While delivering a talk at a bookstore on April 27, physician and author Jonathan Metzl looked up and saw a group dressed in business-casual clothing approach him. One man was holding a bullhorn as the others streamed in from the back. They were a group of fascists, and they were storming Metzl’s reading as he was honoring an 80-year-old member of the audience who helped his dad and grandparents seek refuge in the United States after they fled the Nazis in Austria.
The band descended on the talk only hours after a neo-Nazi opened fire on worshippers observing Passover in a California synagogue, killing one and injuring three others. “I looked up, and from the back of this store in comes a very different message,” Metzl recalled. “It was a string of nine men and one woman, and they marched to the front of the store with a bullhorn and then commandeered the talk.”
Footage of the ambush quickly went viral on social media. “This land is our land,” chanted the fascists, fanning out in a line at the front of the small gallery arranged for Metzl’s talk. Some members of the audience erupted in boos after the group’s leader briefly ranted white-nationalist propaganda at the audience. “This was completely out of context for me,” recalls Metzl, who was discussing his latest book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland. “I’ve not had anything like this happen before.”
Compounding the “moment of concern,” as Metzl describes it, was not only the shooting hours before in California, but the physical location of the Washington, DC–based Politics and Prose: right next to Comet Ping Pong pizza shop, the subject of a right-wing conspiracy theory accusing Democratic Party operatives of child abuse. The outlandish conspiracy theory, known as “Pizzagate,” has prompted multiple attacks on the restaurant. In December of 2016, a man convinced Pizzagate was true went to the shop and fired three rounds from a semiautomatic rifle. “At first, people didn’t know what was happening, and then it became clear that they weren’t armed, and it felt like a publicity stunt,” Metzl explains.
The group that disrupted Metzl’s book talk were quickly identified by anti-fascist researchers and journalists as Identity Evropa, a fascist cell that recently rebranded as the “American Identity Movement.” They changed their name in an attempt to distance members from ongoing legal issues related to violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, but the group remains the same in every regard, and fascist disruptions during progressive book talks and at left-wing and other bookshops are becoming more common again during the Trump era. As right-wing violence escalates across the board, so too have strategic disruptions, harassment campaigns, and threats at bookshops where fascists are not welcomed.
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While anti-fascists and anti-racists have frequently called for and organized for the deplatforming of individuals spreading hateful ideologies, members of the extreme right have used violence and threats of violence to target marginalized people. They also go after authors who might support, or stand up for, minority groups. This is precisely why anti-fascists and anti-racists insist on tactics such as no-platforming to deal with the far right: They’re being attacked, and they want it to stop. Attacking bookstores where authors of color or Jewish, queer, or leftist authors discuss their work, or because of the kinds of books they sell, has been a common fascist tactic since fascism rose to prominence in Europe in the 1920s, and clearly, it is still with us today.
Last year, fascists repeatedly attacked a Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)–operated bookstore in Berkeley, California, harassing and threatening volunteer workers. In a six-month period, the far-right groups targeted the shop, Revolution Books, ten times. That escalated a campaign of intimidation that started after anti-fascists rallied against Milo Yiannopoulos’s failed “Free Speech Week” at the University of California, Berkeley, in September 2017, some nine months after a Yiannopoulos fan shot and injured a communist protester outside the University of Washington.
Around 50 Yiannopoulos supporters marched from the school’s campus and crossed the breezeway where the bookshop is located and began “invading” the area, said Reiko Redmonde, the volunteer manager of the Berkeley shop. “We were shocked, and it was terrible,” she said. “They returned three other times that week, and then we weren’t as surprised.” The tensions continued to escalate, explained Redmonde, and by March the fascists had vowed to burn down the shop, a threat that RCP captured on video and posted online.
The very next day after fascists made this threat, unknown vandals attacked the San Diego socialist bookshop Groundwork Books, located on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The window of the shop’s front door was shattered, a number of shelves and books were overturned inside, and an arson was attempted, according to the UC San Diego student newspaper, The Guardian. The collective that operates the shop released a statement about the attack saying they strongly suspect white supremacists are responsible and referenced a spate of fascist activity in the area, including the threats against Revolution Books.
Of course, bookstores sell books, but these shops often serve other purposes as well. Leftist bookstores in particular commonly act as multipurpose spaces for local activists as well as stops for progressive and leftist authors’ book tours. In some smaller towns, these bookshops can be neighborhood or even city strongholds for locals who may not have many other places to safely and comfortably organize, or even just hang out. Bookshops that are not expressly political in their mission still frequently host authors whose work is political, and thus when these authors are targeted, often bookshops are as well.
Because these spaces have so much value and purpose for marginalized people and egalitarian social movements, and are crucial for free and critical thought in general, they are seen by fascists as a loathsome and existential threat.
Craig Fowlie, an editorial director at the academic press Routledge and an expert on the British far right, says that these attacks are “part of the wider culture wars.” In a sense, attacks on bookshops are arguably “physical proxies for other targets,” Fowlie says, because the far right can’t physically attack say, Karl Marx, but they can attack people who promote his work and the shops that sell it.
Indeed, fascists have historically sought to destroy all aspects of egalitarian and critical thought as a central strategy for their genocidal agenda, including the destruction of, by some estimations, 100 million books across Europe. In May 1933, the same year that the first Nazi concentration camp was established in Dachau, German university students and other Nazis undertook a ruthless book-burning campaign in which the works of Jewish, communist, anarchist, socialist, pacifist, LGBTQ, and other authors deemed “un-German” by the Reich were publicly destroyed. Nazis raided libraries, universities, bookstores, and even private collections in their hunt for works to throw into the flames; shops and libraries were forced to close during the Nazi regime.
The spate of attacks on bookshops and vicious harassment campaigns against authors who speak out against racism and its related ills means that security is an important issue on book tours. When far-rightists wearing “Make America Great Again” hats attempted to disrupt a talk by Alexander Reid Ross, a lecturer of geography at Portland State University and author of the 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep, at the Potter’s House bookstore in Washington, DC, there was a rapid response to their presence.
Audience members immediately stood up and confronted the small group of fascists, working quickly to defuse the situation before it became more disruptive and possibly violent. Reid Ross recalled that his initial response was to “neutralize [the fascists] as much as possible and just go on with it.” He noted that stopping the event and potentially having a brawl break out could have injured audience members and caused additional damage to the shop.
One of the people who works at the Potter’s House told the fascist intruders they could stay so long as they stayed in the back and kept quiet, Reid Ross says, “and that’s kind of what they did. They kept their mouths shut…while I degraded their ideology. They seemed really despondent.” Meanwhile, local anti-fascists and anti-racists “started pouring in” to the shop in response to text messages and social-media posts from attendees, alerting the community to the situation at the store. After those alerts went out, Reid Ross says, “It went from [a crowd] of about 20 people to this crowd of 60–80 people.” The rest of the talk went off without a hitch, and when it ended the fascists left the shop, followed by some of the anti-fascists who attended the talk.
Reid Ross says that, in general, authors who may be targeted by the far right and bookshops who host them need to think seriously about how to keep people safe. “Don’t think in terms of security you’re going to have [for] a debate with Jordan Peterson, who’s going to show up and say a few nasty words. Plan for people who will break things or start hitting people.” For his own book tour, having a rapid response such as the one at the Potter’s House has been effective: He says he hasn’t been “messed with” by fascists during book talks since the incident in DC.
Revolution Books in Berkeley has also found the rapid-community-response method effective. Redmonde, the manager, says that the shop began putting out community alerts after fascists started descending on them repeatedly, which drew crowds that well outnumbered the fascists. While fascists still harass the staff over the phone and on social media, and sometimes pass by the shop, they haven’t attempted any rallies near the store, or tried to bust in. She credits the consistent community response to the fascist presence for the decreased activity this year.
In some cases though, authors have been forced to cancel book talks due to far-right threats. Princeton associate professor of African-American studies and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was set to speak in Seattle and San Diego about her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation in 2017 when Fox News ran a hit piece on her. In a statement shared by her publisher, Taylor said she “received more than fifty hate-filled and threatening emails. Some of these emails have contained specific threats of violence, including murder,” following the segment.
It’s no surprise, judging from recent political developments, that we are once again experiencing a vicious assault on people and ideas. “Bookstores are places we should be able to share complicated and challenging ideas, which is where their symbolism lies,” Metzl says. “It’s really unfortunate that these public spaces become contested sites.”