Rural Antifascism: Struggle in the Forest and Fields

This is an excerpt of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). A shortened version of this excerpt was featured at Truthout as a part of the book’s selection as the Progressive Pick of the Week. Here the excerpt is presented unabridged.

With the growth of white supremacist organizing and violence coming from the centers of college campuses from the Alt Right and rural areas of the country through the “patriot” militia movement, the wave of antifascist resistance is coming from all regions. While the most obvious brands of community opposition are centered in the urban core, this misses the vast majority of the country that has often become a playground for the far-right even against the interests of the working class.

Broad-based community organizations with a range of tools play an especially critical role in the rural areas that dominate the U.S. As the militia movement grows across rural America, so does its opposition. Through the 2015 Sugar Pine Mine and 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupations, Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project (ROP) defined itself as a leader by creating regional resistance networks as a community counter-base to the Patriot recruiting efforts. Formed in response to the anti-LGBT Abnormal Behaviors Initiative from the Oregon Citizens Alliance in 1992, which would have blocked government money to organizations “promoting homosexuality,” ROP has gone on to bring progressive campaigns to the more conservative areas outside of Oregon’s bigger cities.

When the Oath Keepers of Josephine County began their month-long occupation of the Sugar Pine Mine, frightened county residents began assessing the situation with ROP. They set a meeting time and began researching the Oath Keepers with the help of the antifascist publishing institution, Political Research Associates. Josephine County was experiencing a budget shortfall at the time, and that had depleted almost all public services. At the same time, the hard libertarianism of the Patriot groups was pushing a “No New Taxes” campaign that would further deepen the financial crisis. The Oath Keepers’ answer, as is often the case, was to create Community Preparedness Teams, a non-governmental institution, controlled by militia members, to take up the role of state services. By meeting community needs from their own ideological perspective, the militia presents itself as the answer to the current crisis, further embedding their own explanations and outcomes for the calamity the communities are in. Community engagement is then offered within their institutions, and people who want to be better stewards of their regions are often ushered into militia projects since they have already “proved their worth.”

The day after the Oath Keepers rallied in Medford in front of the Bureau of Land Management office, ROP and community supporters held a press conference where community leaders spoke about the fear of, and intimidation by, militias. The Oath Keepers tried to disrupt the press conference, shoving cell phones in organizers’ faces and revealing their behavior to a waiting army of media. Among the militia members to arrive was former sheriff Gil Gilbertson, who had become a nationwide militia celebrity through his role in the Patriot-affiliated Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. ROP created a signature campaign with a local paper, which received more than a hundred public petition signatures in the rural county within twenty-four hours. By bringing together those frightened by militia intimidation, it was enough to get things started, and if the Patriots were going to try and dominate the public discourse, then organizers would create counter-narratives to show that the militias do not speak for the community. In advance of the Malheur occupation, locals in Harney County held public meetings to tell the militias to drop their mobilizations. When ROP got the message that the militias were heading to Bend on their way to the wildlife refuge, they organized a demonstration that “greeted” the group in front of local media. As the occupation was in full swing, ROP organized solidarity demonstrations in towns all around Oregon, bringing thousands into the streets to undermine militia talking points about local support, of which there was little. On the January 20 Day of Action, the voice of the public was made clear: the militias needed to leave. Shortly after, on February 1, Harney County residents came out in force to the county courthouse, more than doubling the number sent by the Patriots. At this rally “some people with the paramilitaries began harassing, threatening, and intimidating locals, including shouting in their faces and sticking yellow shooting targets on them.” The protests raised the profile of the opposition to the militias, shrinking the Patriot morale. For those residents feeling isolated, ROP’s strategy was effective in giving them back their voice, providing a network of support, and showing the militia that they were not welcome. In nearby Grant County, seventy people showed up to protest a Patriot meeting the Bundys arranged. While the militia tried to block the entrance, the group found a way in and staged a silent protest. With the support of ROP, they formed Grant County Positive Action, and went on to join Harney County protests and arrange community education events, letters to the editor and ad campaigns and to pressure the county to pass a resolution condemning the militia occupation.

ROP’s commitment to confronting the militias did not come without its blowback as organizers faced threats of violence, so much so that staff members needed security at their homes and all ROP events. Their experiences led them to create the Up in Arms guidebook that, besides giving detailed information about the militia movement, provides outlines for how to counter militia propaganda and protocols for organizing in response to the militias, including how to hold events, install security, and do research.

Reporting from Montana

The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) is similarly structured to the ROP, with a network of local organizations across the state building on progressive values such as “pluralism, equality and justice.” As well as putting forward policy initiatives and doing local education, they support victims of hate crimes, often through legal channels. MHRN also monitors and challenges extremist groups throughout the state. They have six affiliated local groups that meet individually, receiving support from the larger network, including funding and staff time. In 1995, at a time when as many as 20 percent of the state’s population was in support of the radical fringe, the MHRN started a landmark campaign against the growing militia movement in the area. Their plan was to narrow the range of support for the militias by continuing to highlight the long trail of violence and white supremacist ideas that floated inside the Patriot camp. They worked with groups like Prairie Fire and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment to address the rise of hate groups out of the “farm crisis.” This strategy of exposure helped to shift media representation and then public perception of the militia movement, giving the voice back to the people who felt terrorized.

In the Flathead Valley of Montana, Love Lives Here (LLH) has been organizing regionally as an affiliate of the MHRN. With hundreds of members across the small and medium-sized townships between the mountains, LLH began a high-profile set of campaigns addressing Richard Spencer, who called the Flathead Valley resort-town of Whitefish home. Spencer was living in a $3 million home owned by his parents for part of the year, the rest of the time renting an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, to be closer to Washington D.C. In 2014, shortly after Spencer was deported from the European Union for organizing a “pan-European” conference in Hungary, LLH began notifying residents that one of the most prolific white nationalists in the U.S. was sharing the ski lifts with them. After Spencer found himself in a fight with Republican strategist Randy Scheunemann at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, LLH started a campaign to pass a regional piece of legislation preventing Spencer’s organizations from holding conferences in their area. Business owners had already started telling Spencer not to return to their establishments, including an incident where a barista refused to serve him and his pregnant wife. City Councilman Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center for advice on how to develop a “no hate” ordinance, yet they ended up passing a weaker resolution in favor of diversity.

After Spencer became a household name in 2016, it came to light that Sherry Spencer, his mother, owned commercial property in the valley. While Sherry presented herself as simply the doting parent to a “political thought criminal,” her own track record of fundraising for fringe right-wing candidates, her appearance at the white nationalist H.L. Mencken Club, and the fact that Richard used her address as the IRS-registered headquarters for the National Policy Institute, made her suspect. A local activist began campaigning to have Sherry publicly disassociate with her son’s fascism and to sell the property that she was profiting from, with a suggestion that a small donation to the MHRN would be a sign of good faith. This incensed Richard Spencer who, in an act of ironic verbal gymnastics, identified MHRN as a “hate group” that was “extorting” his family. The Daily Stormer began a harassment and doxxing campaign against MHRN organizers and supporters, specifically targeting Jewish members of the Montana community who never thought they would see images of the Holocaust used to elicit fear at their synagogue.

Yellow stars with the word “Jude,” German for Jew, were placed over images of a local real estate agent and her twelve-year-old son. The harassment hit such a fever pitch that the Montana governor canceled a scheduled trip to Whitefish. As Alt Right and anti — Semitic literature began showing up in downtown Whitefish, neighbors became hardened in their alliance with LLH. Supporters of the Daily Stormer, which labeled LLH a “Jewish paramilitary organization,” called in threats to local businesses, like the boutique Buffalo Café, also submitting low reviews on Yelp to besmirch the commercial appeal of the town. Councilman Sweeney spoke out to the climate of fear that Alt Right trolls instituted during the 2016 Christmas season in Whitefish, saying “Why anybody would think it’s OK to treat another human being like that is beyond me.” In response to the anti-Semitic attacks, LLH started a holiday campaign by handing out “Montana Menorah” cards that could easily be slid into windows, peacefully rallying the Menorah’s spirit as a memory of perseverance amid surrounding armies of persecution. Escalating, Anglin called for an Alt Right march in Whitefish for January 2017 against what he called the “Jewish” campaign of hate against Sherry Spencer. He promised to ship in two hundred skinheads from the Bay Area, including from the Traditionalist Worker Party and Golden State Skinheads — both of which have been mired in violent controversy — as well as an alleged member of Hamas. Anglin went on David Duke’s internet radio show to rally for an attack on the “Jewish power structure” in an act of pogromatic terror reminiscent of Kristallnacht.Despite arctic winds, LLH rallied the Flathead Valley on January 8, bringing together hundreds with speakers and musicians. The strategy was twofold: to bring the community together, and to reframe the larger conversation to one of a determined confederation of locals against the forces of organized racism. To do this they used softened messaging about compassion and diversity, creating a “Wall of Empathy” with notes of encouragement from around the country.

The Missoula IWW GDC and the Alliance of Intersectional Power organized the public action to confront the Nazis, which LLH shied away from. While some antifascist organizers were critical of the approach LLH took, including the questionable decision to forego physical opposition, their choices had utility. As with the rest of the MHRN, the regional organizations had done the long-term community building that is needed for creating an impenetrable wall to Alt Right recruitment. This lacked the final component, however, of the public action in opposition, but direct action groups could then build on the foundation laid by LLH so the “no platform” strategy had more potential. When combined, both approaches become syncretic and help build a mass movement.

Anglin was only able to get a sidewalk permit for the neo — Nazi’s planned Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, which they were calling the “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza,” after the man who assassinated King. Their permit was eventually revoked entirely, and Anglin promised to hold the march a month later, yet it never came to fruition. Antifascist organizers held their counter-demonstration anyway, shifting the focus to a broad-based community action against the Alt Right and the climate of fear that white nationalists had created in Montana. As one Montana organizer pointed out, the results were successful because of the role that each organization played, an approach that would not have existed without the integration of the multitude.

It may not have been a coalition in name, but it essentially acted as one: unity in purpose, diversity in tactics. By the end of the discussions, no one questioned the need for a public show of opposition and no one was using the language of outsider/insider… People have been won over to the idea that we actually need to talk about tactics, that we need to be in the same room, or at least on the same call if we’re spread out across the state, in order to debate.

Montana continues to be “contested ground.” Just a few months later an Alt Right politician, former Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) vice president Taylor Rose, ran for Montana House District 3. He amassed a following while writing for the far-right website WorldNetDaily, which also employed YWC founder and Wolves of Vinland member Kevin DeAnna. While Rose was certainly a fringe candidate, he received support from Montana Republicans like Senator Dee Brown. Richard Spencer himself has suggested he may run for a congressional seat in Montana, yet his infamy makes that unlikely.

White Working Class

What popular rhetoric of white privilege ignores is the material ways that white workers are robbed by the promise of class collaboration through “whiteness.” From the wage suppression of white workers through antebellum chattel slavery to the use of racial tensions to bust industrial unions, whiteness is a failed promise to white workers even if it provides nominal benefits. Working-class white antiracism is the bridge that will traverse American post-manufacturing angst and the failure of rural economies, back toward a common struggle for equality. The white working class has been the well that fascism drinks from, offering feelings of superiority at the cost of material benefit. In years past, rural states that now lean “red” were actually bases for left organizing, from Kansas’s centrality in early socialist organizing and abolition to the striking miners of West Virginia who gave us the term “redneck” for the red bandanas they wore. The issue, from the factory floor to the tractor, is a choice between perceived privilege and cross-racial unity. Either the right or the left will increase in size and effectiveness. As the old union maxim went, “if we don’t talk to them, someone else will,” so it’s crucial to find a shared language of struggle that will undermine the effectiveness of the far-right message that desperately wants to turn the experience of working-class oppression into divisions along the lines of essentialized identity.

In different eras of struggle, the “reactionary white worker” has been the center of insurrectionary white supremacy in ways that disregard the material interest white workers have in antiracism. As Ahmed Shawki writes, the language of white identity critically hinders the white working class as it limits their material interests, fosters class collaboration, and erases all other experiential identities:

Acceptance of racist ideas by white workers should not be confused with their having a material interest in perpetuating racial oppression. The history of racism in the United States is not only a history of Black oppression, but also of the ability of the ruling class to use racism to maintain its power and wealth. From the poor whites of the South under slavery to the racist workers of today, adherence to racism ensures their own subordination.

Capitalist competition requires that white workers enforce privilege as an avenue to advantage. In a civilization marked by brutal rivalry, division can be stratified for the advantage of one particular group. This logic, baked into the social fabric, pits white workers against their own interests, battling for meager advantages instead of uniting with workers of color and marginalized communities to confront those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid. When white workers forego privilege, they get solidarity in response, a tool that extends far deeper than the advantages they believe they get through institutionalized white supremacy. White nationalists promise a return of privilege if we accept class collaboration, and the only answer the left must provide is a revolutionary vision that can take white workers far beyond the tokens of white supremacy. This cannot just come in vague affirmations and moral appeals, but in very concrete proposals, a pathway that is carved out of victories.

Redneck Revolt

With the idea that the white working class was responsible not just for the ascendancy of Trump, but also for the rejection of left radicalism in favor of right populism, Redneck Revolt completely refused to abandon or ignore white workers. Redneck Revolt was built out of the experiences of Kansas Mutual Aid, which, after seeing infiltration from state police investigators, began doing firearms trainings in a very public way. They named their project the John Brown Gun Club after the abolitionist who targeted slavery through armed struggle, and tabled gun shows in rural states, side-by-side with KKK and racialist militia organizations. By speaking some of the same language, first being opposed to gun restriction laws and, second, rejecting the political establishment entirely, they were finding common ground with the same pool of potential recruits that Patriot organizations turn to. This praxis was turned into Redneck Revolt, where a “big tent” organization was formed that refused to abandon the white working class or simply resort to alliance. In a world where black-and-white partisan issues often define identities and geographic enclaves, guns have proven to be an effective point of commoning, and the group can build on the same aspirations of community self-defense that the Patriot militias often brand themselves with. In the same way that militias provide community services, Redneck Revolt has built mutual aid projects, avoiding leftist subcultures by going for direct community bonds united along common classed experiences. In Silver Valley, North Carolina, the local chapter does large food dispersals at cattle shows, often coming with crops they grew themselves. People are invited to join in, share what they have, and a network grows out of a collective self-interest rather than an NGO-managed charity. Harm reduction, especially needle exchange in areas marked by opioid overdose, is a part of this, and they find that the bonds of direct experience speak louder than the color of the flag.

All the while, Redneck Revolt has provided an armed community solution to the growth of fascist organizing. Publicly, they are often found wielding firearms at events, providing security, but they also conduct trainings on gun safety. Weapons are brandished without covering their faces, identities are not hidden — instead they are open members of the neighborhood, ready to have conversations with people who may act with the inverse of their politics. Standing up at town halls, getting interviewed in small-town papers, and being dependable has made them a visible part of the communities they are in, and when they are willing to engage people where they are at, they have had the ability to put a wrench in recruitment to many far-right organizations. This has meant having open lines of dialogue with militias, being open and honest about their intent, and also challenging groups like the Oath Keepers to live up to their public denouncements of racism, and actively driving a wedge between neo-Nazis and the Patriot organizations. In places like Southern Michigan, when Kalkaska town president Jeff Sieteng made public comments supporting the murder of Muslims, a slew of neo — Nazi groups descended on the town in support. With the police force unprepared for this kind of arrival, Redneck Revolt members came armed to simply act as a barrier between the townspeople and the racists, a sight that left them celebrated nearly as heroes. By avoiding leftist jargon, and instead outlining a platform that explains their ideas in plain language, they end up appealing to people in working class Southern, Midwestern, and mountain towns in a way that the vast majority of the fragmented left would be unable to. This has meant recruiting former 3%ers and libertarians, committing to work out some of the political ideas internally.



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Shane Burley

Shane Burley

Filmmaker and author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work is featured at Jacobin, In These Times, Salon, Truthout, etc. @Shane_Burley1