Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Anti-fascist, Community Organizing, Critique, Featured, Police, Southeast, White Supremacy
A critical reflection on the antifascist mobilization in Washington DC on December 12 that discusses what went well and what lessons can be built upon in the future.
The first time most people heard of or cared about a “Proud Boy” was in the aftermath of the 2017 Unite The Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA. It was the coming out party for a group that had previously been difficult to take seriously. Afterall, they take their name from a Disney song, they require recruits to list cereal brands while taking punches from their peers as an initiation ceremony, and they appropriated the universal “ok” hand gesture as an “ironic” white power gang sign.
The name is silly, their brand is silly, and that is by design. The group’s messaging is carefully tailored to sound like innocuous (if ironic and edgy) conservatism to the uninitiated, while projecting violent, hyper-nationalist dog whistles to those who are in the know. Even while their membership clamors for more explicitly white supremacist messaging, their token spokespeople of color are used to deflect from accusations of bigotry. And lacking a nuanced view of fascism, many in the corporate media accepted these deflections at face value.
Getting multiple reports that three Trump protesters were stabbed by Proud Boys in DC earlier tonight. The leader of the group, Enrique Tarrio, posted this on the far-Right social media platform, Parler. #DC #ProudBoys #MarchForTrump pic.twitter.com/nWE8A0VhiK
— It's Going Down (@IGD_News) November 15, 2020
As much as Charlottesville was a coming out party, it was also a major public relations black eye. This time, the Proud Boys’ ironic humor was insufficient in concealing their bigotry. Chants of, “Jews Will Not Replace Us” clearly aligned the group with other white nationalist paramilitaries. When Trump was asked to weigh in on the violence the group inflicted in Charlottesville, he famously flipped the script, scapegoating antifa (the far-Right’s boogeyman du jour), prompting even mainstream media outlets to condemn the false moral equivalence. Since that time, the Proud Boys have more clearly defined their role as a paramilitary force that consistently coordinates its membership to engage in targeted street violence against their perceived political opponents.
Appalled by the images of violence perpetrated by Proud Boys and other pro-Trump gangs at the November “Million MAGA Rally” in DC, our affinity group coalesced around a common goal of supporting DC residents in their defense against the organized fascist threat. More conspiracy-fueled far-Right rallies were planned for December 12th, and the Proud Boys were already churning out social media posts and gear featuring barely-concealed threats against the DC community, promising to cleanse the capital of their political enemies.
We set out from occupied Lenape territory on the morning of D12. What follows is a collaborative account of our experiences on the ground, followed by a good-faith analysis of the successes and failures of the mobilization.
Our affinity group arrived in DC just after 11AM on Saturday morning. We checked in at our accommodations. Now approaching noon, the majority of the Proud Boy and MAGA crowd in DC was condensed at the conspiracy-driven “Stop the Steal” rallies being held elsewhere in the city. We walked as a group toward BLM Plaza, where we witnessed a large number of MPD police cruisers, trucks, and traffic barriers, but only a few right-wing demonstrators. Our affinity group dressed inconspicuously and did not draw attention from either the police nor right-wing individuals on the way to the plaza.
We approached from the north, crossing an MPD traffic barrier set up on K Street to join a group of approx. 300 antifascist protesters holding space in BLM Plaza. Of the antifascists, a large majority present were dressed in black, wearing some form of body armor, and carrying a flag or shield. A notable exception were the Refuse Fascism organizers, who dressed in normal street clothes and carried signs with anti-Trump slogans. It was clear that the majority present were militant demonstrators prepared to defend the DC community by any means necessary. The liberal white community who make up so much of DC’s population was conspicuously absent. The Plaza was sparse.
MPD formed police lines at all exits of the Plaza early in the day, penning-in all antifascist demonstrators the moment they entered the space. This was the case upon our arrival, and it presented a complicated reality. Most far-Right demonstrators were kept from entering BLM Plaza where they had previously engaged in vandalism against memorials honoring black individuals murdered by police. But it also left the antifascists defending the Plaza at the mercy of MPD, who could begin making arrests at any time, for any reason, real or imagined. They ultimately did arrest several antifascist demonstrators in the Plaza later in the afternoon.
These concerns aside, the hours we spent in BLM Plaza between approx. 12PM and 4PM were largely uneventful. Exceptions to the calm included 2-3 occasions when a contingent of far-Right demonstrators marched around the perimeter of BLM Plaza, hurling insults and attempting to instigate antifascists to cross police lines for fights. About half of the antifascists would respond to these events by walking up to the police line — at times leaving the Plaza vulnerable.
A few skirmishes broke out during which antifascists were pepper sprayed by MPD, but groups of far-Right demonstrators failed to cross police lines during these confrontations. There were a small number of individual MAGA supporters who passed through BLM Plaza. Some of them livestreaming but posing no immediate physical threat, antifascists responded by shaming them out of the Plaza with free speech.
Aside from these incidents, most of our time was spent conversing with other comrades from DC and the surrounding region, relaying information relating to far-Right movements, far-Right attacks, and arrests as the news came through on live streams and twitter. We also noted any change in number, positioning, and riot gear carried by MPD officers surrounding BLM Plaza. We noticed at least two crews of MPD in crows nests above the action. It was unclear if these teams had weapons or if they were serving in a purely observational capacity.
Despite a lack of significant large-scale assaults, the stagnant energy of a penned-off BLM Plaza, mixed with sporadic attempts by drunk, unorganized Proud Boys to instigate fights left the space in a feeling of tense unease. It’s at this time that we went to get something to eat and sit down for a little while, as we knew things would only get worse after sunset. During the short time we spent regrouping, reports were already appearing online about assaults by Proud Boys on antifascist demonstrators in McPherson Park. While we were not present for this confrontation, another report-back written by comrades from Pittsburgh covers it well.
A 2nd march of counter protesters with “Fuck Off Proud Boys” banner.#DefendDC #DCProtests pic.twitter.com/1cMJNXorDf
— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) December 12, 2020
We got back on the street around 6PM and headed the direction of BLM Plaza. There was a much larger Proud Boy and militia presence throughout downtown. We picked our route carefully, doing our best to avoid obvious fascists. Before reaching BLM Plaza, we saw a black bloc consisting of approximately 60 individuals moving north toward Thomas Circle. Sensing that the streets were not safe and that we needed to join comrades ASAP, we united with the bloc. Led by a “Fuck The Proud Boys” banner, the bloc stopped for a break nearly as soon as we joined.
After several minutes the people’s microphone was used to check readiness and started moving toward BLM Plaza. There were very few pedestrians on the street, even considering the pandemic. Just a few blocks into our march, the bloc encountered a group of Proud Boys who assaulted a few people on the edge of our contingent. After the initial skirmish, antifascists formed a shield wall and the fascists did not know how to break through. The antifascists banged on metal street signs and made noise while the fascists yelled bigoted trash at our bloc. At some point during the confrontation, a firework exploded in the street, which did nothing to shock our formation. After fruitless posturing on the part of the Proud Boys, MPD arrived and formed a bike wall between our group and the fascists.
Well over a thousand Proud Boys now marching through the streets, police only able to disperse them away from individual intersections before they mobilize around #DC #ProudBoys #DefendDC pic.twitter.com/2A8vefrw7Z
— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) December 13, 2020
Now blocked off from the fascists, we changed direction to again move toward BLM Plaza. MPD followed behind us, batton checking those in the back of our formation. This negatively impacted our ability to stay physically unified. A gang of Proud Boys were roughly a block behind us, looking for a route to sneak past the police and find a few antifascists to break off for assault. It was during this time period when the sheer size of the far-Right presence in DC was put into perspective. What we saw earlier was only one small chunk of a force of at least one thousand far-Right, neo-fascist street brawlers roving downtown DC engaging in mass intimidation against residents and brutal physical assault against anyone they perceive as a political enemy.
Everyone kept their eyes open for gangs of Proud Boys, and it was not difficult to spot them. On nearly every intersection, we identified another contingent of fascists only a block or two away from us. We fought off a few isolated attacks to the sides and rear of our bloc while navigating the confusing scene of fascists, antifascists, and MPD that the streets had become. This environment presented a new problem. We could create a strong shield wall against one line of fascists and outperform our numbers. But this strategy is less effective when our opponents attack from multiple sides.
Just a few blocks from BLM Plaza, we were cut off by a group of approximately 400-500 Proud Boys and right-wing street fighters. Fights broke out and antifascist demonstrators fought off fascist attacks as our shield bearers formed a shield wall. Pepper spray was deployed, and at this moment one from our affinity group – along with a few other antifascists – entered the door of a business and began administering medical aid to a person who had been hit with the irritant. According to our comrade, a worker inside the business acted quickly in solidarity with the antifascists, and all were extremely grateful.
Police separate the countering groups in DC, heavily outnumbered by the throngs of people on both sides #DC #MarchForTrump #DefendDC pic.twitter.com/oLtpgKkWIm
— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) December 13, 2020
After the initial assaults at the front of our bloc, MPD formed a bike line separating our groups. Just as we were orienting ourselves to this large contingent of fascists, we heard screams and the sound of bodies crunching against cars and pavement. Another brawl had broken out behind us.
While we were focused on the group of 400-500 fascists, a second, smaller group of Proud Boys crept around the corner to our rear, and stalked our bloc behind a line of parked vehicles that obscured their approach. A member of our group passed through the line of vehicles and witnessed a Proud Boy beating on an antifascist, punching his head and face while the demonstrator was laid out on the curb, struggling to avoid the blows. A comrade intervened, jabbing the fascist attacker with his flag and successfully stopping the assault. However, he was then shoved into a nearby van by another Proud Boy, knocking him to the ground.
The fascists previously assaulting the person on the sidewalk now wanted to punish the comrade. But another antifascist intervened and fought the fascists off until he could get back on his feet and move to the safety of the bloc. In the seconds after this altercation, the antifascist who received the beating – in serious need of care – was dragged off to be treated by medics, and several shield bearers created a secondary flank to resist further attack from this smaller group of fascist combatants.
With the skirmish mostly handled by antifascists, police came in and created a bike line between our bloc and this second, smaller group of Proud Boys to our rear. MPD quickly extended their line of bikes across the width of the street, which put us in an impossible situation. We were sandwiched; a line of MPD and four or five hundred fascists in front of us, and a line of MPD and a couple hundred fascists behind us. Our sluggish movement and insufficient intelligence regarding the location of far-Right extremists ultimately caught up with us. We were trapped.
We tightened up and maintained the shield line facing the larger group of Proud Boys and other far-Right attackers, while the back line was softer and made up of individuals holding flags or holding nothing. The danger was palpable. Everyone in that space knew that it could turn to massacre in an instant. The Proud Boys were thirsty for blood, literally calling for it by the hundreds. We had been fighting off small attacks all evening with success but this was something else entirely. We were outnumbered 10 to 1 and no amount of tactics or grit or luck would save us while we were surrounded. The threat of slaughter from the Proud Boys was so abundantly clear that (for the first time any of us had ever seen) the police turned their backs to a black bloc.
#ProudBoys /Trump supporters get pepper sprayed by MPD, complain to other officers about it and then get sprayed again. #DefendDC #dcprptests pic.twitter.com/w8yKsa7GG9
— Andrew Derek (@itakeshots1) December 13, 2020
After a few tense minutes, we reunited with the member of our affinity group who entered the business at the beginning of the incident. We assessed our injuries – only minor and only affecting two from our group. Our bloc steeled itself in a defensive posture, but the attack wasn’t coming. White shirts were barking orders at rank and file blue shirts. The MPD brass, likely at the behest of the municipal government, had clearly sent a message to supervisors — there was to be no mass slaughter on the streets of the Capitol. The Proud Boys were confused and upset. For the first time, the police were not acting with them in tactical unity. Those who attempted to cross the police line were pepper sprayed by MPD.
At some point around 9PM, more MPD officers arrived and pushed the smaller group of Proud Boys down the block, leaving us a buffer space from which to exit. MPD then escorted our contingent the final few blocks to BLM Plaza where we met with a similar sized group of antifascists still there holding space.
Proud Boys tear down another Black Lives Matter board from the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church #DC #MarchForTrump #DefendDC #ProudBoys pic.twitter.com/ml1TbhV98Q
— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) December 13, 2020
Now back at BLM Plaza, MPD maintained the same police lines they held all day, except now they weren’t allowing antifacist demonstrators to leave the space. We were penned-in again, now with fascist street gangs roaming downtown DC looking for lone BLM supporters, immigrants, LGBT+ individuals, and other marginalized folks to target for their harassment. To the best of our knowledge, the vandalism against two historically black churches occurred during the time we were penned up in BLM Plaza by MPD.
We took time to hydrate and rest in BLM Plaza while planning our next move. One of our group suffered a foot injury during a scuffle, and would be unable to continue marching or defending much of anything without risking more serious injury. After roughly an hour in the Plaza, MPD finally began allowing individuals and small groups out of the western traffic barrier and police line. We took the opportunity and walked back to our accommodations for the night, avoiding any large groups of far-Right vigilantes on the way. We took some time to discuss the day’s events, filling in some of the blanks from when we got split up, and finally turned in for the night.
The events of D12 as they have been reported require a thoughtful reconsideration of the community defense strategies and tactics used by antifascists. The mobilization was, to a large extent, a failure. This is despite the fact that everyone involved acted with the utmost bravery and solidarity with one another. We must own this loss collectively so that we might learn from it and build towards a more effective resistance against fascist violence. In other words, the authors accept any criticism that follows as self-criticism.
A lack of numbers was the most obvious issue we faced on D12. The antifascist contingent never exceeded four hundred city-wide, compared to thousands of far-Right demonstrators, over one thousand who showed up looking to fight. Liberals, progressives, democratic socialists, and organized labor were absent. Only the radical element showed. While it is easy to cast blame on those groups for not showing up, it may be more fruitful to analyze how radicals attempted to recruit from their ranks.
Agitating Liberals & Progressives into Action
We observed antifascist mobilization efforts on Twitter, Instagram, and the It’s Going Down podcast. Most of the attempts to convince non-radicals to show up were framed in such a way to either shame or impart a sense of duty on privileged people. While we understand these perspectives, neither shame nor appeals to duty are particularly good motivators for direct action.
If you come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
– Lilla Watson
Radicals can better agitate less militant groups into action against the looming fascist threat by demonstrating that everyone’s freedom is bound up in the freedom of groups more marginalized than their own. Fascism is an all-consuming totalitarianism that picks off marginalized groups at the edges; pushing others to the edges in the process. It does not just exploit existing prejudices to cleanse the Nation, but creates new ones as it attempts to acquire and consolidate power. Making clear the threat that fascism poses to privileged groups might be a better strategy than buying into the myth that privileged people are “safe” from the fascist menace and therefore would only help marginalized groups out of a moralistic sense of shame or duty. After all, we want accomplices, not allies.
Explore Successful Mobilization Efforts
We would benefit from the careful study of successful organizing and mobilizing efforts, like that of Popular Mobilization PDX (PopMob). PopMob focuses on turning out who they call “everyday antifascists” — less militant, less radical folks who still want to oppose fascist organizing in their communities without necessarily engaging in street fighting or joining a black bloc. These everyday antifascists tie the antifascist movement to the communities they operate in and provide space for more militant actors. In turn, they are often radicalized through the experience of fascist violence.
Coalition with Historically Black Churches
On D12, the Proud Boys crossed a line that they had previously never crossed. They vandalized multiple historically black churches in downtown DC. This is a new development, as the far-Right’s pro-“Christian values” messaging typically guides their membership away from damaging church property. But this time, the rabid anti-blackness of the Proud Boys overwhelmed their interest in maintaining plausible deniability for their bigotry. If only one image remains in the heads of the public after D12, it is the image of DC Asbury United Methodist Church’s Black Lives Matter Banner burning on the street while Proud Boys cheer.
PHOTOS I captured last night: After looting a #BlackLivesMatter banner from Asbury United Methodist Church, the Proud Boys pose with it before setting it on fire outside Harry's Bar in Washington DC. pic.twitter.com/emyRW0YGqj
— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) December 13, 2020
The church remains one of the essential meeting places (and sources of economic and social support) for many black communities in the so-called United States. As such, they must be protected. That neo-fascist groups escalated their intimidation tactics on such a target, requires a response on the part of antifascists. Antifascist organizers who defended BLM Plaza should now reach out to these churches to form coalition against the rising fascist threat. Such a coalition would advance our defense on multiple fronts – (1) strengthening connections to less-radical segments of the community toward an “everyday antifascist” culture, (2) improving our numbers in the street when responding to far-Right mobilizations, and (3) toward the transformative experience inherent to acting in genuine solidarity with one’s neighbors.
Continue the Discourse
We’d be interested in hearing about any other recruitment efforts that DC radicals attempted outside of social and radical media. It’s very possible that more attempts were made to mobilize locally than we are aware of.
A strong shield wall allows a bloc to defend itself even against a foe with superior numbers. Investing time and energy into creating more shields in advance of future actions will significantly benefit antifascist resistance to far-Right fighters in the street. Additional tactics can also be deployed to improve the effectiveness of the shield wall, such as incorporating LED strobes to confuse and disorient an approaching fascist mob. The shield walls were the greatest tactical success of the night and antifascists in DC can only benefit by escalating their use.
There was a strong medic presence, and they responded rapidly to all injuries that occurred. However, some medics were lacking critical supplies such as nitrile gloves. This suggests a lack of funding. You can donate to DC Street Medic Collective (Facebook | Twitter) via Paypal or Social.fund.
The Black Bloc
The black bloc comprised the majority of our contingent. If D12 was an anti-police protest, this could have yielded a significant victory. But successful antifascist mobilizations require numbers, and it’s usually more difficult to turn out numbers when organizers heavily rely on black bloc tactics. The black bloc should be seen as one tool, not the only tool.
The bloc split into multiple groups throughout the night, further exacerbating our problem with low turnout in the process. As described above, it became extremely dangerous, with about 60 antifascists facing hundreds of Proud Boys and becoming “kettled” by cops. In any situation where the far-Right has superior numbers, we would advocate careful deliberation in regard to splitting up a bloc, with that option only being employed when absolutely necessary.
Holding BLM Plaza
The action’s primary goal was to hold BLM Plaza. As a result, it was fairly easy for MPD to contain the militant antifascist response while allowing drunken hordes of far right extremists to terrorize the people of Washington DC. It must be noted that BLM Plaza was created as a state-sanctioned “free speech zone,” and is best understood as a means of controlling left wing protesters.
This was first of a few arrests at BLMPlaza. No one knows reason #DCProtests #DefendDC pic.twitter.com/wrYDz5NI9O
— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) December 12, 2020
Exiting the Plaza and making it to safety was also a bit of a Catch 22. Leaving in large groups would certainly draw the attention of fascist mobs. Conversely, those leaving in small groups were at greater risk of assault if they were spotted. While BLM Plaza holds symbolic value, we should critically examine whether using it as a rallying point helps or hurts our defense of DC’s residents.
The Police Escort
The fact that the MPD escorted a black bloc out of a mob of Proud Boys and back to BLM Plaza is worth highlighting because it is so uncommon for police to act in opposition to far-Right militants trying to harm radical leftists. Exceptions to the rule are often informative in a way that more common behavior isn’t. Some considerations:
We Didn’t Keep Us Safe
We are not exaggerating when we say that about 60 antifascists were facing severe injury and even death when the escort was negotiated. The crowd of Proud Boys was rabid. They were ready to rip us apart limb from limb, and they had the numbers to do it. We were not in the position to protect ourselves, much less the community.
Exploiting Tension Between The State and Far-Right Extremists
Antifascists resist both state violence and violence perpetrated by the far-Right. These are intimately related, but we do ourselves a disservice if we think of our enemies as a unified force with a single cohesive ideology and set of interests. We can more effectively exploit the weaknesses of fascist movements when we understand their complexity and how they interact with the state.
“Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a massed-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” – Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism
Since fascism always relies on an “uneasy but effective collaboration” between various groups, including police, it would be wise for antifascists to highlight the tension between far-Right groups and police. D12 demonstrates that police departments are still responsive to pressure from the civilian government, and that the civilian government (at least in DC) is still responsive to pressure from their constituents. Antifascists should exploit these conditions before the window of opportunity closes.
MPD and All Police Remain Our Enemy
The interests of antifascists (avoiding slaughter) aligned with the interests of MPD (avoiding the bad PR that would come from a slaughter) for 15 minutes on December 12th. Our interests aligning for 15 minutes does not mean the police are any less the enemy of colonized and working people in the United States. Police remain the boots on the ground enforcing the hierarchies of a settler colonial state; brutal enforcers of the organized looting of the riches that all people create for the benefit of a tiny privileged minority.
Police going WILD w/pepper-spray streams on people at jail support. This is START of my video which I turned on after stream began. All weekend they refused to respond this way to violent attacks by Proud Boys but saved for peaceful jail supporters. #DCProtests #DefendDC pic.twitter.com/CanKUAoNvS
— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) December 14, 2020
MPD – like all police forces – routinely arrest antifascist demonstrators after they have been assaulted by far-Right gangs. MPD pepper sprayed a joyous jail support action in DC mere hours after the majority of far right extremists left the city. And DC activists have not forgotten a long summer of harassment at the hands of MPD, including the destruction of $25,000 worth of food and medical supplies in BLM Plaza. Needless to say, we remain committed to full abolition of police and prisons.
The events of D12 do not cast doubt on the prohibition against police collaboration that is widely accepted in the antifascist movement. Instead, it indicates that the use of local pressure campaigns, propaganda, infiltration, and other tactics to sow discord between the factions that constitute the growing fascist threat is still a viable strategy.
Already, on commands by Trump, the Proud Boys and other far-Right groups are planning a rally for January 6th in DC. This will be the third assault on DC in as many months. We have to expect that they will continue to rally until the community comes together in solidarity and prevents them from engaging in mass violence. They will keep showing up until we ruin their “fun” and embarrass them in the streets. Adopting the strategies outlined above will help the DC defeat this organized fascist threat.
We’d like to conclude with a personal message to all DC antifascists — we will stand by your side for as long as you need us. ¡No pasarán!
An autonomous affinity group based in Lenape territory