’t tell where the shot was coming from, it was best to stay down, since you might run right into the shooter. She talked about what it meant to realize where the shots were coming from, and whether it would make sense to run, or to try to disarm the person. Two things I remember clearly from the advice she gave: No two situations are the same, and that, if you have to do the unthinkable, and try to disarm a shooter, it’s best not to do it alone. “Think carefully about whether disarming them is possible. If you try, work as a team to spread out around the shooter so they have to deal with you in all directions.”

That conversation shifted something inside of me, not because these ideas were new, but because we were naming them. I had been afraid for my life in protest scenarios in the past. The deadly weapons I was concerned about were usually cars, but I have definitely had moments when the possibility of getting shot was very present in my mind. But to be in conversation with friends and others who do the kind of work I do, talking about how to navigate these threats — it changed something, and I am glad it did, because we all need those moments. Those moments when we allow ourselves to feel what we already know intellectually, and begin to wrap our minds around what concrete actions we can take when faced with the unthinkable.

I am certainly no expert in navigating the unthinkable. Like many of you, I am finding the skills I specifically lack very conspicuous these days, and I do not feel ready for what I believe is coming. But I know that if we want to create any safety or ports in the storm, we have to talk about the things we don’t want to talk about. And we have to have messy, imperfect conversations about how we, as activists and everyday people, will respond. There is a lot of denial in the air right now. Trump’s illness has bolstered some people’s faith that he cannot win this election. That kind of thinking is dangerous right now. The Republicans have not been laying the groundwork for an honest victory, so the shrinking possibility of a legitimate win has not derailed their plans. They are relying on a highly sophisticated voter suppression apparatus and mobilizing tens of thousands of off-duty police officers and other strongmen to “patrol the polls.” They are creating fake ballot boxes to, as they put it, harvest ballots, even as officials tell them the practice isn’t legal. We are being undermined and attacked by enemies who are not bound by ethical or legal constraints and we have to act and plan accordingly.

We will most likely be faced with violence whether Trump wins or loses the election. If anything, his weakening position only enhances the potential for violence on election day.

The Republicans have been clear that they are willing to bypass the popular vote in key states, if necessary, to win this election. Such actions will rest on claims that state vote tallies are invalid, unreliable or simply not representative of the will of the people. One way this could happen is if polling places were shuttered for hours in response to an act of right-wing violence. An incident at one polling place could be used by eager officials across a state, or even in other states, to close polling places and turn away voters. While Trump has been clear about his plan to invalidate absentee ballots, on-the-ground antics on election day will be more extemporaneous. But we can be assured that if we are contemplating what’s possible, the other side is too.

As Salon reported last week, the Trump campaign has hatched a six-state strategy to attempt an end-run around the popular vote, if necessary. The states included in that plan are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With preemptive cries of voter fraud, and the Justice Department apparently prepping to roll out more bombastic charges and allegations to muddy the waters, we should also expect spectacles of intimidation and violence on the ground. And we should not expect this phenomenon to be limited to election day. We are already in uncharted waters, with a president who has announced that he will not commit to a transition of power, and more directly, that there will be no transition. No matter what happens on election day, the question of who won will not be settled that night. We will be in for a tumultuous time, that I believe the Republicans will make as unbearable as possible, in the hopes of making us long for order — even if they are the administrators of that order.

So how do we create safety in our communities? Unfortunately, there aren’t many hard and fast answers. What I do know is that relationships have the power to enhance our personal and familial safety. I know people want more specific and large-scale solutions, but some answers have to be built from scratch. If we want to create safety in a dangerous situation, we need as much information about the crisis and its impacts as possible, and we need to know what resources and options we have. Relationships can broaden our knowledge, resources and options. People are simply more likely to successfully navigate a crisis if they work together.

Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of talk of establishing mutual aid pods. We need to pivot back to those conversations in a big way right now, because in dangerous situations, communication and cooperation save lives. That’s true whether you are trying to survive a climate catastrophe, a pandemic, a power outage or unknowable, unpredictable threats of violence. In a crisis, to help themselves, and each other safe, people need information. They need support, and they need resources and options. The cult of individualism has made it difficult for some people to view safety as something more collective than personal, but that worldview was never cultivated for our benefit. It was cultivated to keep us under control.

If you feel frightened and powerless, empower yourself by asking questions and making plans. Think about what you would do in different dangerous situations, even if the answers are not terribly comforting. Even if your options aren’t great, think about what they are. Run through the scenarios you are worried about. If you are an activist, and especially if you are a dissident who has been active under Trump, I encourage you to decide where you would go if it wasn’t safe to go home.

A lot of people are talking about guns right now. Activists have to be conscious of what we say about guns on social media, because our words can be twisted by law enforcement. I have sometimes cautioned people indulging in hyperbole or sarcasm that they should think about how something would sound if it were read back to them in court.

For years, I have been hesitant to discuss guns as a means of self defense on social media, because this government has a history of using gun ownership to justify extreme acts of violence and repression. Historically, owning guns legally is no impediment to state reprisal. Armed Black and Brown people are viewed as a symptom of mayhem, whether their guns are owned legally or not. But we are living in an incredibly unstable moment, and I no longer know whether it is more or less dangerous to raise the subject publicly.

In his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Charles Cobb Jr. reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement was not uniformly nonviolent. As Cobb notes in his book, many Black organizers in the South never discussed their work as being violent or nonviolent, because it was understood that people would make their own choices in matters of survival. Cobb wrote:

“Whether the question was one of picking up a gun in response to attack by night riders, or of curling one’s body tightly and protectively while being assaulted by a mob during a lunch-counter sit-in, or of shielding an elderly person under attack for trying to register to vote, the decision of what to do centered not on the choice between nonviolence and violence but on the question of what response was best in each situation.”

There will be a lot of discomfort, uneasiness and jarring conversations in the weeks to come. If we take our situation seriously, we must acknowledge that a number bleak scenarios lay ahead of us, and we must also acknowledge the lessons of history. We cannot afford to simply react to nightmares as they unfold. People who plan for a crisis are more likely to survive a crisis. This is also true of the larger fight against fascism. Because as some have pointed out, people who mobilize against after fascism has completely taken hold are less likely to defeat it. Trump, like most authoritarians, would delight in putting down such movements as a demonstration of his power. Gratuitous displays of violence that reify his authority are already a major element of Trump’s public persona. We have seen this violence on display when Trump’s fed squads have attacked Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, in Border Patrol’s night raids, specifically targeting humanitarian assistance, and in the barrage of violence outside the White House that he ordered for the sake of a photo op. Denial is a luxury we cannot afford.

So we have to talk about what we are up against in realistic terms. We have to talk about how we combat it and how we protect each other, and keep each other safe, to the best of our ability.

There is a lot more to say about what we’re up against and what those challenges will demand of us, but for now, I want you to think about safety in very intentional terms. I want you to plan, even when it feels scary to acknowledge what’s possible. And I want you to broaden and strengthen the relationships that might help you navigate the storms ahead, no matter what shape they take. Because I want you to survive. So let’s look out for each other, and face the future together, as bravely as we can.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes:

Organizing resources:

Get in Formation is a collection of security and safety practices from Vision Change Win “built by years of learning in the streets from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color movements within the U.S.”

Big Door Brigade recommends reading this How to Build a Neighborhood Pod guide alongside Rebel Sidney Black’s Podmapping for Mutual Aid guide.

Escalating Resistance in Times of Crisis: Mass Rebellion Training! With Lisa Fithian (Webinar scheduled for ET.)

Further reading:

“We Surrender Nothing and No One”: A Playbook for Solidarity Amid Fascist Terror

Examining the Role of Community Armed Self-Defense in an Era of Gun Violence (from 2018)

A Call for Self-Defense in the Face of White Supremacy (from 2017)

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb Jr.

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