I recently had the opportunity to attend a political event where extremists from both the left and the right were present. The event itself, the so-called ‘Straight Pride Parade,’ was created by right-wing trolls from an organization called Super Happy Fun America. The purpose of the event was ostensibly to give the ‘oppressed majority’ of straight people in America an outlet to demonstrate pride in their own straightness. If that was the intended theoretical purpose, the intended functional purpose was clearly to provoke a confrontation between left and right groups. In case there was any confusion about the intentions of the Straight Pride Parade, Super Happy Fun America even brought on Milo Yiannopoulos, the infamous ex-Breitbart editor and gay right-wing provocateur who is best known for provoking riots on college campuses and inciting twitter troll armies into outrage fueled witch hunts. Another headliner was the chairman of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio. The Proud Boys are a xenophobic far-right neo-fascist hate group that promotes the use of violence and is best known for beating up anti-fascist protesters on the streets of Manhattan in October 2018. The protesters they beat up belonged to a group of anonymous anti-fascist activists called Antifa who advocate the use of violence to prevent fascism. So by tapping Tarrio to be a headliner for the event, Super Happy Fun America all but guaranteed that both Proud Boys and Antifa would show up to the event ready for a brawl.
As I navigated the crowds of protesters at the Straight Pride Parade, those who affiliated themselves with Antifa were hard to miss. Antifa protesters wear all black and cover their faces either with black facemasks or red bandanas. This tactic is called ‘black bloc,’ and they do this in order to remain anonymous, thwart surveillance, and unify disparate Antifa groups who come together. But the sight of dozens of masked activists dressed in black is also very intimidating. Some bands of Antifa groups stood in formations at the edges of the crowd. Out of the hundreds of protesters, dozens wore the black bloc uniform. Many of them stood in direct opposition to the massing riot police. As the police formed front lines and maneuvered platoons into position to manage the parade, Antifa activists patrolled the rear and perimeters of the protest. I tried to ask them questions, but none of them would talk to me, as expected. When I asked if they were with Antifa, they smirked (or at least I think that is the facial expression that accompanied the audible snort from behind their mask) and said, “no comment.”
Another group that was in attendance that is worth mentioning is the John Brown Gun Club (JBGC). I saw members from the Rhode Island chapter of the John Brown Gun Club wearing their distinctive army green clothing and sporting military-style backpacks. The JBGC is one of the only prominent far-left gun rights groups in America. Redneck Rebellion, an offshoot of the JBGC, is a movement that traces its origins back to the Coal Wars and miner’s union strikes in West Virginia at the turn of the last century. During several battles, tens of thousands of coal miners led uprisings against mine owners to improve their working conditions. The Redneck Rebellion claims that legacy and signals their participation by tying a red bandana to their person, usually affixing it to their arms. The JBGC group I saw all had red bandanas signaling their affiliation with Redneck Rebellion. They were different from Antifa in a few notable ways. First, they did not try to hide their faces. Second, they dressed in military clothing and carried military equipment. Third, they communicated via walkie-talkies and clearly had a chain of command. They did coordinate with some Antifa groups, but whereas Antifa is a decentralized collection of strangers and has no official membership, Redneck Revolt and JBGC are hierarchical with strict chains of command and they operate much like a militia. I was approached by one JBGC / Redneck Revolt member who saw me filming and observing the group. This person refused to identify themselves, and when I asked what their role was, they said they were on ‘security detail.’
The Proud Boys side of the event had a surprisingly low turnout. I cannot find an official headcount, but the number of Straight Pride Parade participants was at least half that of the protesters. Many of parade-goers were carrying posters with far-right crypto-fascist messages, but very few sported overtly Proud Boys symbols, such as the golden crown of Laurels borrowed from Fred Perry T-Shirts. To be sure, many of the stout men with hard faces and firm gazes were likely Proud Boys, and all of the parade-goers were at least sympathetic to the Proud Boys’ alt-right agenda. But very few of the parade-goers looked like they wanted to get into a fight with either Antifa or the police. Most of them seemed content to stand safely behind police lines, thronged by cameras and press, while the protesters raged against the barricades as the parade floats passed. That being said, there were about a dozen Proud Boys who were ready to engage physically with protesters. A clique of Proud Boys wearing the golden laurel emblem acted as Milo’s bodyguards as he made his way through the crowds. One of them shoved celebrity protester and performance artist Vermin Supreme to the ground and shoved reporters and protesters away from Milo when they got too close. But beyond these small skirmishes, I saw no major fighting between Antifa and the Proud Boys during the parade.
The only serious disturbance of the day came when Antifa met with Police who attempted to force them to disperse from a location behind City Hall. There, dozens of Antifa protesters engaged directly with police in brawls, taking hits and shoves from the officers, as well as pepper spray to the face. Throughout the day, Antifa members had been challenging the police and attempting to provoke a confrontation. Several people had been arrested earlier in the day for preventing police from moving through the crowd freely, but during the major clash, 36 Antifa protesters were arrested and several police officers were injured.
The origins of Leftist violence:
There is a discussion happening in America right now about how much our political discourse in fomenting violence and what to do about it. Clearly the way Americans communicate about politics has grown more contentious, more personal, and more outraged. Anyone who doubts this trend has either been living under a rock or is too young to remember how politely people used to tell each other off before Twitter turned us all into rage machines. As the nation tracks the trend towards increasing hostility in political discourse, partisans on both sides will tend to take shots at each other by pointing to instances of political violence as evidence that the other side is more unhinged. The Right will often point to instances of property damage during protests, such as when protesters at Berkeley college campuses set fire to shops when Milo Yiannopolous was booked for a talk in 2017 or demonstrators in Ferguson protesting against a police shooting of an unarmed black man got rowdy and lit fires and destroyed cars, and they will say, “See? They aren’t protestors, they are rioters.” Meanwhile, the Left will point to the spate of mail bombs, hate crimes, and the general rise of politically motivated violent acts committed by far-right extremists in America since Trump took office and say, “who is more dangerous, our so-called ‘rioters’ or your murderous terrorists?”
After a woman was killed at an otherwise peaceful protest by a neo-Nazi far-right extremist in Charlottesville in 2017, this discussion took on less hypothetical and more practical tones. In some circles, especially among liberals, there has been a general feeling that the best way to respond to the increasingly heated discourse in American politics is with compassion, patience, and compromise. These liberals tend to see civil discourse as being the only morally upright pathway toward political supremacy. Michelle Obama perfectly captured this sentiment when she said, “when they go low, we go high.” Indeed, the Obamas embody the general worldview that compromise is integral to a properly functioning Democracy, that compromise is a strength, not a weakness, and that the partisan divide is a great danger facing America today. According to the researcher Jonathan Haidt, this divide is creating two Americas where values follow from political affiliation, not the other way around, and where members of each of the two major parties vilify each other to point where what one sees as the highest ideals of American society the other sees as the lowest corruptions of the human spirit. The only way to solve this problem, the Liberals say, is to compromise.
The reaction against this Obama-era sentiment has come mostly out the failure of Obama’s legislative agenda in the Republican-controlled congress of the early 2010s. At the beginning of this decade, Republicans made a pact among themselves to block any and all legislation championed by the Obama administration regardless of the merits of any particular bill in order to prevent Obama from achieving the policy goals that swept him into office. Obama’s lofty notions of compromise foundered against an impenetrable blockade in the House and Senate. The Republicans went so far as to shut the government down rather than pass a budget to fund Obama’s agenda. Obama, for his part, stayed true to his values and worked hard to find compromises. But the Republicans were playing a different game by then, and Obama’s devotion to civility played right into their hands, though liberals, for the most part, did not recognize the trap. Only when the right produced Trump as their nominee in 2016 did mainstream liberals start to realize that the Right would never embrace comprise again, at least not anytime soon. Some of these mainstream liberals who got the message went to work laying the groundwork for a far more aggressive version of leftwing politics in America. Since 2016, membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has swollen by over 50,000.
Antifa has also had an awakening in the years following the 2016 election. Antifa is a movement composed of left-wing, autonomous, militant anti-fascist groups and individuals. Antifa has existed in one form or another since the 1920s. It took off in Germany in the lead up to WW2, where the activities of the movement were focused on antagonizing the at first nascent and then ascendant fascist Nazi party. The American Antifa movement traces their lineage back to these German groups, but groups did not start forming in the US until the 1980s and 90s. A precursor group called ARA (Anti-Racist Action) engaged sporadically with neo-Nazis and Klansmen at punk rock shows and other far-right recruiting grounds. Other similar anti-fascist groups operated in Minneapolis and across the country from the 80s through the 90s and into the early 2000s. One of the earliest true Antifa groups in the US is the Rose City Antifa group in Portland Oregon, which formed in 2007. Since 2016, Antifa has seen an explosion of participants. Although exact headcounts are not possible due to the decentralized structure of the movement and fluid nature participation, one estimate from 2017 indicated that at least 200 groups across the country. Today, there are thousands of participants across the country.
One parade is clearly not enough to draw conclusions about national trends or make a solid comparison between the prevalence of violence on the left and right sides of the political spectrum. And even though not many Proud Boys joined in the fray this time, that does not mean that they are not responsible for their fair share of extremist violence on American streets. They certainly are. But there is one conclusion that I came to which many Americans might find shocking, especially Democrats and peace-loving leftists: there are more violent far-left extremists in America than one might at first expect, and their ranks are growing. Democrats tend to be unaware of far-left groups like the John Brown Gun Club and Redneck Revolt, but they are out there, and sometimes, they are more aggressive than the far-right. If the Democrats want to make the case that Trump is responsible the rise in far-right extremist violence and ask Republicans to take responsibility for it, they should also be willing to address the violence that is percolating up from the depths of growing far-left movements. Not everyone on the left is against gun rights. Not everyone on the left is against using force to achieve political goals. Democrats like to point to right-wingers and say that their politics cause the most violence on American streets, and they are for the most part correct in this assessment. But if the Left does not watch out, there may soon come a day when the Left is more violent than the right.