The Fetishization of Violence: Reflections on Charlottesville, WWII and Activism

Photo by stavros karabinas | CC BY 2.0

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie – the truth lies outside, in what we do.”

― Slavoj Žižek

A Most Violent Nation

In the United States of America, violence remains one of our greatest pastimes. From slaughtering Native Americans and enslaving, torturing and killing African Americans, to conquering Filipinos and incinerating the Vietnamese, the history of the U.S. reads like a horror story. Without question, this is a nation built and maintained by violence.

Today, Americans shoot and kill each other and themselves at unprecedented levels, and disproportionately when compared to our industrialized counterparts. Uncle Sam, as Chris Hedges routinely mentions, speaks in the “language of violence.” When children grow up watching their presidents and civic leaders threaten to use violence, it should come as no surprise when those same children resort to violence to solve their problems.

Growing up, I was immersed in violence, both personally and socially. My father’s friends spent their time on the streets. They understood how violence works in the real world. They also understood the utility of violence. But they paid the price for their devotion to violence. Many of them turned into alcoholics. Some died from drugs. Others are in jail. Their families and victims pay the ultimate price.

I was born in 1984. I grew up on COPS, Rambo and Navy Seals. I played with toy guns, and eventually, real ones. I grew up shooting. I grew up with cops and military veterans visiting our childhood homes. They spoke in the language of violence. They drank, and smoked, and cursed. They were angry. They remain angry.

Violence, when employed correctly, is extremely effective. That’s why it’s so tempting to use violence as a means to an end. People who argue that violence solves nothing have never encountered much violence. Unfortunately, violence is horrifically powerful and quite useful in many contexts. That said, the long-term social, ecological and cultural consequences of violent behavior are equally destructive.

From the perspective of a nation-state, violence can solve short-term issues, but it cannot solve complex long-term challenges such as climate change, institutional racism, militarism, etc. Right now, U.S. Empire is quickly learning the limitations of protracted violence. The U.S. Empire is collapsing under its own weight, as the historian Alfred McCoy routinely notes.

Any empire, republic, political movement or individual who bases their movement on violence will ultimately succumb to extreme violence. The more the state apparatus lashes out in violent ways, and the more rightwing extremists engage in terrorism, the more likely the Left will respond with violence (a point we’ll return to later in the essay). The cycle of violence must end, and soon.

Breaking from 400 years of colonial history and violence will not be easy, but it can be done. There is no law or rule that says we must continue down this violent and destructive path. However, much like a life-long alcoholic, it will take great efforts to change the mindset and culture that encourages people to think and behave violently. More importantly, we must dismantle the economic, cultural, social and psychological institutions and mechanisms that create the conditions for violence.

The Charlottesville—Military Connection

James Alex Fields Jr., the rightwing terrorist who drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather D. Heyer and injuring another 20 people, is an Army veteran. According to media reports, Fields was a loner and a confused teenager who became interested in WWII and Nazis during his high school years. Since the attack, pictures have surfaced showing Fields participating in Vanguard America rallies.

While Fields represents the sort of misguided and irrational terrorists he likely despises, the more interesting character in this tragedy is Dylan Ulysses Hopper, the CEO of Vanguard America, and one of the primary organizers for rightwing groups who descended on Charlottesville.

Hopper, a former Marine Corps sergeant, officially became a white supremacist in 2012, around the same time he became a Marine Corps recruiter in Ohio. Quickly, Hopper ascended the ranks of Vanguard America, using his recruitment skills and military training to boost the ranks of the white supremacist organization. Hopper, a veteran of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, represents a growing trend in the U.S. military. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing an FBI study:

White supremacist leaders are making a concerted effort to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new FBI report. The unclassified FBI Intelligence Assessment, titled ‘White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11,’ bolsters the findings of a 2006 Intelligence Report exposé that revealed that alarming numbers of racist extremists were taking advantage of lowered wartime recruiting standards to enlist in the armed services.

‘Military experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement as a result of recruitment campaigns by extremist groups and self-recruitment by veterans sympathetic to white supremacist causes,’ the FBI report states. ‘Extremist leaders seek to recruit members with military experience in order to exploit their discipline, knowledge of firearms, explosives and tactical skills as well as [in the case of active duty soldiers] their access to weapons and intelligence.’

Of course, none of this should come as a great surprise. An institution that’s built on racism, genocide, xenophobia, dehumanization, extreme violence and toxic masculinity should be expected to create such monsters. From the Hells Angels to the Oklahoma City bombing, white supremacists have always found comfort within the ranks of the U.S. military.

During my time in the Marine Corps, it was routine to hear my fellow jarheads refer to black marines as ‘dark green,’ or worse, ‘niggers.’ Iraqis and Afghans were referred to as ‘Hajis,’ ‘towel heads’ or ‘sand-niggers.’ Female marines were called ‘WM’s,’ which stands for ‘Walking Mattresses.’ Hispanic marines were labeled ‘wetbacks’ or ‘spics.’ And Asian marines were routinely called ‘gooks’ or ‘rice patties.’

This sort of behavior and regressive ideology is prevalent in many institutions that are dominated by white men, including sports teams, fire departments and police departments. Remember Officer Jason Lai of the San Francisco Police Department? He was the cop who got busted sending texts to fellow officers that read, “I hate that beaner but the Nig is worse!” “Indian ppl are disgusting!” And, “Burn down Walgreens and kill the bums!”

Officer Lai, of Asian American descent, fully identified with and espoused the sort of rightwing-reactionary views of his white supremacist colleagues in the SFPD. And to think, we’re talking about San Francisco, not Miami, Birmingham, St. Louis or Chicago. One can only assume that the majority of Lai’s fellow police officers in the SFPD hold similar views. One can only imagine what police officers in various departments across the U.S. think about people of color, the poor, Muslims or protesters.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we don’t have to guess as we have more than enough evidence to prove that these sort of racist and violent outbursts are not isolated incidents. Ongoing and past tragedies, from Charlottesville to Oklahoma City, are nauseatingly predictable. Institutions such as the military inherently feeds the white supremacy that plagues American society and culture.

The Myth of World War II & The Power of Propaganda

In light of recent events, online activists and others have taken to posting pictures of troops storming the beaches of Normandy as a way to tie current anti-Fascist struggles to the defeat of Italian Fascism and German Nazism during World War II. The problem with this sort of reactionary protest is that it feeds the ongoing myths surrounding WWII: namely, the notion that the U.S. got involved in the war to defeat Fascism and Nazism.

The U.S. Empire, like all previous empires, does not engage in wars because it’s the right or moral thing to do. The U.S. Empire has interests. And its interests are not our interests. If within the scope of U.S. imperial interests something positive takes place, such as the defeat of Nazism, it’s a mere coincidence, not a calculated objective. The primary objective of nation-states are not moral crusades (though moral crusades under the guise of enlightened Christianity were commonly used to dominate people around the globe), the primary objective of nation-states is to consolidate and wield power.

Without doubt, the momentary defeat of Nazism and Fascism should be hailed, but not in the way in which it’s currently being lauded. Remember, the Communists defeated Fascism, not the Americans. Some estimates suggest that the Soviet Union lost close to 27 million people during WWII. The Communists bore the brunt of Fascism and Nazism. Yet, Americans revel in the myth that our 500,000+ deaths were the deciding factor in the war effort. Let’s also remember the hundreds of thousands of anarchists, communists, socialists, Jews, Gypsies and others who valiantly fought against Fascism.

Today, the myths surrounding WWII continue to haunt the American psyche, crippling our ability to critically examine U.S. history, ideology and nationalism. Most Americans have concluded that our war against Japan was just, and our efforts against the Germans and Italians righteous. Yet, as the late-great historian Howard Zinn notes in his classic work, A People’s History of the United States:

When Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. declared an embargo on munitions but let American businesses send oil to Italy in huge quantities, which was essential to Italy’s carrying on the war. When a Fascist rebellion took place in Spain in 1936 against the elected socialist-liberal government, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that had the effect of shutting off help to the Spanish government while Hitler and Mussolini gave critical aid to Franco. Offner says:

“… the United States went beyond even the legal requirements of its neutrality legislation. Had aid been forthcoming from the United States and from England and France, considering that Hitler’s position on aid to France was not firm at least until November 1936, the Spanish Republicans could well have triumphed. Instead, Germany gained every advantage from the Spanish civil war.”

Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable. Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion for victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power.

It was not Hitler’s attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy’s attack on Ethiopia, Hitler’s invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland-none of those events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important aid to England. What brought the United States fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane concern for Japan’s bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt’s outraged call for war-Japan’s attack on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at Nan king, had not provoked the United States to war. It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.

So long as Japan remained a well-behaved member of that imperial club of Great Powers who-in keeping with the Open Door Policy- were sharing the exploitation of China, the United States did not object. It had exchanged notes with Japan in 1917 saying ‘the Government of the United States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China.’ In 1928, according to Akira Iriye (After Imperialism), American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops. It was when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed and took those measures which led to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron, a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.

Leaving aside the justification for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s important to remember that prior to WWII, the U.S. had an atrocious track-record of defending struggles for freedom and democracy.

Ask the Libyans (1801-1805), Haitians (1791-1804. 1888, 1891, 1914, 1915-1934), Cubans (1814-1825, 1906-1909, 1912, 1917-1922, 1933) Filipinos (1899-1913), Mexicans (1806-1810, 1842, 1846-1848, 1859, 1866, 1873-1896), Puerto Ricans (1814-1825), Chinese (1843, 1854, 1855, 1866, 1894-1895, 1899, 1900, 1911-1941), Russians (1918-1920), Nicaraguans (1853-1857, 1867, 1894-1899, 1910-1925), Panamanians (1856, 1865, 1885, 1912-1925), Algerians (1815), Hawaiians (1870, 1874, 1889-1893),  or Guatemalans (1920) — just to name a few occasions when the U.S. military was used to protect U.S. interests and repress struggles for freedom and democracy.

Instead of glorifying state-sanctioned violence, activists in the U.S. would be wise to highlight the real heroes of WWII, people such as Gunnar Eilifsen, those who participated in the Warsaw Uprising, Irena Sandler, Lepa Radic, and countless unnamed others who defending their families and communities from Nazism and Fascism. They weren’t drafted. And they weren’t backed by the most powerful military empire in the world. They were true resistance fighters, and we should remember their sacrifices.

Meanwhile, we should do our best to challenge U.S. nationalism, historical myths and the fetishization of violence, which has reared its ugly head in light of recent white supremacist attacks on leftwing protesters. In the end, WWII was the single-greatest tragedy in the history of the human species. And that’s exactly how it should be remembered.

Antifa, Redneck Revolt, Black Bloc and The Left

Recently, I posted an article written by Louis Proyect entitled, “Antifa and the Perils of Adventurism,” on social media and received some limited backlash, but also some interesting reflections. Unfortunately, it’s clear that many people in the U.S., including seasoned activists and organizers, are having a very difficult time processing recent events in a way that’s not overly emotional or irrational in nature.

One person wrote, “Bottom line: Either you’re with Antifa or you’re with the Fascists!” This lack of nuance is symbolic of a Left that doesn’t look in the mirror, a Left that refuses to ask serious questions about its movements, organizations and members, and a Left that lacks discipline, vision and strategy. Remember, vision should dictate strategy, which in turn dictates tactics. Today, many leftists in the U.S. have the equation backward: they focus on tactics first, fail to discuss strategy, and a lack a long-term vision.

Existing anti-Fascist groups such as Antifa and the more militant organization Redneck Revolt, have filled a vacuum at protests, but their tactics are sloppy and their strategy and vision is non-existent. The overwhelming majority of Antifa activists are white, male, middle-class and disconnected from the ongoing day-to-day efforts of organizers and activists. To be fair, some do all of the above, but that’s a rare breed.

Proyect’s point about ‘adventurism’ is well understood: I’ve encountered many ‘adventurists’ over the years, especially during the Occupy Wall Street protests. I also experienced similar phenomena at antiwar protests during the Bush Era. In Charlottesville, the evidence is clear that leftwing protesters weren’t prepared for the Right’s violence, nor were they prepared to provide security for their marches.

As I watched video clips of Fields’ grey Dodge Charger ramming into a crowd of protesters, killing one, I immediately thought to myself: “Why was no one watching their six?” — military terminology for, “Who’s covering the perimeter and our backs?” Undoubtedly, it’s easy to make such critiques from the sidelines, but I’ve been in similar situations, notably in Iraq.

If leftwing activists are serious about security, especially at protests, they would enlist the help of antiwar veterans who have the knowledge and skills to provide the sort of security that’s required at such events. We know how to set up perimeter security. We know how to conduct vehicle check-points. And we know how to stand post. We know how to march in unison, follow direct orders and give direct orders. We know how to patrol city streets, and we know how to operate in teams of 4o (platoon), 12 (squad team) and 4 (fireteam).

Each person has a specific task. Each person’s task operates in tandem with other members’ tasks and skills. Everyone is trained in these skills and tasks for months and years at a time. The training process never ends. Indeed, even in the most disciplined and strict units, grave mistakes were made. People were killed during training exercises. And plenty of folks were injured.

You see, I have no moral qualms about violence or militant resistance. In fact, in many contexts, it’s absolutely required for survival. Here, in the U.S., however, I worry that my leftwing friends are getting ahead of themselves. Should communities be able to defend themselves? Absolutely. But what does that actually look like in the real world?

I would like to break down our security dilemma into three sections:

Internal Security: Are the activists who seek to provide protection at rallies (Antifa, for instance) operating in affinity groups? If not, they should. And to be clear, there are many different forms of affinity groups. What mechanisms are they using for communication? Person-to-person is the best, but there are also supposedly secure electronic applications available. Are activists talking about their challenges and plans on social media, via email or on the web? If so, they’re breaking some of the fundamental rules of security culture. Existing leftwing organizations should be having difficult discussions about the sort of security culture they wish to see in their respective organizations. Over the past 11 years, I’ve seen very little to convince me that this sort of sophisticated organizing is taking place on a broad scale. On the other hand, leftwing activists must be careful not to over-exaggerate our security threat. I’ve seen plenty of folks fall prey to unjustified paranoia. And most of the time this happens because groups don’t have a proper security culture in place. If they did, it would be much easier to operate in a rational manner, and to easily determine who/what is a threat, and who/what is not.

Security for Events: Here, I would highly suggest that leftwing activists seek out military veterans who’ve been active in the peace and justice movement. Make sure they’re vetted. Talk to their friends. Talk to people they’ve worked with. Are they accountable to a community or organization? If not, don’t work with them. It’s that simple. Only the most seasoned activists should be allowed to work in a security capacity at events where Fascists and white supremacists are expected to show up, or in a counterdemonstration against such groups. Newer activists can be trained in the proper methods of security at smaller-scale events: local protests, speaking engagements, workshops, fundraisers, etc. Operating as a team requires strict discipline and adherence to a set of values and rules. Without strict rules, people cannot survive in a combat zone. The same is true for rallies that descend into chaos. All of this is contrary to the typical anarchist-leftwing view that any form of authority is bad and must be rejected. In certain circumstances, extreme authoritarianism is required. Combat zones and riots are two examples.

External/Ongoing Security: Here, I’m thinking of the police and various other governmental entities that wield great power and violence. Going head-to-head with the police is usually a losing strategy. Leftwing activists don’t have the numbers or collective coherence required to overwhelm them, and we don’t have the weapons to stop them. This is true both at single events, and on a day-to-day basis in our local and regional communities. Dismantling the structures that produce violence and fear should always be our primary goal. In the meantime, however, people still require security. Poor communities are scared of both the cops and street gangs. Women are scared of their male partners. Domestic violence is a huge issue. Are leftwing groups prepared to respond to incidents of domestic violence? How can we expect people, particularly those who are vulnerable, to not call the police under those circumstances? Are neighborhoods and communities organized enough to do regular patrols, not so much to keep an eye on their neighbors, but to thwart the influence and power of street gangs and the police? Defending ourselves against rightwing militias or political organizations requires the same level of discipline and organization. Right now, there is no evidence that leftwing groups are prepared to engage in this level of security. That must change if we’re serious about providing alternatives to the state.

On a side note, I should mention a few things about weapons. First, I don’t trust anyone with a gun. I grew up with guns. I own guns. And unlike 99.99% of the leftwing activists, I’ve used guns to kill people. As a child, we spent hours upon hours learning how to clean, safely handle, and shoot our weapons. In the Marine Corps, that training was taken to its most extreme. In short, your individual liberties and rights go out the window once you start carrying a weapon.

One of the reasons the military is such a hyper-disciplined and authoritarian entity is because that’s the only way to survive when operating in groups of hundreds and thousands, with everyone carrying their own weapon. There must be a chain of command. Orders must be followed. If not, expect negligent discharges and unwanted deaths. In case you’re wondering, weapons are no joke.

The fetishization of guns isn’t new. The U.S. was built on the fetishization of guns and violence. Hence, it comes as no surprise that a bunch of folks who can’t even hold regular meetings or conduct effective campaigns are all of the sudden interested in picking up weapons and pretending to be revolutionaries.

From my perspective, maybe less than 1% of the activists and organizers I’ve encountered over the years are prepared for ‘militant resistance.’ They’re prepared to punch Nazis in the face, which is fine, but they’re not prepared to actually do battle with those same Nazis. In Charlottesville, leftwing activists would’ve been killed without the protection of the state. The same was true two years ago when I found myself attending an anti-Fascist rally in Coburg, a small suburb outside the city of Melbourne.

Currently, we can’t ‘outfight’ the Fascists, but we can out-organize them. Going toe-to-toe with people who are more than happy to employ violence is a losing strategy for the American Left. We lack the numbers, training, discipline, vision, coherence and seriousness to properly wage militant battles.

If you want to know what a revolutionary struggle looks like in the real world, talk to a Zapatista. Learn about their day-to-day struggles. Then, and only then, tell me that they’re ready to wage a revolutionary struggle. As my friend Sean says, and he’s right, “If you’re not ready to rats, sleep on the ground, kill people and pick up your dead friends, don’t talk to me about revolution or militant struggle.” I agree.

Dismantling White Supremacy

White Supremacy isn’t a series of attitudes or opinions, it’s a structural-systemic-institutional problem. Indeed, most of the activists and writers on the Left treat racism as if it’s a personal fault. It’s not. It’s a structural issue. The difference between individual racism and structural racism is important.

Since the Civil Rights Movement, one could argue that individual racism is much lower. Yes, there are White Supremacists who feel comfortable espousing their reactionary views online, but nowhere near the number of whites who felt comfortable doing so several decades ago. Yet, structurally, with regard to the prison industrial complex, housing, wealth and education, we’ve made little gains, and in many cases, have taken several steps back.

As a result, leftwing activists are confused. They lash out at racists on an individual level, but have no serious plans to deal with racism on a structural level. Dismantling White Supremacy requires dismantling or significantly altering existing institutions, including the corporate media (TV, Radio, Internet, Hollywood), the prison-industrial-complex and criminal justice system (Courts, Jails, Private Prisons, Police), the U.S. Empire (Bases, Weapons Contractors, Private Security Firms), global capitalism (Private Banks, Property Rights, Corporations, Trade Agreements) and a series of relationships, mechanisms, and institutions that uphold White Supremacy.

The difference between calling out and/or confronting individual racists and addressing structural racism is the difference between Neoliberal Activism (hyper-individualism) and Leftwing Activism (hyper-collectivity). Neoliberal activists have no ties to a collective body of people. They only address racism on an individual/subjective level, and fail to engage in the sort of collective work that it takes to actually dismantle the systems that produce the sort of racism they find so abhorrent.

In the end, the only response to large-scale collective challenges are large-scale collective political projects. In our context, that means creating new economic, political and cultural institutions aimed at radically changing society. And radically change society we must, at least according to the living world. Today, the concept of a new society is no longer an ideological pipe-dream, it’s a basic requirement for planetary survival.

As organizers, educators, activists and artists, it is our primary duty in the context of Neoliberalism to constantly remind people that our challenges are collective in nature. It’s also our responsibility to think critically and constantly improve upon our existing programs, campaigns, and so forth. The Right is playing to win. Are we?


Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center located in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at