Grassroots journalist Talia Jane, who was attacked and injured by a Proud Boy in Washington DC at the Millions MAGA March, argues that those who are choosing to leave the streets in the aftermath of Biden’s election are making a mistake – and are allowing street level fascism a space to grow and organize. Support Talia Jane’s work here.
The Million MAGA March in Washington, D.C. on November 14th has become a flashpoint about how the Left should respond to the far-Right in a post-2020 election terrain. Footage distorted to fit a narrative of unprovoked violence against conservatives, Proud Boys employing specific fighting tactics to down as many people as possible; police splitting up crowds, standing with riot shields facing only one way, conveniently absent once the Proud Boys found the antifascists. Much of the conversation, however, has centered on the conflict between showing up or staying in.
For many, George Takei and Patton Oswalt included, there is a belief that if you don’t show up to counter fascists, they will simply go away. I struggle to find evidence where this has ever been the case outside the minds of those who would like for it to be the case.
With respect to D.C. but across conflicts with the far-Right in general, there are a few factors at play that lead to low turnout among antifascist counter protesters, much of which appears to center on liberals rationalizing fear to justify inaction. There is consideration to be had for the tendency in leftist spaces to get so overwhelmed with what should be done that nothing actually happens. If you’ve ever organized within larger groups or coalitions, you’re well acquainted with everything coming to a grinding halt as people get bogged down in the minutiae. You may also be familiar with that moment of clarity that comes after someone gets fed up and says, “Fuck it, I’m going. Who’s with me?”
This trend in leftist spaces doesn’t have quite as much impact as massive amounts of liberals who already got their Activist Selfies deciding they already met their quota for the year, but it is felt much harder in the smaller, tighter communities of frontliners who needed their comrades and were instead left flying solo. That said, there appear to be four major ideological challenges that inhibit turnout and undermine the work. These are not meant to be comprehensive – what you’ve experienced may not align with any of this – but they are patterns I’ve observed in scenes across the country, at actions I’ve covered, and in communities I’ve embedded with.
The Myth Of The Outside Agitator
Speaking with people in and familiar with the local activist scene in DC, I was told that a major point of contention was anxiety about carrying the heavy burden of being labeled “outside agitators” in their own town. There was an understandable desire for DC natives to be the ones defending DC. That would have been a beautiful and empowering thing to see!
It falls apart, however, when you take into consideration that militia members, Proud Boys, and white supremacists came from all over the country to attend the Million MAGA March. The day after, I ended up chatting with more ‘mainstream’ Trump supporters who were ‘stunned’ to hear about the Proud Boys fighting people that night. These casual conservatives came from Pennsylvania, California, and Texas just to march for Trump. Even my attacker came from out of state: Dane Menough lives in Ohio. He’s the president of the Ohio chapter of American Guard (which the ADL calls a “hardcore white supremacist organization”). If they’re flying in from all over the country to show a huge force, why shouldn’t antifascists do the same?
Moreover, the myth of the outside agitator is a right-wing talking point intent to undermine locally grown movements against white supremacist violence. The intent is to lose numbers, creating conflict about who’s allowed to occupy a space and what merits a “real” resident. In NYC, the NYPD has enjoyed feeding the New York Post mugshots of protest arrestees and their out-of-state IDs to fuel this narrative. It’s based on nonsense and designed to disarm and undermine a movement. Concern about the “outside agitator” as a means of turning away those seeking to provide solidarity results in giving in to fascist propaganda and fascist violence. It becomes, in essence, a form of counter-insurgency.
Concern About Violence
While a majority of my reporting has been at protests where the ‘other guy’ is the cops, there are patterns at play in that space that repeat when the ‘other guy’ is Nazis: When you stay away because you’re concerned it will be violent, those intent on committing harm have a much easier time doing so.
Police in NYC will bear down on a march of 50 people, barricading participants onto the sidewalks only to pull them off and arrest them in the street. But when a march of 2,000 for Breonna Taylor took over Manhattan, the NYPD kept distance and did not engage. While the tactics of the NYPD and those of white supremacist groups obviously vary for a number of reasons, the counter strategies against them draw the same conclusion: They know when they’re outnumbered. They are far less likely to engage because they know it won’t end well for them.
The way the Proud Boys fight benefits from outnumbering their opponents: One person finds a target, then multiple people surround them and keep going until they’re down. This changes when they’re severely outnumbered. In Portland, Ore., Robert Evans documented a ‘Back The Blue’ rally that was met with significant counter demonstrators. After a long and tense standoff full of bear mace (and wherein a Proud Boy assaulted Evans and broke his finger), they eventually realized they were outnumbered and ran for the hills. Moreover, the whole point of getting involved in antifascist work is to fight fascism. What becomes of that work when your focus is on avoiding that fight?
Accessibility As Inability
Not everyone is a frontliner. Not everyone has the ability to physically fight back or mentally withstand the stress. Not everyone can show up when there’s a call to action. This does not mean there aren’t ways to be involved. The issue, of course, is people who aren’t at all involved in activist spaces are the ones who push this line. They don’t know all the off-site work that goes into keeping people safe on the ground. George Takei doesn’t know about RUST.
In reality, someone who doesn’t feel comfortable frontlining can find a home scouting a block away. They can make posters or help fundraise for medics. They can assist with jail support or be a safe person to hold emergency contact information (legal name, date of birth, who to contact in the event of injury). Facilitate check-ins with those on the ground. Monitor livestreams, air traffic, police movements.
These are vital parts of what goes into helping keep people safe. They exist for any action, violent or not, and are part and parcel to utilizing community to support those who can be on the ground. To accuse a call to action as being ableist is to erase the massive amount of support work that goes into activist spaces. If your impulse is to tell people to stay home, look instead at advocating for ways people can help off-site. And if you can’t think of ways people can help off-site, that’s probably a pretty good indicator that you don’t know what you’re talking about and would do well to just be quiet.
People Will Counter Regardless
If there’s anything I can guarantee when it comes to countering fascists it’s that whether or not there’s a unified call to action, people will hear about the far-Right wanting to take over their streets and will show up to oppose it. The difference is whether the crowd is a majority of people waving flags and carrying signs or if they’re holding shields and hard hats.
We know people will show up regardless of any insistence that everyone stays home. It’s a matter of how protected they are by the support of those more down to fight back. In DC, the ‘antifascist’ crowd had its fair number of Biden supporters. Granted, many of them fled after police indiscriminately pepper sprayed into the crowd. But they were in that crowd, surrounded by people better prepared to get sprayed. This isn’t to say fairweather protesters ill-equipped for violence should stay home. Rather, those better equipped need to show up knowing they’ll be there and provide ample protection. It’s symbiotic: A massive turnout of demonstrators requires substantive protection but also provides protection because the violent threat they’re facing recognizes it’s wildly outnumbered. Knowing people will show up no matter what means those able to protect them need to as well.
Police brutality doesn’t stop just because there’s no footage of it. Your racist family members don’t become less racist just because you avoid certain topics over Thanksgiving dinner (which, by the way, you should be avoiding entirely this year). The fire of hate that fuels fascism, white supremacy, and bigoted violence is not one that is tamped out by ignoring it. If anything, pretending it’s not there only gives it space to breathe: When there is no counter, the fascists declare victory and decide to show up again and again. They use that victory to recruit, focused on how a lack of a counter proves the superiority of their ideology. It’s the story of the Nazi bar: One Nazi shows up, seems like a nice guy despite the various pins and patches that adorn his jacket. He just wants a drink, which is a reasonable enough request. Then he comes back with a friend. And another friend. And then, in the blink of an eye, you’ve got yourself a Nazi bar.
With a second Million MAGA March and Proud Boys’ call to action for December 12th, fascists have decided to try making Washington, D.C. their new Nazi bar. The counter demonstration the first time hovered around 200, maybe 300 earlier in the day, and dwindled to about 80 once the Proud Boys began roaming the streets screaming “Fuck Antifa” looking to brawl.
This is what comes from ignoring fascism: It surrounds you. Fascism does not go away just because you want it to. Violence doesn’t stop happening when you close your eyes. If DC on Nov. 14th and the repeat call to action for Dec. 12th has taught you anything, it’s that people intent to cause harm will do so by any means necessary and they will continue to do so until they’re so thoroughly surrounded by opposition, they have nowhere to take their hate. Staying home is not an option. Inaction is not an option.