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Dec 29, 21

In the Wake of Rebellion: An Analysis of Abolitionist and Antifascist Currents in Modesto in 2021

A look at autonomous abolitionist and antifascist organizing in the Modesto area of California over the course of 2021. Originally posted to Off the 99.

The police murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent rebellion that followed saw a new wave of working-class self-activity hit the so-called Central Valley, which was met in turn by a tide of far-Right reaction and State attempts at containment.

In the days after George Floyd was murdered, over 1,000 took to the streets of Modesto, riots and looting broke out in Sacramento, and protests soon spread into even smaller conservative towns such as Lodi, Turlock, and Oakdale, the “Cowboy Capitol of the World” and home base of ‘Unite the Right’ organizer, Nathan Damigo, as self-organized demonstrations and marches, called almost entirely by local youth of color, rocked the establishment.

The fires which swept across Minneapolis and brought down the third precinct, had found resonance with thousands of youth and beyond across the Central Valley of California.

The Embers of the George Floyd Rebellion Spread to the Central Valley

In response to growing protests, militia groups in Oakdale mobilized against the ‘threat’ of Black Lives Matter and to ‘defend’ local stores from imaginary hoards of looters, as police deployed flash bang grenades after drunken Trump supporters, screaming racial slurs and jumping around like monkeys, attacked counter-protesters on June 3rd. The next day, county officials declared a state of emergency – citing the threat of Black Lives Matter protests, not far-Right violence. Meanwhile, only 30 minutes away, hundreds of far-Right Free State of Jefferson supporters mobilized in the foothills east of the valley, against a small, youth led Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Over the next few months in the Modesto area, the demonstrations lost their steam and frequency, dwindling from hundreds to several dozen marching down empty streets or rallying in front of local police stations. In July, members of the far-Right group, the Central Valley Patriots, attacked Black Lives Matter protesters in nearby Gustine. Soon after, “Back the Blue” protests began to pop-up, bringing together Trump supporters and segments of the far-Right under one umbrella. By late August of 2020, over 100 far-Right Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, militia members, and Christian Nationalists rallied outside of an empty Planned Parenthood for the second annual “Straight Pride Parade,” facing off against only 30 or so counter-protesters, a far-cry from the 250 or so who had mobilized the year before; quickly shutting down the far-Right.

While the George Floyd rebellion spawned a new generation of street militants sprinkled throughout the small towns across the Central Valley, these partisans quickly found themselves with fewer and fewer numbers in the streets. By 2021, the same forces that had been calling for arming themselves to “prevent looting” as the county declared a state of emergency, were now decrying the “communist” government for COVID lockdowns and school vaccine mandates.

The Central Valley experience is the same of many small towns and cities across the US, where protests are met by gangs of Proud Boys and police forces are quick to give the far-Right a clear pass to engage in violence and intimidation. Where manufactured fear of ‘ANTIFA’ and black rebellion spreads over social media, only to be weaponized by the far-Right, the police, and the State.

It’s also in these rural places, largely forgotten about or not reported on, that the difficult task of building autonomous, grassroots movements is being carried out.

The Growing Abolitionist Current and the Fight for Trevor Seever

In late December of 2020, Trevor Seever, a 29 year-old unarmed white man, was shot and killed by Joseph Lamantia in West Modesto while he was sitting behind a church. Police were called to the scene by his family who asked them to do a wellness check after Seever had a breakdown at their home. In a police video of the killing, Lamantia can be seen exiting his car and then quickly opening fire on Seever. Lamantia then tells him to put his hands up and then fires again. Minutes later, other police arrive on the scene, as Seever can be heard saying, “I’m dying,” to which Modesto police replied, “Sorry bro.”

From a report on It’s Going Down:

Since joining the Modesto Police Department back in 2008, Lamantia has also been involved in five other incidents that have resulted in four deaths, all of which have been cleared.

After the killing, Modesto policed rushed to construct a narrative of Trevor as a dangerous individual, citing anti-police sentiments posted to his personal Instagram page. According to the Modesto Police, these postings led them to issue a bulletin to the wider department in an attempt to construct their argument that this supposed danger made Lamantia afraid for his life during his encounter with Seever.

As word of the shooting and its horrific footage spread, helped in large part due to being reported on in the New York Times, opposition to the killing grew quickly, and weekly demonstrations began to be organized in front of the police station in Downtown Modesto, which in the middle of the pandemic, was largely a ghost town. Crowds grew to over 100 and people began to also march through the downtown following various rallies, which also mobilized outside of the DA’s office, as police not so inconspicuously flew drones overhead.

The friends and family of Trevor Seever were also joined by various clusters of socialists and anarchists along with newly radicalized Black Lives Matter activists, and more importantly, local (largely Black and brown) families who had also lost loved ones at the hands of local police. This included seasoned organizers such as Dionne Smith, who’s 16 year-old son, James Rivera Jr., had been killed by police in 2005, in nearby Stockton.

Justice for Trevor Seever rally in Modesto

The protests then moved to various neighborhoods and key intersections throughout the city, after it was noted that during COVID, the downtown area was mostly dead. When the group rallied in South Modesto, a prominently working-class Latino neighborhood, they were also joined by the family of Alonso Nunez, who had recently been savagely beaten by the police. In this way, the rallies served as a vehicle for families to keep pressure on the police, outreach to the larger community, and also network and build relationships with other families doing the same. In a city where working-class neighborhoods are deeply divided along lines of race, this was crucial in building wider community support.

In this context, local anarchists were involved in attending and supporting rallies, bringing banners and zines out and also participating in a successful disruption of a “Coffee with the Cops” event, which was quickly shut down. Such events are held by police departments in many cities and towns and we encourage others to consider organizing similar disruptions, which are both confrontational and are a low-risk action, easy to pull off. The day after the disruption, it was announced that the Modesto police were firing Lamantia.

Soon after, a BBQ in a Modesto park was organized and attended by over 100 people and featured speakers from around 10 different families, a four directions ceremony, zine tables, lots of food, and participants from across Northern and Southern California. The event was even attended by two City Council members, who half-heartedly spoke in front of the crowd; wincing at the fact that they had to be performative in front of organized proletarians and begrudgingly made the point that it was the continued protest actions of the Seever family that forced Lamantia to be fired, not anything that the city or police did internally.

BBQ in Modesto in Support of Justice for Trevor Campaign

Although thousands of miles away from Minneapolis, everyone in attendance grasp the historic importance of the George Floyd rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement, with many speaking about the need to keep the goal of abolition on the horizon. The fact that so many involved in bread and butter struggles have made this leap in their thinking is telling and shows the degree in which the George Floyd uprising had expanded the popular consciousness.

The Far-Right Moves Against the Trevor Seever Campaign

In the wake of the firing of Lamantia from the Modesto Police Department, local law enforcement was keen to rehabilitate its image within the community. In the summer of 2021, MPD brass backed the creation of the ‘Forward Together Work Group,’ made up of police officers, the ACLU, the NAACP, and others. The committee was tasked with hosting “listening sessions” within the local community and developing policy proposals for the City Council.

In response, members of the Modesto Proud Boys, the white nationalist group American Guard, and the Qanon supporting Christian Nationalist group, the California Straight Pride Coalition, began rallying and speaking in front of the Modesto City Council. In a series of incoherent statements, Modesto Proud Boy leader Sean Adam Kuykendall, the owner of Andrew’s Appliance Repair, put council leaders “on notice” for the creation of the working group, claiming it represented a “Communist” takeover of the City Council and was proof that local officials had gone back on their “oaths” to uphold the Constitution. Ironically, some of the same people repeating this line had taken part in the attempted storming of the capitol in DC, in an attempt to stop the counting of electoral votes.

Sean Adam Kuykendall throws up a fascist salute in 2020 at the “Straight Pride” Rally in Modesto

The appearance of the Proud Boys at the local council meetings, which coincided with similar attempts at intervention across the US by multiple Proud Boy chapters, came to a head on June 22nd, when the Proud Boys announced that they would rally outside of the local police department, in support of Lamantia and in protest of MPD for his firing.

This rally drew less than a dozen Proud Boy members and supporters; largely folks from outside of the county, and ended with the group calling someone a “faggot” and throwing a water bottle at them. They then rallied outside of the Modesto City Council chambers along with Mylinda Mason, a local GOP organizer and fund-raiser, and about a dozen supporters of Lamantia. During the City Council meeting, the Proud Boys attempted to verbally attack the Seever family and label them as “Communists,” but by the end of the night, the Proud Boys were vastly drown out by the comments of locals who supported the family and denounced the far-Right group.

As Raw Story reported:

“The PD here has always been fantastic,” chapter president Sean Kuykendall, who owns an appliance, air-conditioning and heating repair business in Modesto, told council on June 8. “And I’ll say that they are underfunded, not overfunded. And I’ve had multiple officers tell me — because I have a lot of police officer friends — that they can’t do their job, and they worry that they’re going to be defunded, okay?”

“We know what Sean is, and we know the violence that his group engages in has a clear goal: to get everyday working-class people to shut up and stop organizing for change,” said one speaker, who called in to city council remotely under then moniker “Jail Killer Cops.” “The fact that he can stand here and claim to have direct contact and support from local law enforcement should trouble everyone, and it’s exactly this violent fascist-to-police crossover that is causing so many people to assert their rights to police the police in the first place.”

The event ended in a near brawl outside the City Council chambers, as Proud Boys clashed with a dozen antifascists. Over the next few weeks, antifascists also organized several call-in campaigns to local restaurants where the Proud Boys and other far-Right groups liked to gather and hold meetings, including one event which featured guest speaker Jeff Dirkse, the local Sheriff, in an effort to shut these meetings down. Throughout July, Proud Boy events were also cancelled through community pressure in Modesto and Manteca, as the Proud Boys and their supporters attempted to hold events in support of a far-Right Republican who was running for Governor in the failed recall election. The group did manage to hold a pop-up picnic in nearby Turlock, drawing about two dozen people.

In late August, the Proud Boys alongside the California Straight Pride Coalition, held the third annual, “Straight Pride Parade,” which was neither a parade nor centered around “Straight Pride,” but was instead a rally in front of a closed Planned Parenthood building. Like the year before, the rally brought together Proud Boys from across California, Boogaloo Boys, white nationalists, local militia members, Trump and Qanon supporters, and Christian Nationalists. The event represented a continued coming together between local GOP organizers like Mylinda Mason and groups like the Proud Boys and showed how deep the intersections between the Republican party and far-Right groups had grown in recent years.

The local police also showed their hand, and for the second year in a row, pushed the City Council to ban from protests largely defensive items such as umbrellas and helmets, in a move designed to target antifascist protesters. This made it clear what side the police were on and provided law enforcement with an excuse to push through new draconian rules designed to clamp down on future unrest.

Despite this, locals realized that a repeat of 2020 could not be allowed – both in ignoring the rally and allowing local non-profits to head the organizing, which combined with the outset of the pandemic and smoke from climate change fueled wildfires, led to a small counter-mobilization on the streets.

Instead, local antifascists worked to build a coalition of local groups and organize a community rally up the street from the “Straight Pride” protest, looking to hold a much larger community event that built relationships and defended the park from any possible attacks or incursions from the Proud Boys. While many wanted to hold a counter-demonstration and drown out the Proud Boys at their own rally, organizers realized that since they couldn’t guarantee mass numbers, they should focus on holding space in the most powerful way possible that also sent a clear message against the far-Right. Similar community mobilizations by antifascist groups in Portland that opted to not directly confront the Proud Boys and instead presented a mass showing of solidarity and defense were looked to as direct inspiration.

The event ended up bringing out over 100 people and involving a wide variety of mutual aid programs, non-profits, collectives, and the family of Trevor Seever. The event featured music, food, speakers, and tables from various groups. The turnout was an interesting mix of the local queer community, young antifascists wearing all black, and older activists, progressives, and community members. At one point, Sean Adam Kuykendall and a Proud Boy supporter, Jeyna Marie Griffin, showed up with a banner and stood across the park and various crews of antifascists surrounded them. Eventually their banner was taken and they left the park.

While the counter-rally was wrapping up in the park however, on social media people discovered a small group of LGBTQ youth were protesting across the street from where about 75 militia members, Proud Boys, and Straight Pride Coalition supporters were rallying in front of Planned Parenthood. Several crews of people wearing black and in masks decided to go and stand in solidarity with this group of young people, however as soon as they exited their cars and stepped foot on the pavement, they were attacked by the Proud Boys, leading the police to declare an unlawful assembly, arrest two Proud Boys, fire projectiles, and shut the rally down.

Small groups of antifascists were attacked by a larger group of Proud Boys and in the chaos of people attempting to run back to their vehicles, one person was left behind and was further attacked by the far-Right. This violence, which mirrored in many ways similar events in Portland the week before, provided fresh click-bait for the Right-wing media eco-system.

Vaxx to the Future

While autonomous anti-capitalist groups and antifascists in other parts of the Central Valley engaged in mutual aid projects and disaster relief in the wake of massive wildfires, in Modesto, once again the far-Right was on the move.

In the wake of the Straight Pride Rally and the dramatic failure of the California recall election, local Proud Boys focused their energy on growing anger around vaccine and mask mandates. Proud Boys and militia members were seen at various anti-vaccine and anti-mandate rallies, one pathetic attempt at a walk-out at a local high school which never really materialized, a rally in Ceres that brought out Samuel Bosshardt, a member of the county’s Republican central committee, various anti-vaxx ‘holistic’ fairs organized by Proud Boy adjacent groups, and finally a mass rally outside of the Stanislaus Office of Education in Downtown Modesto.

In response to this shift in focus, antifascists began a flyering campaign, in an attempt to expose leading Proud Boys and their supporters within the larger anti-vaxx and anti-mask current. Ironically, despite anger on the Right, schools were already in the process of re-opening, Biden rejected mandates across the board outside of public officials and health-care workers, and as Omicron surged, the CDC rushed to lower standards in an effort to push people back to work and re-open supply chains.

Outreach Flyer on Local Proud Boys

It’s unclear how the Right will respond to this, especially as working-class anger rises at growing infection rates and lack of access to COVID tests. If we can be sure of anything, it’s that the far-Right will attempt to co-opt this anger and channel it away from anything that resembles an anti-capitalist analysis which calls for direct action and solidarity and attempt to channel back into conspiratorial/culture war nonsense in support of Republican politicians.

In Closing

The events of 2021 bring up a lot of hard questions for organizers in the current terrain. While 2020 saw the high of the initial rebellion, the responding fallout from the far-Right and the State in rural areas of California offers a window into what we can expect in the future. This includes the State enacting a state of emergency and clearing people off the streets with the same toys we’ve seen being used in much larger cities – against much smaller crowds with less tactical experience. Moreover, we can expect that groups like the Proud Boys will be allowed free reign to attack their enemies.

We should keep in mind as well that our enemies aren’t all powerful. Over the course of the year, autonomous groups were able to not only get a police officer fired, but also pushed back heavily against the far-Right. Even small actions like call-in campaigns were successful in shutting down events, while larger sections of the community spoke out against far-Right groups. What’s needed is to expand these actions, make them stronger, and continue to develop a presence on the street which can push back.

It’s up to us to foster real relationships with each other in the post-rebellion landscape and find the activities, discussions, and projects that will allow us to do so. Overcoming the generational divides will be difficult; it takes real effort to get younger folks to listen to those who are older and to get older folks, often well versed in the realities of repression, to open up and be patient with those who are newer. We also have to be realistic and draw hard lines against those who just functionally can’t work – or shouldn’t – with others.

Lastly, we need to be open to the organizational forms which allow us to build power and networks of action, solidarity, and strength. This can mean mass street demos and blockades and it can also mean mutual aid networks and block parties.

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