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Friday, September 01, 2017


Stanford all over

by Tom Sullivan

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons.

New York magazine's Gail Sheehy presents a lengthy tribute to Heather Heyer, the young woman killed in the Charlottesville car attack. Frightened by Facebook videos of the Friday night torchlight march by Nazis, Klansmen, and white nationalists, Heyer had decided not to attend the Saturday counterprotest to the Unite the Right rally. But then she texted one of her best friends, “I feel compelled to go, to show solidarity.” What happened later, you know.

A working-class, white Southerner raised in a trailer by a single mother, Heyer suffered from a chronic lack of self-confidence. But she was compassionate and with a heart for the underdog, her mother Susan Bro told Sheehy. This passage captures Heyer's sense of herself:

In 2012, not long after meeting Lindsey, Heather was suggested by a friend for a paralegal job at the Miller Law Group. The local firm is dedicated to helping struggling people fight foreclosure on their homes, deal with indebtedness after catastrophic illness, and utilize bankruptcy law to put their lives back together. Heather, convinced she wasn’t qualified, only went reluctantly to the interview with Alfred Wilson, manager of Miller’s bankruptcy division.

“I only have a high-school degree, and I’ve never worked in a law office,” Heather protested straightaway.

“Why is that important to you? It’s not important to me,” Wilson replied. He was more interested in an employee’s way with people than their credentials. A black man married to a Palestinian woman, he told me he looks for workers who know how to communicate with, and appreciate, all different kinds of people.

“I know you work as a bartender — how much do you make in tips?” he asked.

“Oh, I can make about $200 a night.”

Wilson suspected this bartender was exceptionally good with people.

Heather downplayed her strength: “I talk to a lot of drunk people.”

“My thinking was she could be compassionate with our clients and understand life itself,” Wilson said. He also knew she was juggling two jobs, evidence of a good work ethic. She had her own place and was taking care of herself. She possessed a good vocabulary and was on top of social and political issues. “I believed I could mold her into a good paralegal,” Wilson said. And he did so.
She later broke up with her boyfriend who was dismayed to learn she worked for a black man.

On the heels of that account of peaceful counterprotesters comes another look at the Antifa movement that has arisen to confront white supremacists in the streets. Mike Kessler writes for New Republic of his encounter with antifas in Black Bloc gear at the alt-right rally in Berkeley last weekend. A group of antifas were beating a photographer in the street. "Evidently, he’d captured something the antifas didn’t want him to document," Kessler begins:
The melee stumbled and shouted its way to the street, where the man broke free, but the antifas kept after him, ignoring countless pleas of “nonviolence” and “let him go” from peaceful protesters. They hit the man with fists and a club, then took him to the ground, prey for wild dogs. Journalists, myself included, held our cameras high to capture the assault as the antifas circled, raising their shields, some decorated with the words “No Hate,” to block our view and push us away.
A masked woman ordered reporters to stop filming. A laughing man in a mask tried to land a kick to the prone photographer but missed.
The number of eager assailants grew, and the double standard of the moment became astonishing. The self-styled anti-authoritarians, who righteously (and understandably) complain about excessive use of force by police, were seemingly re-enacting some of this country’s worst episodes of police violence, on an unarmed civilian who by all appearances was not a white supremacist and who was decidedly outnumbered. Bystanders, peaceful protesters, and reporters shouted for the man’s release. Suddenly, from behind, someone knocked my camera out of my right hand, then did the same to my phone, which was in my left. I turned around to see a black leather boot stomping my phone (it survived—thanks, Otter case!), while another antifa picked up my camera, hurled it into the air, and got in my face. “No fucking pictures!”
Kessler's camera was smashed. Dave Neiwert of the Southern Poverty Law Center provided a firsthand account of similar treatment by antifas in Seattle. Al Letson, host of the public radio program "Reveal," used his body to shield another man being beaten by black-clad antifas.

It's a strange way to protest a right-wing authoritarian movement and counterproductive, not a counterprotest.

Filmmaker Leighton Woodhouse was also on the scene in Berkeley on Sunday:
In one case, as a crowd of non-Black Bloc protesters yelled at the assailants to let their victim go, an Antifa activist yelled, “He’s a Nazi!” over and over again, justifying the assault. Then, abruptly, maybe after realizing that the victim was not, in fact, a white nationalist, he changed his mantra. “He doesn’t have to be a Nazi!” he now shouted. The suggestion was that even if the victim wasn’t a fascist, he still deserved to be beaten. For what was unclear. Maybe because he supported Trump? Or he objected to Antifa’s tactics? Or refused to do something they ordered him to do? Who knew? The only thing those of us watching from a few yards away could tell was that a man, by himself, was on the ground, with a bloodied face, covering his head with his arms, being kicked and punched by a group of masked people, who were shielded by dozens of their comrades. My guess is that a lot of the Antifa people in the crowd who were passively assisting in the violence, including the guy yelling that he was a Nazi, didn’t know anything more than that, either.
But behind the masks, Woodhouse finds a very different group of people. He interviewed some antifas for a documentary on the alt-right:
To a person, our interviewees cared deeply about egalitarianism and anti-racism, and spent much of their day-to-day lives either working professionally or volunteering for organizations and in activist groups that fought for the social and economic rights of the disenfranchised. They gave eloquent and persuasive explanations for why fascism must be confronted head-on, with tactics up to and including violence.

But parsing out the nuances of moral justifications for violence in a quiet room somewhere is an entirely different thing than standing in a park with a mask on and a flag in your hand, with hundreds of your comrades, and making snap decisions about whose ass to beat and whose not to. Or whether to back up your comrades when they start beating someone up, when you have no idea how the altercation even began, or who the victim is. Or whether to go online afterwards and claim that everyone who got beat deserved it because they were all Nazis.
Having spent time at Rev. Barber's NC rallies, having had friends arrested (including my now-state senator) for civil disobedience in Raleigh, having watched the GOP flounder trying to paint Moral Monday protesters as "outside agitators," and having seen a sitting GOP governor go down to defeat largely because of nonviolent protests, my experience is that nonviolence is a powerful tool.

Yes, the opposing force in these cases is capitol police, not armed neo-nazis. And yes, there are accounts from Charlottesville of nonviolent clergy appreciative of antifas who interposed themselves between them and the white nationalists. But antifa violence is wrong-headed and criminal.

One can be sympathetic to the notion of counterprotesters putting their bodies on the line like Ghandi's supporters at the salt works without supporting them coming armed and masked for battle. (And yes, some antifas don't.) For battle is just what the alt-right wants, and antifas are obliging in justifying them opening fire and giving the president license to crack down.

Perhaps as Woodhouse finds, these are just fine, caring people. But put anybody, anybody in black, quasi-Ninja gear, arm them with sticks and improvised weapons, inject them into a fraught situation primed to ignite, and hide their faces behind masks? You don't have a peaceful protest. You've put good people in an evil place and reproduced Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, only worse. This one plays out in the streets with no professors or grad students to pull the plug and write up the study when the experiment goes horribly wrong.

On a country road I drive each week, a porta-sign outside a cafe displays right-wing aphorisms. Yesterday it was, "There is no such thing as peaceful protesters in masks." For the first time ever, I had to agree.

It is unknown how many among the Antifa movement are anarchists, Black Bloc or other. For those who want to "hasten the revolution" and see society break down, the accounts above model that well. We pay police to handle policing. Officers who do not or who take sides with white supremacists have outed themselves. Protesters who take it upon themselves to be their own police are going the route of Patriot Prayer and the Three Percenters in helping create the breakdown of order they nominally oppose.

There are ways to oppose the resurgence of white nationalism and still honor the life of Heather Heyer. This isn't it.

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