Filed under: Action, Anti-fascist, Northeast
Action report from antifascists in the Hudson Valley against a local neo-Nazi.
by the Hudson Valley Antifascist Network
On June 13, 2020, the Hudson Valley Antifascist Network (HVAN) took to the streets to protest outside the apartment of Keith Hayes, an open white supremacist who for months has been flying a Nazi flag in the window of his apartment at 776 Main Street in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The flag first caused controversy when it appeared in the window in September 2019. It was removed shortly after making the headlines, without its owner being publicly identified. But when the flag re-appeared in the window last December, HVAN decided to take action.
As antifascists, we could not let the flag stand. While fascists are fond of invoking their “freedom of speech,” freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism, or freedom from consequences of that speech. On the contrary, denouncing what the flag stands for is our freedom of speech. To claim that speaking out against fascism infringes on fascists’ First Amendment rights is not a valid argument, because antifascists are not a government making laws about what people are legally permitted to say.
But framing the issue as a matter of abstract debate or legal rights obscures the far more important issue. The swastika is a symbol of a violent, racist movement targeting our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. The public display of this symbol is not merely an act of distasteful self-expression, but an attempt to normalize an ideology whose aims are to bring harm and death to real people in the real world on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other identities. Trying to reason with fascists is a waste of time — and worse yet, legitimizes fascism by granting it a platform to present itself as a mere difference of opinion. As one famous antifascist put it, “Fascism is not to be debated, it is to be destroyed!”
HVAN, therefore, works to make it as difficult as possible for fascists to publicly express their hate and get together with other fascists to translate that hate into organized violence. Antifascism is one component of what we call community self-defense, which refers to the practice of bringing communities together to defend against threats and attacks on any of their members, without relying on police or politicians to handle these matters. We organize communities to take matters into their own hands because direct action in solidarity with those under attack is the most reliable way to keep fellow community members safe. Though violent oppression does not target us all equally, we all struggle under the imbalances of power in capitalist society; coming together through collective direct action allows us to shift that balance of power and fight back in the class war being waged against us all.
Community self-defense means letting no act of hate go uncontested. In our view, if we fail to stop the momentum of fascism when it’s one isolated crank flying a Nazi flag in their window, we risk letting their ideology enter the mainstream. When an ideology becomes a movement, they can take advantage of opportunities to get together and attack members of our communities. We incur a huge risk downplaying the seriousness of fascist ambitions, because when words turn into mob and state violence, it will be much harder to keep ourselves, our friends and our neighbors safe. This is not some hypothetical scenario; in fact, state-sponsored ethnic cleansing is precisely what fascists openly advocate.
HVAN’s chief objective is to deplatform — in other words, to make it as difficult, uncomfortable, and costly as possible for fascists to publicly express their hate. In this case, deplatforming meant getting the flag to come down, identifying its owner, and showing fellow travelers that there will be consequences if they are outed as white supremacists. Though there was never any guarantee we would fully achieve these specific objectives, we recognized that saying nothing and doing nothing would only aid the fascist cause.
We started by contacting property manager Chris Orefice to inform him that the flag was back up, and to find out who lived in the apartment. When we called, Orefice seemed concerned and apologetic, but ultimately did not make the tenant take the flag down — even though he has claimed it is a lease violation to hang anything in the window except for curtains, a violation the then-unnamed tenant had previously been warned about. Orefice tried to downplay the situation by describing the tenant, whom he declined to name, as “low-functioning” and “not much of a threat.” Whatever the validity of these claims, we pressed on, recognizing the potential of the flag to bring Nazism into the mainstream and inspire others.
In February of this year, when Mid-Hudson News published a news story identifying the occupant of the apartment as Keith Hayes, HVAN went to work posting flyers in the neighborhood and on our Facebook Page warning the neighborhood of the presence of someone to watch out for, and urging people to call Orefice, demanding he evict Hayes over the repeated lease violation. We had hoped that the public association of Orefice’s property management company with a Nazi would be enough for him to cave to our demand. While the flyers didn’t go unnoticed (several of them were found defaced — interestingly, with Keith Hayes’s name scratched out), the pressure campaign on Orefice did not bear fruit. We then decided to escalate our tactics and picket outside Keith Hayes’s apartment building.
There were several objectives we hoped to achieve by escalating our campaign. Handing out our flyers at a picket would bring more attention to the situation, alert a greater number of people about Hayes, and ratchet up the pressure on both Hayes and Orefice. While landlords could not legally evict tenants at the time of the picket due to the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, giving Orefice more bad press could pressure him to not renew Hayes’s lease, an action which he has said is his “only recourse.” Furthermore, a picket would give us a platform to connect with the community, demonstrate what antifascists actually do, and provide a model for others to replicate.
Not knowing what Hayes was capable of, HVAN began building a coalition to maximize our numbers and safety on the day-of. Apart from the issue of safety in numbers, HVAN strongly believes in reaching out to the broader community because we are not a cadre organization that does antifascist work for people. Rather, we do antifascist work with people, teaching others the skills needed to take collective direct action themselves and stamp out fascism in their neighborhood.
Understanding that police and media would only make matters worse for us, we decided to reach out only via private communication with friends and comrades, rather than promote the event on public platforms like Facebook. By publicizing only through word of mouth, and by sharing information on a strict ‘need-to-know’ basis, we prevented leaks giving our opposition time to mount an effective counter-response.
Since this action could result in serious consequences for everyone involved, our coalition agreed on some basic ground rules. On the day-of, everyone would wear face masks and refrain from using real names in order to protect ourselves from being identified by police, fascists, or other adversaries. The normalization of mask-wearing due to the ongoing pandemic would certainly help our group appear less conspicuous. We agreed not to do black bloc in the sense of a collective tactic (that is, all dressing in black to make it difficult for any one person in a group to be identified and singled out); we figured it more important to be able to talk to people easily.
In order to be prepared for every possible outcome, we assigned roles. In case of a police approach, we tasked a police liaison with de-escalating the interaction and explaining that our activities were entirely legal. In case of arrest, we had an off-site legal liaison designated to contact our lawyer, and we made sure all participants had the liaison’s phone number written in permanent marker on their forearm. We designated another person to take photos and film interactions with police and/or Hayes, and asked everyone else to leave their phones behind. This would make it harder for us to be tracked, and would prevent police from getting a hold of our phones if arrested.
We had several participants working the security role, keeping an eye on different critical points in the vicinity. We assigned a participant to de-escalate with Hayes in case he tried to threaten or harm us. If de-escalation failed, we had street medics ready to step in. To pull all our efforts together, we designated a marshal to direct people where to go and keep everyone together, coordinated, and safe.
Though we prepared for the worst, we were not looking to get arrested or hurt in order to maintain the high moral ground. We agreed that the best course of action if threatened by the police, Hayes, or other fascists would be to end the picket and walk away.
On the day-of, our coalition of 23 people met at a rendezvous point approximately a 15-minute walk down Main Street. Once everyone had arrived, we began to march together towards 776 Main Street with signs and banners denouncing Nazism, fascism, and white supremacy. When we arrived, we took our positions on both sides of Main Street.
Almost immediately, we noticed a man on a hill across the street from the building taking pictures of us, and our police liaison went to talk to him to ascertain if he was a police officer. Though the man denied being a cop, there was at least one police cruiser parked on the hill for the duration of our picket, as well as several in the back of Hayes’s building. Several other unknown persons were spotted taking pictures of us as well.
As we picketed, we received overwhelming support from passersby, who were largely unaware of a Nazi flying a swastika flag in the neighborhood. We shouted out Keith Hayes’s name and address to cars driving by, pointing to the building and announcing that an avowed Nazi lived there. We talked through the flyer with people walking by, explaining that unlike fascists, we antifascists are not organizing against our opposition for who they are. Rather, we said, we are organizing against what they are doing. Our slogan: “No Nazis in our neighborhood,” meant we were giving Nazis a choice: they can stop advocating for the organized murder of members of our community, or they can go find another community to live in.
By providing HVAN’s contact information on the flyer, we gave people a way to reach out and get involved. We chose to fly an “Antifascist Action” flag to send the message that this kind of good work is exactly what “antifa” is all about. This was especially important considering how antifascist organizing is currently under unprecedented attack by the state.
Not everyone appreciated our picket, however. We were repeatedly approached by a person of color claiming to be a friend of Keith’s who insisted that Keith is a “good man,” and that free speech means Keith has the right to express himself (but that we presumably didn’t have that same right). At one point, he took one of our flyers, only to burn a hole through it with his cigarette lighter and throw the flyer at the feet of one of our members. He then proceeded to give us the Nazi salute before walking away for the last time. Later, a white woman, presumably a resident of the building, came downstairs and claimed that Keith only flies the Nazi flag in his window because, “his grandfather fought in World War II.”
Keith Hayes was home during the picket and noticed what was going on. At one point he came downstairs to walk his dog, hoping he wouldn’t be recognized, but was pointed out by one of our members who had once met him. We used the opportunity to take photos of Hayes, which we later added to our flyers and social media. This was a lucky break since up until this point, we did not know what he looked like. We also took photos of his personal vehicle, a silver Ford F150, license plate NY JRL-2014. Identified and outnumbered, Hayes hurried back towards the front door of his building with his dog as we loudly demanded he either remove the flag, or remove himself from our neighborhood.
“I have boxes I can donate, Keith! It’ll make your move nice and easy!,” shouted one HVAN member.
“Take the swastika down, man, take it fucking down!,” yelled another.
“Freedom of speech,” Hayes replied laconically as he slammed the front door. A few minutes later, Hayes came back out and left, wearing different clothes, presumably an attempt to evade our detection.
We suspect Hayes called the police on us because shortly thereafter, our picket marshal observed that the police officers who had been staking us out in the back of the building were gearing up for an approach. Seeing that our objectives had been met, our marshal made the call for the group to walk back to the rendezvous point in order to avoid a risky and unnecessary interaction with police in which we may have been questioned, detained, or tracked. All 23 of us arrived back at the rendezvous point safely and quickly dispersed, saving our debrief for another time.
Regrettably, the flag still stands. Though we knew this picket might not immediately force Hayes to take the flag down, we did succeed at informing people about the situation, connecting with the community, demonstrating how antifascist work is done, and not ceding Hayes an unchallenged platform. But our work is not yet done. HVAN continues its work deplatforming Keith Hayes using direct action to pressure him and his landlord. And we continue to research fascists operating in the Hudson Valley region of New York to make it impossible for them to organize in our communities. No Nazis in our neighborhood!
Contact the Hudson Valley Antifascist Network with tips about local white supremacists, or about how you can get involved in our work!