Tower Defense: Holding Space Against the far-Right

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This post was originally published on Northshore Counter-Info, and details the defense of an anarchist space in Hamilton, Ontario in the face of a far-Right march.

On Sunday, March 25th, various far-right groups from South-Western Ontario organized what they called a “Patriot Walk” up Locke St. in Hamilton. This was ostensibly a show of support for small businesses on the street who had their facades shattered during a mini-riot a couple of weeks earlier. The far-right hoped to capitalize on bourgeois outrage in Hamilton to put forward their ultra-nationalist form of anti-leftism, but their internal disfunction and overall shittiness, along with antifascists in the area being on point, led them to failure at every step of the way.

First, their internal discussions in preparation for the march were leaked on Anti-Racist Canada the week before their event was scheduled to take place. This included a bunch of typical crap about how tough they are, but also developed into a discussion of paying a visit to The Tower, Hamilton’s anarchist social space, that had already been attacked several times in the weeks following the riot on and around Locke. Their plan for Locke seemed to be to walk up the street en masse buying things at shops while not flying their more obviously fascist symbols, just sticking with the Canadian flag. For The Tower though, they seemed more intent on initiating a confrontation.

The ARC text spread widely throughout Hamilton and led to a significant mobilization in response. Hamilton Against Fascism (the local arm of the RCP  started to channel mass anger against the Trump election and the far-right) called a counter rally for the same location as the Patriot Walk but an hour earlier so they could claim the park. The Hamilton District Labour Council and their group Shut Down Hate also called a rally that in solidarity with HAF’s counter-demo that advertised the possibility of staying on the sidewalk away from any possible confrontation.

Although anarchists in Hamilton have attended HAF rallies, we mostly haven’t chosen to organize around them. Although we have different reasons, we aren’t very excited about antifascism as distinct from other anarchist practice and especially not with the demo/counter-demo ritual. On this occasion though, with the direct threat against The Tower, many anarchists in the city decided to organize to defend the space.

What follows is based on several people’s experiences of the day, from doing intel in the park through defending The Tower during two attacks by fascist groups.

It seems like the ARC text substantially disrupted the far-right’s plans; some of the organizers seemingly didn’t even show up. As well, local organizers with the Soldiers of Odin privately called up some people and arranged to meet an hour earlier two kilometers away. About a dozen of them gathered with flags at the south end of Locke, visited a few places and posed for a photo op. They were claiming victory on the internet before their scheduled march even started. Even certain prominent far-right activists like Ronnie Cameron didn’t know about the change of plans and were left hanging.

A couple groups of pals were at Victoria park for the demo and counter-demo; some arrived early and stayed separate from the march to identify attendees while others participated in the counter-protest. The crew that stayed separate wanted to gauge the numbers and energy of the far-right in order to assess the threat on The Tower, as well as to follow different groups in order to get good photos and record license plates. At first, they described the park as being pretty disorganized, with no clear camps, but when HAF showed up with their signs and banners, people there for the counter-demo quickly flocked to them while others literally rolled up their Canadian flags and left (while being photographed and followed). It seemed there were a few dozen “patriots” there for the rally, but they never succeeded in gathering.

When it became clear that the far-right wasn’t going to rally at the park and had gathered at the other end of Locke, HAF tried to march up Locke St and a crew went with them. The march was prevented from moving any further south than King though by a massive police deployment. One person described it as the largest police deployment they’d ever seen in Hamilton. This was a surprise because in spite of the typically fairly rowdy demos in town, police had been fairly hands off since the scuffles on May Day 2014 when the police repeatedly charged with their horses. The Hamilton police were reinforced by cops from Waterloo region and Toronto, with about a hundred of them out

“I started paying close attention to the cops because they were more interesting than the demo, which felt vaguely uncomfortable from the moment I’d joined it – something and yet nothing to do with the large police presence. As the demo moved, we were flanked on the right/south side by bike cops and on both sides by ERT/riot police carrying plasti-cuffs. Police cars, prisoner transport vehicles and more riot police in carter vans followed behind, most times at a distance. As we’d approach an intersection or other opportunity to move south, the flanking bike cops would move into position in front of an already existing and positioned police line comprised of ERT/riot police who would exit from Carter 10-passenger rental vans, and mounted police. By the time we were halfway to the next opportunity it would already be blocked off. […] We had zero chance of out-pacing them in this regard – which left out-maneuvering or brute force if we were serious about getting to Locke street, both unlikely to succeed based on the various participants comforts, experience and goals resulting in a very tentative, unusual energy.”

The crew that stayed back split up, sending some people up to Locke, but the folks who stayed behind also described the tentative energy of the crowd. At one point, some HAF people tried to push through a police line and they saw about ten or fifteen people immediately leave the march. About a hundred and fifty people attended the counter-demonstration(s), and although that’s great to see, that so few of them had any street experience and that a significant portion of them weren’t prepared to go against the police should give us some pause. The counter-demo model has succeeded in mobilizing crowds of people at different times and definitely represents a step forward in terms of building an analysis of the far-right, but when it comes to going beyond symbolic protest, very few are prepared to do more than hold signs. It’s also just a funny situation where so many people came out to oppose a group that was seeking to support businesses vandalized by anarchists. It’s been a complicated month.

To my knowledge, this is the first time riot police have been deployed in Hamilton in the last twenty years and it’s worth considering why they chose to bring out such a response. Likely it’s that stories of police being driven back by rioters, unable to defend the rich on and around Locke, have put them on the defensive and they needed to at all costs prevent another disturbance in that neighbourhood (home to several local politicians and city planners). As well, the police were also tasked with managing the Around the Bay race that day, which led to them calling for reinforcement from Toronto, where deploying riot police preventatively is standard practice.

Soldiers of Odin at Donut Monster

The most notable image of the day though didn’t occur near the park, but was rather a group of literal fascists, the Soldiers of Odin, known for the anti-immigrant neighbourhood patrols and their fixation on Norse mythology, happily buying donuts from Donut Monster. Donut Monster was the most successful out of Locke St businesses damaged in posing as tragic victims in order to attract clients, and every politician in the city raced to take a selfie in front of their boarded-up windows. Their owners, good liberals all around, advocating “Refugees Welcome”, opening their doors to a fascist gang stands out as a demonstration of the contradictions embodied in the whole silly “support for small business” campaign.

Meanwhile, across town…

There were people at The Tower all day, starting from about 11am. Although the far-right march was scheduled for noon, we were concerned that the ARC post would cause them to change their plans. As well, we’d seen stories from the US where fascist crews, organized for confrontation, became more dangerous after the rally they’d come to attend was canceled or shut down. We had at least thirty people in the space all day, anchored by locals.

Through all the “post-Locke” shit storm, The Tower’s line has been that nothing changes – anarchists in Hamilton have always stood for unpopular ideas that included direct attacks on the property of the rich and we never expected to be loved by them or their defenders. There was a full day scheduled for Sunday and The Tower didn’t intend to change a piece of it: open hours from 12-5, Feminist Action Hamilton had a meeting from 5-7, and the screening of the new episode of Submedia’s Trouble was from 7-9. So rather than close the (now reinforced) doors, we prepared to confront the far-right in front of the space.

Various groups from out of town dropped by throughout the day to offer support, and though the mood overall was a bit tense, we had lots of food and defending a space for 10 hours is a great way to get to know the people there with you. As people arrived, we talked over the plan as it stood – if the people out front saw the far-right coming, those inside would come out and set up a reinforced banner in front of the stairs. A few people were on point to be on the front line in de-escalation mode, insisting that the far-right isn’t welcome here and that they should leave, while others would stay behind them to back them up should it go in a more physical direction.

The police started obviously positioning themselves throughout the neighbourhood around noon and the Proud Boys showed up around 1pm. About 7 of them approached from the west and we confronted them as planned. About 10 minutes after their arrival, a group of about a dozen disorganized Soldiers of Odin arrived from the east. It’s possible this was their attempt at a flanking maneuver, a response to a Facebook post made by HAF after a previous demo about the importance of strategy. This post seems to have really bothered some of the military-obsessed far-right clowns and I guess this was their chance to show they could have strategy too. But unfortunately, when one side of the pincer shows up way later than the other, the effect is somewhat blunted. As it was, the Soldiers of Odin’s main contribution was to be outraged that we were blocking the sidewalk, because what if someone with a scooter needed to get through.

The police deployed in enormous numbers at this point and as the whining about the sidewalk only increased, the police escorted those very proud boys and those heroic soldiers of European society through the foot-wide section of sidewalk we weren’t using, through the intersection and up the street. They were weirdly hands-off with us, barely even trying to speak with us (which is just as well as we wouldn’t have had anything to say), not even to comment about how we were all masked, which is technically illegal during anything considered a protest.

It seems that at this point all the fash went back to Charlene O’Farrell’s house over on Tisdale St South, took a group picture in front of a swastika, then got very drunk.

Hours later, Feminist Action Hamilton was meeting in the backroom at The Tower planning some workshops when they heard the banging on the window, dropped their discussion, masked up, and prepared to confront a crew of drunk Proud Boys, most of whom are from Brantford, Ontario. These guys at first claimed to be there “just to talk” but that quickly degenerated into gross misogynist invective from Tim Kelly, ranting about how tough he is from Joey Broken-Nose, and some true stupidness from Nazi-sympathizer-turned-Proud Boy Filip Zetilov about the white race and how we were betraying its legacy of conquest.

Most of the far-right groups in Canada aren’t fascists – this article does not use those terms interchangeably. The Proud Boys, at least here, have generally just presented as far-right liberals, in that they want to push for anti-immigrant, anti-women politics within a more authoritarian electoral framework that limits the defensive rights of historically oppressed people (their “freedom-from) in favour of the freedom-to of those groups that have historically benefited from injustice. However, their rhetoric on Sunday was clearly a more open fascism – calling for leftists to be killed, women to be raped and returned to the kitchen, championing race and conquest as a basis for social order, glorifying the apartheid government of South Africa…

We tried to use the same strategy of solidly and calmly refusing to let them pass, but they insisted on escalating things and we ended up in a fight. I don’t say this to be like “they started it!” as if it’s somehow more virtuous to fight back than to throw the first punch. I say this because our goal was to avoid a fight even before we saw the police presence in the city that day. The Tower is our space in our own neighbourhood and though we masked up for the day, we’re here all the time and are well known to folks around. All this also meant we weren’t going to back down, but we would have preferred if those drunk losers just let of some steam spouting their garbage and then left.

So they got their fight. We had each others’ backs, the people most in the thick of it did great and it’s always satisfying to see someone who just called you a race traitor get punched in the face a few times. Big gratitude to the people who stepped up and took the physical risk to fight these assholes. The cops, who were still waiting in the neighbourhood, intervened again at this point, arresting two people as the Proud Boys and Soldiers of Odin took off up the block. Those arrested were quickly released, with Joey earning himself a ticket for public intoxication in addition to the busted face.

The Proud Boys then hung around in a parking lot nearby video taping themselves for a while before Joey, concussed and just having been ticketed for being super drunk, hopped in the drivers seat and gave his scintillating reflections to Ronnie’s camera during the drive home.

One of the most surreal parts of all of this was the collision between far-right politics and reality TV. The Proud Boys at least seemed to be mostly there just to star in Ronnie Cameron’s live stream, and Ronnie was constantly shouting out things like the number of people watching live and others there would stop yelling racial slurs to turn and do an aside into the camera as though they were preparing for a challenge on Survivor. To engage with people, whatever their ideas, for whom the representation of their actions on the internet is so much more important than the value of what they’re actually doing is very depressing, but when it’s an avowed white nationalist like Ronnie running the show, it’s positively vile. Let this disgusting spectacle be a lesson to all those who attend demos to film or take pictures rather than participate fully, lest you end up like Ronnie Cameron deleting videos you just spent hours making because they reveal you to be a fool.

News of the scuffle spread quickly online and lots of new people dropped by to help defend the space, including a sizable crew from HAF who made the effort to come out in spite of already having had a long day. It all wrapped up just in time for the screening of Trouble, aptly on the subject of revolutionary organizing against patriarchy. About fifty people stuck around for the screening and discussion while some Tower regulars went and chatted with the neighbours to explain the situation.

We encouraged everyone to leave in groups and make sure they weren’t followed and set a meeting time for a few days later to debrief and think about what we could do better or differently in the future. Because although the day was a fiasco for the far-right, it doesn’t mean they won’t try something annoying like this again.

Against the rich and their defenders!


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