Tuesday, September 8, 2020

By Any Memes Necessary

Yesterday NPR's Morning Edition did a segment on antifa.  Noel King interviewed Mark Bray, a historian at Rutgers and the author of a new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.  Bray seemed to have his head on straight, and was even able to resist King's repeated efforts to ignore what he said and turn the discussion in a direction she preferred. 

Bray pointed out right away that antifa is not a "singular organization.   It's a kind of politics or activity of radical opposition to the far-right that doesn't have any qualms about physically disrupting far-right demonstrations." King wasn't having it, though: she kept referring to antifa as a "group."  Bray corrected her, but she wasn't listening.

To Bray's report that "the antifa argument is that we need to treat all far-right and fascist groups as if they could be the seeds of a new genocidal regime", King countered: "The rebuttal would be nonviolent protest has a history of working - right? - and no one gets killed."  If I'd been in Bray's place I have pointed out that it's false that "no one gets killed" as a result of nonviolent protest: there's a long list of nonviolent martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement.  She can hardly be unaware of them, so what she presumably meant was that the movement's opponents don't get killed.  This is an attitude typical of US news media, which report that things are "calm" in Israel-Palestine as long as no Israelis are killed, no matter how many Palestinians are killed.  There's a long history of white-supremacist, arguably fascist violence in this country, and right now police officers all over the country are defiantly killing unarmed people, despite the growing backlash against them.  Police are meeting nonviolent protest with batons, chemical weapons, and other violence -- rioting, in a word -- and apologists like Noel King never seem to fret that they're just hurting their own cause.

Does nonviolent protest work?  There is a good case to be made that it doesn't.  Violent white racists succeeded in terrorizing African-Americans and their white allies with impunity.  Only after decades were some of them tried and convicted.  Segregation receded in the South, but it's hard to find a direct connection between the protests of the 50s and 60s and the changes that finally took place.  A combination of factors, including legislation, court orders, and economic pressure played as much of a role as direct mass action, and as we're seeing now, white supremacy just went underground.  The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the iconic action usually cited as proof of the efficacy of nonviolence, has been overstated.  Terrorist violence by whites continued, and hasn't ended to this day.  Rosa Parks -- you've heard of her, I'm sure -- had to leave Montgomery, moving north, to escape threats and retribution.

I recently read a classic work, Negroes with Guns, by Robert F. Williams, a North Carolinian who returned home in 1945 after serving in the Marine Corps, determined not to accept racism anymore.  He joined the local NAACP chapter and moved it in a more militant direction.  He also formed an NRA-chartered gun club to prepare for black self-defense. This led to some exchanges of gunfire with white racist vigilantes, and ultimately to trumped-up kidnapping charges that drove Williams and his wife into exile, first in Cuba, then in the People's Republic of China.  They returned to the US and the charges were dropped in 1975.  Along the way the Williamses became friends and allies with Rosa Parks.  His account of his activities is interesting and inspiring, but I ended up doubting just how successful his embrace of self-defense really was.  Does nonviolent protest work?  Sometimes, maybe; but often not. Does armed self-defense work?  I'm not sure it does, and it certainly doesn't if you don't have local police, state troopers, and the FBI on your side, as white racists did.  As we've seen this summer, they still have the police on their side.

There have been a few more recent, scholarly books on black anti-racist self-defense in the South during the Civil Rights era, and I'll be reading them soon.  As I've said before, I don't rule out violence as a form of protest or resistance, but I don't get the impression that most of those who talk about it have a clear idea how to do it and make it work.  It doesn't help that mainstream voices, like NPR, are so malignantly ignorant and dishonest.  But I'm increasingly convinced that babbling "by any means necessary," a popular slogan of the 60s and 70s, is just posturing.