I probably cut an odd figure in my Carhartt Washed-Duck Tool Pants, black Thrasher hoodie and industrial neoprene gloves. Waist-deep in a dumpster I am making a fashion statement of sorts, wading through the quotidian refuse of an office park: coffee grinds, fast food containers, styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, used printer cartridges and, much to my chagrin, the occasional dirty diaper. It’s 1990 and my comrades and I are ‘dumpster diving’ out in the suburban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. But it is neither food nor salable commodities we seek. We are churning through garbage in search of the political droppings of a far right organization housed there. The take from this ‘trash cover’ (to use a term of the trade) could help neutralize a far-right group, or at least make less effective their attacks on vulnerable communities. After a few night’s worth of applied garbology–Disco! Reams of perforated computer paper reveal detailed membership lists. We don’t have time to do anything other than scan it–the headings confirm it is from our target–so we bag the loot and skidaddle.
Your trash, my treasure–asshole.
From there the black garbage bags are transported to a warehouse where the really difficult slog begins. We spread out a large tarpaulin and separate the wheat from the chaff. What we call raw, primary data–everything from membership rosters to post-it notes, utility bills to grocery lists–is sorted and prepped so as to be of some use. Then we feed the raw data into already existing databases and files, cross referencing it to identify matches and points for further analysis. In other words, manual data entry is how we transformed data into information (no shortcuts from analog to digital back then). If we do our opposition research well, that information can reach its final form: actionable intelligence. For instance, the computer printouts provide detailed information on the targeted organization’s supporters–donation amounts, addresses, phone numbers, occupations, etc. Some of those donors may not want their identities released to the public. We do. Likewise, the discovery of internal memoranda can provide a window into a group’s organizational capabilities, relations with other political formations or even internal dynamics, such as factional fights, that we can exploit. Finally, a report can be generated and the findings ready for dissemination. Then it’s back into the dumpsters and the process repeats itself. From data collection to information analysis to actionable intelligence.
Our fashion statement is also therefore a political statement.
In all of this our team of researchers were practicing a form of ‘para politics’, i.e., political conduct apart from voting or demonstrating, polling or political speech. There are other, less charitable meanings associated with this term, but I am employing it here in a relatively value neutral manner. This is, of course, the province of the Antifa. For our purposes here, let’s call it Antifa spycraft.
If my late-night shenanigans of decades past often yielded material for critical print, radio and television stories on the far right, they also often helped communities better protect themselves from attack. In this case, our information helped ‘out’ more than a few ‘down low’ bigoted businesses and politicians. Oh, and it was legal. In many locales, the laws around trash collection are often ambiguous. In this case, because the material we absconded with was in a dumpster, it was no longer private property. Likewise, depending on your locale, once your garbage can is out on a sidewalk or street, it may be free for anti-fascists–or fascists, for that matter–to rummage through. This low tech tactic of opposition research–today’s equivalent of hacking someone’s digital footprint–was a time-honored weapon in the Antifa arsenal. But not the only weapon.
If back in the day we had a ‘trash cover’ on an enemy political group, there was a good chance we also had an infiltrator attending meetings and other activists taking down license plates and shooting video and photos of their events. Much like the shitheads at Project Veritas and Brietbart News do now, but long before those clowns were selling their hack jobs to their paymasters, we pushed the limits of acceptable political engagement. Today, effective anti-fascists, especially those grouped around Rose City Antifa and It’s Going Down, as well as activists featured in Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook understand this. It’s well past time to have a debate with those socialists and other radicals who don’t seem to get it.
That the political tradition and contemporary efforts of the Antifa are valuable, even essential, to the broader socialist struggle is not accepted by all comrades. In spite of an honorable and effective history, there are left radicals who not only dismiss this work, but denigrate those who practice it. Quite a few regard the most militant and therefore visible actions of the Antifa as anathema to our broader struggle. Many misguided socialists prefer to ignore this vital work or, when such intelligence is used by an Antifa fighting force, such as in Charlottesville, raise cries of ‘adventurism’, perhaps laced with a quote from Lenin on infantile disorders.
But if you ask this old ghost there is nothing more infantile than attacking the work of comrades you know next to nothing about; except, perhaps, doing so from a Marxist theoretical framework so sclerotic it can regurgitate that fatal stupidity all veteran anti-fascists are familiar with: “The enemy is not fascism as much as it is capitalism that exploits the working class according to democratic and civilized norms that would never be associated with the swastika or other fascist regalia.” (‘Antifa and the Perils of Adventurism” by Louis Proyect, August 15, 2017. My emphasis). Proyect, whose nom-de-chair is The Unrepentant Marxist, slanders antifa activists when he’s not busy digging himself out from under all the free dvds (he never tires of letting us know) tinseltown sends him for film reviews.
He goes lowest when addressing the street battles between anti-racists and neo-Nazis that took place in Charlotesville last year.
He writes, “Turning now to Charlottesville, it is obvious to me that if the protests had been disciplined and under the control of marshals such as was the norm during the Vietnam antiwar movement, there would have been much less of a chance that James Fields would have been able to drive his Dodge Challenger into a crowd, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.”
Here Proyect is laying the death of Heather Heyer at the feet of the Antifa, instead of where it belongs, with the neo-Nazi who ran her over. Elsewhere he refers to Antifa activists as ‘boys’ engaging in ‘childish acting out’. And unruly boys need discipline, don’t they? Proyect apparently wants cops, in the form of movement ‘marshals’, to get them back in line, with a spanking, if necessary. This bit of scolding he digs up from his glory days in the abject failure that was the Vietnam antiwar movement. But the important lesson of Charlottesville is completely lost to Proyect, which is in the role the Antifa played in protecting religious pacifists from attack. Cornel West testified to this development, something that should be built upon. Leftists with integrity, who know when to shut the fuck up when they are out of their element of expertise, should support the Antifa, not hang them out to dry.
What Proyect does not understand is twofold: the nature of neo-fascism in the 21st Century and how a corresponding anti-fascism, to be effective, must be somewhat different from other forms of protest and organizing.
By definition Antifa organizing must contend with vigilante forms of attack–those that have their origins largely outside the state repressive aparatus. In other words, fighting racist assholes is not the same as going door-to-door collecting signatures for a ballot initiative or candidate, much less reviewing the latest art house cinema production.
The hinge that supports the door through which all revolutionary antifascists must pass–from a coherent definition of fascism to a retooling of anti-fascism–is intelligence, by which I mean spycraft. There is no substitute for knowing your enemy, preferably much better than they know themselves. No one else will do it. Cops reduce everything to their bailiwick: criminality. Reporters personalize the far right, always looking to sell a story. Academics do post-mortems with an eye towards predictability–usually unconnected with the flesh and blood Antifa struggle and therefore too little, too late. Liberals wring their hands about free speech and fumble about for that phantom limb within the democratic party that might deliver them from ‘hate’. Anti-fascists are the only political force intent on destroying both the conditions that continually regenerate fascism as well as the recurrence of the fascist plague itself.
This role can only be successfully carried out by anti-fascists who employ measures of antifa spycraft against our enemies. One cannot gain this critical advantage through anything other than counter-intelligence: no amount of long-form analyses of the falling rate of profit or the changing demographics of the working class will tell you this and it cannot be divined through oracles–whether in the form of tea leaves or data science. Anti-fascists must have the ability to infiltrate neo-fascists both to disrupt and neutralize their efforts and to protect communities they attack.
How to do this begins with a counterintuitive hidden in plain view. The state, law enforcement in particular, is governed by a set of regulations that are not the same as those that govern citizens and many others. People can engage in intelligence gathering in ways that are often (though not always) rendered problematic for a cop or official. Furthermore, the person of interest to an antifa spy is often not a public official but a private citizen, perhaps a public figure, in many ways more open to surveillance and their networks thereby to penetration. This also applies to the civic and political groups a far right activist works with. While it may be quite beyond the technical capability of an antifa activist to hack the confidential informant records of a local cop, it is certainly within their capability to wade through the trash of a local fascist.
Today, many Antifa groups continue in this same tradition with detailed, publicly available and actionable intelligence on far-right activists–mug shots, addresses, workplaces, quotations, etc. Furthermore, contrary to claims that it’s too expensive and/or complicated to practice spycraft (leave it to the professionals!?) amateur spies are essential to the Antifa. Another way to think about this is that the type of struggle the Antifa is engaged in will in large part determine its methods, much like clinic defense organizations have long utilized opposition researchers in their work defending clinics against the anti-abortion movement, especially when they cannot rely on the state to do so.
It should be obvious that fighting the far-right is not the same as fighing corporations or the state; and the Antifa is not synonymous with the Black Bloc, another elementary distinction that eludes Proyect, but will have to wait for another time.
To continue, a cop generally has to have ‘probable cause’ to search through someone’s garbage and will likely be required to leave a paper trail (digital footprint) of their activity. In other words, because of the oppositional nature of much of the far right–the fact that it occupies a contradictory relationship with the state, often outside of it and even opposed to it–forms of anti-fascist resistance can penetrate it by different means. Opportunities for disrupting the far right present themselves in ways that organizing a union drive at a multinational corporate factory do not, and, also, that creative intelligence work can provide the basis for work between communities that might not otherwise work together. This doesn’t, of course, mean that elements of the state don’t overlap with the far right (after all, Donald Trump is president) but that anti-fascists need to take the threat of their activism seriously.
In my experience the value of anti-fascist work was always best determined in close consultation with other radical groups and communities targeted by the far right. In “Death to the Klan” and Armed Antifascist Community Defense in the US (It’s Going Down, July 26, 2016) there is a useful review of such efforts in Portland, Oregon during the late 1980s and 1990s.
“…[groups] like the Red and Anarchist SkinHeads (RASH) and the SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs) found themselves in frequent battles with neo-fascists converging on Portland. A group called Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD) activated not just to beat back the onslaught of skinheads, but to transform racial consciousness in Portland. They used the strategies developed by ARA [Anti Racist Action] to expose and shame skinheads wherever they showed their faces, getting them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. However, when skinheads began to harass local members of the community, attacking their houses and cars, CHD devised a decentralized community self-defense strategy.”
In the same article an old Portland comrade of mine, M. Treloar, is interviewed by It’s Going Down activists and elaborates:
“There were several situations where our people who had concealed weapons were confronted by groups of boneheads and either pulled the weapon or made it clear that they were armed and the boneheads backed off…There is no doubt in my mind that in several instances they would have been attacked, since we had people who were taking down car license plate numbers, staking out houses or infiltrating gatherings.”
“The CHD mobilized to form a media defense position, which helped generate positive public opinion….What’s notable is again the people who attacked the boneheads after a certain point did very little time, and were generally hailed as heroes in the community…”
From very early on the work of the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland, Oregon (I was a founding member) targeted the social base of neo-fascism: white nationalism and the Christian Right. This definition intentionally cut across class lines–rendering racist reaction as neither the exclusive rotted fruit of the ruling class (capitalism releasing fascist antibodies to protect itself) nor principally the unresolved grievances of a white working class left behind by captialist development (two fairly typical myopic explanations of the re-emergence of the far-right.)
Back then, much as today, the issues of choice for far-rightists were anti-black and anti-latino racism and homophobia. It should be noted that at this time (1980s-1990s) the two main political parties and all statist anti-hate groups (SPLC, ADL, etc.), scrupulously avoided homophobia as a political issue and did not include bigoted elements of the Christian right nor anti-immigrant groups within their definition of ‘hate groups’. It was radical LGBTQ and fight-the-right activists who pushed them to do so by being more effective than they ever could be. But, nonetheless, organizing in the early nineties had to contend with the routine dismissals of the Christian Right as backwoods hicks, neo-Nazis as cults and criminals and racist skinheads as yet another counter-cultural youth rebellion, all destined to pass–if they hadn’t already–into the dustbin of history. But they didn’t, and neither did we. So many premature obituaries of the Paleo-conservatives and the Christian Right have been issued and reissued since then that it is staggering to consider not only their continued relevance today but their central role in the Trump electoral victory, and how spectacularly wrong those analysts were about their political prospects.
Many months after Trump’s victory, in a series of articles for Catalyst, Jacobin and New Left Review one of the most astute Marxist analysts today, Mike Davis, finally got around to noting the confluence of white nationalism and the Christian Right in Trump’s victory. That it took so long for the socialist left to make this observation is disturbing and highlights the fact that if anti-fascists lack the theoretical sophistication of New Left Review contributors, they more than make up for it by actually fighting fascism and capitalism, rather than just writing about it, after the fact.
On the other hand, if antifa groups want to have a say in how to oppose fascism, theoretical clarity is certainly important. The reason the best anti-fascist fighters have always come from socialist, anarchist and communist traditions is because they understood the first principle of anti-fascism: fascism is our mortal enemy, and must be fought.
Saying as much need not always involve alliances with liberals and conservatives that necessarily mean capitulation to those forces. If one has a decisive advantage in intelligence, it can be used to establish the political parameters of such alliances or agreements. If, however, antifa groups do not have an ‘intelligence capacity’ they will cede the right to effectively fight fascism, and thereby protect communities under attack, to others. That right, by the way, is earned; sometimes in a dumpster.