Christopher Joseph is a poet and political writer and activist from Providence, RI.

6 responses to “Violent protest and free speech: Antifa meets the alt right at UC Berkeley”

  1. Randall Rose

    This pro-violence article, though lengthy, never addresses key drawbacks. Although I respect you personally, this article’s points are unsupported by evidence, the actions it promotes have too many undisclosed strategic risks, and the arguments which attempt to justify this strategy seem confused.

    You and I agree that violence is sometimes justified. But is it okay to use violence to try to keep someone else’s political views from spreading? You say it is, and that’s the issue of free speech. Although you say you’re not against anyone’s freedom of speech, I don’t find your view convincing. The question of whether it’s okay to use violence to stop someone from communicating their political views is as basic as free speech issues get. And using force to try to keep ideas from spreading is the opposite of free speech. As Noam Chomsky said, “with regard to freedom of speech there are basically two positions: you defend it vigorously for views you hate, or you reject it and prefer Stalinist/fascist standards.”

    Like many terms in politics, “antifa” is deceptive. What “antifa” really stands for, typically, is the attempt to take away one of the core human rights from people you disagree with — violently taking away someone’s free speech because you label them as “fascists”. As everyone knows, the word “fascist” can be stretched to apply to almost anyone, just like the word “Nazi”. Often, the anti-free-speech people who call themselves “antifa” really don’t know or care all that much about the beliefs or concerns of the particular individuals they’re violently attacking. Instead, by labeling the people they attack as fascists, Nazis, etc., they try to give themselves an excuse to use violence in a way that feels aggressively satisfying and gives them a thrilling sense of power over others, making their own sense of righteousness dependent on another person’s pain. When people approach political issues in that spirit, there are only two possible outcomes: either they will fail, which is most likely, or they will become part of a repressive government that has a widening range of enemies.

    Your article tries to paint all this as being “in defense of human rights and dignity”, but that’s clearly not true. And you basically admit it isn’t. A couple of sentences after the part about “defense of human rights and dignity”, you say that the violence you’re supporting amounts to not offering “respect for all humanity” — as you say, the people you’re commending aren’t concerned about “rights of those they oppose”. You try to whitewash those who choose violence by saying it’s all someone else’s responsibility, but since when does the person who takes away somebody’s rights get to say “It’s okay, someone else’s actions provoked me?”

    I would say that, overall, the left has a stronger sense of human dignity and how to treat people decently than the center or right does. But every political movement contains people who haven’t made a full enough effort to treat others decently, and the left contains people like that too. Often those who claim to be part of the radical left will give lip service to ideas of human dignity but, in practice, are not careful enough about the rights and wrongs of what they’re doing. Your article, for instance, speaks as if whoever “antifa” groups oppose can be targeted because they’re labelled as fascists. What that might mean, for instance, is some 22-year-old who was beaten as a kid, never got well educated, and tried to make what freedom he could for himself by finding cameraderie with people who glorify white ethnic traditions. If you say that it’s fine to beat that 22-year-old up some more because of the ideas he’s absorbed, is that really the best solution that the left has to offer? Of course not. And besides, isn’t it obvious that some innocent people are going to be attacked because they’re mistakenly considered to be fascists or Trump supporters or whatever? To take one famous example, just last year, in March, an anti-Trump protester tried to fight someone in Chicago, not even paying enough attention to listen when the other person explained he wasn’t a Trump supporter.
    I don’t see you making any attempt to consider how the tactic which you present as legitimate is going to lead to innocent people being bloodied or killed. Each of us on the left must find a decent way to deal with the likelihood of that. To truly recognize that we have a choice of responses requires responding to, weighing, and being moved by, the suffering and bad consequences that can flow from our decisions. And if you make the choice to proclaim that “antifa” violence is okay, you need to think seriously about how you are going to justify yourself to the victims, the innocent or nearly innocent people who will predictably be hurt if this violent approach is adopted more. I haven’t seen you taking these steps to make a conscientious choice on the issue. Just saying over and over again “Look at all the awful violence that governments use against the left and its allies” is very far from actually facing the choice about whether violence is right.

    Your article presents “antifa” violence as if it’s effective and necessary, but there’s a notable lack of evidence in the article for that. The article’s strategic logic is very flawed. First, you don’t acknowledge how limited “antifa” power is. You describe “antifa” actions as “eliminating any chance for a fascistic group to assemble and for their views to be publicly spoken”, but of course antifa people don’t have the power to do that much. In fact, at the current moment racist positions do have well-functioning platforms within the Trump administration, as you admit, and masked protesters are by no stretch of the imagination able to destroy these platforms. It’s unfortunate that some on the left choose to indulge themselves in delusional ideas like “destroying all the platforms” that their opponents use, when they clearly don’t have the power to come close to succeeding in that. Sure, there’s a thrill of power that some people get in attacking an unarmed gathering, but if someone lets that sort of pleasant feeling delude them into thinking that they’re going to destroy all platforms, they’ve failed to do any real strategic thinking.

    Second, the article is entirely wrong about what the result will be of the few attacks “antifa” people are capable of making. You even ignore the evidence in the one case you highlight most, Milo Yiannopoulos’s attempt to speak at Berkeley. At that event, when a white supremacist was bloodied, he was glad about it, because he realized that being physically attacked helped his cause.

    And white supremacists are right to calculate that violent attacks on “fascists” help the white supremacist cause. That’s for three reasons. First, it makes violence seem more normal when people from different parts of the political spectrum are doing it, and makes it easier for white supremacists to get away with their own violence. Second, when political violence is made more normal, the group in control of the government has a huge advantage, and currently the racist right is at a peak of power in government. Third, because some aggressive people on the left are so vague about who counts as “fascists”, many who are not on the left have a fear that they can be targeted by the left too. So when someone who is not already sympathetic with the left sees leftists attacking someone just for trying to speak or to meet, that makes them more likely to join the right. In general, attacking members of the 99% who support the wrong leaders makes them more likely to turn to these leaders for support. This has always been one of the ways fascists rose to power. Your article tries to claim that “anti-fascists were partly responsible for the downfall of Mussolini”, but in fact violent attacks on Mussolini’s fascists and their allies are what helped Mussolini take so much power that he couldn’t be ousted until other nations invaded his country. The respected historian R.J.B. Bosworth described some of these events in Mussolini’s rise to power:

    “Much as had happened in Cremona, on 20 December [1920] a riot in the main square of Ferrara cost the lives of four Fascists (promptly sanctified by the movement’s propaganda as ‘martyrs’) and one socialist. The event united the local prefect and police authorities, liberals and the Italian Popular Party against what they deemed the overweening socialists and, by March 1921, there were 7,000 enrolled Fascists in Ferrara, the second highest tally in Italy” (Mussolini’s Italy, published 2006, p. 131).

    “[In a “melee” in Bologna in 1920] Nine died and a hundred were injured, but the only death that mattered to propagandists was that of Giulio Giordani, a rightist, who was shot inside the town hall. Through Mussolini’s prose and that of others, he was swiftly elevated to the status of an early Fascist martyr and the events of 21 November persuaded quite a few Bolognese, especially those in the respectable classes, that now was the time to rally to the fascio, given that, as Mussolini put it ringingly, ‘the socialist party is a Russian army which has made camp in Italy’.” (Mussolini’s Italy, published 2006, p. 134).

    Although your article tries to limit the term “anti-fascists” to just those people who do physical attacks, there are in fact much better ways of resistance in my view. Still, though I disagree with you, I respect your overall goal, and I like how you acknowledge the value of finding “common ground” between left and right. The problem I see is that, if people make the poor strategic choice to attack people just for trying to exercise free speech, that attacks an important value which is one of the few pieces of common ground that many on the left and many on the right agree on. I think it’s important to preserve that common ground because, as the rise of Mussolini and others show, what happens when that common ground is lost is much worse.

    Here’s Chomsky’s full criticism of “antifa” (not too long):

    More links on the problems with violence against “fascists”:

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  2. salgal

    Excellent points and questions raised here. Provocative intellectually and certainly emotionally.

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  3. BBSNews

    Right on Chris, from an OG from way way back.

    Michael Hess
    Editor BBSNews and – Hasbara News Club – a brand new Web site about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Oh, and install Theme My Login for WP. I have no affiliation, but it makes a better login based on your WP theme.

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  4. PinkHatLib

    Great post and thoughtful response from Randall. What gave me pause was the comment about the effectiveness of this type of direct action as a form of protest…
    “To destroy a platform or forum for fascistic speech and assembly… has long been a favored organizational tactic of anti-fascists, so while this may appear new and radical to some, it does have quite a bit of successful history behind it.”

    Sure, the Black Bloc stopped Yiannopoulos from speaking but, as Alinsky said it, the real action is the reaction of the opposition. A proto-fascist speaking engagement provoked elements of the left into a reaction. That in turn allowed the proto-fascists on that other blog and elsewhere to tar progressives generally and even you specifically as a “fascist” (yeah, I realize Justin doesn’t really understand what that means, but he’s able to frame it that way).

    Is that success? Much of the worst of the NYPD behavior at protests was claimed to be a necessary response because of the supposed threat of “anarchists.” Aren’t those types of protest providing cover for the same violent police tactics we’re supposedly against… tear-gas, pepper-spray, concussion grenades, blasted cold water in sub-freezing temperatures, rubber bullets?

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  5. cailin rua

    I am wondering why no one has even considered that this incident involving the Black Bloc might have been the result of a false flag operation. The normally very tepid, mannered, Robert Reich has seriously entertained the idea that it was or was, perhaps, infiltrated by those who wanted to add to Yiannopoulos’ spectacle. Steve Bannon is an experienced film producer with quite a fertile imagination and as mischievous as any 9/11 hijacker. The event at Berkeley and others across the country involving Yiannopoulos are carefully contrived productions. Kathrine Cross has written a pretty good analysis of the issues involved at Alternet. She linked to this article in her piece about Yiannopoulos’ tour, tour bus, entourage, hotels and all:

    This is no DIY operation.

    I’ve read a little about Bannon recently. He seems to come to the same kind of conclusions about the counterculture Steven Pinker comes to. While we’re on the topic of violence, it seems clear to me who is in control of the state monopoly on it under the current regime. I don’t think Murray Rothbard was wrong about everything he had to say about the state and coercion. For me, there is a lot of food for thought here when the subject of violence rears its head. I’m thinking of the kind of irony that is about as subtle as a 2×4 over the head when it comes to carceral solutions, particularly, how it is advocated by so many that we use a police force armed with military surplus to attempt to end “gun violence”. It’s like fighting wars to achieve peace.

    Cross discusses that what Yiannopoulos was doing on the Berkeley campus was offering advice on how to identify the undocumented on campus and turn them over to immigration, effectively painting targets on their backs and then goes on to say and quote from a few sources:

    “What I protest in Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot Tour” is that he incites action, which cannot be ignored or brushed off by its targets. Yet despite being central to the issue, it is rarely the focus of chest-beating free-speech absolutism in the editorial pages.

    This also gets to the heart of why argument alone cannot be expected to prevail against this tide of proto-fascism. The futility of debate in such a scenario terrifies the good liberal reared on reruns of The West Wing, but it is a vital lesson in this dark hour.\

    “Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” wrote Jean Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew. “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” He might well be talking about the “troll” tactics beloved of today’s neo-Nazi alt-right, which cloaks its anti-Semitism (and sundry other bigotries) in irony and deceit.

    Writing this past sunday in the LA Review of Books, Ron Rosenbaum, a leading scholar on the rise of Nazism, described what that looked like in the 1930s:

    “[T]his tactic of playing the fool, the Chaplinesque clown, had worked over and over again, worked like a charm. It kept the West off balance. They consistently underestimated him and were divided over his plans (‘what does Hitler really want?’). The tactic became irresistible, as repeated always success does. Few took Hitler seriously, and before anyone knew it, he had gathered up the nations of Europe like playing cards.”

    Rosenbaum links this tactic to the rise of Donald Trump and his cadre. This chameleon-like dissembling, being all things to all people, is specifically an armor against discourse, against those of us who “believe in words.” For Trump, his army of trolls, and his ideological lieutenants like Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, words are playthings used to win a moment’s battle, to elicit a reaction, and to hide as much as to reveal. It is their actions that speak true.

    Yet some liberals prefer to chase men like Yiannopoulos through a postmodern hall of mirrors.

    Hannah Arendt had the right of it when, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, she explained what the purpose of Nazi propaganda was. It was not a proposition presented for debate, compromise, and rebuttal, but an alternative reality that justified its own existence:

    “The assumption of a Jewish world conspiracy was transformed by totalitarian propaganda from an objective, arguable matter into the chief element of the Nazi reality; the point was the Nazis acted as though the world were dominated by Jews and needed a counterconspiracy to defend itself.”

    In other words, these were articles of faith that served to justify Nazism’s aims. They told the world what had to be true in order for race laws and death camps to make moral sense. This was not a matter for debate, though it had been disproven on its merits time and time again. Rosenbaum’s essay tells the heroic story of The Munich Post, a newspaper that had been a thorn in Hitler’s side for over a decade, reporting on his every move, exposing Nazi violence, even sounding the alarm about “the Final Solution” long before the rest of the world knew its true horror.

    The paper was shuttered two months after Hitler’s election, with several reporters sent to camps or otherwise “disappeared.”

    This puts d’Ancona’s praise for Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman into perspective. He holds her tough questioning of Milo Yiannopoulos up as a prime example of how to deal with the man, and indeed her forthright and unwavering dissection of his empty views deserves much praise. But by d’Ancona’s logic, this should have spelled defeat for Yiannopoulos. Instead, he went on to win a lucrative book deal.”

    I’m not going to link to Cross’ article. It’s easy enough to find the whole piece over at Alternet. I am wondering, however, how many are familiar with the Leon Rosselson song, Stand Up for Judas:

    (Leon Rosselson)

    So stand up, stand up for Judas and the cause that Judas served
    It was Jesus who betrayed the poor with his word

    The Romans were the masters when Jesus walked the land
    In Judea and in Galilee they ruled with an iron hand
    And the poor were sick with hunger and the rich were clothed in splendour
    And the rebels whipped and crucified hung rotting as a warning
    And Jesus knew the answer
    Said, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, said, Love your enemies
    But Judas was a Zealot and he wanted to be free
    Resist, he said, The Romans’ tyranny

    Jesus was a conjuror, miracles were his game
    And he fed the hungry thousands and they glorified his name
    He cured the lame and the lepers, he calmed the wind and the weather
    And the wretched flocked to touch him so their troubles would be taken
    And Jesus knew the answer
    All you who labour, all you who suffer only believe in me
    But Judas sought a world where no one starved or begged for bread
    The poor are always with us, Jesus said

    Now Jesus brought division where none had been before
    Not the slaves against their masters but the poor against the poor
    Set son to rise up against father, and brother to fight against brother
    For he that is not with me is against me, was his teaching
    Said Jesus, I am the answer
    You unbelievers shall burn forever, shall die in your sins
    Not sheep and goats, said Judas, But together we may dare
    Shake off the chains of misery we share

    Jesus stood upon the mountain with a distance in his eyes
    I am the way, the life, he cried, The light that never dies
    So renounce all earthly treasures and pray to your heavenly father
    And he pacified the hopeless with the hope of life eternal
    Said Jesus, I am the answer
    And you who hunger only remember your reward’s in Heaven
    So Jesus preached the other world but Judas wanted this
    And he betrayed his master with a kiss

    By sword and gun and crucifix Christ’s gospel has been spread
    And 2.000 cruel years have shown the way that Jesus led
    The heretics burned and tortured, and the butchering, bloody crusaders
    The bombs and rockets sanctified that rain down death from heaven
    They followed Jesus, they knew the answer
    All non-believers must be believers or else be broken
    So put no trust in Saviours, Judas said, For everyone
    Must be to his or her own self – a sun

    Those are Rosselson’s thoughts, not mine, by the way, but it is a way of looking at the current situation.

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