A Rage for Social Justice?
By Mark Salotte
Howard Ehrlich’s column in the last ONWARD (“When Hate Groups Come to Town” in ONWARD vol. 2 iss. 4) seemed calculated to start a fruitless debate among anti-racists which has already been hashed out, dragged out and let lie in most of the movement in favor of general commitment to “diversity of tactics.” When the article appeared, most activists in this part of the country involved in anti-fascist organizing were busy following up our massive success in breaking up a rally of five white supremacist groups in York, PA. It’s hard to see parts of the article as anything but an attempt to minimize and discredit that success. Now that the smoke has cleared and some lessons learned from that experience, it’s time to respond to criticisms like Howard’s.
The question of fascism in American culture is a crucial one. While most people agree it is doubtful that neo-nazis will take power here soon, their increasingly sophisticated presence is still a danger. Howard’s article was especially clear and concise in pointing out what neo-fascists hope to gain from holding their public rallies. But the solutions he offers are largely inadequate.
Our understanding of fascism’s danger has to color the way we understand popular culture. It colors the way we understand the government’s wars overseas and at home, and it has important implications for the radical left in terms of the alliances and coalitions we build and the culture we want to create. These things are too important to be left up to the respectable ‘specialists’ and their institutions – the professors and universities, the “anti-hate” or “anti-prejudice” foundations, the churches and community associations. But this is what Howard asks us to do.
Whether fascist groups can find broad support and new recruits depends on whether an attractive alternative can be presented. Fascism appeals to people as a passionate, mystical system that promises clear answers and easily identifiable scapegoats to problems. Anarchists don’t believe in such simple, ready-made answers, but,to provide an alternative to fascism, we need to show ourselves as we are: as passionate and a whole lot more radical than any jealous and spiteful white supremacists. We know that “community groups” of the type Howard believes in, well intentioned and sincerely anti-racist as they sometimes are, don’t have that alternative to offer. The crucial factor in fighting “hate groups” lies in inspiring and empowering people affected and offended by fascism’s appeal.
In York, no matter what the city council, the state “human relations” commission or the local churches and garden clubs intended, the day belonged to working-class people. That was the “teachable moment.” Nobody was asking the establishment for answers. But everybody was sure talking to each other on the streets, excited about how they felt about racism after seeing the biggest force the fascist movement had mustered in years scatter in terror at the hands of local crews of teenagers.
Greg Williams, a member of the York City School Board, said mostly white people and young children attended activities Jan. 12. Black men in their late teens were mostly downtown confronting the racists, he said. And they will continue to confront them, he said (York Dispatch/Sunday News, 1/27/02).
This doesn’t discount the valuable efforts people put into organizing unity rallies, festivals, teach-ins. Anything that brings people together as a community to deal with racism is good and necessary. Children, for example, could get a lot more out of a unity rally, where racism is explained in a safe space and black and Hispanic culture is celebrated, than they could at a potentially chaotic and emotion-laden scene. Maybe the white people Williams referred to had similar needs. In any case, most militants organizing to confront fascists recognize the need for safe events as well as more confrontational tactics. Most of the city people we spoke with in York saw things similarly, and large numbers of teenagers stopped by the city-sponsored unity rally to show support before heading downtown to confront the neo-nazis. Typically only the state, its allies and comfortable middle class citizens make the distinction Howard does.
I was also bothered by Howard’s constant references to “hate groups.” That term is applied to anarchists and our friends almost as much as to white supremacists. It also trivializes and de-politicizes the dangers these groups pose. We all feel hate, ain’t too much wrong in that. Many nazi recruits might be motivated by spite and resentment, but behind that pathetic front, there’s an ideology that wants to remake society in its own image of racial and sexual ‘purity,’ destroy dissent and enslave more than half the population to fund the whole project. That’s the real danger, not just “hate.”