Nov 29, 2023

Contending with the Present and Building a Future for Antifascism in the Pacific Northwest

By Shane Burley

This essay is adapted from a talk delivered at the Territories of White Supremacy: Opposing the Far Right in the Pacific Northwest and Beyond conference in Eugene, Oregon on October 13th, 2023.

Before I talk about major updates that are happening for antifascists in the Pacific Northwest, I want to introduce three questions to help guide not only that discussion but all broad discussions of the future of antifascist organizing. The first question is what actually stops the far right, presuming that is our goal. There are a lot of tactics and strategies whose proponents say that they are capable in the fight against fascism, but this is always a matter of debate. What is provable, however, is that the tactics that work are ones that disrupt the functionality of far-right organization. This means tactics that break down the ability of a far-right group or movement to meet its goals, to reproduce itself, and to make gains. This can come in a number of forms, from canceled events, protests that disrupt meetings, or deplatforming. No matter which one we are talking about, the fulcrum of the tactic is the disruption since the presumption is that a far-right movement needs some continuity to have any degree of growth or victory. So the question of how we beat the far right is a question of how they are disrupted.

The second question is why we are fighting the far right. What are the values or vision for the world that leads us to want to see the far right fail? If we have a vision of a liberated world it necessitates fascists losing. But what is that world? What other features does that world have?

The third question, the more complicated one, is how question two relates to question one: how do our tactics to disrupt the far right help us to win a more liberated world? There are many ways to push back on the far right, many methods of disruption, but when activists pick tactics and strategy they are deciding more than just what works. Instead, they are trying to create a tactical set that is ethically and strategically sound for the larger questions of which antifascism is just one piece.

So, for example, it's quite likely that a police raid or FBI investigation and string prosecution can disrupt the far right. We saw this across the 1980s and 1990s as the FBI and ATF went after far-right compounds and groups, and even saw it more recently in the very severe sentencing handed down to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. But does increasing police funding, doubling up on FBI investigations, initiating severe penalties or terrorism sentencing enhancements get us to a more liberated world? The ways that antifascists take on the far right must be put in line with the why of the work: how do the decisions they make now lead to the world they hope to win? This should guide everything, from how and when tactics like “no platform” are applied to how their organizations function, how they build coalitions with other groups, and whether or not they prioritize care and mutual aid in the work. 

“The ways that antifascists take on the far right must be put in line with the why of the work: how do the decisions they make now lead to the world they hope to win?”

When it comes to updates, there has been a lot of discussion of an alleged lull in far-right organizing and, subsequently, a delay in antifascist organizing. There have been fewer of the large, antagonistic rallies than we used to see frequently in cities like Portland, Oregon, but this does not indicate a decline on the far right’s side. Instead, this is a period of regrouping, rebranding, and reformation. This is similar to what was happening in many sectors of the white nationalist movement in the early 2010s where there were fewer incursions with antifascists, but this was also the time period in which people like Richard Spencer were building the alt-right. It was only in 2015 and 2016 that the increase really became visible, but this was after several years of base building. Those years of the alleged “lull” were where they made the peak of 2015-2017 possible.

A similar situation is happening now. The alt-right is largely dead, but certain organizations from that earlier generation have remained prominent. Patriot Front is the most important remaining one, which includes a heavy presence in Oregon. Because Patriot Front largely does flashmob style events or puts stickers up anonymously there has been less direct confrontation with antifascists, but there have been high profile releases of information when various Patriot Front chapters have been infiltrated by antifascists.

The groypers are, however, the largest inheritor of the alt-right’s energy, all centered on their leader, Nick Fuentes. Unlike the pseudoscientific and pagan infused alt-right, Fuentes has brought white Christian nationalism back into the hip center of the young far right. This has a tactical advantage for them since they are doing this at the same time as white Christian nationalism openly dominates the GOP. This has drawbacks and benefits: it allows them direct access to a whole new base of folks who are already a part of the larger conservative movement, but it also hinders their ability to differentiate themselves as a radical alternative. But they have done more than any other white nationalist movement in recent memory to win support in the Republican Party, particularly through their America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC).

Fighting the groypers has been a primary focus of antifascists, particularly on campuses in places like Florida, but the group has had somewhat less of a base in the Pacific Northwest. We have seen a sharp decline in the large public events from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, with them diminishing steadily across events in 2020 and 2021. The last large attempt was in 2021 where a large antifascist coalition pushed them away from holding their rally in a city center and they ended up holding a small gathering in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart at the edge of the city.

Physical confrontation between two groups of men in a park, with one group holding an American flag
Antifascists confront Proud Boys, Oregon City, OR, 18 June 2021

What is increasing, however, is the continued threat of open neo-Nazism and accelerationist violence. Groups like the Goyim Defense League are growing in prominence across the country (but in Florida, in particular), the post-alt-right formation the National Justice Party is filling the gap left by the destruction of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and violent groups like the Rise Above Movement and the Evergreen Active club are offering a novel rebranding of neo-Nazi gang culture. Places like Goyim TV actually are getting more traction than originally thought, and social media sites like Rumble and Telegram are largely insulated from antifascist pressure and are building their brand on refusing to intervene on open racism.

All of these groups have been centered less on public displays of might and more on attempts to interfere with different events built around marginalized identities and institutions they hope to undermine. They have participated in the rapidly increasing protests against LGBTQ and Pride events, particularly any family friendly events or drag shows. This has given them the ability to intermingle with a new generation of activists who are organizing primarily through horizontal social networks on places like Facebook Groups or Telegram as opposed to formal organizations. The organizations that have formed emerged out of these networks and are looser than the top-down structure we saw with many Patriot groups, namely projects like Moms for Liberty and Gays Against Groomers/Trans Against Groomers. While they publicly repudiate white nationalism, their relationships with the far right are extensive and they act as the bridge point where explicit white nationalist and neo-Nazi factions are able to step into the public, participate in larger political expression, and recruit from a potentially friendly right-wing base. This has been the strategy in places like Vancouver, Washington; Oregon City, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and other places that are not quite as large as Portland or Seattle and have a less developed antifascist culture.

Reflexively, much of the antifascist movement has pivoted to community self-defense, helping to block attacks on queer events, trans healthcare facilities, abortion clinics, and even libraries and schools. These will remain the focal point for far-right attention, so this is driving the reaction from antifascists in the Pacific Northwest. This fundamentally changes the point by which the community is called in and what kind of protest they are called in to do, but it does little to alter the underlying ask: asking supporters to come out and raise the capacity of the actions that use large masses of supporters to defend a particular space. 

“Many antifascists have not sought law enforcement solutions for dealing with fascist threats, because when you increase the presence of police, courts, and district attorneys, you also extend the racial and other hierarchies and disparities that are structurally embedded in those systems.”

The second thing that antifascists in the Pacific Northwest are dealing with is something that is also likewise reverberating across the country. Since Trump’s inauguration there have been excessive police crackdowns on left-wing protesters and, in particular, excessive charges and potential sentences given out to those attending demonstrations. The first high profile instances of this were the nearly 200 people arrested for participating in the January 20th, 2017 Inauguration Day protest in Washington D.C., where the police “kettled” protesters to get a huge sweep of attendees into handcuffs and then charged them for the behavior that other, unaffiliated protesters engaged in. The argument was that the protest was inherently a type of criminal conspiracy and so anyone in attendance (and, by accidental arrest, some people who weren’t even in attendance) was aiding and abetting those who took illegal actions like breaking windows and lighting dumpsters on fire. While these charges were ultimately dropped, the kind of felonies that were being leveled at them and the potential sentences attached were draconian enough that they sent shockwaves through antifascist circles.

This trend continued, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where clashes between antifascists and far-right militants often left the left-wing demonstrators in custody while the right only faced charges for the most egregious acts of violence (and often, not even then). These cases have continued, and there is even one set for the fall in nearby Clackamas County, where an independent journalist was charged with felonies for allegedly defending herself from an attack by a Proud Boy.

These types of charges and sweep arrests defined the 2020 racial justice uprising, where “snatch and grab” arrests were used, as mass charging of serious offenses with little-to-no evidence, and there were frequent attempts to turn those being arrested into informants by offering plea deals weighed against astoundingly long potential sentences.

At the same time, civil litigation may present an even bigger threat. There have been high profile cases of right-wing figures suing antifascist activists, or at least people they believe to be antifascist activists, often with huge sums of right-wing money and countless far-right organizations providing them ample support. The most obvious example of this was this year’s case brought by right-wing media figure Andy Ngo, who was allegedly assaulted while covering an antifascist demonstration in 2019 and who then brought a lawsuit against an assortment of activists, many of whom say they had no role in Ngo’s conflict and were selected seemingly at random. While the case was thrown out for a number of defendants, including all alleged members of Rose city Antifa (which the court said was not an entity that would have legal standing to be sued), several defendants remained when it was time to go to trial. Two ultimately did, John Acker and Elizabeth Richter, who won their trial by showing the claims had no merit. While this was cause for celebration, the reality is that they still owed tens of thousands of dollars in court costs, something that Ngo’s team undoubtedly knew would be the case and was part of their strategy.

Even more shocking, however, is that three defendants were ultimately found civilly liable simply because they did not respond to the charges. Those accused said that they often heard about the accusations very late, had no money or resources to find legal representation (which is not guaranteed in a civil case), and had many other issues that prevented them from actively fighting the charges (such as experiencing homelessness). Now they are on the hook for $100,000 each, showing that the courts will simply award a sufficiently well-funded accuser despite having little evidence of guilt.

These issues only seem to be getting more severe, as a recent case in San Diego shows. In what has been labeled the "San Diego 11," defendants were accused of engaging in conspiracy to riot and other felonies for participating in a protest action at Pacific Beach on January 9th, 2021. The court's claims of conspiracy hinge on the fact that different antifascist demonstrators, who claim they did not know each other or have any coordination, had all engaged with the same social media post. Six of these defendants subsequently took plea deals, which themselves validate the legal repression offered by the district attorney by ensuring that at least some consequences stem from the spurious accusation, but five others remain set on taking this to trial.

There are further developments in the Pacific Northwest that inject additional problems into the mix, and this time it comes largely from progressive politicians. Two “anti-doxxing bills” were introduced in Oregon and Washington, respectively, which criminalize anything deemed as “doxxing,” the release of personal information. Doxxing is a common tactic amongst antifascists, who use it to put pressure on institutions to pull their relationships with white nationalists, thus raising the cost of entry into the white nationalist movement and making it unattractive for new recruits. The far right has tried to do the same thing to antiracist protesters, so liberal legislators brought forward these bills in the name of defending marginalized communities. Despite these intentions, the opposite is likely to be the case. This is part of why many antifascists have not sought law enforcement solutions for dealing with fascist threats, because when you increase the presence of police, courts, and district attorneys, you also extend the racial and other hierarchies and disparities that are structurally embedded in those systems. With the bill close to passage in Washington and now law in Oregon, the ability of antifascists to actually win campaigns will be seriously hindered by this intervention. It looks like groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is often criticized for supporting conservatives more frequently than the left, seems positioned to try and challenge these laws in court.

All of this has a cumulative chilling effect on demonstrators, particularly those who simply attend protests rather than organizing. Many of these court cases targeted not the key organizers of a particular event, but just an attendee. What this could do is siphon off participation in the large coalitions and protests that make antifascist demonstrations successful. It could also create internal division, whereby some participants are even more concerned about any potential unlawful civil disobedience or direct action taken by other attendees. The answer to this is likely to establish a larger connection with legal institutions like the ACLU, FIRE, or the National Lawyers Guild, and to win a few high profile cases so that the message will be sent that this is not a viable tactic to use against antifascists. Many activists are noting, however, that the courts are not balanced in their favor, so any strategy based on the idea that they can win numerous court cases may be flawed. There are some efforts to increase what is called “security culture,” such as using pseudonyms or encrypted chat apps like Signal, but it is unclear whether these tools will actually stop a real investigation by state authorities.

On the more positive side, it’s important to acknowledge the incredible strides made by antifascists across the country, but especially in the Pacific Northwest. The reality of the various far-right rallies that happened starting in 2016 is that it forced the left in these cities, like Seattle and Portland, to create the coalitions necessary to respond. Trump has helped to make the case that the threat of the far right is directly attached to the attacks on unions, the environment, tenant rights, and so on. This has helped to create relationships between different organizations and social movements, and those relationships don’t just end when a protest is over. So this has helped build up the tacit coalitions in the area that can respond to issues more quickly and more effectively than they once were. While there has been a decline in large-scale antifascist actions, the capacity is higher than it ever was before. 

“Trump has helped to make the case that the threat of the far right is directly attached to the attacks on unions, the environment, tenant rights, and so on. This has helped to create relationships between different organizations and social movements, and those relationships don’t just end when a protest is over.”

Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge the profound changes that we have seen in the tactical self-conception of antifascist organizers. Since the rise of antifascism across the U.S. since 2016, we have seen an astounding amount of violence directed at protesters. For example, in 2020 alone there were well over a hundred car attacks on protesters, which took the form of cars plowing their way into demonstrators. These happened in Portland, as well as shootings, pipe bomb attacks, and extensive violence at protest events. These frightening episodes happened along with a relative indifference (or, in some cases, participation) from police. For example, on August 20th, 2020, a Back the Blue rally was staged in front of the same Justice Center that had seen so many demonstrations against police violence. The police had been heavy-handed with the daily protests for weeks, except on this day they stayed blocks away from the crowd. The far right, including the Proud Boys and people bearing shields, batons, and firearms, attacked the antifascist counter-demonstrators without pause. The police said that protesters should “police themselves,” refusing to intervene on what became a brutal street beating. Later that night, the police returned to their invasive strategy, using batons on protesters themselves. This has sent a clear message to antifascists in the Pacific Northwest: you have to protect yourself. (There was, ultimately, accountability for some of the perpetrators of the August 20th violence, including a prosecution of the lead instigator.)

The effect this has had has been to revive the question of armed community self-defense. At a recent defensive action I attended outside of a drag queen event in Vancouver, Washington, of the 200 demonstrators who attended nearly a third appeared armed. This included semi-automatic weapons staged on the roof of the venue, security teams patrolling with tactical gear, and an open acceptance that firearms would be necessary for (trained) security volunteers to keep the venue safe. All across the country there are armed groups like Yellow Peril Tactical, the John Brown Gun Club, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, Socialist Rifle Association, Trigger Warning, and others who are employing firearms as part of their defensive mission, the same mission that antifascist mass demonstrations often have had. The use of mass tactics has always had a protective element, and in Portland this was explicitly the mission of groups like Pop Mob, which used really mass protests and marches as a way of ensuring the safety of participants while disrupting the far right. Armed community self-defense, while similar in mission, has a different set of tactics and thus a smaller number of active participants. This has taken on a special importance in the Pacific Northwest given the recent string of far-right assaults, police in action in response, and then a climate and legal framework that is largely friendly to firearms (though that may be changing).

This is by no means a new development, but instead a revival of a well-established one. Armed groups have a long American history amongst marginalized communities fighting against attacks from what we would today consider white nationalists, fascists, or the far right. This took the form of the joint NRA/NAACP chapter led by Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and Jewish defense squads led by organizations like the Jewish Labor Bund. The goal is the same as what we are seeing from antifascist groups that stage defensive demonstrations at locations and community events targeted by the far right, but the mechanism is different: in these cases it is armed members that deflect the far right’s advances rather than simply overwhelming masses of people.

There are obvious and defensible reasons for this development, and there are complications introduced by it as well. It will create some difficulty in building the coalitions that have been established over the past several years, most of which were built on an ostensible commitment to strategic non-violence. While armed self-defense groups are not involved in offensive violence, their presence still could be concerning for some partners. This simply means that more community conversations will be necessary to address any conflicted responses and to reestablish the trust necessary to maintain the coalition.

This brings us back to our three questions: what stops the far right, why do we want to stop the far right, and how do our methods lead to our larger goals? By having a vision of the world we want to win we can pick a path to more immediate victories that can act as stepping stones to more systemic change. These are the questions that are guiding the more radical wing of the antifascist movement and will help to determine not just their own future, but the future of the left itself. 

Photo credit

Photo by Daniel V. Media. Used with permission.

Nov 14, 2023

Burn the foundation and all that it upholds: an antifascist review of “Tell Me I’m Worthless” by Alison Rumfitt

“The House spreads. Its arteries run throughout the country. Its lifeblood flows into Westminster, into Scotland Yard, into every village and every city. It flows into you, and into your mother. It keeps you alive. It makes you feel safe. Those same arteries tangle you up at night and make it hard for you to breathe. But come morning, you thank it for what it has done for you, and you sip from its golden cup, and kiss its perfect feet, and you know that all will be right in this godforsaken world as long as it is there to watch over you.”

—Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless

Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless
New York: Nightfire, 2023
272 pages; ISBN: 9781250866233

Book cover of Tell Me I'm Worthless
Review by Tucker

The first time I encountered Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and antifascist organizing was as a teenager at punk shows. I remember the small punk girl who talked about beating up nazis and my 13 year old self was amazed that someone small and not a man could do that. It would be more than a decade til I would find myself in my first face-to-face street confrontation with fascists. Since my teens and early 20’s, we have seen an emboldening and surfacing of fascist hate groups and politics in the US, as well as around the world. My friends and I, so used to dealing with cops and the state, had to learn how to engage in the three way fight, defending our towns from the far-right hate groups that came to terrorize marginalized communities while simultaneously resisting the state and its oppressive and repressive tactics. It has been crucial in our fights to understand that the state and the fascists are distinct enemies, both of which require a militant and uncompromising struggle. Unlike the liberals who turn to a violent and racist state to protect, or the unprincipled and dangerous tendencies that side with the far right in the name of “the working man,” it is imperative to understand that we must fight both the state AND fascism to their deaths.

Tell Me I’m Worthless is a deeply queer story about a haunted house, Albion (meaning white land, also a romantic and historical way to refer to Britain), which is the embodiment of colonial and fascist England. The very foundation of this historic haunted house is toxic and seeps into the walls through stains and haunted posters. We learn about the horrific things which have been done throughout time by the various inhabitants of this house, the colonial, imperial and fascistic violence that occurred within these walls, and these atrocities spread out to the present. No matter what is done to the house, the foundation is the same, and infects what is built upon it and those who live within it and breathe inside its walls:

Angles that indicate the building you are in is not even a building, that no human could have possibly thought of this when building it, that this house simply came into being from contact with the pure, violent terror that can only exist in the very worst examples of humanity. And that horror is transmitted through you, a little thing inside the heart of the place. It cuts its way into your body, or uses somebody else to cut its way into your body. I have a scar on my forehead to attest to that, and Ila has a scar on her stomach. And Hannah. Something happened to Hannah. The place, it worms into your brain and your heart. By the time I got out, I was different” (Rumfitt, 14).

Tell Me I’m Worthless is the story of 3 friends: Ila, Hannah and Alice, and their relationship to the house. Upon entering the house their relationships to each other are forever changed.

This book is not developing an analysis of fascism but is rather dealing with affect and ethics; how these ideologies play out on an emotional and ethical level—and what people do in fascism’s wake. 

“Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit.”

Hannah, Alice and Ila have complicated and intimate relationships with one another and the various marginalized as well as oppressive identities they embody. Alice is a white trans woman who is complicit in racism and xenophobia. Ila is a Jewish-Pakistani child of immigrants who becomes a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist). The third friend, Hannah, is a white cis straight woman who ultimately becomes a mutilated swastika stuck on the wall of the house, completely seduced by the fascism of Albion. Inside of the house the three friends turn on each other as the house speaks to them, filling them with racist, transphobic and xenophobic thoughts that they enact upon each other in violent, intimate and political ways. As the house attacks, the novel shows the way the path of least resistance will often be the path that marginalizes another, and is complacent if not outright actively violent toward the other. Here no identity is immune to the creeping tide of the hateful ideology and fascism, and this is an important nuance that Tell Me I’m Worthless breathes through its pages.

Traditional leftist narratives around fascism have often focused on an idealized figure of the fascist imaginary, a white male nazi, locating fascism solely within the scope of specific identities. This portrayal and understanding of fascism is somewhat a-historical as there is a long history of other identities that are neither white nor male flirting with and engaging fascism and advancing its deadly objectives. Certain currents within feminism have historically and continue this horrifying engagement of fascism (see Sophie Lewis and Asa Seresin’s “Fascist Feminism”) as well as various gay subcultures throughout history (see Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure). Currently we see fascism emerging in places outside of the white, straight male sphere (though certainly there as well) again as TERF feminist groups move to cement their alliances with white supremacists to further their bigoted and genocidal anti-trans ideologies; organizations such as “gays against groomers” emerge to further attack trans folks; and Black, Asian and Latino men are active in the Proud Boys and enacting white supremacist violence in the name of Western chauvinism, to name a few examples. 

The essentialist idea of fascism being sequestered to the sole domain of a certain group of white men leaves many surprised and fumbling when these dangerous ideologies turn up in other places. Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit. For the fascists, always, will be happy to have us collaborate in the extermination of our friends and communities.

Alice’s relationship to sex work is another point of great interest to me, and is one of several condemnations this novel makes against liberals and their politics. Through web camming, Alice engages with the transphobic and racist desires of her (presumably cis, white male) clients. She chooses to engage with scenarios that are cringe to read, however anyone who has done sex work will recognize that where one draws the line for the types of scenarios one will play out when negotiating with clients is an uncomfortable process at best. “But if they ask for it, when they send me money for the video, I make sure to include it. I’m not in a position to say no” (Rumfitt, 64).

While I do not take a strong ethical position on what people choose to engage with in the bedroom or the dungeon, I do think what taboos and societal horrors we are willing to engage in the sexual sphere is a complicated affair. Liberal conceptions of sex work posit us, the workers, as either the liberated heroines or the exploited victims, however here yet again the novel complicates and destroys fantasies of the purity of these categories. Fascism creeps into desire, and into the lives of sex workers who are paid to engage these desires. The choices Alice makes to entertain her client’s fantasies are not likable or easy to read. This is her job and how she makes her money. What happens when work and desire merge? The sex industry is a complicated place with no simple narrative. Often an overtly racist and sexist industry, where many workers market ourselves in ways that play off of the fetishization of our identities. Sex workers, as a stigmatized and criminalized work force, face a three way fight of our own, against the violence of Johns and SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists), as well as the violence of the state and incarceration. In the novel, Alice’s clients’ desire to be made to feel worthless and humiliated in their fantasy for a forced feminization or queer encounter later haunts us in a passage when Alice is being fucked by her TERF ex and demands “tell me i’m worthless.” There is no heroine/victim dichotomy here, as within the entire novel. The characters are complex and unlikeable, yet we know them. I have met Alice, Ila. I bet you have, too.

Finally, there is the haunted Morrissey poster, perhaps one of my favorite features of the book. He hangs on the wall of Alice’s room with his eyes blacked out and haunts Alice and the space, as well as the women she brings home. The poster was meant to cover the spot on the wall where a fascist stain always seems to protrude, yet the poster itself is racist, attacking with its nauseating stance of “England for the English.” I can remember the Smiths playing on the tape deck at a punk house I lived at in 2011. How does fascism creeps in if we are not on guard against it and its blood running through the foundation? What happens when we allow it in in small ways? Does it matter what one band member said? Does it cover the stain on the wall? Does it allow it to fester and grow?

Alice is entirely undone, but she tried to lift herself up, her insides sliding out around her. Look at me, she says. This is the most honest I have ever been with anybody. This. My body. My insides. I’m bearing it all. I did this for you, Ila. Not for Hannah. I don’t care about Hannah anymore. She was a victim of this ideology that corrodes our lives. I’m talking about me and you, Ila, you and I, we were best friends, we loved each other, and now we hate each other, and I did this because I do still care about you, because I want you to like me” (Rumfitt, 251).

In the end, the friends must face the house (i.e., Britain, fascism, white supremacy and nativism), and stand together in solidarity against all that the house stands for. They must confront the fascism within its walls and hear the hate that it spews while not allowing it to tear them apart. In the end, solidarity wins.

This visceral and haunting narrative shows us the ways fascism seeps into our relationships, how no identity is immune to its creeping, and how while the foundations of (imperial, colonial) societies are built upon violent and oppressive histories and ideologies nothing built on top will ever heal what lays beneath. The foundation itself must be destroyed. This novel is an antifascist argument against reformist and liberal politics, and reminds us that the only way to win is through solidarity and the destruction of it all. Tell Me I’m Worthless makes the reader feel the pain and horror of fascism in the most extreme and interpersonal as well as societal sense, and reminds us of the small and large ways it can infiltrate our lives and undermine solidarity. While much antifascist and anti-authoritarian writing focuses on the theory and strategy of fighting fascism, this book describes the embodied and emotional horror of life within it. It crawls through one’s skin. It sits uncomfortably below the surface. A true haunting.

Works referenced:

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Lewis, Sophie, and Asa Seresin. “Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue,” Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 9, issue 3 (1 August, 2022): 463-479.

Rumfitt, Alison. Tell Me I’m Worthless. New York: Nightfire (Tor Publishing Group), 2023.

Nov 7, 2023

Reading Adam Shatz on the war in Gaza

by Matthew N. Lyons

How do we forcefully make the case to defend the Palestinian people in Gaza against Israel’s increasingly genocidal assault, and also honor the conflict’s heartbreaking contradictions? This is a question I’ve been grappling with for the past month. Adam Shatz’s essay “Vengeful Pathologies” gets at the challenge better and more fully than anything else I’ve read so far. In this post I will use short excerpts from Shatz’s essay to highlight some of his key points, in many cases pairing them with links to related articles and other resources. (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes below are from “Vengeful Pathologies,” which is archived here.)

Woman man hold signs that read “Gaza and Palestine / 75 years of occupation” and “Gaza / an open prison with / no electricity / no water / no journalist reporting the crimes.”

Shatz spells out the systemic and massively greater violence Israel has imposed on Palestinians for generations, and he also refuses to sugar-coat the gruesome nature of Hamas’s October 7 attack, contextualizing both in the long, bitter history of colonialism and anti-colonialist resistance in Palestine and elsewhere. He recognizes how, for many Jews, October 7 touched deep-rooted fears of annihilation, and he underscores that Israel has long misrepresented its opponents (including Hamas) as Nazis in order to hide its own crimes and massive military power. He calls out the Biden administration’s active complicity in mass murder, the growing demonization of Palestinian solidarity, the surge in attacks on Arabs and Muslims in the US (including the murder of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume near Chicago), and he also calls out Hamas’s admirers among western leftists and those who misread Frantz Fanon to uncritically celebrate all anti-colonialist violence. Shatz’s approach to Hamas is to neither romanticize nor demonize it, but contextualize it as an Islamic nationalist organization that feeds on despair, that is unpopular among many Palestinians because of its authoritarian rule yet also has strong roots in Palestinian society and cannot be destroyed by military force.

See also:
Adam Shatz on Israelis, Palestinians, and Hamas” (Podcast)

Israel’s control over Gaza

“In the words of Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who spent many years reporting from Gaza, ‘Gaza embodies the central contradiction of the state of Israel—democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve.’ Israelis don’t say ‘go to hell’, they say ‘go to Gaza.’... After the conquest of Gaza in 1967, Ariel Sharon, then the general responsible for Israel’s southern command, oversaw the execution without trial of dozens of Palestinians suspected of involvement in resistance (it’s unclear how many died), and the demolition of thousands of homes: this was called ‘pacification’. In 2005, Sharon presided over ‘disengagement’: Israel withdrew eight thousand settlers from Gaza, but it remained essentially under Israeli control, and since Hamas was elected in 2006 it has been under blockade, which the Egyptian government helps enforce…. The people of Gaza—it’s not accurate to call them Gazans, since two-thirds of them are the children and grandchildren of refugees from other parts of Palestine—are effectively captives in a territory that has been amputated from the rest of their homeland.”

Of course, Gaza is just one region within Israel’s overall system of oppressive rule over Palestinians, a system that Amnesty International and even a former head of Mossad (among many others) have identified as apartheid.

See also:
Mohammad Matar, “The Settlers Can Do Whatever They Want With Us” (on anti-Palestinian violence on the West Bank)

Israel’s current mass killing in Gaza

“Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life has never been more callous or more flagrant, and it’s being fuelled by a discourse for which the adjective ‘genocidal’ no longer seems like hyperbole. In just the first six days of air strikes, Israel dropped more than six thousand bombs, and more than twice as many civilians have already died under bombardment as were killed on 7 October. These atrocities are not excesses or ‘collateral damage’: they occur by design. As Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, puts it, ‘we are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.’... Since Hamas’s attack, the exterminationist rhetoric of the Israeli far right has reached a fever pitch and spread to the mainstream. ‘Zero Gazans,’ runs one Israeli slogan.”

Shatz’s essay was published on October 20. As of November 6, the IDF's campaign in Gaza has killed over 10,000 people, including more than 4,000 children, and the numbers keep rising.

U.S. complicity

“In the days since the Hamas attack, the Biden administration has promoted policies of population transfer that could produce another Nakba. It has backed, for example, the ostensibly temporary relocation of millions of Palestinians to the Sinai so that Israel can continue its assault on Hamas….To aid its assault, Israel has received further weapons shipments from the US, which has also dispatched two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean, as a warning to Hamas’s chief regional allies, Iran and Hizbullah…. On the CBS news programme Face the Nation, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, defined ‘success’ in the war as ‘the long-term safety and security of the Jewish state and the Jewish people’, without any consideration of the safety and security—or the continuing statelessness—of the Palestinian people.” 

The United States’ continued military aid to Israel led State Department official Josh Paul to resign in protest on October 18. That same day, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights issued a report arguing that Israel is attempting to commit or is committing genocide in Gaza and that the U.S. is legally complicit.

Exploiting the history of anti-Jewish violence

“That Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, have sought explanations for their suffering in the history of antisemitic violence is only to be expected. Intergenerational trauma is as real among Jews as it is among Palestinians, and Hamas’s attack touched the rawest part of their psyche: their fear of annihilation. But memory can also be blinding. Jews long ago ceased to be the helpless pariahs, the internal ‘others’ of the West. The state that claims to speak in their name has one of the world’s most powerful armies – and a nuclear arsenal, the only one in the region. The atrocities of 7 October may be reminiscent of pogroms, but Israel is not the Pale of Settlement.”

Israel and its supporters have long used the legacy of Nazi genocide in Europe to get people to uncritically support the State of Israel and its policies. I wrote about this in 2014, during a previous Israeli war in Gaza, in a piece titled “Mythologizing the Holocaust.”

See also:
Natasha Roth-Rowland, “When ‘Never Again’ Becomes a War Cry

Suppression of Palestinian solidarity

“In Europe, expression of support for Palestinians has become taboo, and in some cases criminalised…. France has banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and the French police have used water cannon to disperse a rally in support of Gaza in the place de la République. The British home secretary, Suella Braverman, has floated plans to ban the display of the Palestinian flag. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, declared that Germany’s ‘responsibility arising from the Holocaust’ obliged it to ‘stand up for the existence and security of the state of Israel’ and blamed all of Gaza’s suffering on Hamas.”

See also:
Céline Cantat, “We asked: How is the Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in France?
Ansar Jasim, “We asked: How is the Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in Germany?
Chris McGreal, “Pro-Palestinian views face suppression in US amid Israel-Hamas war

October 7 attack

“The motives behind Al-Aqsa Flood, as Hamas called its offensive, were hardly mysterious: to reassert the primacy of the Palestinian struggle at a time when it seemed to be falling off the agenda of the international community; to secure the release of political prisoners; to scuttle an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement; to further humiliate the impotent Palestinian Authority; to protest against the wave of settler violence in the West Bank, as well as the provocative visits of religious Jews and Israeli officials to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; and, not least, to send a message to the Israelis that they are not invincible, that there is a price to pay for maintaining the status quo in Gaza. It achieved a grisly success... Never has Israel looked less like a sanctuary for the Jewish people.”

“The fighters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad—brigades of roughly 1500 commandos—killed more than a thousand civilians, including women, children and babies. It remains unclear why Hamas wasn’t satisfied after achieving its initial objectives. The first phase of Al-Aqsa Flood was classic—and legitimate—guerrilla warfare against an occupying power: fighters broke through the Gaza border and fence, and attacked military outposts…. The second phase, however, was very different. Joined by residents of Gaza, many of them leaving for the first time in their lives, Hamas’s fighters went on a killing spree. They turned the Tribe of Nova rave into a blood-drenched bacchanalia, another Bataclan. They hunted down families in their homes in kibbutzes. They executed not only Jews but Bedouins and immigrant workers…. As Vincent Lemire noted in Le Monde, it takes time to kill ‘civilians hidden in garages and parking lots or sheltering in safe rooms.’ The diligence and patience of Hamas’s fighters were chilling.”

Shatz has cautioned elsewhere that there’s a lot we still don’t know about October 7, such as the extent to which the attackers were following or not following orders. Some people have noted that the delineation between killing soldiers and killing civilians is blurred in a context where many soldiers are reservists and armed settlers function as a vigilante extension of the state. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz presented evidence suggesting that on October 7 some Israelis may have been mistakenly or recklessly killed by the IDF. But when all that is taken into account, Hamas’s October 7 attack remains an atrocity.

See also:
Gaza blockade: Hamas’s tragic attack a response to longterm and escalating, immediate violence
Israel/Palestine: Videos of Hamas-Led Attacks Verified

Romanticization of October 7

“And then there are Hamas’s admirers on the ‘decolonial’ left, many of them ensconced in universities in the West. Some of the decolonials… seem almost enthralled by Hamas’s violence and characterise it as a form of anti-colonial justice of the kind championed by Fanon in ‘On Violence’, the controversial first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth…. Others suggested that the young people at the Tribe of Nova festival deserved what they got, for having the chutzpah to throw a party a few miles from the Gaza border.”

“As the Palestinian writer Karim Kattan wrote in a moving essay for Le Monde, it seems to have become impossible for some of Palestine’s self-styled friends to ‘say: massacres like those that took place at the Tribe of Nova festival are an outrageous horror, and Israel is a ferocious colonial power.’ In an age of defeat and demobilisation, in which the most extreme voices have been amplified by social media, a cult of force appears to have overtaken parts of the left, and short-circuited any empathy for Israeli civilians.”

“But the radical left’s cult of force is less dangerous, because less consequential, than that of Israel and its backers, starting with the Biden administration.”

 See also:
Israeli Progressives Speak Out on War

Shatz’s conclusion

“The inescapable truth is that Israel cannot extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence, any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are stuck with each other, unless Israel, the far stronger party, drives the Palestinians into exile for good. The only thing that can save the people of Israel and Palestine, and prevent another Nakba – a real possibility, while another Holocaust remains a traumatic hallucination – is a political solution that recognises both as equal citizens, and allows them to live in peace and freedom, whether in a single democratic state, two states, or a federation. So long as this solution is avoided, a continuing degradation, and an even greater catastrophe, are all but guaranteed.”

Whether the catastrophe Shatz refers to can be avoided is unclear. What the State of Israel is doing–in Gaza, in the West Bank, and within its 1948 borders–is utterly appalling, and it’s unclear what kind of pressure, if any, can make them stop. But there’s some hope offered by the large and growing protests we’ve seen in the U.S. and many countries, the acts of mass civil disobedience, the workers refusing to load weapons onto ships. This is a moment when we need broad-based action to defend the people of Palestine against forced displacement and mass murder. And this is also a moment to go deeper, to try to understand the conflict’s complexities–not to weaken calls to action but, on the contrary, to ground them in historical understanding and acknowledgement of pain. As a proponent of three way fight politics I’m skeptical of simple “us-versus-them” models of socio-political conflict. As an anti-Zionist Jew I identify with the words offered by the group IfNotNow, which for the past month (and longer) has been one of the groups at the forefront of Palestine solidarity actions by American Jews:

“It seems like you have two choices: Justify the abduction and mass murder of Israelis by Hamas? Or ‘stand with’ the Israeli government's starvation and vengeance on 2 million Palestinians, most of them children, caged in an open air prison? No….

“Both: Apartheid is an abomination. Every day it continues is a blight on the lives of millions, and a moral stain on the rest of us. And: Abducting children and murdering families is an atrocity. We fight for a future worth living in for everyone, not a parade of corpses.”

*          *          *
“Our pain is not your weapon. Our grief is not your excuse. Stop using Jewish pain to justify Israeli massacres of Palestinians. War crimes do not justify more war crimes. Revenge is not a strategy for safety for anyone.”

Photo credit

Solidarity protest for Palestine in London, 9 October 2023, photo by