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May 23, 17

A Year of Organizing The Workers Defense Guard in Vermont

My comrade I were on our way back from New York City when we were contacted by a union sister from UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America). She informed us that Ku Klux Klan flyers had been posted at the homes of two well-known Black political organizers in our town of Burlington, VT. UE was forming a “workers defense guard,” she told us, in anticipation of escalating fascist activity around town. I had only a vague idea of what was meant by this phrase “workers defense guard” and I had doubts about its application. The Left in Burlington was not known to me as being particularly militant.

Tuesday November 3rd, 2015. A comrade and I walked into the Vermont Workers Center (VWC) at around 7pm. The room was full of UE members dressed in all black and wearing serious expressions. UE shop stewards had rallied their co-workers from Local 203 as well as comrades from Local 267 and Local 221. There were no chairs left so I took a seat on a desk. I looked around at the sea of mostly unfamiliar faces. The air in this room, which I had been in countless times before, was suddenly crisp with earnestness.

The room quieted down as a man welcomed everyone to the meeting. He introduced himself as a UE field organizer. “There is only one way to deal with fascists”, he said, “they must be confronted and physically stopped.” The severity of the situation echoed in his voice.

Immediately it was apparent to me what was meant by this phrase “workers defense guard.” As the meeting went on, most of the other voices reverberated with the same sentiment. We decided that we would hold a march and rally downtown in two days to make our intentions toward the Klan known – to make a definitive and public threat to any and all fascists in the city. After the meeting, I was introduced to the organizer who had spoken. Sparing the unnecessary details of our conversation, we agreed that while militant demonstrations against fascists is needed, material self-defense is needed too. That night at a nearby bar some comrades from the earlier meeting created the blueprint for well trained anti-fascist unit capable of conducting itself decisively and proactively.

Thursday November 5th, 2015. Just before 7pm. Some comrades made their way to Church St, the bourgeois retail hub which runs through downtown Burlington. We carried with us two bags of red bandanas which we passed out to our soon-to-be “workers defense guard who donned them as armbands and tied them around their necks. Black pants, a black UE shirt, with a red bandana is the uniform of the UE Young Activists. That night it also became the uniform of the UE Workers Defense Guard. Other union comrades arrived with several picket signs emblazoned with the UE logo and slogans such as “Union Workers Against the Klan,” “Black Lives Matter”, “Smash the Klan”, “Smash Fascism” and so on.

“Good evening UE brothers and sisters!”, someone shouted into a megaphone. “We’re all gonna march in formation to show these fuckers we’re organized and we’re disciplined, so everyone form up! We’re gonna help ya do it!” We positioned our fifty-plus Guards into five tight columns and gave everyone a picket sign. A UE sister at the lead of the procession, took the megaphone and shouted, “What’s the plan?”, we all responded in unison, “Smash the Klan!” We marched. We took a brisk pace. Behind us trailed a larger protest march. Our chant sounded up and down Church St. I ran alongside the march passing out flyers to passersby: “NO KLAN IN VT. UE WORKERS DEFENSE GUARD.” We stopped in front of city hall at the end of the street. A rally was held there with speakers from different anti-racist groups. A member of one the Burlington UE Locals read our statement. She proclaimed our purpose loud and clear over the PA system by addressing the fascists directly: “If you start something, the union will finish it. Get out of town as fast as you can. You are on our turf now.”

Workers Defense Guard (WDG) was born. We spent the next twelve months knocking on doors, distributing our political program, holding political education events, hosting a monthly “free community and neighborhood breakfast,” providing security to street demonstrations, queer dance parties, and Black Lives Matter meetings etc, all while developing a lengthy and detailed constitution, painstakingly hammering out our political positions both as individuals and as an organization, and having bi-weekly combat trainings. We quickly became a dues funded organization with autonomy from UE. WDG sought to lead by militant example but also to organize our community, creating spaces for workers in our neighborhood – the Old North End of Burlington – to socialize, learn together, and agitate together.

The following journal entries have been compiled in order to provide an overview account of WDG’s 18 months of existence -the contradictions, naivete, courage, and ingenuity. It would not be possible to give an account of every event, every protest, every confrontation, every internal debate in the space of these excerpts. I will share a few entries which highlight the overall nature of our group. My hope is that the lessons I have gleaned from my experience with the Guard can be of use to revolutionists and anti-fascists generally in the struggles to come.

Tuesday November, 17th 2015. Anti-fascism is not activism, it’s a turf war. Sometimes it’s a cold war. An Antifa group is not a “social justice” organization, it’s a street organization. We must move past liberal deviations while keeping with the principles of the United Front -rejecting sectarian distinctions in favor of strategic ones. Workers Defense Guard is the first of its kind in Vermont. Already a simmering controversy surrounds us. Pacifism and the NGO Left predominate here like nowhere else I’ve ever been. We have our work cut out for us in the task of pushing for greater militancy and leading people further to the Left.

Last night at our weekly meeting, we met with someone from the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV). He was introduced to us by a WDG member who had immigrated to the United States from West Africa. The community breakfast we did on the 15th was pretty successful considering we did very little door knocking. About thirty people showed up and had an open discussion about gentrification and police in the neighborhood.

Wednesday November 24th, 2015. Montpelier, Vermont. A far-Right group called Vermonters First received a city permit to demonstrate at the capitol building. They were protesting against Syrian refugees being allowed into Vermont. WDG attended in support a counter-protest which had been organized by some community members. When we arrived across the street from the capitol there was no sign of the Rightists. As the counter-protest of several hundred marched over, we found that only three of the Rightists had shown up. They were interviewed by a couple local news stations. Counter-protesters surrounded them and began chanting “Refugees are welcome here!” A few of the Guards intervened in the media’s attempt to interview them.

Wednesday December 2nd, 2015. Today WDG went to St. Albans to support a protest organized by Black Lives Matter VT. The protest was called for in response to discipline policies at the local high school which disproportionately targeted students of color. The protest took place on a street corner across from the high school right as classes were getting out for the day. Every so often a car would pass by and the driver would yell “white power!” out the window. A pickup truck drove by flying a confederate flag from the truck bed. It stopped at a red light near the protest. A protester said to one of the high school kids who was standing with us, “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you can get me that flag.” The kid got his twenty bucks.

Tuesday December 15th, 2015. WDG held our 2nd monthly community breakfast on the 13th after a more rigorous canvassing drive in the neighborhood. It went well and participation in the conversation was enthusiastic. The Guards spend most of our time doing turnout for the community breakfast, canvassing with literature, and networking with other groups with whom we seek alliances. This requires almost daily door-knocking blitzes, phone banking, and meetings on top of planning meetings, wrapped in more meetings. Coordinating all of our members and seeing to it that tasks are completed as assigned is its own set of internal work on top of everything else.

In addition to weekly membership meetings, we also conduct combat trainings for our members twice a week. The trainings start at 8:30pm and can go quite late. Twice a week is already not enough as it is, so we take advantage of the time we do have. The only space large enough to which we have secure access is a dimly lit garage. A small kerosene heater in the corner provides us with little relief from the harshness of the Vermont winter. Getting members to show up for trainings has proven difficult although a core group remains consistent.

Wednesday December 23th, 2015. Yesterday the pigs raided the home of man named Kenny Stephens who lived in the Old North End. They murdered him immediately upon entering the house. They also shot up the entire street in the process. A next door neighbor showed me the metal hinge from his closet which had been inches from his head when it was hit by a police bullet. Tonight members of WDG, Rising Tide, Vermont Workers Center (VWC) and others from the community organized a march in response. About forty of us gathered on the sidewalk across the street from Kenny’s house in front of the cemetery on North St. We marched at around 10pm. It was raining. And cold. Our Anarchist comrades headed up the march with a banner that read: “REMEMBER THE DEAD. FIGHT FOR THE LIVING. BLACK DECEMBER.” Pigs in unmarked cars drove aggressively around us, attempting to contain the march to only one lane of the street. WDG comrades were able keep both lanes. Our Anarchist comrades in the lead snaked us back and forth between residential side streets and the downtown business district in order to throw off our escorts. We ended at the police station. Most people left at that point.

Monday December 29th, 2015. Last night WDG accompanied a demonstration in downtown Burlington called for by Black Lives Matter activists in response to the news that no charges would be filed against the pig who murdered twelve year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. People were already gathered at city hall when the Guards arrived. It was bitingly cold, and the wind picked up. “I wanna do something that’s gonna make people stop, and fuckin pay attention!” someone shouted emphatically as we were discussing what to do. The group walked into the adjacent intersection – Main St – and stood across it, blocking traffic and chanting. The Guards redirected cars to make a U-turn back up Main St. Many drivers were willing, some were not so willing. A few cars got passed us. I was sideswiped multiple times. One car sped up and stopped just short of hitting a protester. We dealt with the driver. He decided that he ought to turn around after all. Another driver ran his car into a group of protesters. One person jumped onto the hood, others tried to open the passenger and driver side doors, while others were pounding on the roof and yelling for him to turn around. Several pigs showed up with rubber bullet guns and forced protesters out of the street. WDG did our best to stay between the pigs and the people. The protesters retreated and marched up Church St chanting “Black lives matter!” before dispersing back at city hall.

Thursday January 8th, 2016. Donald Trump held a rally in Burlington last night. Representatives from various organizations with widely differing political orientations met in the days prior to plan a counter-demonstration. Needless to say that meeting was a bit of a shitshow. WDG’s initial plan was to organize to a large picket at the entrance of the venue, manned and defended by the Guard. However a hole in this plan emerged after a meeting which took place the night before. The box office workers at the venue are part of UE. Because of WDG’s affiliation with UE, our blocking the venue’s entrance would be grounds for their management to file an Unfair Labor Practice suit, claiming that the union was staging an illegal strike. While we are not at all opposed to illegal strikes or the appearance thereof, the fact remains that those particular workers had no part in organizing the counter-demonstration and were not interested in striking. It was a point of contention whether or not we should picket anyway. My position was that we should. Another WDG comrade disagreed and we debated on what was to be done for several hours. I lost the argument. My comrade correctly argued for the UE commitment to rank-n-file unionism: the workers must make their own decisions and act on their own behalf.

The counter-demo was a march from the top of Church St into the Main St intersection in front of the Flynn. About a-hundred-fifty people gathered up and marched. The lead banner was again made and carried by some of our Anarchist comrades: “NATIONALISM IS FASCISM”. As we reached the Main St intersection, we found that the pigs had set up interlocking metal barricades all along the street, blocking our way. We were relegated to one half of the street. Looking back, it was a mistake that WDG didn’t just remove the barricades and take the entire street. On the other side of the barricades were thousands of Trump supporters. Shouts, chants and taunts were exchanged back and forth. A few people were able to get inside and heckle during Trump’s speech. They were promptly removed by the pigs. A few Rightists came over to the counter-demo, apparently to harass some Socialists who were selling their group’s newspaper. The Guards confronted them and forced them to stop. The incident was referenced by vaguely by the socialist group’s newspaper afterward.

Monday February 18th, 2016. WDG is what has been missing from the Left in Vermont. We are not only vocally revolutionary but also explicit about exactly what that means as outlined in our ideological and political programs: “Therefore, we workers, union and community members, join together into the Workers Defense Guard. The purpose of this organization is to fight racism, white supremacy, fascism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and the organized forces of the employers including the police and the state. We hold that armed self-defense and direct action are necessary to defend and advance the interests of the working class.” (From the preamble to the WDG constitution) We are prepared, trained and not squeamish about confrontation. Most notably what sets us apart from other Leftist groups in the area is that we are a completely member funded, member run organization made up of rank-n-file workers. I am surprised and disappointed by many Burlington Leftists in their response to us. They look nostalgically upon Black Panthers and applaud the YPJ/YPG, they are inspired by the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, yet they are extremely hesitant about WDG in their own city, on their own streets.

It’s always easier to be a hypothetical militant, a rhetorical revolutionary. It’s easy to tout the slogan “From Baltimore to Burlington” when you think you never have to worry about it getting “to Burlington.” But being a revolutionist is not easy. It is an unceasing effort that requires unceasing dedication. The Guards must be thusly dedicated. Being a member of WDG means following through on your words, linking theory to practice every day. WDG is a chance for Leftists in Burlington to uphold their slogans materially. Having created this chance, we can now clearly see who is a revolutionary and who is an opportunist. We regret the absence of many whom we once called comrade. We remember the hollow timbre of their voices upraised in songs of proletarian revolt. I guess they just liked the melody. In any case, bold talk should lead to bold action, otherwise it’s only boisterous complacency.

Wednesday March 9th, 2016. WDG has high standards and expectations for our members. Requirements for membership are strict. There is good reason for this; discipline must be maintained within our ranks. Without discipline we cannot operate efficiently or decisively. However we must remain clear that our non-member supporters are valued and necessary. Many of our supporters assist us with canvassing, putting on the monthly community breakfast, and sometimes even with security work. We’ve considered forming an official Guards Auxiliary for active supporters but some of the Guards believe that this would make recruiting actual members more difficult. The concern is that since a lower ask alternative would be available and far easier to join, prospective Guards would be dissuaded from seeking formal membership. What we need now are more committed members so that we can better engage in the formidable workload to which we’ve set ourselves.

Thursday March 24th, 2016. Last night after WDG had finished conducting a self-defense briefing at the VWC office for an upcoming event, a brick was thrown through the office’s large plate-glass storefront. On two dumpsters in the building’s parking lot was spray painted the words “Blacks” and “Latinos.” We had already left the office when the incident occurred and we didn’t hear about it until the next day. Two of the Guards including myself were away from Burlington on other organizing business. We immediately headed back and convened an emergency meeting. VWC, Migrant Justice, and UE held a joint press conference on the sidewalk in front of the shattered storefront at which the Guards provided security.

Contained in the VWC space is an office rented by UE Local 203 and Local 221. We therefore considered the incident to be an attack on the union. We conducted an independent investigation as to whom was responsible for the attack and convened a subgroup to formulate a response. Our public response was a poster which we put up around town calling for neighbors to defend themselves against fascist aggression. This poster brought much of the simmering controversy surrounding WDG to a boil in a display of cynical cowardice from the Left-opportunist nonprofit types in Burlington.

Thursday May 26th, 2016. Forty-thousand Verizon Wireless workers are on strike across the country. WDG and other groups in Burlington have volunteered to do solidarity pickets at Verizon store locations while the strike lasts. The Guards have been doing weekly pickets at the South Burlington location. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) which represents the striking Verizon workers, sent out requirements for solidarity picketing–they are strictly informational pickets and we are not to block the entrance etc. We just stand, passing out flyers on either side of the entrance, holding CWA strike signs and telling people to take their business elsewhere.

After a couple hours of this, the pigs show up and tell us to leave. We can usually stall them for half an hour or so. Then we relocate to the sidewalk at the busy Williston Rd intersection and walk between lines of cars stopped at the red light, passing out flyers to drivers. Today at our picket, the the pigs came quickly – the same two as the week before. One of them recognized us and acted as though he was personally offended that we had ignored his warning not to return. All of us were issued notices of no trespass which prohibited us from setting foot on the property for the next six months under threat of arrest. We refused to sign the notices or answer any questions.

Monday June 6th, 2016. We have recently been discussing the idea of starting up a WDG chapter in New York City where some of our members live part-time. A New York City chapter would have national visibility and would be able to grow more quickly in membership as well as scope of work.  Chapters in major cities across the country, each coordinated with the others, could be the basis of a mass working-class revolutionary organization. Workers across the country could learn to fight, defend themselves, organize, and prepare for the ultimate struggle against the bourgeois state and its pigs. Workers Defense Guard could serve not only a defense purpose but a political one. It could be the vehicle through which the oppressed of this country wage the decisive battles for their liberation. Our vision is both optimistic and historically evident; above all it is absolutely necessary. Capitalism is killing us. Revolution is a matter of life and death.

It is imperative that we grow the organization, recruit more members, and expand geographically. If we are unable accomplish this we will not be able to sustain our rising volume of organizing and defense work. The immediate recruitment pool for working-class revolutionaries in Burlington is very small. The nonprofit-opportunist-complex has done a thorough job of pacifying the Left and narrowly restricting discourse on what is possible.

Monday July 8th, 2016. If and when WDG disbands, we will have to assess what form we ought to take next. Most likely at this point, the Guard will be absorbed back into UE and function as a sort of flying squad, still doing security work but no longer a formal organization with its own autonomy. It is becoming clear that we have neither the resources, nor the external support, nor the internal cohesion to continue on as we have been. The goals we started with are still the same – organizing the neighborhood, kicking out the pigs, and taking shit over for the people. However I no longer have confidence that WDG will be the method by which we carry out this insurrection. In the streets, we can handle ourselves. We’ve punched significantly above our weight class in more than one sense. But boldness alone doesn’t make a functioning political organization. Without the right personnel, and more of them, we cannot maintain the heavy load of our day to day operations.

*Around this time WDG did in fact suspend its constitution, points, of discipline, formal membership and all other documents of internal governance. We became again the “UE Workers Defense Guard”, a flying squad for the union’s Leftist political wing known as the UE Young Activists. We continued doing security work and holding political education events.**

Friday July 30th, 2016. Group discipline is only possible when a group’s individual participants have developed their own discipline through their own experience. Discipline is not simply a policy which can be enacted; it is a character trait cultivated through suffering and reflection. Those members of WDG experienced with precarious political activity, logistics coordination, and good follow through were able to demonstrate effectiveness in those areas. Those who were less experienced in these areas, at least in a context like WDG, were not as effective as members. This simple problem created more complex ones. Work which had failed to be carried out by its assigned member fell onto the shoulders of a small handful who became responsible for almost every aspect of the organization. I see this partially as a failure on the part of our key organizers and leaders. People must be given the tools to build themselves up before they can rise to the occasion. If a person isn’t made to feel capable by the group, it’s less likely that they will prove so in executing their responsibilities as a member. If a person isn’t self-disciplined, it’s unlikely that they will be able to adapt to group discipline, regardless of the group’s official protocol.

Sunday August 7th, 2016. WDG was requested for security at a Black Lives Matter VT picnic today in the park across the street from the VWC. We had three Guards posted on shifts at different points around the park and two assigned to mingle, having conversations with folks from the neighborhood. Every half hour we switched off who was on security and who was talking to neighbors. An old white man stood across the street during the first part of the picnic holding a sign that said “ALL LIVES MATTER.” The organizers of the event asked us not to directly engage him unless he crossed the street and entered the park, which he did not. The man also held an American flag colored grey with one of the stripes colored blue to signify the so-called “blue lives matter” movement in support of police. “Blue lives matter” is known to be organized by neo-Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. The Guards could have dispensed with his presence easily but after some debate it was decided to respect the wishes of the event organizers.

Monday November 14th, 2016. Immediately following the election of Donald Trump, some of our old enemies and a few new ones began making themselves more visible in Burlington. The fascists have been emboldened through the recent rise of the so-called Alt-Right. But human history is the history of struggle, and increasingly ordinary people are becoming anti-fascists. WDG comrades have been contacted numerous times since election day inquiring about how to get involved, how to join us, with a few even asking for assistance in starting their own groups. We have begun creating the foundation of our new form; not a formal membership based organization, but a kind of network, a decentralized mechanism for mobilizing and organizing the workers of Burlington against the growing fascist threat. Different crews, different social circles, united by a common purpose.

Tuesday November 15th, 2016. Yesterday WDG comrades did security for a Black Lives Matter VT meeting at the Oak 45 bar on Main St in Winooski. I stood at the door with three Guards while the others were posted inside. Outside, we spoke with several anti-fascists who asked how they could join WDG. After the meeting, everyone gathered in a nearby park and marched up Main St – about three-hundred in total. No drivers showed any aggression or attempted to block our way this time. The pigs didn’t show up until halfway through and the few who did were completely ignored by the crowd. WDG comrades were posted on all sides of the march facing the police, as is our protocol for street demonstrations. We got several contacts for our new anti-fascist initiative which we’ve begun organizing in the wake of Trump’s election. We are getting organized, we are getting prepared.

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