No Nazis on Rocky Top? Anti-racism in the age of Trump
Platypus Review 107 | June 2018
On February 17, 2018, the white-nationalist Traditionalist Workers’ Party (TWP) held a rally on the campus of the University of Tennessee. The rally was led by Matthew Heimbach, a central organizer of the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 in opposition to the planned removal of a public statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The TWP’s February 2018 rally on the University of Tennessee (UT) campus drew about 45 white nationalists, about 250 protesters, and about 200 law enforcement officers. UT allowed the TWP to hold its rally on the university campus despite the fact that no UT students or faculty had invited the TWP to campus; furthermore, the TWP’s rally neither addressed students nor included students in the invitation-only guest list for its campus rally. In light of these events, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation about the Left’s relation to racism and fascism on campus and in society at large. Speakers included Jordan Rogers, President of the UT chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA); Dr. Raja Swamy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UT; and Chris Irwin of the Appalachian Anti-Racist Action Tea Party. The event was moderated by Spencer Leonard of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the transcribed discussion, a video recording of which is available online at https://youtu.be/0IraVlyTocc.
Jordan Rogers: Living in the age of Trump, many young people are scrambling to figure out how to fight the hateful environment that has emerged around us. It seemed like the Traditionalist Workers Party had a presence on campus overnight. When they started spreading their propaganda, putting up posters, and vandalizing the Rock, some common sentiments I heard from students on campus were, “Where did they come from?” “Why are they here?” and “It is sad that we still have to have this discussion”—which it is. Students were startled by the fact that a wave of xenophobia was crashing around them and it was not confined to history books and news stories. Passive student opposition to the Nazis was exceptionally high, even if many took no action against them. For many students, this was the first time they had been exposed to blatant prejudice, to individuals or groups of people spreading hate speech and toting racist and fascist symbols with the aim of dividing people and instilling fear.
Organizations that revolve around blatant prejudice are growing. The TWP rally on campus was a wakeup call to the need for real organization and militancy against these hate groups—which is one of the only ways to fight them effectively. Groups like the TWP may try to flaunt their ideology, but at the end of the day they are cowards. We see this over and over again. Not only are they too timid to face us on the merits of their own beliefs—because their beliefs have no merits—but many are afraid to openly espouse their beliefs in public, choosing instead to operate in secret. The few who do proclaim their hatred in public are often punched by a good citizen doing their civic duty. That is often one of the best ways to fight these hate groups. If they are too afraid to organize then they may not organize. That fear is what led Richard Spencer to declare that Antifa is winning. That’s why he is cancelling his public appearances. The more we normalize hate speech, the more racists feel comfortable spewing it. I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that racists are too afraid to speak their mind.
But there is a problem with this tactic. You often cannot identify a racist just by looking at them. Even a classic stereotype about racists, that they are just poor rednecks with poor views, is not correct: All we have to do is look at the White House to see that racists and bigots can wear suits and look respectable too. We do not always know who these people are. They can be politicians, community leaders, businessmen, teachers etc. We have to kill the idea that there is any one type of person that spews these hateful views.
At the root of the issue, we have a system in place that is architecturally designed to discriminate against people of color: institutional racism. This is why we see the African American community making up 34% of the prison population, while only comprising 15% of the population of the U.S. This is why we see African American children being targeted disproportionately by police, making up 32% of all children who are arrested. In fact, according to the NAACP, if African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%. A white nationalist can look at this same statistic and claim, “minority populations are just violent; their parents did not raise them right; they need more Jesus in their lives.” But that’s simply not true. Minority communities are vilified and criminalized over arbitrary standards. John Ehrlichman, a former advisor to Nixon on domestic issues, once explained the philosophy behind the war on drugs by saying, “We could not make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” He goes on to say, “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Politicians today push this same narrative.
This narrative allows the “masters of mankind” (as Adam Smith called them) to make more money and remain in power. It can be extremely profitable for a politician to subjugate people and incriminate minority populations. Right now, 37 different states have allowed private companies to buy the labor power of inmates to increase production. Between 1980 and 1994 the profit margins associated with these prisons went up from 392 million to 1.3 billion, meaning that all those companies that invested in prisons made a lot of money. These prisoners are not required to make minimum wage and often make far less, with private prisons being worse offenders than public ones. The highest-paying private prison is in Tennessee, where inmates can earn a top income of 50 cents an hour. It’s no wonder that Jeff Sessions was so quick to reverse Obama-era mandates limiting private prison power. In fact, private prisons are booming under Trump. Core civic and CEO groups who own the majority of private prisons in the U.S. invested heavily in the Trump campaign because they thought they were going to get two things from him: low regulations on their prisons and a steady supply of prisoners.
This exploitation of marginalized people is a key element of institutional racism. There are far more examples of institutional racism than just prison labor: the way healthcare is distributed to minority populations (causing African Americans to have significantly higher rates of infant mortality), the structural bias in access to higher education (such that schools with majority black populations statistically hire teachers with less experience and are more likely to give harsher punishments to minority students), etc. These issues of institutional racism are deeply embedded in our system and are not going to go away overnight. Our system may not even have the capacity to deal with them.
There are many people who (as of today) we have to live with, but if we make no effort to change these institutions then we are tacitly perpetuating structural racism by participating in a system that encourages it. Institutions can be molded (within reasonable limits), so these evils can be alleviated and the pains can be dulled; one way to effect change is to be militant about our electoral politics. But as we all know, politicians are often to unwilling to change because change does not keep them in power. The real way to effect change is to organize around an issue.
Take UT as an example. Despite the fact that UT is an institution that has to protect itself and is not always on the students’ side, students have a tremendous amount of power against the administration because we pay a lot of money to be here. If we force their hand on an issue then they have to pay attention to us. And that’s true of almost all institutions. When Heimbach came to UT, a lot of people were disgusted by the administration’s apathy towards the issue. Students did their best to try and organize but the administration still did not listen. The administration put on a ceremony at the Rock, some sort of ineffective showcase, where people gathered around and painted their hands on it; that very same night, the TWP came back and vandalized it again with their Nazi propaganda. I had hoped that the administration would learn from that experience that the Nazis are an actual issue on campus, but I doubt they learned that much because they still allowed the Nazis to come. I do, however, have more faith that the students learned more from that experience than the administration. Hoping that we could just sit by and let the administration fix everything was an idle dream, and next time students will have the knowledge to have the militant organization needed when facing these racists.
The student body has a great deal of potential when we are nestled under the wing of the administration. Young people have been historically the ones to fight against injustice and make a stand for what is right. At UT, a truly united student body standing in solidarity with one another is something that no racist individual, organization, or administration can challenge.
Raja Swamy: Fascist organizations do not arise out of nothing. They have very strong social bases and the ideas that they espouse speak to audiences from particular spaces. These dangerous ideas come from spaces that are much more at home than most people would like to admit. The same students who express astonishment at these fascist events taking place are also mourning the fact that when they go to Thanksgiving dinner they are having conversations with that particular uncle or cousin who espouses pretty much the same kinds of fascist ideas. The United States is the only “real” democracy in the whole universe, if one were to listen to the rhetoric, but India is sometimes referred to as the world’s most populous democracy. Both the United States and India, interestingly, are authoritarian non-democracies. Just beneath this veneer of democracy are very anti-democratic, non-democratic forms of governance and structures and practices of power.
In India, a new Hindu right-wing government has been in power since the last general election in 2014, a government led by a man whose own political career was made within a movement that its own numbers referred to as a fascistic supremacist movement, the RSS. The RSS emerged in 1925, inspired by Mussolini, when Indian right-wingers sought the advice and help of the Italian fascist government to set up a parallel fascist project in India. Its leaders spoke of applying the example that Hitler was setting in his targeting and extermination of the Jewish population to India’s Muslim population. The RSS was a decidedly Hindu-chauvinist, Hindu-supremacist organization. After an RSS member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, the organization was banned for a couple of years, but strangely enough, it became unbanned, and by the 1960s and 1970s it became quite mainstream as a “social organization.” By the 1970s it had also established a political party that began trying to take power from the hands of the dominant nationalist party, the Indian National Congress, the party of Gandhi that had ruled India for several decades. After an attempted comeback in the 1990s, the party finally but rapidly achieved its last life in the 2014 elections, bringing to power Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India.
The RSS echoes the Trump administration in its commitment to two kinds of politics. On the one hand, the RSS stands very unambiguously and fervently for a Hindu-supremacist state, and this involves not only policy-making but also tacit and active coordination with a vast apparatus of fascist movements that exercise various forms of extralegal violence. This extralegal violence tends to work in coordination—or in conjunction, or with the sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink—of parts of the state. Time and again, mass violence against minorities targeted by the Hindu right wing elicits very little in terms of proactive, defensive responses from the state. At the same time, the state empowers these extralegal movements by providing new avenues for them to exercise power, as seen most recently in the so-called cow protection movement. The Hindu right likes to exercise the belief that Indians should be vegetarian, and first and foremost, that Indians should never eat cow meat or beef. Anybody accused of eating beef can be set upon by mobs and can be lynched and killed. This has happened many times in the last few years. Mob violence is now emboldened by the state; officials openly speak about the importance of cows. The government of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, announced yesterday a new venture to barter and market cow urine, apparently for medicinal purposes. At the same time that they are promoting these kinds of revanchist ideas, they are slashing health and education budgets, attacking the remnants of the welfare state, cutting subsidies for small producers and farmers, eliminating various kinds of affirmative action that provide avenues for entry into the workforce for marginalized and oppressed populations, etc. The second set of commitments, then, are neoliberal. As we’ve seen in the U.S., this commitment to neoliberalism results in a massive upward transfer of wealth. Fascism did not introduce social inequality but it has made that process much more efficient while at the same time eviscerating the post-colonial and the post-1940s presumptions about democracy, citizenship, equal rights, protection under the law, and so on. This is the critical moment we need to grasp, this combined and tacit alliance: the mob is organized, and the state provides not only legitimacy for its actions but utilizes the mob to advance its own interests. These interests are both supremacist in orientation and directed towards facilitating wealth transfer upwards to the rich while pushing back against any form of resistance to those processes. Social movements are criminalized; anybody who protests, whether against wage cuts or against a tax on the street, is criminalized; any kind of organizational efforts are criminalized.
That’s a very depressing picture, but the Left will always fight back, and the Left will fight back in new ways. That is why we are the Left. We will learn from our mistakes. Last week, 50,000 farmers in India marched from the city of Nashik, 200 kilometers by foot, to the city of Mumbai, the capital city of capitalism in India. These farmers assembled around the state legislature, handed a set of demands to the chief executive of the state, and got every single demand agreed to, right there and then, from a terrified government who never expected this from the very poor, the most marginalized. We have to draw inspiration from these moments. A Left that fights back is a Left that has to think clearly and cleverly about the conditions that exist today. We can draw inspiration from older fights, but the fights of today are the fights of today.
Chris Irwin: In the marketplace of ideas, bad ideas are supposed to be debated! When the TWP guys get debated, their ideas come apart like tissues in a hurricane. But the University of Tennessee made sure to say, “We’re not going to have any debate here.” The UT let the TWP screen everybody coming to their event, gave the TWP a building, gave them their own police escort. Meanwhile, UT alumni (such as myself) and UT students got to stand out in the cold rain. What fundamentally pissed me off about it was this idea that that’s what the First Amendment is, the right for one group of idiots to spout their insanity unopposed and undebated. The university made sure that’s exactly what happened.
For the marketplace of ideas to work, we have to confront them. We have to argue with them. We have to debate them. Because their ideas come apart when we do that. As far as punching them, I suck at violence, really. I’m not any good at it. I’m old, I’m overweight. But an argument in public with idiots? I have some skills. I’ve been to about 25 anti-Nazi/KKK rallies. I started in Newport, where the idiots burned a cross in the black mayor’s yard. We humiliated them. We crushed them. Every single time we confronted them in public, they’d lose. They don’t even lose—it’s not like a tiny loss. They get humiliated! It’s almost painful to watch. They’re “pro-environment,” anti-NAFTA, pro-steelworker. They’re here for all of you proud people. But then, you come up and you poke them just a little bit, and they lose it! One time in Morristown I was wearing this hat that looked a little funky. They started yelling at me, “Look, it’s the Taliban! He’s a Jew! Taliban-Jew!” And they started chanting, “Taliban-Jew!” The Taliban is recruiting Jews? That does not make any damn sense to me, and that’s the thing: Every time you poke them and debate them, the crazy comes out. They cannot help it. The only time they win is when we do not confront them, when we do not debate them, when we do not argue with them.
At the beginning of our counter-rallies, the neoliberals always say, “Lets close our eyes, get on our magical unicorn, and just ignore them away.” And every time I hear them I ask, “Can you please point at a single time in history when ignoring evil and hatred has ever worked?” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “When you’re silent in the face of evil, you are not only complicit, you are as good as actively participating in it.” Silence in the face of evil is complicity. It never works out not to confront these guys. They love it when they’re not confronted. You know why? They make their YouTube videos and they recruit people, and that’s what this is about. They’re flipping rocks as quickly as they can to see if they can get anybody to come out from the rocks and join their ranks—even one or two people at a time. When we do not confront them, they get the media. When we show up we steal half of them. That’s why they counted on the University of Tennessee to insulate them from any discussion or debate: because in the field of debate, they lose every time. When we do not show up and confront these fools, they march.
The first rally I organized against the KKK was in Asheville. The KKK was going to march through Asheville. Asheville actually does have an African American population; it is just really segregated. 3,000 people from Asheville poured out on the streets and told the KKK, “Not in our town! This is not the ‘50s, you do not get to march unopposed.” My favorite footage was of this little old woman: When the Grand Dragon was marching through, she yelled, “I know him! He hits on me in the 7-Eleven every single morning!” By the next morning, when I got on the bus in Asheville, something had changed. African Americans and people on the bus were excited. The footage that runs in a lot of Americans’ heads is the black-and-white footage of the KKK walking through town and the terrified townspeople hiding. Overnight, their image of their own hometown changed from that to a town where 3,000 people would show up and mock and humiliate the KKK and say, “Not in our damn town! You are not welcome here!”
We can do that. It is not just that we can shut them down. It is not just that we can humiliate them and argue them to pieces to the point where they lose it and say crazy stuff We can change the footage in people’s heads. That is an opportunity. We can only waste it when we do not show up, when we do not confront them, when we do not organize, when we start fighting among ourselves rather than fighting in our society.
JR: I agree that it is disgusting how much special treatment the UT administration gave the Nazis. UT must have spent an exorbitant amount of money just to protect the Nazis. It is ludicrous that the TWP screened the people that went into the event; If you went onto their website to sign up to go there, you had to have a voucher from someone already in the organization who knew you. That significantly limits the free marketplace of ideas, which I am all for. But the one bad thing about it is that debating these people gives legitimacy to their ideas. I do not want to live in a society where I have to debate Nazis, fascists, and racists every day. I have far better things to do with my time. I’d rather be doing something constructive instead of just arguing with people with hateful views. There is a need for militancy against these people, and there is a need for rational debate, but we have to find a mix between the two, so that we’re not focusing all of our efforts on fighting these few fringe groups and people with poor views.
RS: About ten years ago, if we heard a story about some Hindu right-wing, fascist person saying something about the benefits of cow urine or the need to kill all the “others,” the responses to that would have been—and were—very much dismissive: “These people are crazy; they’re clowns; they’re stupid; they’re idiots.” But today they are ruling the country, a country of 1.2 billion people, most of whom are at the mercy of the policies, fancies, and idiocies of this group of clowns. The people promoting cow urine are today in the driver’s seat. So I would not dismiss these types of movements offhand. It is important to take them seriously, because they are dangerous and history has provided us several examples of their danger. Mussolini was kind of a clownish character before he took power. Hitler was a clownish character in the 1920s. In 1933, the very Germans who had dismissed Hitler 10 years earlier, including large sections of the Social-Democratic middle—the spiritual ancestors of the Social Democratic Party of India or the Indian National Congress—were still dismissive and did not take the Nazis seriously. Soon enough, when the Nazis came to power, the Social Democrats—who in many ways encouraged that mocking attitude—did not have a clue as to how to fight back. So, I think it is important to mock them and to expose their shallowness, but we have to simultaneously—as I think events today are proving—be constantly imagining and taking forward the positive fights. What are we fighting for? What do we want? We want socialized medicine. We want healthcare for all. We want education. We want rights. We want wages. We want equality. We want an end to police brutality. Only that kind of perspective can produce the political momentum needed to fight back against fascist regimes.
CI: Truths. You know what’s an ugly truth? We’re being out-organized in some ways. They’re doing Twitter, they’re doing Facebook—but they’re also putting flyers up. Nobody does that on the Left anymore. We’ve more or less disappeared within the electronic frontier. They’re doing a ground game. They’re chalking. One of their tactics is two weeks before an action to flyer up a minority neighborhood with five or six really racist flyers, and then call the media on themselves. The media comes out, takes a picture of these eight or nine flyers, and reports, “Oh my god, there must be thousands of these!” The media posts it and then everybody on Facebook and social media—it is called a “force magnifier”—takes it, puts it out, and they’re turning eight or nine flyers into 10,000-15,000 hits. Here in Knoxville, the TWP is training. They’re doing fight clubs and beating each other bloody. They’re practicing shooting. We know what their vision of the world is. They’re practicing with guns. They’re organizing. They have a Stormfront gathering where they meet once a year. They’re talking about losing the pointy hats and the swastikas. They’re meeting at Am-Ren [American Renaissance] in Nashville and organizing cell-based activity in individual towns where they’re flyering and working together. I do not see that kind of organization happening from our end of the party, and that’s scary.
The word “antifa” has almost become a pejorative in a lot of society today. But that word comes from “antifascist.” I have my grandfather’s letters from when he was in the 63rd Airborne. His infantry division was called “Blood and Fire”: They spread blood and fire through the Nazi ranks. That was two generations ago, when 400,000 Americans soldiers died fighting the Nazis. Now we’re having Nazi meetings at the University of Tennessee, and the dialogue has gotten so out of control that the word “antifa” can be used as a pejorative against people whose grandparents fought and died against the fascists.
RS: As much as we like to wish that these are marginal characters, we must remind ourselves that a significant majority of the American public voted for Donald Trump. A significant number of white folks voted for Donald Trump, no matter how bad and how open his racism and xenophobia, his hatred, and his utter contempt for the things most people would consider decent human values. A very large number of Hindus in India voted for Narendra Modi, who was very clearly complicit in—and in fact, supervised—one of the worst genocides in modern India. In 2002 more than 2,000 Muslim men, women, and children were massacred under his watch, and he was the chief executive of the state of Gujarat. His organizations were involved in the killings. His police force was involved in the killings. His civil legislators were involved in covering up the killings. He rewarded those who were directly involved in the killings. He wanted them in state positions. He went on to become Prime Minister of India.
Right-wing sympathies are a systemic problem that we have to address systemically. It is not the sum total of the malicious intents of individuals. Not every single German in Nazi Germany was an evil, hateful, bigoted, terrible human being. But the sum total of the consensus resulted in what was arguably the worst genocide in modern history.
If Trump is cutting back all kinds of social spending and attacking with a vengeance various kinds of allocations for the poor, for social spending, etc., he did not invent this process. It started before and the foundations for this were laid far back. One could look at the Clinton administration in the 1990s. The criminalization and incarceration of a large number of African American people was hateful and intensified in the Clinton administration. “‘Three strikes,’ you’re out” came under Clinton, so let’s not forget that there’s a pathway to this.
Nixon wasn’t just responding to hidden hatreds and prejudices. He was responding to the threat of a politicized African American movement that was changing a very fundamental way in which white supremacy worked by contesting the material claims of white supremacy to monopoly over the state, monopoly over education, monopoly over health, monopoly over rights of citizens. The pushback against civil rights was part of the strategy involving criminalization and incarceration that recreated racism along different lines. When we think of how neoliberalism works in this context, in both the Indian case as well as the United States, one sees a long, sustained period of assaults on the remnants of the social welfare state—and these assaults started with the Social Democrats. They were not an innovation of the right wing. The right wing is more efficient at vocalizing it, because the right wing can solve one particular “problem,” the problem of resistance. To fight back means not simply invoking the 1990s and the Clinton-era markers of what it means to be a democracy. That too is inadequate.
Where there is neoliberal policy, there is soon thereafter the rise of right-wing (including white) nationalism from the native peoples that are affected by that neoliberal policy. Examples would be Russia in the 90s and the rise of the Putin regime; India; and the Middle East as a whole, where Islamic nationalism arose in response to neoliberal American foreign policy. At the same time we have neoliberals such as Hillary Clinton claiming a monopoly on anti-racism and anti-sexism in America. Where does the Left stand in the face of this? The Left in the U.S. has no media representation, no power whatsoever; the Left that has the antidote to this neoliberal policy is buffered out of power by the existence of the Democrats, who are actually the ones pushing racist policy. What does the Left do in that case?
RS: How do we speak with the Democrats? We must always speak with them, no doubt, but from the Left, from their left. We cannot leave the struggles of today in the hands of those who say one thing and consistently, without fail, do the opposite; who speak the language of populism but make deals with billionaires; who speak the language of the emancipation and equality but make all kinds of concessions with white-supremacist agendas. We should be able to call them out without fail. And in that regard, we need more argument. Only through more argument will the Left actually become the Left. We’re constantly being thrown under the bus by all kinds of wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road players who speak in terms of the “Big Tent” and “let’s get together,” but are nowhere to be seen as soon as real kinds of issues crop up. This is why Black Lives Matter is so important: because it comes from its own space, it comes from an autonomous space. It was not the product of the Democratic Party. It did not come because of the blessings of some liberal establishment. It came straight from the heart of the people experiencing the worst kinds of violence from the armed state. The language of resistance to the armed state, the language of “we’re not going to sit down until you put an end to this,” is the uncompromising character of the riled Left that we need to invoke and draw inspiration from.
The event description for this panel asked about the Popular Front against fascism—when the Communist Party subordinated itself, submerged itself, into the Democratic Party in the 1930s. At that time there was a leftist party, for all of its problems, that was supporting the Democrats. Now there’s no leftist party whatsoever, so we can argue, and we can criticize them from the Left, but the Democrats are the only game in town at the level of power as far the Left is concerned. That’s a very real problem, one that young people are more aware of, actually, than was the case in the days of anti-apartheid solidarity. We have since had the experience of the anti-war movement electing Obama, and a lot of the contemporary anti-racist and anti-fascist sentiment very much runs the risk of electing the Democrats and running into the sands—the risk that whatever energy there might be after the election of Trump really will do nothing more than elect the Democrats that are very likely to be farther to the right than the most recent Democrats.
CI: As an anarchist, and not a Commie, I’ve got a different perspective. In the 1930s they rounded us up in the Hobbes Act and put us in camps. From an anarchist perspective, the Republicans and Democrats look largely the same. We used to say, “Different puppets, same masters.” All definitions of fascism came from Mussolini, from the idea of the combination of state power and corporate power. Look at where we’re at right now! Trump has taken the smiley face off of fascism. Under Obama and Clinton we got a damn smiley face: The corporations owned our government; special interests controlled everything; Congress was a millionaire’s club; and they moved the furniture around between the Democrats and the Republicans. That’s a fundamental truth, and I think it explains why so many Americans do not vote. We get our choices: friendly fascism straight-up under Trump, or the smiley face on the top of it? The corporations are running our civilization and our democracy over a cliff like lemmings. They would dump Trump in a heartbeat as long as they could keep being in control.
We have a more fundamental problem that goes beyond Democrats and Republicans: Democracy that has been hijacked for special interests. If we take Aristotle's hypothesis that in democracy there’s a pre-revolutionary period where the oligarchs gain control of the state, until it gets so bad that people have to rebel and demand a more egalitarian society, then that opens up some interesting questions. Where do we place ourselves in that process right now? What does a more egalitarian society look like? Where would you want us to be on the other end of the next American revolution?
JR: As a reformed Democrat—I’m not one anymore, just to make that very clear—I feel inclined to say that Democrats often brand themselves as the only ones who care for social justice, for these things that we are fighting for every day. My only question is, what are they doing right now? The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are often two sides of the same coin, and when you flip that coin every so often, I call that false democracy. Democracy is not “every four years you suddenly see a bunch of ads for electing our next president.” I think a lot of students realize that, because they see these issues around them and they want to do something. What do they do? They go to the Democratic Party, and the Democrats do not really care. What is the Democratic party doing right now? Are they trying to better the lives of everyone? Are they organizing to bring down this racist administration? No, they are biding their time a few more years until their re-election comes around so they can say, “We’re on your side. We can do this for you. Just vote us in power.” It is not going to happen. Even if the Democratic Party does try to do a few things—even if they try to push universal healthcare—it will be very limited because they’re still working within the system that breeds these injustices, and they’re still promoting that false democracy that is going to keep us all confined.
Regarding neo-Nazis on campus, it seemed like there’s an idea within this discussion that UT students are not really racist because they did not show up to the TWP rally. It’s alluring to pretend that UT students would have to show up there to prove themselves racists, but racists can be in the frat house and be as empowered as they want to be there. The conversations about race and anti-racism are being directed to the wrong places; this in-group talking that we’re doing is backwards. We all understand anti-racism. The conversations need to be had with people who do not want to talk about anti-racism, not those who want to come into this room. As a black woman, I feel I should not be held responsible for teaching white people about racism. Where is the accountability from our white student body, from our white faculty, from the people who are here and in power? Where is that action?
RS: When it was announced last August that the right wing was organizing a rally against the removal of the Confederate monument, many of us faculty, students, and communities of color on this campus were quite torn about what to do. We asked the same question: It is probably time for white folks to step up, right? A lot of these white folks go to Thanksgiving dinners where those unpleasant conversations happen, particularly after the election of Trump. You go home and think, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with these people?” But you have to talk to them! You have to argue with them! Your uncle is not going to kill you; he may not like you, but he’s not going to kill you. You have to piss him off. Family should also be held to the same standards and values we hold dear as human beings. I think it is time for people in majority communities to do their homework, to step up those arguments and those conversations. “No, Dad, that’s wrong. I do not really care what Rush Limbaugh says—it is bullshit!” We should be able to say that and to speak truth to power within those spaces. To back out from that is the worst way to express any kind of solidarity. A lot of people are saying, “I’m not like them, and I’m going to stay away.” That’s not enough. Go out there and confront them!
To turn that around, is not the conversation also about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party? It is a big mistake to argue that conservatism is restricted to the “white community” (which I do not even believe exists). The segregation of the Left is a real issue, and the pitfall; I do not think anybody’s family is devoid of conservatism. Leftists are pretty rare, and I’ve met very few “red diaper babies” in Tennessee, of any kind—Communist or anarchists.
CI: One of the common threads we heard in the anti-protest I helped organize for the neoliberals was, “We need to step back. We need to let the African American community, the Hispanic immigrant community, step forward and take the lead against these guys.” And I thought about it for a minute, and said, “Wait a second. There ain’t no brothers or sisters under those hoods. Those are white people! And they’re there saying they’re there to protect white people, and that they’re killing people to protect white people. But you want me to say, conveniently, ‘I’ve got to step back and let the people they want to kill get in front of me. That’s just not my responsibility.’ But there are no brothers and sisters under those hoods. They’re our responsibility.” These fools are ready to kill, burn churches, murder, to say they’re there to protect us. That’s why we’ve got to be up there, why we’ve got to confront them.
JR: I would agree with the idea that white people should take a step back and let these minority populations decide their own fates to the extent that white communities do need to work with these marginalized groups, but we have to understand that there is only so much that we can do by fracturing ourselves. This idea of letting one group of people take over and take the reins and control everything is fine, but we have to realize that there’s only so much we can do if we’re not united and we’re not supporting each other in these movements. If we are this fractured, and if we want only a certain group to deal with a certain issue, then nothing is ever going to get done. We have to work together, we have to open up the discussion together, and the longer we’re unwilling to do that, the more the issue is going to get perpetuated. We can debate all day about who should do what—but then we should be doing what we can with the tools we do have.
I agree with everything you said about the Democratic National Committee and neoliberalism, but now people on the Left are pushing back against people who are not as left as we are, and there’s this competition to be the furthest left of anybody that you know. It alienates people who are moderate or centrist but who are moving towards the Left. We should welcome those people and be in solidarity with them. There is a real struggle within the Democratic Party right now. However hopeful you think that struggle is, those people are really fighting the good fight, and it is not right to paint everyone in the Democratic Party with the same brush.
I’m a committed socialist. We are all the working class that I’m fighting for. No matter what shade of color your skin is, you’re being duped by the people that are trying to divide and conquer. Trump capitalized on racism to divide a lot of white working-class voters. In the conversations I have with them, I try to help these folks. I tell them, “You’re being duped. Look at what Trump has put through. Has that really helped you? Carrier jobs are being shipped to Mexico.” In the 1930s, the labor organizer Myles Horton would sit down with all the racists and say, “If you don’t fight together you’re gonna fall together.” That is the only way we can win these folks over.
If you had somebody in the room with you who identified as right-leaning, a conservative, a Trump voter, I think it’s highly probable that they would deny being racist or misogynistic or ignorant or backwards. Rather, they would say they’re concerned about their job, they’re concerned about free speech, etc. How do we feel about believing them? How do we feel about treating them as victims of the same capitalist system? It is my contention that behind every attitude is a real political concern and I want to know how a Left would speak to this.
The answer to that question is that our policy on the Left would help those people.
Let’s be clear about the nature of racism. It emerged in tandem with capitalism.
RS: Mocking the articulation of very offensive, stupid, and problematic opinions is not the solution. One solution is to demonstrate, through examples and illustrations, that your interests and those who speak for you are not merely dissimilar but also in contradiction to one another. The same guy who says, “We’re white, we’re on the same side”—he killed your healthcare. To get at those contradictions is critical for the Left, but to get at those contradictions requires an engagement with material realities as well. It is one thing to be outraged by idiocies, but it is another thing to provide a material critique of existing realities and propose an alternative. And to do this is hard work, because there is a significant investment in racism in the working class. A lot of white folks enjoy being racist. That’s a fact. The Nazis were duped; they were also participants in that process. Real, tangible events constructed the racist mind-set: The Virginia statutes enforced new slave codes after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, and in these documents you see the first use of the term “white.” Before that, they referred to Christians, Gentiles, and so forth, but now they became “white.” The false solidarity that got established has real, tangible benefits for folks who have felt this way. So, we’ve got to take both into account: People are duped into racism but put significant investment into it.
JR: Historically, capitalism has been used as a rather effective tool for dividing people and pinning one group against another, and racism is one of those byproducts, although it has its own history outside of capitalism. When talking with Trump supporters, it does not do much good to ridicule them or just say, “You’re racist.” The more effective thing to say is, “You’re supporting a person whose policies are going to screw you over, and this is why you’re going to be screwed.” Give them a bullet-point list of policies. It does not matter if they end up saying, “We should build a wall.” Even if they hold problematic or stupid beliefs, if they think it is against their best interest to vote for someone who is going to enact these policies then they will not vote for them. If they see that they are going to get screwed over, and that the group that they’re fighting against—minority populations or other groups—are going to get screwed over, too, then there’s the possibility for solidarity between these groups. We just have to figure out how to tap into it. I do believe people who hold hateful views can be reformed. People change their minds over time, sometimes. It is really about working to make people’s lives better. The more we try to do that, the more we’ll see people saying, “My neighbor is not as bad as I thought. Maybe I should not hate that group of people; they have the same struggles as me.” More people will see that the possibility to work together is far more productive than simply killing each other.
CI: To point out the obvious, the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump. In Asheville I was a painter in an old folks’ home. I’m a criminal defense lawyer now—guns and drugs is my business—but back then, I painted. There was this right-wing woman, 69 or 70, and everybody was waiting for us to confront each other. I found myself alone with her, and I said, “I do not trust the government.” She looked at me and said, “I do not trust the government either.” I said, “I think corporations control the government, they have too much power.” She said, “I think corporations have too much power and are taking over the government!” I laid out the mainline anarchist philosophy, and you know what I found out? We had a lot more in common than we had separate. We need to put aside Democrat and Republican and all the bipolar bickering that has been set up. If I had said, “I’m a Democrat,” it would have been over.
When I was involved in the anti-strip-mine civil disobedience campaign, Mountain Justice, we went door to door to the trailers in every single community where the coal miners lived, and we talked to these people. We drafted anarchists from Boston that had never been out of the city. They were black and were terrified of being out in the woods. One of them came up to me and said, “They’re having a barbecue, they’re going to feed me deer meat, and they said they’re collecting guns because they expect a revolution to come because they do not trust the government!” These urban anarchist activists found out they had more in common with these rural people living in these exploited coal communities than they did with the wealthy and powerful that are manipulating both sides.
Don’t get me wrong: There are some people out there that are just damn fools, and they won’t ever listen to common sense. But we can get through to people. They’re poor, they’re struggling, they’re fighting, they’re being sold a bill of goods, and occasionally, if we can put down all of our labels, we can talk—not always, but sometimes. And those conversations could be more interesting than the ones you have with the people who agree lock-step with the way you think. Those are the conversations we’ve got to have. |P
Transcribed by Matt Cavagrotti.