Is Nonviolence—or Fighting Back—the Answer to Far-Right Thuggery?

Is Nonviolence—or Fighting Back—the Answer to Far-Right Thuggery?

Is Nonviolence—or Fighting Back—the Answer to Far-Right Thuggery?

As Trump incites violence, the left needs a counter-strategy.


Roger Stone, a longtime friend and political adviser to Donald Trump, made headlines on August 24 when he warned that any attempt to impeach Trump would effectively trigger a civil war. Despite this president’s near-record-low approval ratings, Stone said that impeachment would unleash “a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.” Any politician who dared vote for impeachment, he added, “would be endangering their own life.”

Stone wasn’t advocating such bloodshed, he halfheartedly asserted, merely predicting it. But coming from a man so close to the president, the message seemed clear enough: If threatened with removal from office, Trump might encourage his gun-toting supporters to start shooting people, up to and including members of Congress.

In the United States, of course, the far right is heavily armed. During the Obama years, distaste for the nation’s first black president helped drive a massive increase in gun purchases, with aggregate sales averaging over 1 million a month during his administration. Prodded by the National Rifle Association, most states now have open-carry or concealed-carry laws, meaning that extremist groups can and do turn up in public spaces armed for battle. Plus the number of white-supremacist groups is growing rapidly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which now tracks more than 900 hate groups.

Stone’s apocalyptic bluster came as no surprise to Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit group based in New York that works to change corporate behavior around race and social justice. No modern American politician has exploited the seductive power of violence quite like Donald Trump, and Robinson recognized the potential consequences of this early on. After the 2016 election, he and Color of Change created a strategy document for the approaching era of resistance. The victory of a “change the rules” candidate like Trump, Robinson wrote, could rapidly unravel “long held principles” in the United States, including the rule of law. The big question was: What should we do about it?

That question has only grown more urgent over the past several months, as seen most dramatically in the deadly clashes that erupted in the wake of white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, which culminated in a man reported to have long-standing Nazi sympathies killing an antiracist protester and injuring 19 others by plowing into them with his car. With far-right groups and individuals clearly itching for a fight, should progressives and leftist radicals respond in kind, as the antifascist activists known as “antifa” have done in several cities over the past couple of years? Or should they hold true to the philosophy of nonviolence that most progressives, at most moments in American history, have favored?

More a concept than an organization, antifa has no membership, no central committee, no president, and no one who can say yes or no to particular strategies. Instead, it’s the coming together of groups of people who are convinced that direct action—including physical violence—is the necessary response to the resurgence of fascist groups in America.

Cornel West explicitly thanked antifa activists for saving his and other religious leaders’ lives during the mayhem in Charlottesville. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists” who shielded them from an approaching group of white supremacists, West said. Yet the acceptance of street fighting as a legitimate political tool is an idea that many on the left reject, on both tactical and ethical grounds. Antifa’s actions, says Noam Chomsky, are “a major gift to the right, including the militant right, who are exuberant.… When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win—and we know who that is.”

In many ways, this debate revives an age-old conundrum on the left. From mid-19th-century abolitionists to suffragettes in the early 20th century, from union organizers in the 1930s to civil-rights and antiwar activists in the ’60s, the question has been argued repeatedly: In the face of violence unleashed by the state, by capital, or by right-wing groups, how should the left respond?

The question continues to resurface in American history because, our national mythologies notwithstanding, violence has been a defining characteristic of that history from the start. The enslavement of African Americans was enforced with violence, as was the subjugation of Native Americans. There have been armed extremists on the right—the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils, the John Birch Society—as well as armed insurrectionists on the left: the early anarchists, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers.

The right, however—those promoting and defending embedded racial, religious, economic, and gender inequities—has resorted to violence both more frequently than the left and on a far larger scale. In the 1920s, “the Klan had 4 million members and had strong political influence in several states,” says Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University. In the 1950s and ’60s, freedom activists learned to their bloody dismay that many law-enforcement officials formally responsible for protecting their right to peaceably assemble were, under cover of darkness, also members of the Klan.

What makes today’s moment different from other chaotic eras in American history is that now, it’s not grassroots zealots or two-bit local politicians who are encouraging violence, but rather the president of the United States himself. Trump started flirting with violence during his campaign—saying that he would pay the legal bills for anyone who roughed up protesters, hinting that “Second Amendment people” should assassinate Hillary Clinton if she became president. As president, Trump has blasted journalists in particular as “very bad people,” even tweeting a doctored video showing him at a WWE wrestling event slamming an opponent labeled “CNN” to the floor. Trump also gave a presidential pardon to Joe Arpaio, the ex-sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who terrorized Latinos and others in a jail that Arpaio gleefully described as a “concentration camp,” and who violated the separation of powers by defying a federal judge’s order to stop racially based policing. And, of course, Trump found it impossible to issue a swift, unequivocal denunciation of the swastika-waving neo—Nazis who invaded Charlottesville armed with rifles, clubs, knives, and body armor.

Trump, the reality-TV maestro, may be using the theatrics of violence to divert attention from the rest of his presidency—his assault on regulatory structures, his lack of legislative accomplishments, his Russiagate legal perils—as Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and others have argued. But smokescreen or not, the threat to civil society is all too real: Trump’s aggressive rhetoric has given extremists nationwide the impression that they, too, are now free to act on their hate.

On May 20, a white supremacist in Maryland fatally stabbed Richard Collins III, a Bowie State University student and recently commissioned second lieutenant in the US Army. Six days later, two men were stabbed to death in Portland, Oregon, after defending a Muslim woman from a white supremacist. In Montana, Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte physically attacked a journalist from The Guardian who had asked a question that he didn’t like; Gianforte handily won election the next day. In Louisiana, Republican Congressman Clay Higgins advocated a holy war against “Islamic horror,” urging: “Kill them all, for the sake of all that is good and righteous.” In Mississippi, Republican State Representative Karl Oliver called for “lynching” anyone who took down a Confederate statue.

“You have what used to be more of a fringe element being given cover to operate in the open air,” says Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Like numerous anti-Trump activists, lawyers, academics, and journalists, Garza regularly receives death threats. “We can’t call the police for support,” she says, “so how do we protect ourselves? All of us are having to take additional precautions, given that we’re in the crosshairs of a different kind of administration than we’ve ever seen in this country.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton University professor of African-American studies, gave a commencement speech in May at Hampshire College in which she called Trump a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” A few days later, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets started criticizing her, and online trolls barraged her with threats. Taylor says she received two specific death threats and more than 60 hate e-mails, leading her to cancel a number of public appearances. “This is a dramatic escalation,” Taylor says. “The election of Trump has not just emboldened racists; they have been activated.”

This was exactly the kind of violence that Rashad Robinson at Color of Change expected to see after Trump’s election. To plot a counter-strategy, Color of Change partnered with MoveOn, the progressive think tank Demos Action, and the National Domestic Workers Legacy Fund early in 2017 to convene the “Fightback Table.” Consisting of representatives from about 50 civil-rights, environmental, immigrant-rights, and social-justice organizations, the Fightback Table began to hold regular meetings in Washington and New York. Participants discussed nonviolent ways to fight Trump, including strategizing a rapid response to defend the Affordable Care Act, mobilizing in the wake of the Charlottesville outrage, and organizing protests and political campaigns to protect vulnerable immigrant populations, among other actions.

Drawing on Color of Change’s particular expertise, the Fightback Table has also explored strategies to embarrass business interests into separating themselves from Trump’s agenda. “We’re getting more and more traction at forcing corporations to not play both sides, to not be neutral in this moment,” Robinson says, noting that many businesses distanced themselves from the administration after Trump’s “both sides were at fault” response to the events in Charlottesville. Color of Change had already been lobbying financial companies to stop processing payments for far-right groups selling fascist paraphernalia on their websites. In August, PayPal, American Express, and several other credit-card companies announced that they would stop working with nearly three dozen such groups, imposing a financial squeeze that could drain them of resources over time.

The Fightback Table is pursuing other, similar tactics, while also working to broaden the antifascist coalition. “The corridors of power, whether Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Capitol Hill, or Hollywood—we’ll be pushing them to use their leverage to fight back against Trump,” Robinson says. “We’ll be leveraging people power to push legislatively,” as well as to promote “cultural change [and] people showing up for peaceful protest. We need to build alliances not just with progressives, but with the moderate center-right [and] folks of good faith on the right.”

“The most important principle is strength in numbers, and not leaving it to the most targeted communities to be the only ones standing up to these forces,” argues Naomi Klein, the author of No Is Not Enough and a contributing editor at The Nation. “The more cross-movement alliance-building we do, the stronger progressive forces are in the face of state and vigilante violence.”

One silver lining of Trump’s rise to power is the collaboration it has encouraged among progressive groups that had previously remained isolated in their respective issue silos, maintains Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. “I’ve dreamed of this unity and solidarity across the left!” she says. “This level of solidarity is how we get through this.”

For example, Unstoppable Together is a nationwide coalition of trade unions, faith-based organizations, legal activists, and others who are strategizing how to resist authoritarian policies and also stand up—peacefully, publicly, and with all due speed—to the violent energies unleashed by Trump. The Highlander Center in Tennessee, which was instrumental in nonviolent training during the civil-rights era, has recently ramped up its efforts as well.

“We have to make sure we’re skilled up on nonviolence and de-escalation training,” Leonard says. Having long been targeted by state and vigilante violence internationally, Greenpeace is now educating a new generation of organizers in the United States on the most effective responses to violent provocation. During a just-concluded “Summer of Resistance,” Greenpeace says, it trained 2,000 people in 14 cities on the theory and techniques of nonviolent action. “Be awake but not afraid” is one guidepost, Leonard says. Another is to “engage with opponents outside of their areas of strength. If they have the guns, don’t shoot [guns]!”

“You want to lead with a more compelling vision of the future than your adversaries have,” explains activist-trainer James Brady of Greenpeace, adding that you also need lots of people to show up and put skin in the game. “People misunderstand what nonviolence means. It means you try every possible means at your disposal to change the course of a conversation. If you want to shut down a group of neo-Nazis with nonviolence, you need 500 people. If you only have 50 people, you’re going to have a fight.”

But a fight is exactly what’s needed, antifa advocates reply, using as analogies the antifascist battles of the 1930s and the antiracist and antifascist struggles in Europe in the 1980s. “It’s an act of self-defense, community defense, and minority defense to shut them down by any means necessary,” says journalist Natasha Lennard, who has written extensively on the networks of activists who come together under the “antifa” banner. “Quite often the property damage is aimed toward disruption. Make a venue aware that if they fall prey to this free-speech myth and have white supremacists speak, there’s a promise of disruption.” Writing in The Nation on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Lennard quoted a New York City antifa group’s declaration: “If Trump tries to register Muslims and engage in mass deportations, a petition is not going to stop it.”

Jeff Rousset, a longtime grassroots organizer in Philadelphia and Boston, disagrees. He argues that the antifa strategy invites catastrophe and “could actually accelerate the rise of fascism. It makes conservatives feel that they are under attack, and then they side with the extreme right.”

“This is not about who controls the most violence; it’s about who controls the legitimacy of the political space,” insists Erica Chenoweth, the co-author of Why Civil Disobedience Works. Chenoweth cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of nonviolent yet uncompromising resistance to state and vigilante violence. By maintaining discipline in the face of relentless abuse, the movement that King led attracted mass support and ultimately helped to deliver such substantive victories as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just so today, Chenoweth maintains, progressives should use “innovative techniques” that push progressive goals while avoiding the street fights sought by the armed right.

The Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter employed one such technique after the National Rifle Association released a video exhorting that only “the clenched fist of truth” could save the country from the anti-Trump resistance. Over images of protest marches and street violence and mentions of our first black president, an NRA spokeswoman snarled words like “assassinate,” “burn,” and “terrorize” before calling the NRA “freedom’s safest place.” Fighting fire with fire, Black Lives Matter released a video that was a mirror version of the NRA’s. Over images of white vigilantes and police killings, a Black Lives Matter spokeswoman declared that “the only option left is for black people to disrupt the systems that keep us oppressed and build the kinds of communities in which we want to live.”

“In chaos is when change happens,” says Jo Ann Hardesty of the NAACP’s Portland, Oregon, chapter. Hardesty helped organize the chapter’s “Freedom Summer 2017” training session on nonviolent direct action, which she regards as the path to power. “Talk to people not on their political affiliation but their values—neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, community to community.”

This movement-building is starting to pay off. Wherever fascist groups have mobilized recently, broad coalitions of opponents have taken to the streets in far larger numbers. One week after Charlottesville, tens of thousands marched peacefully in Boston against a handful of fascists. In San Francisco, a large, mainly peaceful crowd marched, sang, and danced against white supremacy in general and Trump in particular. Satire, humor, absurdism, as well as the sheer numbers of energized people showing up on the streets—all are being used to make fascists look small.

The Trump era is host to many tragedies and many absurdities. When its history is written, the normalization of political violence should rank high on the list. Democracy survives when a community or a country makes powerful and sustained efforts to resolve its differences peacefully. It dies when individuals try to impose their visions through force and to consolidate power through intimidation.

In 2017, we stand on a precipice. President Trump has all but endorsed violence against the media, against political opponents, and against marginalized racial, religious, and sexual groups. He has used his bully pulpit to sow fear, discord, and division, perhaps hoping to provoke his opponents as well as his supporters into embracing violence. In that case, Trump may calculate, the political middle might tolerate him as a strongman who restores “law and order” by cracking down on dissent and sweeping the streets clean of riffraff.

This is how demagogues have always operated. The challenge for the resistance is to douse the fires of violence that Trump is fanning while building a powerful, inclusive opposition that doesn’t need physical force to succeed. On a pragmatic level, violence from the left would likely lead to a law-and-order crackdown, as it did in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon tapped into the latent racism and cultural fears of the “silent majority.” Moreover, any lurch toward violence would deprive progressives of the moral high ground—vital territory to hold in turbulent times. Although we certainly must stand firm against the Trump regime, we must do so peacefully, gracefully, and without compromising our movement’s potential or our core values. Fascism is peculiarly good at making people act shamefully; in resisting Trump, we must remain peaceful in the face of violent provocation and keep faith with who we truly are.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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