“The Cops & the Klan Go Hand in Hand!”

Photograph of John Brown by African-American photographer Augustus Washington in Springfield, Massachusetts, c. 1846–47

Back in 1979, the American Nazi Party and the KKK gunned down five members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, NC. Present with the fascists were a turncoat Klansman/ COINTELPRO node named Ed Dawson and an FBI mole, Bernard Butkovich. Though these men knew that the Klan were armed and desirous of a gunfight, nobody outside law enforcement and state security was informed. Five lay dead and dying that afternoon, plus one wounded Nazi. Predictably, all the fascists were later acquitted in both state and federal courts (though the city settled in a separate civic trial, with $351,000 going to the plaintiffs). The message was transparent: We’re watching you and We watch out for our own.

Eight days later, the anti-fascists were rightfully armed at the funerals of their Greensboro comrades. For white antifa, the ideal should be John Brown. As Malcolm X had said in 1965:

For one, when a white man comes to me and tells me how liberal he is, the first thing I want to know, is he a nonviolent liberal, or the other kind. I don’t go for any nonviolent white liberals. If you are for me and my problems – when I say me, I mean us, our people – then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did. And if you’re not of the John Brown school of liberals, we’ll get you later – later.

It does seem a fair question for someone who cannot disappear, to ask how far the other is going to go. It is less a question of opinion or ‘position’ and more an inquiry into what you have to lose.

The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee chanted No War, No KKK, No Fascist USA!. You hear this chant again today and it provides a title for Hilary Moore and James Tracy’s very fine history of the movement, No Fascist USA!, now available from the venerable City Lights. For some on the Left, it may be in part a cautionary tale; for others, perhaps nostalgia and the recognition of a certain contemporary drift. But for those who think, as new-age crooner Nick Cave does, that Antifa and the fascists are comparable – they won’t be reading.

The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was born from prison, when Frank Abney, of the Black Liberation Army, discovered that the Klan were heavily recruiting among staff at the New York State Prison (his letter and an original press packet can be found here). Like Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton, Abney thought that it was up to whites to organize in their own communities, and especially to counter acts such as the Klan’s prison guard drive. Members of Left organizations such as Prairie Fire – and to some degree, the Weather Underground – created the Committee to do just this. Hopefully, and somewhat unrealistically, with the least amount of infighting between ‘tendencies’ as possible. The JBAKC would also support other independence movements at home, in South Africa, Palestine, the Americas, as well as socialist countries such as Cuba. Mississippi was the Congo, as Malcolm X had it.

Many people stood up. Yet when people stand up, other things rise with them. Among such things was the worst aspect of white anti-racism: a classist attitude and the rejection of any dialectical understanding of Race in the States, no matter how Marxist or New Afrikan-influenced the Left might think it is. Like a lecturing neighbor, post-Wobbly leftists always had a strain of hyper-moral outrage much closer to Cotton Mather than John Brown. So it was that one Clark Martel, a jailed fascist calling in to Oprah’s TV show, saying he ‘grew up white and a second-class citizen’, was huffed at by the millionaire host – thus managing to get a point across that should not have been dismissed or ignored (least of all because it was the truth, and very dangerously so). Questions: Why was not this man a socialist? Why did he – a vicious little bastard certainly – go to the American Nazi Party instead? If his own pathetic ruin was in the price paid, the greatest part of this price would be the murder of a person like Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student in Portland who didn’t foreclose on anyone’s farm and wanted merely to be a student… Secret killers with just enough brains to see that something is wrong in the republic and enough nihilism for incremental terror, until their shocks consume them.

Despite all this, I do not think Leftism was just a fashion for the Anti-Klan movement. Almost all the members of the Committee have remained political today and still do vital work in prison reform, homeless rights and healthcare. For them, life had become truly what it was; it should also be remembered that several did prison time for Committee actions, so things weren’t easy (I am not familiar with anyone turning states’ evidence or admitting to FBI employ). It is worth comparing their fates as well to other, far flashier New Left figures such as Tom Hayden and Bill Ayers. Though many of the JBAKC were also middle class, none that I know came in from the cold to large law firms or golden ashrams for centrist Presidents.

Time can be pressurized, made to feel taut. To the anti-fascists of the late 1970s, Italy’s Years of Lead must have looked ripe for a US sequel. In waves of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, false-flag operations, and extortion, Rightist forces concentrated on attacking the Italian Left, while picking up paychecks from conservative political liaisons and American espionage czar William Colby. The cops, Carabinieri, CIA assets, the Masonic lodge called P2, and ‘black’ fascist mercenaries hid in plain sight behind the bombs in the Plaza Fontana and Bologna station. Operating between the paras and the masses was the intelligence strata, who kept low-intensity warfare as status quo, monitoring useful elements in Mafias and fascist circles while managing the strains of finance and violence. All of them used each other to get what they wanted alone. In America, state authorities used similar measures, if only to keep their jobs or test failed theories of counterinsurgency created in Vietnam. But this being the Empire of Scams, it is hard to tell where strategies of tension like COINTELPRO, purged voter registration rolls, and good old Yankee graft begin and end.

So where have all the Klansmen gone? Much has been made of Trump’s courting of racists, but his venom is only an embarrassment for the liberal Consensus establishment. An essentially sentimental ache characterizing the managerial American Right, whether called Southern Strategy, realpolitik, public safety or the War on Drugs, which gives them cover to bomb MOVE or pass 3-time loser laws. Reagan’s Inauguration was a cesspool of the most outrageous Nazis, ranging from gruesome opportunists like Licio Gello to those ancient Eastern vampires, who, unlike Reagan himself, definitely participated in the Second World War. Reading the thumbnail sketches of the old 1970s fascists – Louis Beam, Thom Metzger, David Duke, The Order and Kommander Von Rockwell’s weedy lieutenants – a murky Polaroid image of SS costumes and cartoon bloodlust rises up again from some reactionary Limbo. None of them survived, not in any real sense of the word, to graduate to today’s Bannon-Gorka-Miller strain of immoderate power, which is probably far deadlier and easily more accessible. The Alten Right have outlived what little use-value they once had, showing up now only in bitter chatrooms or boozing themselves to death. But fascism is malleable and can marshal liquid contradictions into a useful siphon or form a robust front line from dated materials. It can create imaginative diversions in temples, and still claim the life of an Amadou Diallo by overreacting.

There is no such thing as a single fascist murder or a solitary racist attack. Up in the real White House, men like Obama and Trump have consolidated their concentration camps and protected their mass deportations with the courts. Being an amateur is unforgivable in any milieu, particularly so in official terror, which must abandon the isolated operative while valorizing his entrepreneurial impulse.

On a personal note, I can vouch for the accuracy of the Chicago portion of James and Moore’s book. And also for the punk youth who stepped up to halt the nazis recruiting at shows, some 35 years ago when that city was mauled by first-wave austerity, klannish campaigns against a Black mayor (“Of course it’s about race!” as Alderman and Democratic Party head Eddie Vrdolyak proudly cried), and more than a little funereal gloss on the old Loop grindhouses. Chicago is still the most segregated of cities, as Laquan McDonald’s murder and Burge’s pension showed, not to mention redlining and TIFF welfare for white power real estate. If 1983 was no 1963 or 1919, it was still full of powerful actors who could say, as one cop did after a particularly bloody clash between John Browners and would-be brownshirts, that “it isn’t the Nazis who are the problem – it’s these people”. That the John Brown Anti Klan Committee was not afraid to be a problem for such men says that something was done right.

Written without sparing the fissures and blind misunderstandings, No Fascist USA! is a must-read for people who know little about this fugitive period and also for those who lived it. As for its lessons for the future – it is hard to tell. The repetition of the past is repeated differently, in unforeseen ways. Several years before these events, working class organizations such as the Young Patriots first followed John Brown. In reaction, the FBI and the Democratic Machine handed down death sentences by blue and white. Black Lives Matter has paid for a wholly predictable liberal backstab with a spate of mysterious – which are not so mysterious – assassinations of its leadership. The model must always be John Brown.

One thing was different back then: No one in the JBAKC would have hesitated to defend William Von Spronsen. We see defenses of Colin Powell, Comey and Mueller, John McCain – even George Bush – from liberals, from those who call themselves ‘left’, yet barely a word for this man who lead a lone attack on a bloody apartheid facility. If it wasn’t Harper’s Ferry, Spronsen also accepted the Ferryman’s rate as the price of becoming a human being. He made his choice and then went through Tacoma’s iron gate.

In memoriam, William Von Spronsen.

In memoriam, once upon a time in Chicago: Phil L; Paul C; Chris L; Ferd E; and anyone else who is now gone.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.