On March 15th, we witnessed the horrific and brutal massacre of 50 people and the violent injuring of 50 more in New Zealand at two mosques. This comes months after the Pittsburgh massacre and the discovery of numerous plots of white nationalists within the military to engage in similar attacks. Wanting to get a clearer picture of what this means for communities organizing against white supremacy and fascism, we caught up far-Right researcher and antifascist, Spencer Sunshine.
IGD: What are the main takeaways from the massacre in New Zealand?
Spencer Sunshine: Unfortunately these attacks are depressingly common, but here are some thoughts:
1) While our hearts go out to New Zealand’s Muslim community, we shouldn’t look at this as just targeting them—just as we can’t look at the 2018 Pittsburgh massacre as just targeting Jews or 2015 Charleston massacre as only targeting the black community. Nazis and other White Nationalists target a huge range of people, including: black folks and all other people of color; religious minorities, including Muslims & Sikhs; both religious and secular Jews; feminists; immigrants and refugees; Communists, socialists, and anarchists; antifascists; LGBTQ people; interracial couples—as well as anyone who stands in their way or stands up to them, including white, Christian, cis-het men. They are at war with almost everybody in our communities. Here, truly, and injury to one is an injury to all.
2) We need to look more seriously at how we can target people who enable the spread of those fascist ideas that inspired the massacre—specifically, here, those who make it possible for 8chan to stay on line. The shooter’s manifesto makes clear that his mindset was carefully cultivated by participation in this internet bubble, and the action was specifically oriented to them as an audience.
3) We need to reaffirm our commitment to pushing back against Islamophobia, which has become widespread in society in a way, for example, that was unimaginable even five years ago in the United States. In a sense, Muslims are acting merely as one of innumerable “others” to be scapegoated, but we have to break through the conditioning of those who have become infected with this propaganda.
— spencer sunshine (@transform6789) March 18, 2019
IGD: In Truthout in 2017, you wrote that Islamophobia is the glue that binds much of the far-Right together, much like anti-Communism once did. In a time when support for Trump is waning, can you explain how this is true across the far-Right spectrum?
SS: If we look at the far-Right as everything from Trumpist Republicans to neo-Nazis, we see tons of fractures on different issues—such as Jews and Israel, gay men, and economics. Islamophobia is one of only a handful of issues that there is across-the-board support for on the far-Right. This allows the more sophisticated propaganda produced by mainstream actors (for example, the “Great Replacement” idea that inspired the perpetrator) to be utilized by those on the most extreme end. It also helps those extreme factions feel like they have an issue with widespread support, which can potentially garner a mass base.
IGD: We’ve seen people on the political far-Right make the argument over and over again that “Islam is a political ideology,” yet then turn around and then make race based arguments about not wanting refugees into “Western countries.” What do we make of this?
SS: Racists will utilize any argument that can get, and have no concern for consistency. (That’s why the liberal strategy of factchecking them to death will never work.) The “Islam is a political ideology” argument is important for several reasons: one, it gives rightists who otherwise would respect the freedom of religion—including those who praise the Constitution, like the militias and Patriot movement—free reign to attack them. It also vilifies all Muslims, instead of targeting “radical Islam”—which, while it plays divide-and-conquer by dividing people in “good” and “bad” Muslims, does not target all Muslims as such. Some bigoted narratives affect more of the targeted group than others.
IGD: After Unite the Right, groups like Act for America cancelled a series of rallies for fear of mass backlash. Where are these groups now? Do they still have the ability and the desire to hit the streets?
SS: I am not an expert on the current Islamophobic organizing, but it appears to me that since these groups have the ear of the administration, they are not spending so much time in the streets. The big June 2017 demonstration attracted many white nationalists, and post-Charlottesville that would not be a good look for Islamophobic groups that currently have mainstream access. The White Nationalists have more to gain by their links to the mainstream than the other way around.
We should also work harder to understand the actions and influence of Islamophobic organizers. While these groups are monitored as well, usually by projects in the Muslim community, their monitors tend to have limited interaction with the monitoring circles that look at the Alt-Right and White Nationalists. We should try to bring the monitors into closer alignment so we can incorporate each others work.
IGD: As you and others have written, the white nationalist, far-Right and Alt-Right camps seem to be splitting. Identity Evropa (recently rebranded the American Identity Movement) wants to double down on becoming college Republicans, others like Richard Spencer want to get involved in #Yang2020 to ride out the current post-Cville backlash, while others are promoting a post-mass movement “lone-wolf” approach. How can antifascist and anti-racist organizers mobilize and defend against a movement that is growing to embrace “SIEGE”-like tactics?
SS: In the 1980s and ‘90s, there was also a wave of “lone wolf” and “leaderless resistance” attacks. These attacks are difficult to prevent then, and the internet is far more developed now than it was then in terms of access and anonymity. Meanwhile, the counter-far-Right tactics that antifascist and other community-based groups use were originally created to deal with public demonstrations, street gangs, and print publications.
Something antifascists need to take into account in their analysis is that they are operating at the same time as a number of other groups are taking action against the far-Right. This includes those who deploy liberal strategies, like the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, which targets the 2017 Unite the Right organizers and is causing chaos in their ranks. Law enforcement has shown that it will—at least in cases of bombings and murder—stop imminent attacks or at least make arrests afterward. And this is aside from the legal grassroots groups that put community pressure on fascists, as well as tech and other companies that are de-platforming or firing fascists, without being legally forced to.
This situation isn’t going to change, but we should openly recognize it in our analysis. So, unless there are new strategies, antifascists should do the things that they do best, and that the others are unlikely to do: target the White Nationalist infrastructure, map their networks out, and attempt to neutralize their activists. “Lone wolves” may act by themselves, but they get politicized and motivated in a community (whether it is digital or IRL). The New Zealand massacre perpetrator was playing to a crowd: his shit-eating grin was a victory sign to his 8chan buddies. We need to make sure that crowd can’t assemble.
On a larger level, we need to work with other parts of the society to help make fascism out-of-fashion again, and that’s a cultural and educational project. Fascism is a wrong-headed response to real problems in modernity and contemporary society. Fascists address a “sense of loss” they see as pervasive in the West: there is a lack of community, no sense of belonging, and a failure to have a meaningful existence outside of making money. So we need to make sure that people who are disenchanted with the status quo have other alternatives—whether they are cultural, social, or political—to turn to, rather than scapegoating minority groups and calling for racial or national homogeneity as an answer.
— AntiFash Gordon (@AntiFashGordon) March 18, 2019
Last, we also need to help promote the work of the exit programs, and see if we can’t help them make more direct appeals to current white nationalists, showing them that they can leave the movement, and spelling out concretely how they can do it.