On Political Violence
On November 2nd, Pinko and Haymarket Books hosted an online discussion about the topic of political violence, fascist mobilization and queer/trans community self-defense. The discussion convened local organizers from various different US cities representing different strategies and periods of struggle. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
M.E. O’Brien, moderator:
I'll add a little bit about my own thinking in doing this to help get us started. Often, the really valuable skills, experience, and organization around militant self defense are pretty isolated to a relatively small group of revolutionaries in specific segments of working class life. I grew up in the '90s in Oregon when the neo-Nazi movement was very large, and there was a vibrant, sharp skinhead scene that engaged in violent confrontations with Nazis. There was also a political dynamic with whether they were completely isolated from the segments of the anti fascist movement that would not engage in self defense in any meaningful way. And so at different historical moments, broader self defense was taken up by a broader segment of the working class, as part of integrated mass movements, and we know some of the history of the Black Panthers and other periods in history when this has happened.
In our planning for this event, in talking about it, Melissa Gira Grant, one of our panelists, told a story describing a shift on the ground of liberal activists, pro-gay activists or people who previously might really distance themselves from militants or revolutionaries or self defense or riots or whatnot suddenly finding themselves relying on anti-fascists' experience, anti-fascist activists, to be able to attend an event or walk to their car when events were being targeted by fascists around attacking queerness and trans life.
And so that dynamic of this moment of self-defense being looked at, being considered, being taken seriously more broadly is one of the reasons that I was really excited about doing this event, and trying to think about if we're in a moment right now that self-defense could become salient for a much broader range of people, and if the skills of people on this panel and people that we're in touch with might be useful in trying to think about that.
Now, I'll read the bios. Melissa Gira Grant is a staff writer at The New Republic, the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, published by Verso, and an excellent book, I'll add. The co director of They Won't Call it Murder, executive produced by Field of Vision. She has reported on violence against massage workers in Flushing, attacks on trans rights across Texas, resistance to police killings in Columbus, and the global movement for sex worker rights. She's currently at work on a new book, A Woman is Against the Law: Sex, Race, and the Limits of Justice of America, to be published by Little, Brown and Company.
LV is a communist living in Los Angeles. She organized the Bash Back Denver and the 2010 Bash Back Convergence, as well as a number of militant queer groups in Los Angeles, such as Trans Liberation LA, Trans Undocumented Rapid Response North America or TURRN and the 2013 Queerpocalypse. She is a practicing conflict mediator and developing an eco defense video game. Sheila T. Is a huge nerd and trans film minimum person and anarchist living in Philadelphia. She's been participating in anarchist and queer struggles since around 2010. Max, they/them, is a community organizer in Sacramento, California. Their work usually revolves around the abolition of prisons and private property, but they have been an active organizer against platforms of far right extremism and Christofascism for many years. We're very excited to have these panelists here. Thank you all for being here tonight.
I wanted to open with a broad overview by asking Melissa, could you give us a picture nationally of the fascist upsurge and the attacks on anti queer and anti trans people?
MELISSA: Sure. Thank you so much, also to Pinko and to Haymarket for doing this. These are the questions that have been on my mind all summer, all year, so this couldn't be better timed. I feel like I've spent the last year doing nothing but following these attacks, and there's way more than I could possibly summarize in the time that we have here, so I thought what I would do is sort of talk about the pattern and then talk about a couple of specific attacks that I think illustrate this pattern.
So, the pattern, as I've seen it sort of honed over the last two years, we have individuals mobilizing across the U.S., often unaffiliated with any well known far right group influenced by propaganda shared by social media accounts. This isn't happening on the fringes of the internet. That propaganda demonizes LGBTQ people as dangerous to children. They terrorize hospitals, libraries, other community spaces that are welcoming to query and trans people and document the ensuing pushback and conflict as evidence that they, themselves, are victims under attack by some powerful lobby, which is a very classic fascist move, to position yourself as the victim in the violence that you've instigated, and to overexaggerate the power of the people that you're actually doing violence against.
So, I'm going to focus on how we're seeing these forms of mutually reinforcing violence, where we see these fascist formations that are mostly in particular cities or sometimes networked across the country, and how that's connected with elected officials who are working at the local, state, and federal level, and how these different groups are reinforcing these messages and driving this violence in tandem.
Here's two examples of what look like they could be disparate attacks. They happened over the course of three months, but I think they show how all these attacks are linked, who coordinates them, and who the boots on the ground are, as it were. So, I'm going to start in Dallas this June. There is a group there called Protect Texas Kids. It's a pretty new group and headed by a self described Christian fascist whose name is Kelly Neidert. She organized a protest of a family-friendly drag show along with other individuals in white nationalist groups who showed up as well. What they did is they surrounded the club holding the event, Mr. & Mr., which is in a gay neighborhood in the suburb of Dallas. They chanted "groomer" at the families and kids lining up on the sidewalk to get into the event. They got up into their faces. One of them was waving a Christian nationalist flag. The children were plugging their ears with their fingers as the fascists were yelling at them about child rape. One guy captured on the video said, "the fist of Christ will come down on you very soon," again, screaming at this scene of the kids and their parents.
For hours this went on. Some of them were reciting sidewalk prayers, reminiscent of anti-abortion groups outside clinics. Some of them directly threatened people, followed them to their cars, and then recorded themselves in these confrontations that they instigated. And then a little more than 48 hours later, Tucker Carlson was airing heavily edited versions of these videos in a segment that he introduced with “just another weekend in Weimar.”
And Texas republican lawmakers shortly after introduced legislation to ban drag shows in the presence of minors with Marjorie Taylor green and Lauren Boebert, the federal representative,s voicing their support. Protect Texas Kids announced this rally by sharing a post about the event from the Libs of TikTok Twitter account. It has 1.4 million followers. They often share, you know, fliers for drag events. They share videos from TikTok and other places of queer and trans folks. They really honing in on librarians, educators, anyone who they think is a bad influence on children, essentially. And they're a really powerful sort of mobilizer, because they have this huge audience.
So, they shared this flier, had the date, location, and it was part of this mega drag thread. There is lots of these events that Libs of TikTok is regularly pushing out to their audience. One of the other things Libs of TikTok has been doing is targeting hospitals that provide gender affirming care to young people. After this campaign, multiple bomb threats were made to the Boston Children's Hospital at the end of the summer. Libs of TikTok also amplified threats that were made in September by The Daily Wire blogger and podcaster Matt Walsh. He claimed he was investigating a pediatric gender-affirming care clinic at Vanderbilt hospital in Tennessee. Walsh singled out the doctors by name.
And almost immediately Tennessee Republican governor Bill Lee joined Walsh's call for an investigation into the hospital, followed closely by Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Tucker Carlson had Walsh on. This pattern getting from social media to the protest to the Tucker. He again ran the names and this time also the photos of the members of the hospital board and said, let's hope they act immediately to stop this crime. And the hospital after being harassed and threatened after this, removed the clinic's page from their website.
So, a couple days after this, Protect Texas Kids is back. They found another drag event at a church in Texas, which is a queer affirming church. They had this drag closet for kids and, you know, it was a place where they could get clothes that suited them, particularly if their families weren't supporting them. The church was a supportive place for them. They were doing a drag bingo fundraiser for this trans kids program. This little church in Katy, Texas. Steve Bannon talks about it on his program. He promotes this protest, he has a guest on who calls it a spiritual battle and that the goal of it was to stop parents from supporting their trans kids.
This one, we saw a Neo Nazi group called the Aryan Freedom Network and also Proud Boys were present, and protesters cared swastika flags along with homophobic signs. Just a couple of weeks after Walsh starting his campaign, we see numerous calls of violence at hospitals across the country. That Children's Hospital he targeted announced it was going to stop providing gender affirming surgeries to those under 18. He wasn't done. He capped this off with sort of a victory lap. He held a rally to end child mutilation in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, along with Blackburn and also Tulsi Gabbard, and Proud Boys who showed up once the rally was under way. Looked like this planned militaristic presence, like a show of force with the State Troopers standing between them and all the people who showed up to support trans kids. Mostly drowned out the speakers. It got pitched as two sides in a fight when what was going on was sort of an attempt to defend the community from all of these people. After the rally, none of the elected officials there present said anything to condemn the Proud Boys' presence.
That's kind of a snapshot of what this cycle is, of how things are moving from these confrontations in particular places, documented, they get on to Fox News, that generates more social media content, which generates more protests, and it's just been spinning like this for months. And, of course, it goes back further, but I will wait until we get into that later.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much, Melissa. I want to give an opportunity for the other panelists to sort of briefly respond and add on to your question. In the frame of what is new in this conjuncture, right? So, attacks on queer and trans people, been happening for a long time. There have been fascists in America a long time. Is there something about this moment that you feel like has some novelty or some change?
MAX: I'll pop in there. I was jotting down some notes on what's new in this moment, and that's everything from the technology that we use to share the information, and the ways in which they create silos for themselves — that's what the right and folks have been getting good at for the last several decades, how to create these silos of information where they can all gather and brain wash each other and not allow in any qualitative new information to allow for their growth and learning. But what I really think is actually the most profound part about what's happening in our current political climate is the desperation of the elite. You see the devastation that we see around us is due to capitalism ending, and they absolutely need a section of the working class to usher in the new but kind of old form of what we're calling neo-feudalism as our next economic system. The rises of fascism began with attacks on queer people, trans people, women, POC. It's what Hitler and the Nazis did in Berlin. It's what the industrial south did before that, and so on.
And where we're starting to see these big changes is in the fact that, like, there is so much devastation happening around us, and all of us are trying to make sense of that devastation and whether — no matter what side of this thing we are on. And that right there is like what's causing us to now be willing to no longer engage in discourse in the streets about it. This is a moment of survival for many people and they're using this disaster as a way to mobilize their base, this fascist base for their fascist thinking, to be able to usher in this new economic system.
MICHELLE: Sheila T., is there anything that you would like to add before I ask LV a question?
SHEILA: I was also going to point out the technological changes and how those have facilitated and helped further decentralize and made a lot of people kind of mutually brainwash each other and feel empowered to kind of act across much bigger geographical areas, but I feel like most of that was touched on.
MICHELLE: LV, you're welcome to add to this, but I wanted to ask the next question, going back in history a little bit, sort of thinking about immediate antecedents. Can you share about Bash Back for the audience who know nothing about the organization, its network and its history?
LV: Sure, Bash Back made a big splash but was very short lived from 2008 to 2011. It got its start in conflicts and street clashes with Nazis, in particular in Milwaukee, and in other cities in the Midwest, and one of the things that I've been thinking about a lot in the last year in particular is, what made Bash Back kind of happen in that moment and not in this moment? The network of Bash Back, because felt like there were thousands of militant queers that were supporting each other, and publicizing their actions and hyping each other up to fight back against homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual violence, a number of difference things.
And I think one of the aspects that made Bash Back somewhat different was just the coming together of people. I think that in 2008, when the broadcasting and the social dimension of these actions made this experience around queer self defense and queer violence more powerful, I would say, in 2008 when there was this clash in Milwaukee they circulated a picture of themselves, wearing these pink masks and holding bats and wrote a little communique and posted it on anarchistnews.org, which just seemed to be a big deal at that time. I felt in the late 2000s, the revolutionary left was kind of dominated by anarchist discourse. And that created a container for that discussion, and people were able to kind of discuss in these comment forums in a sort of Reddit-like vibe and organize themselves to form chapters in other cities and in different capacities and o from that experience, people called for a convergence in Minneapolis.
Then there was another convergence, which was very large, in Chicago, and then the final one was in Denver. I think that the convergence model is another aspect of Bash Back that I kind of have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it enabled the conditions to bring people together in this very visible way, and then on the other hand, I think most people in this panel and maybe the listeners will probably agree that when you bring together a lot of radicals or just anybody, conflict is gonna arise. Bash Back is ironically formed around facing conflict head on, but the interpersonal conflict is what seems to tank these projects, consistently, and I feel like that was the case with Bash Back.
In Denver, we made a lot of, like, efforts to do conflict mediation within the different people that were coming to the convergence. However, some of these splits just became unmanageable. I think there was also an ideological split there, too, where there's a community-building aspect of self-defense, saying, okay, we're going to mostly focus on legible targets and neo-Nazis and very visible moments, and then there is more what I would consider an insurrectionist approach, which is more like we're going to attack in the multiplicity of ways that this violence and this oppression is being enacted on us. So it's more like, how do we confront bigots on the street? It's very difficult to organize a group of people around that. Whereas anarcho-insurrectionists are like, we're fighting all the time. This fight never ends. And we're embracing this pure negation. Bash Back was kind of the synthesis of these two different approaches, and I think that for a brief moment, it was a really beautiful synthesis and could have been a very powerful one, but I think ultimately there wasn't — they're somewhat incompatible but, I don't think that we were able to kind of hold those two together and move forward with them. Which is probably what it would have taken for that to last.
So, I absolutely feel like there needs to be something like Bash Back. Right now, I think, especially for supporting youth that are engaging in defense right now. In Los Angeles a couple of years ago we had a number of street clashes with Nazis around the Wi Spa incident. So people are doing self-defense actions, but it's the more social aspect of it that seems to be missing from that component. The isolated actions are happening, but the communication and the almost celebration and hyping up of each other around those actions is not really — I think we need to strategize how to create a new container that makes sense for this moment.
MICHELLE: One aspect that you spoke about but I was hoping you could elaborate a little bit more is the way Bash Back networked people across the country and also had some international connections. And sort of a little bit about the scope and the kind of networked quality of it.
LV: A lot of that was the fact that Aragorn had created this platform with anarchistnews.org and kind of contained that dialogue. So it's essentially somebody that was sympathetic to the Bash Back cause was creating a space for this conversation to happen, whereas the dialogues that are happening around self defense right now, whether it's on Twitter or whether it's on TikTok or a number of different platforms are just these sites of corporate alienation. No actual in-person organizing can come out of those kind of experiences, so, I personally think that the social aspect, being in proximity to each other is really important.
So these convergences were important. And I think at that point in the late 2000s, the DNC and the RNC convergences were these mass mobilizations that brought together a lot of the revolutionary left to be together and learn the skills required of bringing that number of people together. Bash Back was a part of that context, and I think that we've lost some of those skills over the years. Like just being able to handle a group of 500,000 people that are coming into a city, with housing, food, conflict management and all those different things that are aspects of it.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much. It's just really fascinating history. So, next, I wanted to ask first Sheila T. And then Max if you could share a little tactics and strategy around care, self defense that you're seeing on the ground or encountered or been a part of or seen, and what you think works, what you think is helpful to people. So, Sheila T.?
SHEILA: I feel like what I've been seeing for the last, I don't know, five to seven-ish years in Philly has been in terms of mutual aid. A lot of information sharing and distribution of pepper spray and stuff like that in terms of queers who are tied up in sex work stuff, or bad date lists. Information about how to get work done in ways that are safer. And on the other hand, I feel like people have been more informally networking with each other to have protection, for work or not for work. Just in life, and having people that they can call, and developing that both as a social network or set of social networks and also as a set of skills to de-escalate or escalate.
And I think a lot of that is not completely separate from two things, partially tying back to some of the Bash Back stuff. I feel like one is that at least here, after a certain point, it just felt like in anti-fascist organizing, queers were overly represented in that world. And so even though maybe from the outside or from reading what people wrote, it wasn't always super clear that queer and trans people involved in organizing against fascists and far right people, but if that was a thing, I feel like that also brought certain skills and ways of thinking to those networks that spilled beyond people who were just organizing against fascist stuff.
One example I can think of from before COVID that has kept going is that a lot of anti-fascists started practicing different boxing and combat sports, and then that kind of spilled out and became larger than just an anti-fascist, anarchist thing. Then that spilled out and became a larger than just antifascist thing that was open to queers and anarchists and anti-fascists and their friends and networks as well.
And then on the other side, less tied up with strictly anti-fascism and more with this idea of insurrection and anarchy as it was playing out with the Bash Back stuff, I feel like there were a good amount of different attacks and sabotages that took place. Almost all of them were anonymous, but some of them that had responsibility claims or written communication were either clearly influenced by queer theory and queer ideas or were claimed by people who, while maintaining anonymity, were gay or trans or queer or dykes or whatever.
And I imagine that network of people or groups of people had to figure out the ways to seek out and develop the means to do violence in the same way that the anti fascists had to, and I think also that brought a lot of collective and individual empowerment to those people in the networks that were around them as well.
MICHELLE: Thank you. Max?
MAX: Yeah, thanks for that question. And besides like engaging in mutual learning and information sharing, I’d say working in public facing events. This allows folks to find ways to plug in and new folks to support their affinity/community building with. Oftentimes these folks are from their families and are not as deep in the weeds and their friends — I oftentimes speak with youth who are like, everybody around me isn't talking about this stuff, so we have to create spaces for them to come and meet other youth or other people who are talking about this stuff.
And for us, 2020 really opened up the door for the anti-fascism but also anti-fascist self-defense tactics. Antifa got airwaves like never before. "What is Antifa" trended on Google searches for days during those times. Creating things like anarchist book fairs in the areas that don't normally have them. In Sacramento, we compete with the Bay all the time. But here, we have everything from queer self-defense groups that are community forward-facing, that allow for community members to hit us up and be like, where y'all training this weekend so I can join you? They train every Sunday. We have a forward-facing queer defense formation that walks our queer district in Sacramento. We have events where queers can come and paint bricks. In Sac, we have Pride Was a Riot, who is dope, and in a pink bandana masked up and tabling at the farmers market on Saturdays. Even further, they did a campaign to get every vendor at that market to have signs that say "we support trans kids."
It's those forward-facing, public-facing efforts that are normalizing not just anti-fascism, but different tactics of self-defense, and all of its tactics, whether that's physically self -defending and using things like pepper spray or physical self-defense tactics or creating a culture and a community that provides that safety just by people walking in, knowing that they're welcome.
Things like that have proved the most helpful and have proved to support folks in their entering or in their introduction to anti-fascism and the anti-fascist orgs in town. It's allowed for us to meet folks where they're at with it, too, you know? And we always talk about the different things that go into supporting this work. We all see those fliers where there are ten support roles to a protest and things like that. Whether that's you safely doing it from your home to all different abled body types. We're being very inclusive in our ability to get involved, but we're meeting our community where they're at.
Then during 2020 we held events — we called them "we keep us safe" events, and they talked about everything from tear gas and tourniquets to abolition through an Indigenous framework, and gender 101 that went on once a week during this time. The ability to create public facing — We can't be afraid to be like, we're anti-fascists. They got it every Saturday at the farmers market. The big circles, big A’s everywhere. You know, normalizing it. Creating the ways for us to get publicly involved and to be meeting our community where they're at.
Not only are we normalizing these things, but we're also letting them recognize that we're actually their community. We are the community that they want to be a part of when they say they want housing as a human right, when they say they want healthcare for all, when they say they want food access for everybody that this is actually an anarcho-communist thought and theory, and they don't even realize that they are objectively this way. We need them to recognize it in their subjective lives as well. So that's about it for us, that forward-facing, being willing to engage in dialogue, discussion, information sharing, and mutual learning.
MICHELLE: That's beautiful. So, we're going to open it up between each other. I have a question for everybody, but it's also an opportunity to respond to each and to begin to sort of draw out themes, sort of things that are evocative for you, and then at some point, I'll start throwing in some questions from the audience on YouTube. So, the question for everybody to open our discussion is, what do you see as the value of self-defense in the current moment? And Max spoke to that in quite a number of ways just now.
SHEILA: I would say that self-defense is as important as ever, and maybe something to pay particular attention to, just because of the ways that queer and trans people have been more pointedly targeted, in the sense that self defense is just literally essential for surviving. For me, it feels like it could never not be an important thing, and specifically as queer and trans people, we're often alienated and disempowered from access to violence and defense, and now is as good of a time as any to develop the means and skills and networks to be able to take care of ourselves and each other.
MAX: It's so important right now, because I spoke to it earlier about the devastation that we're seeing around us. And that on all fronts are we being attacked. And that's from everything from, like, state violence to far-right extremist Christofascism, extremism, religious extremism, because that is happening globally in different forms of religion, and even ecological devastation. We are literally fighting for our lives and our survival, and so defending our joy but organizing our rage around how to defend ourselves from the very things that are trying to convince us and gaslight us about the very real devastation that's happening in our communities is absolutely the way forward. This is also the peace in me, because as we're all actually moving from the form of self-defense, inevitability what we get to is somebody one day is not throwing the first punch, you know? And so to speak on it in such terms, in such beauty, to talk about self-defense as not a struggle for our lives, but the right for our lives is very important right now, because like I said, our very existence is at stake.
LV: I think for me, self-defense is such an interesting way to frame violence, because I think that we can all agree that it's a euphemism for violence, and a lot of times when, let's say there's a classic instance of a bigot that's confronting you or whatever, the escalation of that situation to violence is a whole process, and it's a complicated process. And so for me, it's less about the act of violence and more about how are we socially organizing ourselves around supporting ourselves in a revolutionary way and having our eyes on the prize for the fact that, like everyone is saying, our system is killing us.
And especially trans folks, queer, trans, especially trans women of color that are sex workers are the front lines of this. I don't even hear people counting how many trans women are being murdered every year anymore. I feel like they did that around 2014 and the "trans tipping point," and it's not even happening anymore, but I'm sure that it's astronomical.
And so for me, that social aspect is really important, and that's where militancy comes in. I think we have a tendency to see militancy as “let's train ourselves in these different armed combat scenarios, and let's get trained up for using guns and let's get trained up in martial arts” which are of course important, but I think there is another aspect to military training that a lot of times I think we miss. It's a broader social kind of experience. When people on the left say, "oh, we're outgunned, we're outgunned in all of these different ways" — which is true, we are literally outgunned, but campaigns are not only done through arms. They're done through a social organization of an army.
So not only the logistics but also the training strategies and how you bring people together to train them. How you feed them while they're going through this process. How you navigate interpersonal conflict through all of those things. And so, in thinking about Bash Back in particular, that's where I feel like these convergences were just the tip of the iceberg for what could have been. I really feel like Bash Back was an aborted movement. Like it was something that could have happened and it just fell apart through a whole variety of things.
But I think those convergences are that kind of component. The left is very skilled in these social dynamics. Far more skilled than the right, and and look at how much it takes for the police and the army to maintain their social cohesion. All of the money that goes into maintaining that, whereas we have no money and we're still more socially powerful, and so I think it's something that we need to remember about violence and self-defense and our revolutionary potential.
MELISSA: I just want to add to what everyone has said about the public facing side of self defense and community defense, which I think Max articulated in a way I hadn't really thought of before, which is that these are ways to bring people in, and they're also ways for the journalists who are following what's going on in these anti-fascist accounts that are documenting who these various extremist individuals are, they are doing the legwork so that we can do our job and help get that information out to even more people.
I had people asking me this summer for the first time, "do you think it's safe to go to Pride this year?" Because they were hearing about all these threats, including here in New York. We had people come and harass a drag queen story hour a couple of weeks ago. Where do I send them to find out if it's safe? I think you should go to the anti-fascist Twitter accounts in New York. Go see what people feel safe sharing what they've seen on Telegram. It's another kind of normalization. This is a community resource that's here to be shared. Even if you might not be on the front line, this is doing an incredible amount of community defense, even just on the level of information sharing.
And I think for groups who are dealing with these attacks for the first time they're doing events that have never been targeted in this way, just knowing that other people are doing it, going through it and have strategies, that they're not alone in that, is very important right now. Because I think for some people, it never would have occurred to them that they would be attacked in this way, in a community setting.
I think there is a level of constant violence that we're still experiencing as queer and trans communities, but people who are like, “we were doing a story event the a library for children. Why are the Proud Boys showing up and trying to destroy that?” So, just giving people the sense that they are part of the community even if they haven't experienced that yet is really important right now.
MICHELLE: Beautiful, beautiful responses. I'll ask a few questions that have come in from the audience. So, here's a practical legal one. Jessica asks: As a formerly incarcerated trans woman in Washington state, my CCO tells me I'm not even allowed to possess pepper spray. After a record number of trans murders last year, I feel vulnerable. Is this even legal?
I said that perhaps none of us would know. There are no lawyers in our group, in terms of speaking to what's legal, but I thought with people distributing pepper spray, it might have come up at some point, sort of to what extent that's restricted for people on parole, probation or...
MAX: I'm in California, so I can't speak on Washington state, but I can speak to... well, first, I want to validate your very real, very real feelings, and even if it is illegal, that's the whole point, right? Fuck the State. They are trying to make sure we're out here being killed. But what I can tell you — there wasn't enough in there for me to deduce this down for you. Depending on if it's probation or parole, you can actually find that information. If you look at the terms of parole in your state. Or terms of probation in your state. Most of the time, that's actually not bear mace and things like that are big things in the areas, but, like, little pepper spray. No, it's usually not. But I would definitely look into the probation codes and the parole codes, just depending on what you fall within for Washington.
MICHELLE: Lane asks, can you all speak to the effectiveness of having Bash Back or large affinity groups at organized actions, and some of the pros and cons of that model.
LV: Well, I feel like we're at the point where — I don't know. I kind of thought that we were going to move beyond black bloc at this point in the anti-fascist development. I hate to say it. I find it to be a very reductive tactic. I kind of felt like we would get to a point where we're doing more fluid anonymity. Or what some folks called gray block. But in 2020 I was just like, oh, wow, it's really back and it's really back in full force.
And I think there's pros and cons to it. A lot of the actions, the Bash Back actions, definitely people got the attention of law enforcement and the FBI was tracking people and all of that kind of stuff that's happening with Antifa right now. And, you know, post 2020, I feel like a lot of people blocked up for actions and law enforcement can track the people's bloc fairly regularly, so it's very difficult to wear black bloc and stay safe in the street in terms of staying anonymous.
So, I don't know. I just think that we just need a more robust discussion on how we're maintaining that anonymity and how we're blocking up and how we're appearing and disappearing for these kinds of actions, you know? And I think there's some things that we could move forward in that regard. So, as far as Bash Back actions go, I don't really feel like there was a lot of development in terms of black bloc or street anonymity or things like that. But hopefully we can move the discussion now. But always be safe on the street. I’m not saying, don't go unblocked ever, and there's all these, you know, safety tactics. So, just my 2 cents.
SHEILA: I do feel like we could definitely have, as people who are excited to see things in the street get weirder, there's a lot we can do better at in terms of developing anonymity. But then I kind of want to go back to the question of is it useful to have a Bash Back bloc, not necessarily as a bloc of people who all dress the same, but maybe a bloc of people with similar intentions or a way to make an intention have a specific geographic place. I think that that still feels very useful and that oftentimes people come to demonstrations and feel very alone, but have a specific kind of intention or a kind of person that they would rather be around. Whether that person is dressed alike or not with them maybe feels less relevant than that there are other ways to call for a bloc. “We want a queer anti capitalist bloc at this May 1st demonstration.” “This anti fascist demonstration is calling for a militant trans feminine bloc.” That can be something as simple as, this bloc of people, maybe four people, are going to dedicate to bringing a banner that says "Queers Bash Back" or pink and black flags. They can find other people who would maybe be interested walking with them, whether it's to get into a fight or be around other queers, whatever. Calling for a bloc in the sense of people walking in a bloc or being together in a bloc still feels very useful, although, definitely we should always be stepping our game up in terms of security.
MAX: I think I'll build off of that, too. Already just by having them exist in the first place, whether they get called or not, what it is is creating safe queer spaces for organizing anti-fascist tactics and building affinity and community. But having them in places and present, it does flag for folks that it exists in our area, and when folks go out together how they can possibly find or know that it just exists. I think, like, showing up presently in those ways. Make sure that queer and trans militancy is a part of the discussion and a part of the actions towards liberation, but to segue into this idea of gray bloc and these ideas of more subtle anonymity, we just actually used that tactic here in California. Every year we have a “straight pride” held in Modesto, and over the last four years have tried to build up a community response to successfully shut that platform down. This year was one of the best years that we've ever done it.
And we did that by calling for a 9:00 a.m. gray bloc that was well coordinated, well organized and many affinity groups up and down were talking to be able to pull out those numbers and coordinate showing up on time together. But the next thing you know, there's over 100 gray bloc radical trans queer anti fascists hanging out ready to, like, shut down a straight pride event. And then we have even an 11:00 a.m. community call, too, where just regular community members got a flier to come and show up at 11:00 a.m. to this event and really hold it down with us.
And so the gray bloc that Pride Was a Riot in Sacramento do when they go out and they're doing their queer self defense formation definitely allows for folks to be able to point them out, tell that they're them and be able to check in and count on them. It just really depends I think on what the bloc is for and, like, and what exactly the organized action is, right? Is it patrolling your queer district? Is it shutting down straight pride? Is it showing up in the name of black lives? Like what is it? And that can kind of help. But I always think I love to see it. I love it, every time.
MICHELLE: There are a couple of questions about disability inclusion. Morgan asked about the intense isolation of many queer disabled people around the world since the pandemic, and Tovia asked about how queer and trans self defense can be more accessible to disabled and poor people. So I think from everyone, what you see as strategies around disability inclusion and what that looks like and what that can mean.
LV: As far as disability and kind of accessibility issues go, I go back to the concept of a military formation in the social aspect of it, and the understanding that there are so many different roles within actions that everybody can take part in and creatively engage in and also in terms of determining targets and in terms of the kind of social media constellations that these actions happen in.
You know, all of these things are part of a campaign, like a military campaign or something like that. And so I just think that our imagination keeps hitting a brick wall in terms of confronting these instances on the street when we see them and not the broader ways that we can be training and preparing ourselves. In terms of thinking like what do we want to create? How do trainings work? How do all of these different things — they don't involve just two people fighting. Or like a group of people fighting. They involve so many different kinds of people and components to it.
I was feeling in 2020 like so many different actions would happen, and the affinity groups that I saw forming would tend to focus around being the most vulgar form of front liners. So holding a line of shields against cops or fascists or whatever. But a lot of times, like, those actions would forget all of the different components of making a successful march or action happening. Such as scouts, such as evacuating people, such as medics, even social media communication, all of these different components of it tend to fall by the wayside, because we prioritize just this one very visible clash. And I think we need to change our imagination.
MAX: Morgan, I really thank you for your question, and I think I'm gonna speak on a conversation I actually just had with somebody. I'm a part of an abolitionist organization, very public, forward facing in the area, and somebody reached out and had said that they were worried about showing up to our events because of COVID, wondering about our pandemic safety precautions, and through this conversation, they got to kind of really inform me about how isolated they felt and how neglected they felt by folks act like the pandemic was over.
And so what we were able to do through that was promise that our events, indoor/outdoor, all of that were going to, of course, continue to make sure that we were following COVID safety precautions, but I think as a movement, it is actually on us to realize that we are creating a space that is not safe for for other able bodied types and other folks in our community who don't feel safe, who don't even feel like they could walk up to us and tell us this because we're walking around with our masks off. I know many leftists in my area, many community events right now in my community that are actively not encouraging masks, and, therefore, not creating a culture where we're doing that.
And so it is kind of like the work that we're doing here. At the time, I remember having the conversation and I was like, I don't know really what to do about everybody else, but the truth is, being an organizer, I've been doing it for so many years, I know a lot of folks. So, actually, it is on me to call my friends and say, hey, can you make sure there are masks at your events? Can we make sure we're creating a space that includes all of our brothers, sisters, and nonbinary folks? Like are we making sure that we're doing this? Because I don't even think that we know, right? It's like this privilege that we get.
And had that person not come into my inbox and been like, hey, I want to come to your events. You're one of the only abolitionist orgs in town and I don't know if I can because I don't know what your policies are on wearing masks at the events. Without that conversation, I wouldn't have been able to see that they had been so isolated from this community for years.
You know, the world is acting like it's going back to normal, and we have to tell the world that it's not. We are living in an endemic, and so because of it, we have to create spaces that are still acting like COVID is a very real thing. Thank you for your question. And I'm hoping the organizers across this country and the people that are watching are going to tell their friends, hey, the next event we throw, masks, yo. And I do encourage you, Morgan, to reach out to some organizations with that question. Asking how can you participate in your area. Because that was how I was, how we were able to do it, you know? And I know that puts a lot of the work on you, and that's not fair, but we start somewhere, and because that one person talked to us, we're able to have, like, the ripple effects are going beyond.
SHEILA: For me, I think and, more zoomed in on a smaller scale, a lot of the inclusion and ability stuff came down to small group conversations about what kinds of risks people felt okay with, because the thing is there are a million different roles. Coming from a smaller affinity group place, having a less macho attitude and having less failure of imagination and more space for creativity in terms of how to move forward, for me, has always felt like an easier way to break out of a certain kind of really rigid, frozen idea of what a militant is.
Having dialogue around that in a small group, being able to take into consideration as many needs as possible and how that feels dignified or not for everyone and how that feels worthwhile in terms of getting this or that kind of thing done has been one way that I've seen that addressed around me.
MICHELLE: There's another question that came in about socialist rifle clubs and John Brown gun clubs. So, those have been getting a lot of news, and what you see is sort of the relationship between the kind of different left gun club worlds and how they intersect or diverge in movements.
MAX: Absolutely. At least here, they're helping arm and train our queer and trans folks, as well as just members of this community. I think Sacramento is kind of a small town with a big city vibe, and so that's how we're able to work kind of closely together, but I think that intentional outreach and working with those folks is important, because not only is it providing that community building and affinity building, but like I said, because of it, we were able to hook up our socialist rifle association with our local queer and trans community to help them get their CCW's [carry concealed weapons permit]. To help train them on how to use their weapons. To also take them up and they go up shooting once a month. And to train them how to do that. So, it's been pretty effective.
MICHELLE: Any thoughts about the presence of firearms by leftists at protests over the last year? What's your assessment of its effectiveness, its impact, the pros and cons of it?
SHEILA: Sure. In Philly, there hasn't been any sort of big, visible presence of firearms at demonstrations, and I don't think that that means that there aren't any there. I think it means that oftentimes if, anarchists, anti fascists or leftists are carrying firearms they're not making any kind of noise about it and they're not trying to show them or use them as a deterrent in terms of their visibility. And the same has been the case during a lot of the 2020 rioting. I think a lot of people were carrying, maybe more than showed up and they just never the firearm never came out. I think that maybe also has to do with how clashes get policed here. And, that there maybe are a lot of guns in Philadelphia in general.
But I think it's hard to weigh in on whether that's effective or not. I think maybe in terms of the individuals carrying and people around them that know that, if there's something empowering or useful or relevant, but in terms of materially how it's played out between different teams clashing, it's super invisible and I don't even know if people are assuming it one way or the other for how much that plays out in terms of people's assumptions about clashes as they take place.
LV: Yeah. I feel like that's a similar story in Los Angeles, too. I would just say the escalation should be on par with what's happening, and I don't think that we're at a point with gun battles or anything like that. I think that it's good to train for whatever and everything, but I personally look back at the Weather Underground and feel like it was sort of biting off more than they could chew and an over-escalation, given the context. I don't really feel like people are doing that. I feel like people are generally within the realm of what's happening and the messaging and kind of, like, what's going on.
So I kind of feel like, how long does it take to train somebody on how to use a firearm? I mean, a military boot camp is, what six weeks or eight weeks or something? Just kind of like a rudimentary one. So if push comes to shove, I feel like people could get trained up really fast. That's just my personal opinion, but I'm glad that people are learning.
MAX: I too am glad that people are learning, because I think specifically where we saw most of the guns were on the far right. Like that was where most of the guns lived during 2020. In our area, we had far-right extremists who were able to walk around with their their concealed weapons permits, and have their guns in their holster. Being able to walk right by law enforcement while giving each other hugs and high fives, you know?
And the truth is that this is where we're at, right? Like they're bringing guns, so then, therefore, we feel like these are all antagonisms and all dialectical, but eventually it does get to that gun battle. We've already lost lives in 2020 due to far-right guns. And then when they used self-defense tactics, they were taken out by the state. We saw what happened to the individual in Washington [Michael Reinoehl].
And so do we see a role with guns? And where are they at? I mean, they're out there. We have to decide how we want to engage in that, and we have to decide and that's really where it is. We talk about defending our joy and organize our rage. Us as communities have to have those conversations with ourselves. Being like, we know that this is coming. We know that this exists. How do we want to do this? How do we want to engage in this? And best prepare in the way that we can. But the truth is that we're training folks up because that's what we're up against. We are up against death, whether that's state violence, far-right extremist violence, or climate catastrophe which, you know, it all leads to our death, and we absolutely have to be willing to defend ourselves.
But it gets there. We have to name that. We have to be willing to name that as a movement. We have to say that out loud. It's going to get to gun battles, and do we want to get to gun battles? I don't think we do. That's not really what our goal is when we say, "housing is a human right. Food for all. Education for everybody." We're not trying to do that at gunpoint, you know? And so, yeah, all I have to say is, just, we have to name it. We have to name that it's a matter of time. It's not even, like, decades off. It's like years off. And we're here now. So...
MELISSA: I just want to add something quick on Texas, speaking of where the guns are, and also a state where you barely need anything to carry a gun I think at this point with constitutional carry. And certainly all the sort of events over the summer and into the fall that I've been following, it seems like the John Brown Club is super present at these counterprotests or demos to visibly block the far-right groups from messing with people in the community, whether that's escorting people to their car or standing in front of a venue to, you know, kind of be a physical block.
Whether or not they're even carrying, they're very much there as a group. So I'm wondering, LV, if that sort of is connected to the things that you were talking about group cohesion. Is there a role to play for these groups? And having those cohesive groups who are ready to roll? In the case of Texas, there are definitely guns present on the side of the far right, openly, so it might be a different dynamic. Certainly it hasn't come to the point yet where people are actually engaged in gun battles, but I think it's sort of — it's not expected. I've seen some very strange responses from the far right to the Elm Fork John Brown Club in particular, weird macho posturing about guns. “Antifa, they can't be macho enough to carry guns.” It seems like on a certain level it messes with them, but on another level, people in community are seeing that there is somebody here who is armed who will walk them to their car or prevent somebody from entering a venue who might harm them.
LV: I just still think that numbers are our biggest strength, and when I think about conflict mediation — and I'm not talking about de-escalating or street conflicts or anything like that, I'm just talking about conflict mediation among our comrades — I feel like the more that I work on that, the more that I realize how much effort and skills and training goes into just getting along with our comrades. And so you'll have a conflict between two different comrades, but it really is a conflict between their friends and other friends and it's a whole constellation of that.
So even just checking in with everybody about what's going on with that conflict is hours and hours of emotional labor. Not to mention thinking through responses to someone's trauma, responses to how to help somebody through all of the different therapeutic or logistical forces that put somebody in a place where they can't resolve a conflict with their comrade.
And I'm not even talking about interpersonal violence, like sexual assault and things like that, which is even more complicated. It takes even more resources. And so when I spend time in the communities I spend time in, radical communities, we don't have any resources around that. It's very taxing. These things are taxing. So when I think about training around guns or something, I feel like, it's totally great and we should all do that. However, we have a gaping wound in our communities that we have not resolved.
We have not organized the resources around solving those kinds of things. And I feel like to me, every project that we start it gets destroyed by interpersonal conflict. And it's just time and time again. And it's like, when are we gonna learn the lesson? For example, we've gotten really good in the revolutionary left around feeding mass groups of people, 500 people or whatever. We know all of the logistics that it takes to get the food, cook the food, like have the recipes, serve the food, all of these different aspects. And yet, when it comes to interpersonal conflict, we don't approach it with that kind of rigor. And that's where I kind of feel like our real effort, the kind of socializing of a military response. That's the kind of social dimension that I think is really important to take seriously when we're talking about queer violence, queer self-defense, I think all of those things.
MICHELLE: I want to focus us in on what we see as the potential for new formations and strategies. People have spoken to this in various ways. LV, you talked about Bash Back being an aborted attempt and project and some of the conflict mediation stuff you were thinking about. Max, you referred a little bit, gestured to a future horizon and the kinds of formations that might be appropriate. I know you have a little bit to say about this, Melissa. So, let's close out in doing a go round in us all speaking to this.
MELISSA: I can start. I feel like everyone's covered a lot of what it takes to build these formations, and that was exactly what I wanted to hear. The sense that, before you're taking up arms, what are you doing to actually strengthen the group? What are you doing to sort of build those resources that people have? It doesn't make any sense to go to that level of escalation if the group isn't connected and caring for each other in a way and doesn't have those resources.
I've been going back and forth. With what I'm seeing, part of me feels like we're in a moment where it's all hands on deck. Lots of strategies are in play. Lots of people are tangling with this question right now. How do you respond when the far right shows up? There is so much institutional knowledge among anti-fascists on how to do that. What I've been seeing over the last couple of months, for example, in Idaho, this was where the Patriot Front showed up in the U-Haul and were arrested before the Pride event. But it ended up almost for the people there, they had a whole other plan that was actually what they were focused on that day, in terms of creating a safe space for folks, having big banners for people trying to record people and things like that.
But it was an interesting moment to watch the 501(c)3 universe of queer and trans life negotiate how do you work with anti-fascist activists and what are we comfortable with? Groups who are mostly just gonna call the cops to report things, realizing that that is not a safe strategy. And I think particularly after 2020 has attuned people to looking for safety outside of policing.
So, it's hard to say I'm optimistic about anything but I’m seeing this as very productive tensions of people working out what tools do we have to respond that aren't law enforcement? What capacities do we have for people who maybe aren't politically aligned with us but are the ones who are showing up and getting it done? Like you were saying in the beginning, the liberals who have never considered anything like direct action or self-defense. Seeing what the need is in their community and seeing who is showing up.
And, you know, if that's folks at the farmers market, which I love, as an entry point. Or people all of a sudden following a zillion anti-fascist researchers on Twitter, which other folks are doing. I think there is a potentially community-building moment on that side.
SHEILA: I think for me what feels most exciting about new formations isn't any specific model or style of organizing. I think that people are getting excited to try to get things done at all is more exciting to me. I don't care if someone starts a gang or an affinity group or a syndicate or whatever. Like any of these specific formation styles are so contextual, and I don't think there is a right one for any one context necessarily, but people thinking through they want to do a specific thing. They want to get together with other people to get it done and how they can do that feels like the most exciting to me or the one that I feel like is gonna be as flexible as it needs to be anyway, and, like, that I look forward to the most.
LV: I sort of outlined some of the things that I feel would be great to see in the next year or few years. I think also in addition to this social understanding of the component of violence, I also just think that loudly proclaiming that violence is a part of our revolutionary imagination, and, yes, self-defense, but also violence does happen. It is part of consequences to navigating conflict, and I think that not shying away from that is important. And I also think that especially for folks that are seeking out a conversation along this are probably folks that are more drawn to building that kind social capacity. So I would just encourage all of us to seek out those folks that have already committed these acts of self-defense, queer violence, other things like that, and are getting caught up in different kind of charges or being doxed by fascists or other things like that. And really think about how we can very, very materially support them in different capacities.
Because I also think that was one of the things that Bash Back was really important for, was when people take those actions, we were there to have their back, unconditionally almost. And so, there were a number of targets that I remember having conversations with people about in the late 2000s where people were like, “that wasn't the target I would have chosen. I don't think that we should support X, Y, or Z.” But like really, we need to be there for each other. People get caught up and the fascists are going to find the most vulnerable among us and take them down and use them as examples for the rest of us. And we need to push back against that at every opportunity.
MAX: The truth is I'm most excited, because that's what we are, y'all. We are in this programmatic, pragmatic stage of, like, what do we do. As a people, not even just, like, as a movement, but, like, as a people. As, again, we try to talk about understanding the devastation around us and we are trying to come up with figuring that out. And I think like, LV, you tapped it right on the head. The most important thing that we need to begin to do is address the gaping wound.
I mean, what we've seen over and over again and I think what, didn't the FBI do a whole report on the Twitter war and the shit talking that people were doing in Seattle? Like they were just watching our Twitter beefs online, and stuff like that. What do we do in the inevitability of conflict, you know what I mean? It is not something that we can ever avoid. Like literally, that's where evolution comes from. You need conflict, even down to a cellular level, in order for change to occur.
And how we actually embrace that stuff, instead of it being something that devastates is something that we absolutely have to get better at. When we talk about another world is possible, when we talk about what a vision looks like and what the world can be, it looks like us being able to affirmatively speak my boundaries and people actively listening to them and back and forth. But until we can begin to mediate the harm that we're causing as we're unlearning all this toxic shit, and we're enacting all these toxic things on each other as we're trying to build towards liberation, then all we're going to do is have to start over again every single time, and it's going to weaken our movement every single time.
And I just want to pop into these questions that I saw real quick, and somebody spoke about, like, what else we do around the existing culture and structures because of concerns of anonymity. Somebody was like, hey, sometimes it prevents folks from getting involved. Something that I would love for us to do in the future is to make ourselves more accessible. To our community. Make our thought processes more accessible to our community. And then for us to name out loud that it takes time to trust-build. It takes time to relationship-build. It takes time to community-build. And so your automatic want to hop into an organization where they're like, "we don't know you" has to be taken kindly, but also this organization needs to be like how are we making this successful? How are we making a space to trust-build with this person, with this community, and vice versa.
Which then will lead us to having conversations about how do we address the gaping wound that is we don't know how to navigate conflict in our movement, you know? And so those are really the two things that I really absolutely feel are the biggest and are in the directions we're going. Even the fact that every single panelist on this call today talked about it means that y'all who are watching this today are probably thinking about it, and, therefore, there are many, many, many people in this movement having this conversation amongst themselves. You can give thanks for that then. I give thanks for that, that we are trying to figure it out, but that's where I think our focus should be, gaping holes and addressing how we allow for community members who are brand new to this to come in and learn and not allow for our fear of being, like, sacrificed to the cops, you know, keep us from teaching people what the fuck security culture is.
MICHELLE: Beautifully said. Well, this was just a magnificent discussion tonight. You all are such brilliant people, and I hope I get to call you all as comrades in the years ahead. So well done. Thank you, everybody. And let's close it out. So, thank you, everyone, for coming tonight. It was just great. A lovely discussion, and I think quite a positive one, both in the kind of opening up the kind of question of violence as something that we can talk about, and speaking at great lengths to sort of all the necessary pieces that have to be there to make it make any sense at all.