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Feb 23, 2023 10 min read

Antifascism beyond Antifa

Antifascism beyond Antifa
Antifascism has a wide spectrum and history. Back left to right: American protesters, German antifascist protesters, Spanish antifascist protesters. Front left to right: Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Spokane's Margaret Weaver. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

Local and regional antifascist scholars and writers will speak at the library this Sunday. We talked to them about the history of fascism in Spokane, all the many varieties of antifascism and how (not) to approach people who harbor fascist ideologies.

Antifascists, often shortened to antifa, hold a complicated and contentious place in America’s collective imagination. For some, the movement represents street violence and rioting, especially in Pacific Northwest cities like Portland and Seattle.

Former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich saw property damage and Motorola headsets as signs of antifa’s presence in Spokane during 2020’s George Floyd protests. In statements to the press following the riots, reported by Daniel Walters in the Inlander, Knezovich said: "We had all the earmarks from the Portland area. Let's just stop the nonsense. Let's own what's happened here."

In the aftermath of the protests, Walters wrote: “No evidence has been released by law enforcement to support the notion that anybody connected to the antifa movement was directly responsible for any of the looting, destruction or violence at the May 31 rally in Spokane. Nearly all of the arrests that have been made have been locals, including several who already had a criminal background.”

The reality of the antifa movement is far more nuanced than black-clad boogeymen bussing in from big cities. The antifascist movement has deep roots in Spokane, where antifascists made life difficult for America’s homegrown Nazis — the fascist paramilitary Silver Shirts, modeled on Hitler’s Brown Shirts — throughout the 1930s. Antifascism also can’t be reduced merely to violent street actions, explained Spokane-based researcher and educator Joan Braune, Portland author and filmmaker Shane Burley and Seattle-based organizer and writer Shon Meckfessel, three contributors to the anthology No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis. Instead, antifascism is a multifaceted response to the growth of fascism — a response rooted in community self-defense.

On Sunday, the trio be speaking at nxʷyxʷyetkʷ Hall on the third floor of the Central Library, and sharing perspectives from their chapters that cover topics including: why dialogue with fascists is dangerous, the history and definition of antifascism, and the attraction of fascists to strongmen dictators like Bashar Al-Assad.

In anticipation of this event, RANGE spoke with the three presenters to learn more about the tenets of antifascism, how fascism manifests in the Spokane community and how (not) to approach people who harbor fascist ideologies.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

RANGE: I think a lot of people think of antifascists as people dressed in black fighting in the streets in places like Portland. How does that image of what an anti-fascist is compare with how you define anti-fascism?

Shane Burley: Certainly the people in black bloc pushing Nazis out are anti-fascist, but they're not the only type. The way we define it in the book is an organized, activist pressure that doesn't rely on law enforcement as the mechanism by which we stop the rise of the far-right.

This can take a number of forms: that can be community groups that think of a number of creative tactics to push back on them, it could be labor unions. The way this actually looks depends on the context and the people and the organizations doing it.

We should think of anti-fascism as encompassing the entire tool belt of organizing, and all the lessons that have come from decades and centuries of organizing, applied specifically to confronting the threat of the far-right — trying to mitigate them, break them up and stop them from regrouping.

I think it's a lot more expansive than what people have generally assumed, and that's what went into the book itself was trying to expand what our general understanding is of anti-fascism as a concept.

Shon Meckfessel: Anti-fascism is a reaction to fascism.

And part of the misunderstanding that plays into people's misconceptions about anti-fascism is that they sort of under-read what fascism is. I think particularly in our country, the first things that come to mind are obviously Auschwitz and the concentration camps and the Holocaust and then the sort of cartoonish evil demon Nazi people that are a different kind of animal than anybody we would ever know in our lives.

If you're going to understand anti-fascism, you have to understand fascism in its broader historical context, which is: What are the steps that led up to the unthinkable occurrences that happened, for example, in the Holocaust? And, what were the sort of discourses that just became normal in the countries that preceded those actions?

I think all of us have a sort of commitment to understanding how human beings, like you or me, or our cousin, or aunt, could come to participate in a social project that would result in the intentional mass murder of millions of human beings.

I think there's answers for that. It's just answers that have not particularly been a particularly popular subject of study in our country, because I think we tried to move on quickly after [Nazism and the Holocaust] happened and not be adequately bothered by how human beings could do some of those things.

I think better definitions and working through misconceptions of anti-fascism have everything to do with coming to an honest understanding of what fascism is, and that it's not preceded by some human genetic aberration that made Nazis into little monsters.

It's actually in some sense, an effect of a lot of deep seated tendencies in our own culture that we still share.

RANGE: What are some other misperceptions about anti-fascism?

Shane Burley: One is that [antifascist organizing] is done in opposition to free speech, which I think is a sort of rhetorical game that's played. The term “free speech” is about the impingement by the government on speech or access to speech and actually doesn't relate to community accountability or how the community relates to it.

That's a particularly troubling way that that organizing has been reframed.

I think the other thing is that all social movements can be reduced to anti-fascism or that popular uprisings are all de facto anti-fascist. They may all be supportive of anti-fascism, but we should also note the distinctiveness because they have different strategic practices.

The other [misperception] is that these are majority white or subcultural movements. They absolutely are not. Over the past 70 years, most [antifascist organizing has] emerged directly out of the marginalized communities most targeted by the far-right.

I think that's really important to make the distinction that people actually emerge from their own conditions. They have a stake in this fight. That's why they're engaged in it. Anti-fascism is based on the notion that community security is the most important thing.

De-radicalization is a good process, it's important to pull people out of those moves, but self-defense comes first.

I think those are important distinctions to make and that's what most conversations with anti-fascism get wrong.

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RANGE: What are some examples of fascism in the Spokane-area?

Joan Braune: We have a long history here of outright [fascist] groups and we continue to have that here. We've had the Patriot Front doing things at Gonzaga’s campus and [getting] arrested in Idaho. We've had pretty much every major national white supremacist group make some appearance here in the past several years.

If you go back through the history of Spokane there, the Klu Klux Klan was here, and there was organizing against the KKK from the start here, including by Catholics because the KKK in the 1920s was targeting Catholics in Spokane.

Gonzaga University has a huge archive of materials that they collected on the KKK from that time period. And the silver shirts — a pro-Hitler movement leading up to World War II — had an office here and they were protested by the Unemployed councils of the Communist Party and their allies. There was a huge demonstration, 700 people in 1938 that basically shut down the silver shirts in Spokane. The Spokesman-Review at the time recorded it as Spokane's first anti-fascist demonstration.

RANGE: Joan, your chapter touches on de-radicalization and focuses on the dangers of interacting with fascists. How do you recognize a fascist and what way do you recommend engaging with someone who holds those ideologies?

Joan Braune: “Don't” is my primary message. There are some very rare situations where maybe you have to interview them for an article or you are an expert at pulling people out of hate groups, but unless you are in some very special category of people that knows what they're doing, “don't [engage with fascists]” is my primary message.

It's a huge academic debate — what a fascist is. Sometimes it's quite easy because people will just tell you they're fascists or they identify with neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist or white nationalist movements that would classify any of those people as fascists.

Fascism believes in hierarchy. It believes people are not fundamentally equal, that some people are better than others, and that those people should have more power and control in society. It's inherently prejudiced, racist, typically antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist and just kind of down the line any kind of prejudice.

It believes that rather than seeking justice, that the world is naturally violent and cruel and that you should be on the winning team.

RANGE: We often see appeals to recognize each other's humanity as a bridge to preventing radicalization or pulling people back from being radicalized. For example, there’s a recent commercial from the Christian organization “He Gets Us” that shows people from all backgrounds, including Black Americans and people clearly identifiable as wearing the iconography of the far-right, that ends with “Jesus loved the people we hate.” What’s your response to these appeals for common ground?

Joan Braune: That ad was super depressing and super annoying. My chapter's looking at the issue of empathy and the discourse and language around empathy. [Appeals for empathy] have been used to push people to engage in friendships and “compassionate outreach” to fascists in ways that are really destructive of community safety and really undermine personal boundaries in terms of people's emotional boundaries and people's personal safety. Even just their worldview can be really poisoned by coming into contact with people that they're not safe to be in contact with.

I actually really am a partisan of love, but I think love takes sides, and so the idea that by sort of meeting in the middle and compromising that's what love is — I think is really destructive and harmful. Because what you're compromising on is people's basic human rights and dignity. You're saying in order to reach this sort of social harmony with fascists, we're going to sort of compromise on other people's basic human rights. That's what's happening there with that kind of push.

I don't like a lot of these sort of well-meaning, but simplistic appeals. When I look at things like Braver Angels, as another one of those groups that says, “let's just have everyone dialogue.”

Dialogue is great, but you have to have some kind of purpose in terms of what you're doing. It can't stop at: You have these views, I have these views, we understand each other —- we're going to hug and understand each other. [In the case of fascism,] people's lives are on the line. We're talking about genocidal social movements.

I feel like the push to humanize Nazis always comes at the cost of putting an emphasis on people that are perpetrators of harm, over their victims. I think everybody kind of realizes that Nazis are human. I think that's what's scary and disturbing about Nazis — that they're human.

I don't want to be too hard on this “don't ever talk to people” thing. A lot of people I talk to end up saying, I'm worried about my kid or my aunt or something like that. There are situations where you can intervene to help people in your family to [try and] prevent them from getting further sucked down rabbit holes — or further going down rabbit holes because [far-right radicalization] is a voluntary process. But it's not like a sort of whole societal project where we have to come together and hold hands and understand each other.

Shane Burley: I think it's also different between making someone's humanity visible and accommodating them as being different. I can understand where people get pulled into far-right movements. I can be empathetic with them and I cannot enjoy seeing them harmed. But that's a little bit different than saying, “Okay, I'm going to overlook things. I'm going to allow for certain things.” That's an entirely different thing.

I think it's important to remind ourselves what the pathway is to someone getting in this. In a lot of ways it's the same kind of stress that can actually put someone to a left-wing social movement. So (we ask) what is the pathway? because we want to interrupt that and we want to see how to appeal to those people's humanity.

That is much different than allowing them to organize and grow because that space is what they need to organize and grow. One of the things that the Aryan Nations would do out of Idaho is come into Oregon and Washington and start flyering and see if they got much pushback. If they didn't, they might send someone in and they might have an event. If they still didn’t get pushback, then they might start recruiting. [Editor’s note: the Aryan Nations recruited heavily in Spokane throughout the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, making the Inland Northwest into a key node of national white supremacist organizing.]

The point is that [fascists] want to have the space to organize. This argument about allowing them space, or that we have to have a certain amount of compromise, creates that space. What we empirically know is that disallowing that space is what works. Making someone's humanity visible is not the same as allowing them a space — which is always an organizing space, which is always how they make gains for the movement. So we have to shut that down immediately.

I think if people want to engage in de-radicalization, there's definitely people that have done that. There's people in the book that talk about doing that work, but that comes after protecting people, which is the ultimate safety here.

So right now, for example, trans healthcare facilities are under assault. I'm not as concerned about how to reclaim the person doing the assault as much as I am in blocking the assault from taking place. There's no space for deradicalization while people are under threat. We have to make that the priority.

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