There’s been a lot happening this month. I don’t have any great plans of action as to the way forward, but I have some knowledge of the background, in terms of how we got here, that seem worth sharing. Basically I just need to process, and thought I’d do that out loud. So here are a few reflections on the events of August, 2017, that may be intimately related to one another.
Note: any links that appear below will take you to songs on the subject, mostly written in the past few weeks…
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The Spanish Civil War has been discussed in the media more in the past few weeks than I can remember in my lifetime. The media has said more nice things about anarchists in the past few weeks than ever in my lifetime as well, and I’m pretty sure they have covered protests more lately than at any time since 1970 or so.
At the beginning of the month I wrote a song, “Rojava,” after getting encrypted messages from the front lines of the war against Islamic State in Syria, sent by an anarchist from the US who is there fighting with the YPG. Which is the male version of the YPJ, which together makes up the biggest chunk of the military wing of the struggle for the freedom of the people of the region known as Rojava.
Most of the people around there are Kurdish, as are most of the fighters, but there are many others involved, including dozens of anarchists from the US. One of them, Rob Grodt, died last month. Rob was the fourth anarchist from the US to die fighting in the ranks of the YPG. He and the friend of his who contacted me had sung a song of mine together at a gathering of YPG fighters and officers just before Rob was killed. His friend thought I should write a song, and I agreed I should.
The YPG/YPJ are fighting a war against oblivion. I probably avoided trying to wrap my head around this movement, because in some ways it’s very complicated. For example, the armed struggle there has received support from both the US and Russia — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. But Rob’s friend summed it up so well, in one of his text messages. To paraphrase, the Yazidis were being slaughtered, and the people that came to their aid were the PKK, with air support provided by the US. When there’s a slaughter going on and someone steps in to stop it, you don’t argue about politics — you help stop the slaughter. At least, if you’re as dedicated to humanity as these folks are — or, in Rob’s case, were.
Robert Grodt’s memorial is in New York City on September 4th.
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Another fighter for social justice, Heather Heyer, died this month in Charlottesville, when a white supremacist plowed his car into some of the folks who were marching against them (I wrote a song — “Today in Charlottesville“). Like Rob, Heather had been involved with the social movements of her day for justice and equality, which is what she was doing when she was killed, and others were maimed for life.
In the course of the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville around the controversy over the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, Antifa has been mentioned in the news more than ever. Generally in glowing terms, in stark contrast to the way Antifa and similar groupings of people were discussed in the media just prior to Charlottesville, when they would more commonly be referred to as thugs — or “anarchists,” which used to mean the same thing to the corporate media (and will again soon enough, I promise).
Listening to Amy Goodman interview someone on the subject of Antifa recently, it occurred to me that maybe most other people in the US know as little about this group as Amy seemed to know. No one in the media seemed to have anything to say in response to Trump’s “on many sides” response to Heather Heyer’s untimely death, other than to condemn his statement as both insensitive and wrong.
Antifa is more a philosophical approach to the world than any kind of organized group. Local chapters can have meetings and agree to sets of principles and rules of conduct, goals, etc., but there are many differences between groups within nations and between nations. For example, in both Germany and France, people who identify as Antifa regularly disrupt events involving speakers or performers who they decide are anti-Semitic, including yours truly, on many occasions. In doing so they regularly employ violence, threats of violence, property destruction, and threats of property destruction.
But mostly Antifa is known in Europe for fighting Nazis and their ilk. This often means defending refugees from being attacked by Nazis who are laying siege to their apartment blocks while the police stand by in places like Rostock, Germany. But as many Antifa in many different European cities have told me proudly, when they see someone on the street who they know is a Nazi, they beat them up. Being a Nazi is considered to be sufficient provocation — the Nazi doesn’t have to be attacking refugees to be a fair target.
Whether or not you agree with beating up Nazis whenever and wherever you see one, that’s what many people who identify as Antifa do with their time — along with drinking a lot of beer, wearing black clothing, and listening to punk rock. Many of my favorite people in the world are Antifa fighters from across Europe and the US (active duty or retired) — but when Trump says violence was committed by both sides, he is stating a simple fact. He is also a racist, etc, but he is stating a fact when he says that, and any media that pretends this isn’t the case should look at how they were reporting on Antifa and similar groups for the century or so preceding Trump’s election.
I remember on NPR after 9/11 a commentator said, “last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization, and this week they’re bombing the World Trade Center.” That pretty much sums up how they used to report on us.
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The media is participating in a United Front against Trump, Bannon and white supremacists. Black Lives Matter and Antifa are no longer highway-blocking hooligans, they’re resistance fighters. The Democrats are no longer your landlords (even though they are), they’re the #Resistance against those other landlords. The Democratic landlords of the #Resistance and the white supremacist landlords are all raising the rents, gentrifying the cities, and driving out people of color, artists and other marginal people, but they’re otherwise very different.
While the principle involved with forming a United Front is fairly obvious — that the more people who are united against a common enemy, the more likely the enemy can be defeated — it’s also fraught with problems. That is, reality doesn’t necessarily work that way.
Democrats (and Republicans) starting imperial wars, spending half of our tax money on the military, imprisoning millions, and consistently failing to provide for much of the population in the US is how we got to where we are today — a terribly divided country, whose people (of all genders and colors) are largely illiterate and impoverished (some more than others). And while the media is blanket-covering every gathering of a small handful of white supremacists and every anti-Trump protest involving more than six people (as well as those that are bigger), the gentrification and impoverishment of the country that the Clintons and the Bushes and the Obamas presided over continues apace.
On September 10th there’s a “free speech rally” being held by the far right here where I live in Portland, Oregon. If these people can manage to get a few hundred people to come to their rally, they’ll be doing very well. By European standards it’s really a pathetic little far right movement. When Europeans ask me why there doesn’t appear to be a relatively large, organized far right movement in the US the way there is in many European countries, I always say that if someone really wants to harass and torture and kill people of color and other undesirable elements on a daily basis, all they have to do is join their local police force. I’d still say the same thing in August, 2017.
Anyway, the “free speech” rally will be opposed by a much bigger crowd of counter-protesters. If the local, national and international media gives blanket coverage to the counter-protests like they just did in Boston last week, maybe we’ll have tens of thousands coming to the counter-protest here, too. If the organizers are as confused as the folks who organized the last two protests I attended in downtown Portland since events in Charlottesville, there will be no audible sound system for the rally.
In short, the protests recently looked just like other protests in recent years in the US — small and quiet. And that was the case even though they were announced in advance on the radio, which almost never used to happen. If you recall, it used to be the case that if you wanted to publicize a protest, you could always count on the corporate and “public” media doing nothing to help. And usually, if they weren’t actively ignoring you, they would run fear-mongering pieces encouraging everybody to stay away from the protests so they wouldn’t get hurt by crazed anarchists.
Why so small and quiet? Because, as far as I can tell, the #Resistance is more a creation of Facebook and the corporate media than real life. Why is that? Because most people can smell the fish. They know that their landlord is a Democrat, and that if Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer are claiming to be part of a #Resistance, then that must mean they’re not in it.
That’s how the United Front can backfire, in my view, and already has. If the #Resistance is ever to find its feet, it will do so after it manages to differentiate itself from the Democratic landlords.
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In Spain there was a United Front against Fascism. Well, sort of. It was mostly a not-very-united front between anarchists, communists and others who would typically be identified as somewhere on the Left. The enemy was a big chunk of the Spanish military, which had launched a coup against the democratically-elected socialist government at the time, in 1936. These forces, led by General Franco, were supported by the fascist governments in power at the time in Germany and Italy. The UK, France, the US and other “western” powers were officially neutral, but in reality were providing aid to the fascists both by selling them much-needed oil, and by preventing Soviet tanks from arriving in Spain, in the name of neutrality, while German and Italian troops and tanks poured in.
Although there were many foreign soldiers involved with the fight in Spain, including many Germans, Italians and people from (Spanish-occupied) Morocco on the fascist side, there were also many volunteers fighting on the side of the Spanish Republic, including similar numbers of communists and others from across Europe, North America and elsewhere — particularly German and Italian communists. But mostly the war was fought by people from Spain. (Which is a short-hand term for saying people from what we know of as Spain, who might or might not themselves identify as “Spanish” as opposed to Catalonian, Basque, etc.)
My friend Bob Steck was one of the folks from the US who joined the fight in Spain. After 16 months on the front lines and 16 months in a concentration camp, he was one of the half or so of the volunteers from the US who came home alive. He spent the rest of his life involved with the same sorts of social justice struggles that brought him to Spain in the first place. He also touched many lives in the course of a long career of teaching high school history in New York.
I had many conversations with Bob on many different subjects over many years, but one that stands out for me in recent months in the course of all the discussions about united fronts is something Bob said one day about the united front in Spain.
Bob was a life-long, self-described communist (though he quit the Communist Party for political reasons in the 1950’s — not because of the Red Scare). He said, though, that the anarchists in Spain had the right approach, and that if the rest of the Republican movement in Spain had adopted the anarchist approach, maybe they would have won.
His explanation for this argument went like this: most of the anarchists were from the cities, and most of Franco’s support came from the countryside. Then as now, one of the biggest contradictions within Spanish society (like US society then and today) had to do with the question of land — who owns it, who rents it, who has lots of it, who has none. When the anarchists liberated a town, they immediately distributed the land so that those who had lots of it suddenly had a lot less, and those who had none suddenly had some. (They also often burned down the local church, among other memorable activities.) These land distribution policies made the anarchists very popular wherever they went, Bob said — and dried up Franco’s base of support in towns where the land had been distributed.
The communists in Spain, and the socialists elected to power there, had a “after the revolution” policy of land distribution. That is, they’d settle the land question after they won the fight against fascism. This did not make them popular in the countryside, and allowed Franco to have a steady supply of troops.
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Last week began with a white supremacist plowing into a crowd in Charlottesville and ended with an IS cell doing the same thing in Catalonia, with deadlier results. Islamic State — in Iraq, Syria, and Europe — is a direct outgrowth of US imperialism. The organization wouldn’t exist without the US invasion of Iraq, just as Al-Qaeda wouldn’t exist without the US funding the resistance to the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.
White supremacy and white supremacists, along with xenophobia and other things, are an intimate part of US history, from way before the founding of the country, right up to the present. We can beat up all the Nazis we want to and we can get run over by them, too, but they won’t go away until certain white people stop feeling disenfranchised. And when the landlords are both Democrats and Republicans, then a united front against Nazis that includes Democrat landlords is doomed to failure, since it consists of the same forces that created the need for it.
Of course, the same principles apply to IS and Al-Qaeda — fighting them will not defeat them. Ending imperialism (draining the swamp, so to speak) will. But if Yazidis are being massacred, someone (thankfully) is going to try to stop it from continuing. Just as some people will try to stop Nazis from marching through your local university with torches, chanting racist and anti-Semitic taunts.
If I’m not ending this rant with a tying together of the various strands, it’s because I believe the situation is too complicated for such an ending. But I hope these reflections might give you just a tiny bit more substance with which you might draw your own conclusions.