The annual march, which was started in 2017 as a reaction to the election of President Donald J. Trump, this year focused on abortion rights.
The annual march, which was started in 2017 as a reaction to the election of President Donald J. Trump, this year focused on abortion rights.
On Friday, for the 50th year in a row, tens of thousands of anti-abortion proponents gathered in Washington, DC, to demonstrate their commitment to “protecting the lives of the unborn.” Originally created to protest Roe v. Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that established the constitutional right to an abortion, the March For Life has long included prominent conservatives, local activists, and busloads of school children from Catholic schools, all determined to end legal abortion.
But because the Supreme Court overturned Roe in its 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, relegating the power to legislate abortions to individual states, Friday’s march—occurring just two days before what would have been the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling—was unlike those that came before it. “While the march began as a response to Roe, we don’t end as a response to Roe being overturned,” Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, told the crowd. “We will continue to march until abortion is unthinkable.”
With the landmark Supreme Court battle behind them, anti-abortion activists now must decide what to do next, navigating the many competing objectives among the broader movement. Are emergency contraceptives considered abortifacients or not? What about contraceptives generally? Should abortion be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the health of a mother?
Marie Miller, a protestor from Texas, tells me she won’t be satisfied until there is a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. Her sign says “Save the innocent baby! Slaughter the rapist.”
— Abby Vesoulis (@abbyvesoulis) January 20, 2023
Galvanized by the Dobbs decision, many March for Life protestors expressed having a renewed sense of energy and purpose. Members of the Catholic clergy chanted the “Hail Mary” as they marched past the Smithsonian. Two blocks away, a jumbotron screen replayed graphic videos of fetuses being dismembered, featuring text overlays stating, “This is her only baby picture.” Outside the Supreme Court, people knelt down to pray as women nearby on microphones shared tales of abortions they regretted.
“I just want to say thank you so much to the Supreme Court,” said first-time march participant Beth Eddy, a 68-year-old from Columbus, Ohio.
While former president Donald Trump was the only sitting president to ever participate in the annual event, this year’s speaker list skillfully avoided any marquee MAGA associates, and as always, a number of religious leaders participated, including Rev. Franklin Graham, an American evangelist. Also included in the lineup were Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, who along with Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, introduced federal legislation that would ban abortion after 15 weeks gestation.
“Regrettably, the pro-abortion culture of denial, a modern-day ‘flat earth society’, continues to disrespect baby girls and boys.”
“Clearly a new national debate on abortion has begun as lawmakers at the state level especially act very quickly,” Smith said, mentioning the states where legislators are trying to ban abortion as early as six weeks. “Regrettably, the pro-abortion culture of denial, a modern-day ‘flat earth society’, continues to disrespect baby girls and boys.”
With the judicial battle of toppling Roe behind them, national legislation has become a more important goal for the anti-abortion movement, and this goal was reflected in the route of the march itself. Instead of marching directly to the steps of the Supreme Court, as the group has done for 49 years, the protesters walked around the Capitol Building, where they hope US lawmakers eventually will vote to restrict the freedom to choose country-wide. Congress is “the new front in our battle for life,” March For Life organizers noted on their website.
The House, less than one month into its new session, already passed a bill laying out criminal penalties for physicians who fail to try to revive babies born after an attempted abortion. Federal law already requires doctors to provide life-saving care to babies born alive during or after a failed abortion attempt, but the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” would clarify what types of medical intervention are required and create penalties for doctors who don’t comply. A fetus surviving an abortion is incredibly rare since 93 percent of abortions are performed at or before 13 weeks gestation and before viability. Republicans now control the House of Representatives, but such anti-abortion legislation will go nowhere in the US Senate, where most legislation requires 60 votes to pass, and where Democrats currently have a 51-49 majority.
With Congress deadlocked, March For Life is devoting much of its ongoing efforts to local battles. Despite Dobbs, abortion is still legal in 38 states—something March For Life wants to change by expanding its organizing efforts. As the protestors marched away from the National Mall, clutching rosaries and singing, large speakers echoed above to remind them of their next goal. “State marches are more important than ever,” a voice blared.
But winning those state battles won’t be easy. Pew Research Center reports that 62 percent of the country supports legal abortion in all or most cases, and abortion rights were a winning issue in all six states in which they were on the ballot in the 2022 midterms.
Abortion seekers from states with restrictions or bans are traveling or acquiring drugs without prescriptions to carry out abortions anyway. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
The strategy of the institutional antiabortion movement over the last fifty years has been to overturn the Supreme Court’s creation of a constitutional right to abortion and then change the state laws that govern the practice of abortion so as to make them more strict. This strategy was nominally aimed at reducing the number of abortions in the United States, but antiabortion movement leaders have seemed largely uninterested in the question of how much it would actually do that.
We recently got some initial answers to this question, courtesy of an impressive data collection effort undertaken by the Society of Family Planning (SFP). In April of this year, prior to the Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, the SFP began collecting monthly data from 79 percent of abortion providers in the country. With this data, they have been able to estimate the number of abortions being conducted in each state every month between April and August of this year.
There are two main reasons to doubt that the overturn-then-restrict strategy of the antiabortion movement would make much of a dent in the number of abortions being conducted in the United States.
The first reason is that most of the population lives in states that are not likely to impose significant restrictions. The SFP data confirms this. Prior to Dobbs, 10 percent of US abortions occurred in states that went on to ban abortion, 16 percent occurred in states that went on to significantly restrict abortion, and the remaining 74 percent occurred in states that have not imposed significant restrictions.
The second reason is that abortion seekers have three ways of getting an abortion: 1) through a formal provider in their own state, 2) through a formal provider in another state, and 3) informally, such as by acquiring mifepristone or misoprostol without a prescription. Yet state laws can only really restrict the first option. When that option is closed down, many abortion seekers will opt for travel or informal methods.
The SFP data partially confirms that this is happening. Between April and August of this year, the number of abortions in states with bans or significant restrictions declined by 12,500 per month, while the number of abortions increased by 7,140 in states without significant restrictions.
From this, we can see that most abortion seekers who are affected by bans or restrictions in their own states still get an abortion by traveling to another state.
After accounting for the increase in abortion in nonrestrictive states, the total abortion reduction from April to August is only 5,360 per month, which is equal to around 6 percent of pre-Dobbs abortions. And many of those 5,360 missing abortions probably did occur through informal methods, like abortion pills acquired without a prescription, that escape this kind of tracking.
So, in the final score, the overturn-then-restrict policy strategy of a fifty-year-old generational struggle accomplished less than 6 percent of its nominal goal, a number that is likely to decline further as information about travel and pill alternatives becomes more widespread. For comparison, the number of annual abortions declined by over 40 percent in the thirty years prior to Dobbs.
If the names Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Elena Lagadinova are unfamiliar to you, Kristen Ghodsee’s new book will provide an illuminating and long-overdue corrective. Accessibly written and extensively researched, Red Valkyries recovers the stories of five socialist women, offering a welcome alternative history of 20th-century feminism from the perspective of eastern European revolutionary politics.
In recent years, renewed enthusiasm for socialism and/or anti-capitalism has grown in the west. Among those who recognise that women’s emancipation is incompatible with capitalism, there has also been a significant backlash to ‘#girlboss feminism’. Ghodsee’s timely volume reconnects feminism with its radical past and reclaims the integral role of state socialism in the global struggle for women’s emancipation. In her five brief biographical sketches, Ghodsee explores the lives of activists who ‘fought side by side with their male counterparts to create a more equitable world for all through collective action’, carefully distinguishing between these women and their liberal feminist equivalents.
At times, the author tends to oversimplify the dichotomies between east vs west and socialist vs liberal feminisms, perhaps in order to emphasise her argument for a general readership. This can be helpful to explain western ignorance about state socialist histories, and to understand early 20th-century feminists’ focus on attaining rights for an already privileged few. But it fails to acknowledge that many of the west’s most influential feminist activists were also socialists, and that many of them had close contact with her Red Valkyries: Emma Goldman, Clara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Rosa Luxemburg, for example. Would we consider these women liberal feminists (or those in later women’s movements of the 1970s) just because they did not work within a state socialist system?
Nevertheless, Ghodsee successfully examines each of the women’s political careers and accomplishments with enthusiasm and clarity, providing tangible evidence of ways in which their ideas and activism impacted women’s emancipation both at home and abroad. Deadly Red Army sniper Pavlichenko is celebrated by Ghodsee as ‘an early
theorist of gender’, having created a new kind of fluid femininity that embraced both maternalism and military accomplishment. Three devoted Bolshevik women – Kollontai, Krupskaya and Armand – are recognised for their vital contributions in establishing Russian state socialism, introducing radical education reforms, fully-socialised reproductive and domestic labour, and liberalised marriage, abortion and divorce laws. Finally, Bulgarian partisan fighter, scientist and politician Lagadinova is credited as pioneering one of the most progressive ‘bottom-up’ social systems for women in the post-war era.
None of these women were marginalised or unknown figures in their lifetimes. In fact, several toured Britain and the US, gaining celebrity status as sources of fascination and inspiration to the press and public, many of whom were seemingly won over by Soviet ideals. Ghodsee claims, for example, that Pavlichenko’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt may have inspired her to chair the First Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, setting the stage for second-wave feminist reforms in the US. Perhaps western democracies were more susceptible to the influence of state socialism (and socialist women) than has been credited by other scholars; Ghodsee ensures these accomplishments are not lost to history.
In addition to their international influence often being overlooked and forgotten, many of the achievements and successes of Bolshevik women Kollontai, Krupskaya and Armand were reversed by Stalin, meaning their revolutionary dreams were never totally realised. Yet, as Ghodsee notes, perhaps the ‘truly liberatory potential’ of their vision is proven by Stalin’s ‘total rejection and reversal’ of the more progressive laws in 1936. Her Red Valkyries envisaged a politics that was far-reaching, utopian and ambitious in its hopes for the future. For them, it was impossible to build socialism without abolishing entire systems of family, domestic life, education and childrearing in their traditional forms.
Indeed, the innovative ways in which these women theorised entirely new values and modes of living deserves equal attention to their political résumés, which Ghodsee provides. Delving into the intimacies of these women’s complicated personal relationships and imperfect lives, this book offers deeper insight into the relationship between the personal and political in revolutionary movements.
Nineteenth and early-20th century revolutionaries, among others, challenged the patriarchal-capitalist foundations of marriage and the family
Several of these women sought out unconventional domestic situations, whether consciously committed to non-monogamy like Kollontai and Armand, or drifting towards ambiguous undefined relationships like the Lenin-Armand-Krupskaya love triangle. Kollontai’s political economy of love, for example, is strikingly ahead of her time, summed up in her ‘Communism and the Family’(1920):
‘Of the ruins of the former family we shall soon behold rising a new form which will involve altogether different relations between men and women, which will be a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal persons of the Communist Society, both of them free, both of them independent, both of them workers.’
She understood the inability of monogamous love to fulfil all emotional, intellectual and romantic needs. Under communism, she believed partners would no longer be trapped in possessive pairs, viewing each other as exclusive property, but would be free to pursue stronger and varied collective ties through ‘comradely love’.
We often think of ‘free love’ and polyamory as facets of the countercultural and hippy movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But Ghodsee reminds us that 19th and early-20th century revolutionaries, among others, challenged the patriarchal-capitalist foundations of marriage and the family, pioneering ideas of sexual and romantic freedom and viewing free love as intrinsically linked to women’s emancipation and economic independence. A convincing argument in defence of a present-day leftist commitment to non-monogamy would have been a welcome addition to Ghodsee’s commentary.
Still, the book is scattered with contemporary critiques about the plight of women in modern day global capitalism, as well as conversational reflections on the state of 21st-century feminism. Ghodsee draws these together in a conclusion that identifies nine lessons activists can learn from her Red Valkyries, reiterating her call for a reappraisal of state socialist successes in the eyes of western leftists.
The importance of this book lies in the relevance of these lessons to today’s struggles, showing us that socialism remains a valid and necessary response to contemporary political challenges in both the east and west. Ghodsee equips us with five extraordinary role models whose tenacity, perseverance and dedication to revolutionary politics should serve as inspiration to anyone seeking to build a better world for all.
Rachel Collett is a curator, writer and student. Red Valkyries: Feminist Lessons from Five Revolutionary Women is out now from Verso Books
This article first appeared in issue #237, Autumn 2022, Power in Unions. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!
On November 2nd, Pinko and Haymarket Books hosted an online discussion about the topic of political violence, fascist mobilization and queer/trans community self-defense. The discussion convened local organizers from various different US cities representing different strategies and periods of struggle. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
M.E. O’Brien, moderator:
I’ll add a little bit about my own thinking in doing this to help get us started. Often, the really valuable skills, experience, and organization around militant self defense are pretty isolated to a relatively small group of revolutionaries in specific segments of working class life. I grew up in the ’90s in Oregon when the neo-Nazi movement was very large, and there was a vibrant, sharp skinhead scene that engaged in violent confrontations with Nazis. There was also a political dynamic with whether they were completely isolated from the segments of the anti fascist movement that would not engage in self defense in any meaningful way. And so at different historical moments, broader self defense was taken up by a broader segment of the working class, as part of integrated mass movements, and we know some of the history of the Black Panthers and other periods in history when this has happened.
In our planning for this event, in talking about it, Melissa Gira Grant, one of our panelists, told a story describing a shift on the ground of liberal activists, pro-gay activists or people who previously might really distance themselves from militants or revolutionaries or self defense or riots or whatnot suddenly finding themselves relying on anti-fascists’ experience, anti-fascist activists, to be able to attend an event or walk to their car when events were being targeted by fascists around attacking queerness and trans life.
And so that dynamic of this moment of self-defense being looked at, being considered, being taken seriously more broadly is one of the reasons that I was really excited about doing this event, and trying to think about if we’re in a moment right now that self-defense could become salient for a much broader range of people, and if the skills of people on this panel and people that we’re in touch with might be useful in trying to think about that.
Now, I’ll read the bios. Melissa Gira Grant is a staff writer at The New Republic, the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, published by Verso, and an excellent book, I’ll add. The co director of They Won’t Call it Murder, executive produced by Field of Vision. She has reported on violence against massage workers in Flushing, attacks on trans rights across Texas, resistance to police killings in Columbus, and the global movement for sex worker rights. She’s currently at work on a new book, A Woman is Against the Law: Sex, Race, and the Limits of Justice of America, to be published by Little, Brown and Company.
LV is a communist living in Los Angeles. She organized the Bash Back Denver and the 2010 Bash Back Convergence, as well as a number of militant queer groups in Los Angeles, such as Trans Liberation LA, Trans Undocumented Rapid Response North America or TURRN and the 2013 Queerpocalypse. She is a practicing conflict mediator and developing an eco defense video game. Sheila T. Is a huge nerd and trans film minimum person and anarchist living in Philadelphia. She’s been participating in anarchist and queer struggles since around 2010. Max, they/them, is a community organizer in Sacramento, California. Their work usually revolves around the abolition of prisons and private property, but they have been an active organizer against platforms of far right extremism and Christofascism for many years. We’re very excited to have these panelists here. Thank you all for being here tonight.
I wanted to open with a broad overview by asking Melissa, could you give us a picture nationally of the fascist upsurge and the attacks on anti queer and anti trans people?
MELISSA: Sure. Thank you so much, also to Pinko and to Haymarket for doing this. These are the questions that have been on my mind all summer, all year, so this couldn’t be better timed. I feel like I’ve spent the last year doing nothing but following these attacks, and there’s way more than I could possibly summarize in the time that we have here, so I thought what I would do is sort of talk about the pattern and then talk about a couple of specific attacks that I think illustrate this pattern.
So, the pattern, as I’ve seen it sort of honed over the last two years, we have individuals mobilizing across the U.S., often unaffiliated with any well known far right group influenced by propaganda shared by social media accounts. This isn’t happening on the fringes of the internet. That propaganda demonizes LGBTQ people as dangerous to children. They terrorize hospitals, libraries, other community spaces that are welcoming to query and trans people and document the ensuing pushback and conflict as evidence that they, themselves, are victims under attack by some powerful lobby, which is a very classic fascist move, to position yourself as the victim in the violence that you’ve instigated, and to overexaggerate the power of the people that you’re actually doing violence against.
So, I’m going to focus on how we’re seeing these forms of mutually reinforcing violence, where we see these fascist formations that are mostly in particular cities or sometimes networked across the country, and how that’s connected with elected officials who are working at the local, state, and federal level, and how these different groups are reinforcing these messages and driving this violence in tandem.
Here’s two examples of what look like they could be disparate attacks. They happened over the course of three months, but I think they show how all these attacks are linked, who coordinates them, and who the boots on the ground are, as it were. So, I’m going to start in Dallas this June. There is a group there called Protect Texas Kids. It’s a pretty new group and headed by a self described Christian fascist whose name is Kelly Neidert. She organized a protest of a family-friendly drag show along with other individuals in white nationalist groups who showed up as well. What they did is they surrounded the club holding the event, Mr. & Mr., which is in a gay neighborhood in the suburb of Dallas. They chanted “groomer” at the families and kids lining up on the sidewalk to get into the event. They got up into their faces. One of them was waving a Christian nationalist flag. The children were plugging their ears with their fingers as the fascists were yelling at them about child rape. One guy captured on the video said, “the fist of Christ will come down on you very soon,” again, screaming at this scene of the kids and their parents.
For hours this went on. Some of them were reciting sidewalk prayers, reminiscent of anti-abortion groups outside clinics. Some of them directly threatened people, followed them to their cars, and then recorded themselves in these confrontations that they instigated. And then a little more than 48 hours later, Tucker Carlson was airing heavily edited versions of these videos in a segment that he introduced with “just another weekend in Weimar.”
And Texas republican lawmakers shortly after introduced legislation to ban drag shows in the presence of minors with Marjorie Taylor green and Lauren Boebert, the federal representative,s voicing their support. Protect Texas Kids announced this rally by sharing a post about the event from the Libs of TikTok Twitter account. It has 1.4 million followers. They often share, you know, fliers for drag events. They share videos from TikTok and other places of queer and trans folks. They really honing in on librarians, educators, anyone who they think is a bad influence on children, essentially. And they’re a really powerful sort of mobilizer, because they have this huge audience.
So, they shared this flier, had the date, location, and it was part of this mega drag thread. There is lots of these events that Libs of TikTok is regularly pushing out to their audience. One of the other things Libs of TikTok has been doing is targeting hospitals that provide gender affirming care to young people. After this campaign, multiple bomb threats were made to the Boston Children’s Hospital at the end of the summer. Libs of TikTok also amplified threats that were made in September by The Daily Wire blogger and podcaster Matt Walsh. He claimed he was investigating a pediatric gender-affirming care clinic at Vanderbilt hospital in Tennessee. Walsh singled out the doctors by name.
And almost immediately Tennessee Republican governor Bill Lee joined Walsh’s call for an investigation into the hospital, followed closely by Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Tucker Carlson had Walsh on. This pattern getting from social media to the protest to the Tucker. He again ran the names and this time also the photos of the members of the hospital board and said, let’s hope they act immediately to stop this crime. And the hospital after being harassed and threatened after this, removed the clinic’s page from their website.
So, a couple days after this, Protect Texas Kids is back. They found another drag event at a church in Texas, which is a queer affirming church. They had this drag closet for kids and, you know, it was a place where they could get clothes that suited them, particularly if their families weren’t supporting them. The church was a supportive place for them. They were doing a drag bingo fundraiser for this trans kids program. This little church in Katy, Texas. Steve Bannon talks about it on his program. He promotes this protest, he has a guest on who calls it a spiritual battle and that the goal of it was to stop parents from supporting their trans kids.
This one, we saw a Neo Nazi group called the Aryan Freedom Network and also Proud Boys were present, and protesters cared swastika flags along with homophobic signs. Just a couple of weeks after Walsh starting his campaign, we see numerous calls of violence at hospitals across the country. That Children’s Hospital he targeted announced it was going to stop providing gender affirming surgeries to those under 18. He wasn’t done. He capped this off with sort of a victory lap. He held a rally to end child mutilation in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, along with Blackburn and also Tulsi Gabbard, and Proud Boys who showed up once the rally was under way. Looked like this planned militaristic presence, like a show of force with the State Troopers standing between them and all the people who showed up to support trans kids. Mostly drowned out the speakers. It got pitched as two sides in a fight when what was going on was sort of an attempt to defend the community from all of these people. After the rally, none of the elected officials there present said anything to condemn the Proud Boys’ presence.
That’s kind of a snapshot of what this cycle is, of how things are moving from these confrontations in particular places, documented, they get on to Fox News, that generates more social media content, which generates more protests, and it’s just been spinning like this for months. And, of course, it goes back further, but I will wait until we get into that later.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much, Melissa. I want to give an opportunity for the other panelists to sort of briefly respond and add on to your question. In the frame of what is new in this conjuncture, right? So, attacks on queer and trans people, been happening for a long time. There have been fascists in America a long time. Is there something about this moment that you feel like has some novelty or some change?
MAX: I’ll pop in there. I was jotting down some notes on what’s new in this moment, and that’s everything from the technology that we use to share the information, and the ways in which they create silos for themselves — that’s what the right and folks have been getting good at for the last several decades, how to create these silos of information where they can all gather and brain wash each other and not allow in any qualitative new information to allow for their growth and learning. But what I really think is actually the most profound part about what’s happening in our current political climate is the desperation of the elite. You see the devastation that we see around us is due to capitalism ending, and they absolutely need a section of the working class to usher in the new but kind of old form of what we’re calling neo-feudalism as our next economic system. The rises of fascism began with attacks on queer people, trans people, women, POC. It’s what Hitler and the Nazis did in Berlin. It’s what the industrial south did before that, and so on.
And where we’re starting to see these big changes is in the fact that, like, there is so much devastation happening around us, and all of us are trying to make sense of that devastation and whether — no matter what side of this thing we are on. And that right there is like what’s causing us to now be willing to no longer engage in discourse in the streets about it. This is a moment of survival for many people and they’re using this disaster as a way to mobilize their base, this fascist base for their fascist thinking, to be able to usher in this new economic system.
MICHELLE: Sheila T., is there anything that you would like to add before I ask LV a question?
SHEILA: I was also going to point out the technological changes and how those have facilitated and helped further decentralize and made a lot of people kind of mutually brainwash each other and feel empowered to kind of act across much bigger geographical areas, but I feel like most of that was touched on.
MICHELLE: LV, you’re welcome to add to this, but I wanted to ask the next question, going back in history a little bit, sort of thinking about immediate antecedents. Can you share about Bash Back for the audience who know nothing about the organization, its network and its history?
LV: Sure, Bash Back made a big splash but was very short lived from 2008 to 2011. It got its start in conflicts and street clashes with Nazis, in particular in Milwaukee, and in other cities in the Midwest, and one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last year in particular is, what made Bash Back kind of happen in that moment and not in this moment? The network of Bash Back, because felt like there were thousands of militant queers that were supporting each other, and publicizing their actions and hyping each other up to fight back against homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual violence, a number of difference things.
And I think one of the aspects that made Bash Back somewhat different was just the coming together of people. I think that in 2008, when the broadcasting and the social dimension of these actions made this experience around queer self defense and queer violence more powerful, I would say, in 2008 when there was this clash in Milwaukee they circulated a picture of themselves, wearing these pink masks and holding bats and wrote a little communique and posted it on anarchistnews.org, which just seemed to be a big deal at that time. I felt in the late 2000s, the revolutionary left was kind of dominated by anarchist discourse. And that created a container for that discussion, and people were able to kind of discuss in these comment forums in a sort of Reddit-like vibe and organize themselves to form chapters in other cities and in different capacities and o from that experience, people called for a convergence in Minneapolis.
Then there was another convergence, which was very large, in Chicago, and then the final one was in Denver. I think that the convergence model is another aspect of Bash Back that I kind of have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it enabled the conditions to bring people together in this very visible way, and then on the other hand, I think most people in this panel and maybe the listeners will probably agree that when you bring together a lot of radicals or just anybody, conflict is gonna arise. Bash Back is ironically formed around facing conflict head on, but the interpersonal conflict is what seems to tank these projects, consistently, and I feel like that was the case with Bash Back.
In Denver, we made a lot of, like, efforts to do conflict mediation within the different people that were coming to the convergence. However, some of these splits just became unmanageable. I think there was also an ideological split there, too, where there’s a community-building aspect of self-defense, saying, okay, we’re going to mostly focus on legible targets and neo-Nazis and very visible moments, and then there is more what I would consider an insurrectionist approach, which is more like we’re going to attack in the multiplicity of ways that this violence and this oppression is being enacted on us. So it’s more like, how do we confront bigots on the street? It’s very difficult to organize a group of people around that. Whereas anarcho-insurrectionists are like, we’re fighting all the time. This fight never ends. And we’re embracing this pure negation. Bash Back was kind of the synthesis of these two different approaches, and I think that for a brief moment, it was a really beautiful synthesis and could have been a very powerful one, but I think ultimately there wasn’t — they’re somewhat incompatible but, I don’t think that we were able to kind of hold those two together and move forward with them. Which is probably what it would have taken for that to last.
So, I absolutely feel like there needs to be something like Bash Back. Right now, I think, especially for supporting youth that are engaging in defense right now. In Los Angeles a couple of years ago we had a number of street clashes with Nazis around the Wi Spa incident. So people are doing self-defense actions, but it’s the more social aspect of it that seems to be missing from that component. The isolated actions are happening, but the communication and the almost celebration and hyping up of each other around those actions is not really — I think we need to strategize how to create a new container that makes sense for this moment.
MICHELLE: One aspect that you spoke about but I was hoping you could elaborate a little bit more is the way Bash Back networked people across the country and also had some international connections. And sort of a little bit about the scope and the kind of networked quality of it.
LV: A lot of that was the fact that Aragorn had created this platform with anarchistnews.org and kind of contained that dialogue. So it’s essentially somebody that was sympathetic to the Bash Back cause was creating a space for this conversation to happen, whereas the dialogues that are happening around self defense right now, whether it’s on Twitter or whether it’s on TikTok or a number of different platforms are just these sites of corporate alienation. No actual in-person organizing can come out of those kind of experiences, so, I personally think that the social aspect, being in proximity to each other is really important.
So these convergences were important. And I think at that point in the late 2000s, the DNC and the RNC convergences were these mass mobilizations that brought together a lot of the revolutionary left to be together and learn the skills required of bringing that number of people together. Bash Back was a part of that context, and I think that we’ve lost some of those skills over the years. Like just being able to handle a group of 500,000 people that are coming into a city, with housing, food, conflict management and all those different things that are aspects of it.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much. It’s just really fascinating history. So, next, I wanted to ask first Sheila T. And then Max if you could share a little tactics and strategy around care, self defense that you’re seeing on the ground or encountered or been a part of or seen, and what you think works, what you think is helpful to people. So, Sheila T.?
SHEILA: I feel like what I’ve been seeing for the last, I don’t know, five to seven-ish years in Philly has been in terms of mutual aid. A lot of information sharing and distribution of pepper spray and stuff like that in terms of queers who are tied up in sex work stuff, or bad date lists. Information about how to get work done in ways that are safer. And on the other hand, I feel like people have been more informally networking with each other to have protection, for work or not for work. Just in life, and having people that they can call, and developing that both as a social network or set of social networks and also as a set of skills to de-escalate or escalate.
And I think a lot of that is not completely separate from two things, partially tying back to some of the Bash Back stuff. I feel like one is that at least here, after a certain point, it just felt like in anti-fascist organizing, queers were overly represented in that world. And so even though maybe from the outside or from reading what people wrote, it wasn’t always super clear that queer and trans people involved in organizing against fascists and far right people, but if that was a thing, I feel like that also brought certain skills and ways of thinking to those networks that spilled beyond people who were just organizing against fascist stuff.
One example I can think of from before COVID that has kept going is that a lot of anti-fascists started practicing different boxing and combat sports, and then that kind of spilled out and became larger than just an anti-fascist, anarchist thing. Then that spilled out and became a larger than just antifascist thing that was open to queers and anarchists and anti-fascists and their friends and networks as well.
And then on the other side, less tied up with strictly anti-fascism and more with this idea of insurrection and anarchy as it was playing out with the Bash Back stuff, I feel like there were a good amount of different attacks and sabotages that took place. Almost all of them were anonymous, but some of them that had responsibility claims or written communication were either clearly influenced by queer theory and queer ideas or were claimed by people who, while maintaining anonymity, were gay or trans or queer or dykes or whatever.
And I imagine that network of people or groups of people had to figure out the ways to seek out and develop the means to do violence in the same way that the anti fascists had to, and I think also that brought a lot of collective and individual empowerment to those people in the networks that were around them as well.
MICHELLE: Thank you. Max?
MAX: Yeah, thanks for that question. And besides like engaging in mutual learning and information sharing, I’d say working in public facing events. This allows folks to find ways to plug in and new folks to support their affinity/community building with. Oftentimes these folks are from their families and are not as deep in the weeds and their friends — I oftentimes speak with youth who are like, everybody around me isn’t talking about this stuff, so we have to create spaces for them to come and meet other youth or other people who are talking about this stuff.
And for us, 2020 really opened up the door for the anti-fascism but also anti-fascist self-defense tactics. Antifa got airwaves like never before. “What is Antifa” trended on Google searches for days during those times. Creating things like anarchist book fairs in the areas that don’t normally have them. In Sacramento, we compete with the Bay all the time. But here, we have everything from queer self-defense groups that are community forward-facing, that allow for community members to hit us up and be like, where y’all training this weekend so I can join you? They train every Sunday. We have a forward-facing queer defense formation that walks our queer district in Sacramento. We have events where queers can come and paint bricks. In Sac, we have Pride Was a Riot, who is dope, and in a pink bandana masked up and tabling at the farmers market on Saturdays. Even further, they did a campaign to get every vendor at that market to have signs that say “we support trans kids.”
It’s those forward-facing, public-facing efforts that are normalizing not just anti-fascism, but different tactics of self-defense, and all of its tactics, whether that’s physically self -defending and using things like pepper spray or physical self-defense tactics or creating a culture and a community that provides that safety just by people walking in, knowing that they’re welcome.
Things like that have proved the most helpful and have proved to support folks in their entering or in their introduction to anti-fascism and the anti-fascist orgs in town. It’s allowed for us to meet folks where they’re at with it, too, you know? And we always talk about the different things that go into supporting this work. We all see those fliers where there are ten support roles to a protest and things like that. Whether that’s you safely doing it from your home to all different abled body types. We’re being very inclusive in our ability to get involved, but we’re meeting our community where they’re at.
Then during 2020 we held events — we called them “we keep us safe” events, and they talked about everything from tear gas and tourniquets to abolition through an Indigenous framework, and gender 101 that went on once a week during this time. The ability to create public facing — We can’t be afraid to be like, we’re anti-fascists. They got it every Saturday at the farmers market. The big circles, big A’s everywhere. You know, normalizing it. Creating the ways for us to get publicly involved and to be meeting our community where they’re at.
Not only are we normalizing these things, but we’re also letting them recognize that we’re actually their community. We are the community that they want to be a part of when they say they want housing as a human right, when they say they want healthcare for all, when they say they want food access for everybody that this is actually an anarcho-communist thought and theory, and they don’t even realize that they are objectively this way. We need them to recognize it in their subjective lives as well. So that’s about it for us, that forward-facing, being willing to engage in dialogue, discussion, information sharing, and mutual learning.
MICHELLE: That’s beautiful. So, we’re going to open it up between each other. I have a question for everybody, but it’s also an opportunity to respond to each and to begin to sort of draw out themes, sort of things that are evocative for you, and then at some point, I’ll start throwing in some questions from the audience on YouTube. So, the question for everybody to open our discussion is, what do you see as the value of self-defense in the current moment? And Max spoke to that in quite a number of ways just now.
SHEILA: I would say that self-defense is as important as ever, and maybe something to pay particular attention to, just because of the ways that queer and trans people have been more pointedly targeted, in the sense that self defense is just literally essential for surviving. For me, it feels like it could never not be an important thing, and specifically as queer and trans people, we’re often alienated and disempowered from access to violence and defense, and now is as good of a time as any to develop the means and skills and networks to be able to take care of ourselves and each other.
MAX: It’s so important right now, because I spoke to it earlier about the devastation that we’re seeing around us. And that on all fronts are we being attacked. And that’s from everything from, like, state violence to far-right extremist Christofascism, extremism, religious extremism, because that is happening globally in different forms of religion, and even ecological devastation. We are literally fighting for our lives and our survival, and so defending our joy but organizing our rage around how to defend ourselves from the very things that are trying to convince us and gaslight us about the very real devastation that’s happening in our communities is absolutely the way forward. This is also the peace in me, because as we’re all actually moving from the form of self-defense, inevitability what we get to is somebody one day is not throwing the first punch, you know? And so to speak on it in such terms, in such beauty, to talk about self-defense as not a struggle for our lives, but the right for our lives is very important right now, because like I said, our very existence is at stake.
LV: I think for me, self-defense is such an interesting way to frame violence, because I think that we can all agree that it’s a euphemism for violence, and a lot of times when, let’s say there’s a classic instance of a bigot that’s confronting you or whatever, the escalation of that situation to violence is a whole process, and it’s a complicated process. And so for me, it’s less about the act of violence and more about how are we socially organizing ourselves around supporting ourselves in a revolutionary way and having our eyes on the prize for the fact that, like everyone is saying, our system is killing us.
And especially trans folks, queer, trans, especially trans women of color that are sex workers are the front lines of this. I don’t even hear people counting how many trans women are being murdered every year anymore. I feel like they did that around 2014 and the “trans tipping point,” and it’s not even happening anymore, but I’m sure that it’s astronomical.
And so for me, that social aspect is really important, and that’s where militancy comes in. I think we have a tendency to see militancy as “let’s train ourselves in these different armed combat scenarios, and let’s get trained up for using guns and let’s get trained up in martial arts” which are of course important, but I think there is another aspect to military training that a lot of times I think we miss. It’s a broader social kind of experience. When people on the left say, “oh, we’re outgunned, we’re outgunned in all of these different ways” — which is true, we are literally outgunned, but campaigns are not only done through arms. They’re done through a social organization of an army.
So not only the logistics but also the training strategies and how you bring people together to train them. How you feed them while they’re going through this process. How you navigate interpersonal conflict through all of those things. And so, in thinking about Bash Back in particular, that’s where I feel like these convergences were just the tip of the iceberg for what could have been. I really feel like Bash Back was an aborted movement. Like it was something that could have happened and it just fell apart through a whole variety of things.
But I think those convergences are that kind of component. The left is very skilled in these social dynamics. Far more skilled than the right, and and look at how much it takes for the police and the army to maintain their social cohesion. All of the money that goes into maintaining that, whereas we have no money and we’re still more socially powerful, and so I think it’s something that we need to remember about violence and self-defense and our revolutionary potential.
MELISSA: I just want to add to what everyone has said about the public facing side of self defense and community defense, which I think Max articulated in a way I hadn’t really thought of before, which is that these are ways to bring people in, and they’re also ways for the journalists who are following what’s going on in these anti-fascist accounts that are documenting who these various extremist individuals are, they are doing the legwork so that we can do our job and help get that information out to even more people.
I had people asking me this summer for the first time, “do you think it’s safe to go to Pride this year?” Because they were hearing about all these threats, including here in New York. We had people come and harass a drag queen story hour a couple of weeks ago. Where do I send them to find out if it’s safe? I think you should go to the anti-fascist Twitter accounts in New York. Go see what people feel safe sharing what they’ve seen on Telegram. It’s another kind of normalization. This is a community resource that’s here to be shared. Even if you might not be on the front line, this is doing an incredible amount of community defense, even just on the level of information sharing.
And I think for groups who are dealing with these attacks for the first time they’re doing events that have never been targeted in this way, just knowing that other people are doing it, going through it and have strategies, that they’re not alone in that, is very important right now. Because I think for some people, it never would have occurred to them that they would be attacked in this way, in a community setting.
I think there is a level of constant violence that we’re still experiencing as queer and trans communities, but people who are like, “we were doing a story event the a library for children. Why are the Proud Boys showing up and trying to destroy that?” So, just giving people the sense that they are part of the community even if they haven’t experienced that yet is really important right now.
MICHELLE: Beautiful, beautiful responses. I’ll ask a few questions that have come in from the audience. So, here’s a practical legal one. Jessica asks: As a formerly incarcerated trans woman in Washington state, my CCO tells me I’m not even allowed to possess pepper spray. After a record number of trans murders last year, I feel vulnerable. Is this even legal?
I said that perhaps none of us would know. There are no lawyers in our group, in terms of speaking to what’s legal, but I thought with people distributing pepper spray, it might have come up at some point, sort of to what extent that’s restricted for people on parole, probation or…
MAX: I’m in California, so I can’t speak on Washington state, but I can speak to… well, first, I want to validate your very real, very real feelings, and even if it is illegal, that’s the whole point, right? Fuck the State. They are trying to make sure we’re out here being killed. But what I can tell you — there wasn’t enough in there for me to deduce this down for you. Depending on if it’s probation or parole, you can actually find that information. If you look at the terms of parole in your state. Or terms of probation in your state. Most of the time, that’s actually not bear mace and things like that are big things in the areas, but, like, little pepper spray. No, it’s usually not. But I would definitely look into the probation codes and the parole codes, just depending on what you fall within for Washington.
MICHELLE: Lane asks, can you all speak to the effectiveness of having Bash Back or large affinity groups at organized actions, and some of the pros and cons of that model.
LV: Well, I feel like we’re at the point where — I don’t know. I kind of thought that we were going to move beyond black bloc at this point in the anti-fascist development. I hate to say it. I find it to be a very reductive tactic. I kind of felt like we would get to a point where we’re doing more fluid anonymity. Or what some folks called gray block. But in 2020 I was just like, oh, wow, it’s really back and it’s really back in full force.
And I think there’s pros and cons to it. A lot of the actions, the Bash Back actions, definitely people got the attention of law enforcement and the FBI was tracking people and all of that kind of stuff that’s happening with Antifa right now. And, you know, post 2020, I feel like a lot of people blocked up for actions and law enforcement can track the people’s bloc fairly regularly, so it’s very difficult to wear black bloc and stay safe in the street in terms of staying anonymous.
So, I don’t know. I just think that we just need a more robust discussion on how we’re maintaining that anonymity and how we’re blocking up and how we’re appearing and disappearing for these kinds of actions, you know? And I think there’s some things that we could move forward in that regard. So, as far as Bash Back actions go, I don’t really feel like there was a lot of development in terms of black bloc or street anonymity or things like that. But hopefully we can move the discussion now. But always be safe on the street. I’m not saying, don’t go unblocked ever, and there’s all these, you know, safety tactics. So, just my 2 cents.
SHEILA: I do feel like we could definitely have, as people who are excited to see things in the street get weirder, there’s a lot we can do better at in terms of developing anonymity. But then I kind of want to go back to the question of is it useful to have a Bash Back bloc, not necessarily as a bloc of people who all dress the same, but maybe a bloc of people with similar intentions or a way to make an intention have a specific geographic place. I think that that still feels very useful and that oftentimes people come to demonstrations and feel very alone, but have a specific kind of intention or a kind of person that they would rather be around. Whether that person is dressed alike or not with them maybe feels less relevant than that there are other ways to call for a bloc. “We want a queer anti capitalist bloc at this May 1st demonstration.” “This anti fascist demonstration is calling for a militant trans feminine bloc.” That can be something as simple as, this bloc of people, maybe four people, are going to dedicate to bringing a banner that says “Queers Bash Back” or pink and black flags. They can find other people who would maybe be interested walking with them, whether it’s to get into a fight or be around other queers, whatever. Calling for a bloc in the sense of people walking in a bloc or being together in a bloc still feels very useful, although, definitely we should always be stepping our game up in terms of security.
MAX: I think I’ll build off of that, too. Already just by having them exist in the first place, whether they get called or not, what it is is creating safe queer spaces for organizing anti-fascist tactics and building affinity and community. But having them in places and present, it does flag for folks that it exists in our area, and when folks go out together how they can possibly find or know that it just exists. I think, like, showing up presently in those ways. Make sure that queer and trans militancy is a part of the discussion and a part of the actions towards liberation, but to segue into this idea of gray bloc and these ideas of more subtle anonymity, we just actually used that tactic here in California. Every year we have a “straight pride” held in Modesto, and over the last four years have tried to build up a community response to successfully shut that platform down. This year was one of the best years that we’ve ever done it.
And we did that by calling for a 9:00 a.m. gray bloc that was well coordinated, well organized and many affinity groups up and down were talking to be able to pull out those numbers and coordinate showing up on time together. But the next thing you know, there’s over 100 gray bloc radical trans queer anti fascists hanging out ready to, like, shut down a straight pride event. And then we have even an 11:00 a.m. community call, too, where just regular community members got a flier to come and show up at 11:00 a.m. to this event and really hold it down with us.
And so the gray bloc that Pride Was a Riot in Sacramento do when they go out and they’re doing their queer self defense formation definitely allows for folks to be able to point them out, tell that they’re them and be able to check in and count on them. It just really depends I think on what the bloc is for and, like, and what exactly the organized action is, right? Is it patrolling your queer district? Is it shutting down straight pride? Is it showing up in the name of black lives? Like what is it? And that can kind of help. But I always think I love to see it. I love it, every time.
MICHELLE: There are a couple of questions about disability inclusion. Morgan asked about the intense isolation of many queer disabled people around the world since the pandemic, and Tovia asked about how queer and trans self defense can be more accessible to disabled and poor people. So I think from everyone, what you see as strategies around disability inclusion and what that looks like and what that can mean.
LV: As far as disability and kind of accessibility issues go, I go back to the concept of a military formation in the social aspect of it, and the understanding that there are so many different roles within actions that everybody can take part in and creatively engage in and also in terms of determining targets and in terms of the kind of social media constellations that these actions happen in.
You know, all of these things are part of a campaign, like a military campaign or something like that. And so I just think that our imagination keeps hitting a brick wall in terms of confronting these instances on the street when we see them and not the broader ways that we can be training and preparing ourselves. In terms of thinking like what do we want to create? How do trainings work? How do all of these different things — they don’t involve just two people fighting. Or like a group of people fighting. They involve so many different kinds of people and components to it.
I was feeling in 2020 like so many different actions would happen, and the affinity groups that I saw forming would tend to focus around being the most vulgar form of front liners. So holding a line of shields against cops or fascists or whatever. But a lot of times, like, those actions would forget all of the different components of making a successful march or action happening. Such as scouts, such as evacuating people, such as medics, even social media communication, all of these different components of it tend to fall by the wayside, because we prioritize just this one very visible clash. And I think we need to change our imagination.
MAX: Morgan, I really thank you for your question, and I think I’m gonna speak on a conversation I actually just had with somebody. I’m a part of an abolitionist organization, very public, forward facing in the area, and somebody reached out and had said that they were worried about showing up to our events because of COVID, wondering about our pandemic safety precautions, and through this conversation, they got to kind of really inform me about how isolated they felt and how neglected they felt by folks act like the pandemic was over.
And so what we were able to do through that was promise that our events, indoor/outdoor, all of that were going to, of course, continue to make sure that we were following COVID safety precautions, but I think as a movement, it is actually on us to realize that we are creating a space that is not safe for for other able bodied types and other folks in our community who don’t feel safe, who don’t even feel like they could walk up to us and tell us this because we’re walking around with our masks off. I know many leftists in my area, many community events right now in my community that are actively not encouraging masks, and, therefore, not creating a culture where we’re doing that.
And so it is kind of like the work that we’re doing here. At the time, I remember having the conversation and I was like, I don’t know really what to do about everybody else, but the truth is, being an organizer, I’ve been doing it for so many years, I know a lot of folks. So, actually, it is on me to call my friends and say, hey, can you make sure there are masks at your events? Can we make sure we’re creating a space that includes all of our brothers, sisters, and nonbinary folks? Like are we making sure that we’re doing this? Because I don’t even think that we know, right? It’s like this privilege that we get.
And had that person not come into my inbox and been like, hey, I want to come to your events. You’re one of the only abolitionist orgs in town and I don’t know if I can because I don’t know what your policies are on wearing masks at the events. Without that conversation, I wouldn’t have been able to see that they had been so isolated from this community for years.
You know, the world is acting like it’s going back to normal, and we have to tell the world that it’s not. We are living in an endemic, and so because of it, we have to create spaces that are still acting like COVID is a very real thing. Thank you for your question. And I’m hoping the organizers across this country and the people that are watching are going to tell their friends, hey, the next event we throw, masks, yo. And I do encourage you, Morgan, to reach out to some organizations with that question. Asking how can you participate in your area. Because that was how I was, how we were able to do it, you know? And I know that puts a lot of the work on you, and that’s not fair, but we start somewhere, and because that one person talked to us, we’re able to have, like, the ripple effects are going beyond.
SHEILA: For me, I think and, more zoomed in on a smaller scale, a lot of the inclusion and ability stuff came down to small group conversations about what kinds of risks people felt okay with, because the thing is there are a million different roles. Coming from a smaller affinity group place, having a less macho attitude and having less failure of imagination and more space for creativity in terms of how to move forward, for me, has always felt like an easier way to break out of a certain kind of really rigid, frozen idea of what a militant is.
Having dialogue around that in a small group, being able to take into consideration as many needs as possible and how that feels dignified or not for everyone and how that feels worthwhile in terms of getting this or that kind of thing done has been one way that I’ve seen that addressed around me.
MICHELLE: There’s another question that came in about socialist rifle clubs and John Brown gun clubs. So, those have been getting a lot of news, and what you see is sort of the relationship between the kind of different left gun club worlds and how they intersect or diverge in movements.
MAX: Absolutely. At least here, they’re helping arm and train our queer and trans folks, as well as just members of this community. I think Sacramento is kind of a small town with a big city vibe, and so that’s how we’re able to work kind of closely together, but I think that intentional outreach and working with those folks is important, because not only is it providing that community building and affinity building, but like I said, because of it, we were able to hook up our socialist rifle association with our local queer and trans community to help them get their CCW’s [carry concealed weapons permit]. To help train them on how to use their weapons. To also take them up and they go up shooting once a month. And to train them how to do that. So, it’s been pretty effective.
MICHELLE: Any thoughts about the presence of firearms by leftists at protests over the last year? What’s your assessment of its effectiveness, its impact, the pros and cons of it?
SHEILA: Sure. In Philly, there hasn’t been any sort of big, visible presence of firearms at demonstrations, and I don’t think that that means that there aren’t any there. I think it means that oftentimes if, anarchists, anti fascists or leftists are carrying firearms they’re not making any kind of noise about it and they’re not trying to show them or use them as a deterrent in terms of their visibility. And the same has been the case during a lot of the 2020 rioting. I think a lot of people were carrying, maybe more than showed up and they just never the firearm never came out. I think that maybe also has to do with how clashes get policed here. And, that there maybe aren’t a lot of guns in Philadelphia in general.
But I think it’s hard to weigh in on whether that’s effective or not. I think maybe in terms of the individuals carrying and people around them that know that, if there’s something empowering or useful or relevant, but in terms of materially how it’s played out between different teams clashing, it’s super invisible and I don’t even know if people are assuming it one way or the other for how much that plays out in terms of people’s assumptions about clashes as they take place.
LV: Yeah. I feel like that’s a similar story in Los Angeles, too. I would just say the escalation should be on par with what’s happening, and I don’t think that we’re at a point with gun battles or anything like that. I think that it’s good to train for whatever and everything, but I personally look back at the Weather Underground and feel like it was sort of biting off more than they could chew and an over-escalation, given the context. I don’t really feel like people are doing that. I feel like people are generally within the realm of what’s happening and the messaging and kind of, like, what’s going on.
So I kind of feel like, how long does it take to train somebody on how to use a firearm? I mean, a military boot camp is, what six weeks or eight weeks or something? Just kind of like a rudimentary one. So if push comes to shove, I feel like people could get trained up really fast. That’s just my personal opinion, but I’m glad that people are learning.
MAX: I too am glad that people are learning, because I think specifically where we saw most of the guns were on the far right. Like that was where most of the guns lived during 2020. In our area, we had far-right extremists who were able to walk around with their their concealed weapons permits, and have their guns in their holster. Being able to walk right by law enforcement while giving each other hugs and high fives, you know?
And the truth is that this is where we’re at, right? Like they’re bringing guns, so then, therefore, we feel like these are all antagonisms and all dialectical, but eventually it does get to that gun battle. We’ve already lost lives in 2020 due to far-right guns. And then when they used self-defense tactics, they were taken out by the state. We saw what happened to the individual in Washington [Michael Reinoehl].
And so do we see a role with guns? And where are they at? I mean, they’re out there. We have to decide how we want to engage in that, and we have to decide and that’s really where it is. We talk about defending our joy and organize our rage. Us as communities have to have those conversations with ourselves. Being like, we know that this is coming. We know that this exists. How do we want to do this? How do we want to engage in this? And best prepare in the way that we can. But the truth is that we’re training folks up because that’s what we’re up against. We are up against death, whether that’s state violence, far-right extremist violence, or climate catastrophe which, you know, it all leads to our death, and we absolutely have to be willing to defend ourselves.
But it gets there. We have to name that. We have to be willing to name that as a movement. We have to say that out loud. It’s going to get to gun battles, and do we want to get to gun battles? I don’t think we do. That’s not really what our goal is when we say, “housing is a human right. Food for all. Education for everybody.” We’re not trying to do that at gunpoint, you know? And so, yeah, all I have to say is, just, we have to name it. We have to name that it’s a matter of time. It’s not even, like, decades off. It’s like years off. And we’re here now. So…
MELISSA: I just want to add something quick on Texas, speaking of where the guns are, and also a state where you barely need anything to carry a gun I think at this point with constitutional carry. And certainly all the sort of events over the summer and into the fall that I’ve been following, it seems like the John Brown Club is super present at these counterprotests or demos to visibly block the far-right groups from messing with people in the community, whether that’s escorting people to their car or standing in front of a venue to, you know, kind of be a physical block.
Whether or not they’re even carrying, they’re very much there as a group. So I’m wondering, LV, if that sort of is connected to the things that you were talking about group cohesion. Is there a role to play for these groups? And having those cohesive groups who are ready to roll? In the case of Texas, there are definitely guns present on the side of the far right, openly, so it might be a different dynamic. Certainly it hasn’t come to the point yet where people are actually engaged in gun battles, but I think it’s sort of — it’s not expected. I’ve seen some very strange responses from the far right to the Elm Fork John Brown Club in particular, weird macho posturing about guns. “Antifa, they can’t be macho enough to carry guns.” It seems like on a certain level it messes with them, but on another level, people in community are seeing that there is somebody here who is armed who will walk them to their car or prevent somebody from entering a venue who might harm them.
LV: I just still think that numbers are our biggest strength, and when I think about conflict mediation — and I’m not talking about de-escalating or street conflicts or anything like that, I’m just talking about conflict mediation among our comrades — I feel like the more that I work on that, the more that I realize how much effort and skills and training goes into just getting along with our comrades. And so you’ll have a conflict between two different comrades, but it really is a conflict between their friends and other friends and it’s a whole constellation of that.
So even just checking in with everybody about what’s going on with that conflict is hours and hours of emotional labor. Not to mention thinking through responses to someone’s trauma, responses to how to help somebody through all of the different therapeutic or logistical forces that put somebody in a place where they can’t resolve a conflict with their comrade.
And I’m not even talking about interpersonal violence, like sexual assault and things like that, which is even more complicated. It takes even more resources. And so when I spend time in the communities I spend time in, radical communities, we don’t have any resources around that. It’s very taxing. These things are taxing. So when I think about training around guns or something, I feel like, it’s totally great and we should all do that. However, we have a gaping wound in our communities that we have not resolved.
We have not organized the resources around solving those kinds of things. And I feel like to me, every project that we start it gets destroyed by interpersonal conflict. And it’s just time and time again. And it’s like, when are we gonna learn the lesson? For example, we’ve gotten really good in the revolutionary left around feeding mass groups of people, 500 people or whatever. We know all of the logistics that it takes to get the food, cook the food, like have the recipes, serve the food, all of these different aspects. And yet, when it comes to interpersonal conflict, we don’t approach it with that kind of rigor. And that’s where I kind of feel like our real effort, the kind of socializing of a military response. That’s the kind of social dimension that I think is really important to take seriously when we’re talking about queer violence, queer self-defense, I think all of those things.
MICHELLE: I want to focus us in on what we see as the potential for new formations and strategies. People have spoken to this in various ways. LV, you talked about Bash Back being an aborted attempt and project and some of the conflict mediation stuff you were thinking about. Max, you referred a little bit, gestured to a future horizon and the kinds of formations that might be appropriate. I know you have a little bit to say about this, Melissa. So, let’s close out in doing a go round in us all speaking to this.
MELISSA: I can start. I feel like everyone’s covered a lot of what it takes to build these formations, and that was exactly what I wanted to hear. The sense that, before you’re taking up arms, what are you doing to actually strengthen the group? What are you doing to sort of build those resources that people have? It doesn’t make any sense to go to that level of escalation if the group isn’t connected and caring for each other in a way and doesn’t have those resources.
I’ve been going back and forth. With what I’m seeing, part of me feels like we’re in a moment where it’s all hands on deck. Lots of strategies are in play. Lots of people are tangling with this question right now. How do you respond when the far right shows up? There is so much institutional knowledge among anti-fascists on how to do that. What I’ve been seeing over the last couple of months, for example, in Idaho, this was where the Patriot Front showed up in the U-Haul and were arrested before the Pride event. But it ended up almost for the people there, they had a whole other plan that was actually what they were focused on that day, in terms of creating a safe space for folks, having big banners for people trying to record people and things like that.
But it was an interesting moment to watch the 501(c)3 universe of queer and trans life negotiate how do you work with anti-fascist activists and what are we comfortable with? Groups who are mostly just gonna call the cops to report things, realizing that that is not a safe strategy. And I think particularly after 2020 has attuned people to looking for safety outside of policing.
So, it’s hard to say I’m optimistic about anything but I’m seeing this as very productive tensions of people working out what tools do we have to respond that aren’t law enforcement? What capacities do we have for people who maybe aren’t politically aligned with us but are the ones who are showing up and getting it done? Like you were saying in the beginning, the liberals who have never considered anything like direct action or self-defense. Seeing what the need is in their community and seeing who is showing up.
And, you know, if that’s folks at the farmers market, which I love, as an entry point. Or people all of a sudden following a zillion anti-fascist researchers on Twitter, which other folks are doing. I think there is a potentially community-building moment on that side.
SHEILA: I think for me what feels most exciting about new formations isn’t any specific model or style of organizing. I think that people are getting excited to try to get things done at all is more exciting to me. I don’t care if someone starts a gang or an affinity group or a syndicate or whatever. Like any of these specific formation styles are so contextual, and I don’t think there is a right one for any one context necessarily, but people thinking through they want to do a specific thing. They want to get together with other people to get it done and how they can do that feels like the most exciting to me or the one that I feel like is gonna be as flexible as it needs to be anyway, and, like, that I look forward to the most.
LV: I sort of outlined some of the things that I feel would be great to see in the next year or few years. I think also in addition to this social understanding of the component of violence, I also just think that loudly proclaiming that violence is a part of our revolutionary imagination, and, yes, self-defense, but also violence does happen. It is part of consequences to navigating conflict, and I think that not shying away from that is important. And I also think that especially for folks that are seeking out a conversation along this are probably folks that are more drawn to building that kind social capacity. So I would just encourage all of us to seek out those folks that have already committed these acts of self-defense, queer violence, other things like that, and are getting caught up in different kind of charges or being doxed by fascists or other things like that. And really think about how we can very, very materially support them in different capacities.
Because I also think that was one of the things that Bash Back was really important for, was when people take those actions, we were there to have their back, unconditionally almost. And so, there were a number of targets that I remember having conversations with people about in the late 2000s where people were like, “that wasn’t the target I would have chosen. I don’t think that we should support X, Y, or Z.” But like really, we need to be there for each other. People get caught up and the fascists are going to find the most vulnerable among us and take them down and use them as examples for the rest of us. And we need to push back against that at every opportunity.
MAX: The truth is I’m most excited, because that’s what we are, y’all. We are in this programmatic, pragmatic stage of, like, what do we do. As a people, not even just, like, as a movement, but, like, as a people. As, again, we try to talk about understanding the devastation around us and we are trying to come up with figuring that out. And I think like, LV, you tapped it right on the head. The most important thing that we need to begin to do is address the gaping wound.
I mean, what we’ve seen over and over again and I think what, didn’t the FBI do a whole report on the Twitter war and the shit talking that people were doing in Seattle? Like they were just watching our Twitter beefs online, and stuff like that. What do we do in the inevitability of conflict, you know what I mean? It is not something that we can ever avoid. Like literally, that’s where evolution comes from. You need conflict, even down to a cellular level, in order for change to occur.
And how we actually embrace that stuff, instead of it being something that devastates is something that we absolutely have to get better at. When we talk about another world is possible, when we talk about what a vision looks like and what the world can be, it looks like us being able to affirmatively speak my boundaries and people actively listening to them and back and forth. But until we can begin to mediate the harm that we’re causing as we’re unlearning all this toxic shit, and we’re enacting all these toxic things on each other as we’re trying to build towards liberation, then all we’re going to do is have to start over again every single time, and it’s going to weaken our movement every single time.
And I just want to pop into these questions that I saw real quick, and somebody spoke about, like, what else we do around the existing culture and structures because of concerns of anonymity. Somebody was like, hey, sometimes it prevents folks from getting involved. Something that I would love for us to do in the future is to make ourselves more accessible. To our community. Make our thought processes more accessible to our community. And then for us to name out loud that it takes time to trust-build. It takes time to relationship-build. It takes time to community-build. And so your automatic want to hop into an organization where they’re like, “we don’t know you” has to be taken kindly, but also this organization needs to be like how are we making this successful? How are we making a space to trust-build with this person, with this community, and vice versa.
Which then will lead us to having conversations about how do we address the gaping wound that is we don’t know how to navigate conflict in our movement, you know? And so those are really the two things that I really absolutely feel are the biggest and are in the directions we’re going. Even the fact that every single panelist on this call today talked about it means that y’all who are watching this today are probably thinking about it, and, therefore, there are many, many, many people in this movement having this conversation amongst themselves. You can give thanks for that then. I give thanks for that, that we are trying to figure it out, but that’s where I think our focus should be, gaping holes and addressing how we allow for community members who are brand new to this to come in and learn and not allow for our fear of being, like, sacrificed to the cops, you know, keep us from teaching people what the fuck security culture is.
MICHELLE: Beautifully said. Well, this was just a magnificent discussion tonight. You all are such brilliant people, and I hope I get to call you all as comrades in the years ahead. So well done. Thank you, everybody. And let’s close it out. So, thank you, everyone, for coming tonight. It was just great. A lovely discussion, and I think quite a positive one, both in the kind of opening up the kind of question of violence as something that we can talk about, and speaking at great lengths to sort of all the necessary pieces that have to be there to make it make any sense at all.
“Feminism—despite all our efforts—is still largely a middle-class movement and ideology,” Ehrenreich wrote in 1984—words that are still relevant today.
How do we assert reproductive autonomy when far rightists are on the offensive and liberals have failed to stop them?
As we noted two months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision repealing Roe v. Wade marks a historic victory for the Christian right and specifically its fascist, theocratic wing. Defending access to abortion is an antifascist struggle, but that doesn’t mean the focus should be only, or even primarily, on combating the far right. What’s needed is a struggle on two fronts: against the various forces of the authoritarian right but also against their centrist enablers—the politicians and institutions that have long claimed to be defending abortion access while weakening opposition to the far right and giving ground to it step by step by step. These are different kinds of struggle and they call for different approaches.
This is what three way fight politics is all about: a recognition that the fascistic far right is interconnected with but distinct from the oppressive status quo, and combating them both requires interconnected but distinct strategies.
In the wake of Roe’s repeal, I’ve seen several excellent essays that use this kind of two-front framework to guide liberatory strategy. I’d like to focus here on three of these essays, to highlight what they share and also how their different perspectives broaden and enrich an ongoing discussion that’s vitally needed.
Reading these essays, I see three overarching themes—three key things that each of them calls on us to do: highlight interconnections between different groups or rights under attack, confront liberal NGOs and the Democratic Party, and develop a clear and militant strategy. Let’s look at each of these themes in turn.
Both Elise Hendrick and Noah Zazanis frame access to abortion as a key form of bodily autonomy, and both specifically emphasize connections between criminalizing abortion and criminalizing trans people as two prongs of a larger right-wing strategy. Zazanis writes, “The surface logic of parental consent laws [for getting an abortion] is similar to the logic barring childhood transition: abortion is a serious, irreversible medical procedure for which youth under 18 are too young to give informed consent.” Hendrick denounces a recent New York Times column that tries to stake out a position that’s pro-abortion rights yet trans-exclusionary as a blatant example of divide-and-rule tactics.
Zazanis also emphasizes the ties between defending bodily autonomy and building a strong working class:
“Our fights for healthcare, and against criminalization, are inseparable from the labor rights of healthcare workers, and of the nonprofit workers doing unpaid overtime in the wake of the Dobbs ruling. More than ever, we must build strong, independent unions willing to defend workers who refuse to enforce these bans… It is no coincidence that the workers on the frontline of criminalization are in fields dominated by women, fields where queer workers are overrepresented and underpaid.”
Hendrick and CrimethInc. both highlight a further connection: between the fight for abortion access and the fight against police violence and repression. CrimethInc. urges abortion rights advocates to learn from the George Floyd uprising and writes, “Yes, there are fundamental differences between the movement for reproductive freedom and the movement for Black lives—but those who will be most impacted by the criminalization of abortion overlap considerably with those who are most impacted by racist policing.” Hendrick calls out implications for movement security, noting that criminalization of abortion means “the full weight of the surveillance state is coming down on millions of people who have previously been largely exempt from it…. That means making clear the importance of not talking to the police, not coordinating with police, protecting our identities, and…not posting unedited video of people doing illegal things on social media.”
In summary, drawing the connections between anti-oppression struggles helps us to understand the right’s larger agenda, build and strengthen coalitions, make our movements smarter, and honor the multiple and complex ways that people are affected by institutional violence.
All three of our featured essays sharply criticize the Democratic Party’s role as supposed defender of abortion access. Zazanis notes that “For decades, Democratic leadership has treated abortion as a cudgel for electoral gains” (and more recently has done the same with so-called “LGBT issues”). Hendrick adds that this approach has repeatedly meant whitewashing the shameful anti-abortion positions of some Democratic candidates, such as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate Tim Kaine. CrimethInc. describes the effect of such opportunism as “the workings of the political ratchet, in which Republicans continuously push state institutions towards more oppressive agendas while Democrats continuously give ground, keeping those who are suffering invested in the state itself in hopes that it might one day be reformed.” As I’ve argued elsewhere, this dynamic doesn’t result from Democratic leaders’ subjective “weakness”—it reflects the party’s structural role as a vehicle to divert liberatory initiatives into support for an oppressive, capitalist order.
Zazanis and Hendrick are similarly critical of liberal NGOs for being structurally and financially tied to a “respectability politics” that weakens—or simply betrays—liberatory struggle. Hendrick warns that “Liberal non-profits will try to narrow the focus of this movement, to divide bodily autonomy into specific niches… and channel our energy and our anger into avenues that don’t make the ruling class nervous. They will resist any attempt to defy these laws and the cops who enforce them outright, and they will try to prevent any kind of solidarity and cross-pollination” between political struggles. Zazanis gets more specific, calling out Reproaction for trying to police the boundaries of acceptable “direct action” and Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute, and the National Center for Transgender Equality for union-busting and abusive management practices. Even smaller, more independent NGOs engaged in vitally important support for self-managed medication abortion have “effectively ignored the question of who runs the clinics and how they operate, or how to defy those who seek to close them.”
Hendrick sums up part of the lesson with regard to both NGOs and the Democratic Party: “Only by maintaining our independence from these institutions can we exert the sort of pressure that is necessary in order to force them to do the right thing.”
To varying degrees, all three essays offer suggestions on what’s needed to protect abortion access and bodily autonomy more broadly. Zazanis advocates breaking with respectability politics, recognizing that effective direct action “makes oppressors feel victimized,” and forming independent networks both to help criminalized people survive and to lay a foundation for more comprehensive institutional change in the future.
Hendrick elaborates on Zazanis’s point about direct action:
“If we want the ruling class to even consider restoring our right to bodily autonomy, we need to put the hurt on them. We need an or else.
“Historically, the movements that have extracted meaningful concessions from unwilling ruling classes have been those that attack the two major pressure points of capitalist society: profitability, which is the point of the entire system, and governability, which calls the system’s very existence into question.”
As reference points, she cites two recent large-scale militant initiatives: in Poland in 2016, mass protests and a strike (an attack on profitability) that forced the government to walk back a proposed total abortion ban, and in the U.S. in 2020, widespread militant attacks on both police stations and big box retail stores (governability and profitability) following the police murder of George Floyd. Hendrick argues that calls to abolish the police have not succeeded because they threaten capitalist society on a deep level, but that U.S. capitalists are not committed to banning abortion and would restore abortion access “if we make it clear that they can’t afford not to.”
CrimethInc., too, argues for a militant approach, but they are particularly concerned with how militancy is targeted:
“if your goal is to exert leverage, you have to identify a group you can actually exert leverage on—a group that is likely to change course as a consequence of your intervention…. You have to make sure that the target of your efforts has a choice—then make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
They cite two counter-examples. On one hand, many abortion rights proponents have joined public rallies that help to boost participants’ morale but have no specific target. On the other, a number of anonymous groups, operating under the name Jane’s Revenge, have vandalized anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.” The latter actions “may inspire people to take action on their own, but do not offer a participatory space in which to build collective momentum.” In addition, although the vandalism actions have a specific focus, “in targeting anti-abortion centers, they are taking on the most intransigent opponents of abortion…” CrimethInc. continues, “If it is possible to exert leverage on anyone who is complicit in criminalizing abortion, it is probably not far-right religious cult members, but their centrist accomplices”—in other words, liberal and moderate politicians who could be persuaded to defend abortion access if the cost of not doing so is high enough.
Here, too, the movement against racist police violence offers a useful reference point:
“At the high point of the George Floyd uprising, when millions of people had ceased to accept the legitimacy of the police and were acting accordingly, we saw terrified liberals like the mayor of Minneapolis suddenly take the demands of the movement very seriously, promising to take steps towards police abolition… Later, when the politicians had reestablished control, they betrayed those promises—showing that our effectiveness hinges on keeping our social movements lively and strong, not on winning concessions.”
Exerting leverage in this way is very different from allying with liberals against the far right, or with, say, the federal government against state governments. As CrimethInc. puts it, “compelling one [state] institution to limit the power of another can be strategic, provided it does not contribute to legitimizing any of the institutions involved. It must be clear to everyone that the power that drives social change derives from grassroots organizing, not from state institutions…”
How do we go about asserting reproductive autonomy in the face of a major defeat, when far rightists are on the offensive and the forces of liberal respectability have failed to stop them? The three essays I’ve examined here grapple with this question in related ways. That doesn’t mean that their authors necessarily agree on every point, but it’s striking to me how much their arguments complement each other, and I do think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At the least, there’s a lot here that can inform and inspire further discussion and strategizing.
I started this discussion by invoking three way fight politics as a framework for strategy. None of the three essays uses that terminology, but at least two of them make points closely related to it. CrimethInc. notes that the far right are not defenders of the established order but rather advocates of social change (increased repression and oppression) and have used sustained pressure campaigns and a range of tactics, including bombings and murder, to bring it about. Hendrick emphasizes that those who advocate banning abortion are “a minority of bigots who are useful to capital, but far from essential to it,” and it is precisely this gap that opens strategic space for advocates of liberatory politics. These three essays insist that we have choices beyond surrendering to fascism on one hand and subordinating radical possibility to liberal holding actions on the other.
The post Strategies to defend abortion access: three essays appeared first on PM Press.
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy, party during a press conference in Rome on Sept. 26, 2022.
Photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Early this month, Hillary Clinton made some embarrassing comments about the then-forthcoming election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s first woman prime minister. “The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing,” the former secretary of state said.
Clinton has been rightly pilloried. After all, she was talking about the leader of the fascist Brothers of Italy party, the most extreme right-wing party to govern Italy since Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Meloni claimed victory in Sunday night’s general election with considerable ease, leading a far-right coalition that now holds a significant majority in both Italy’s houses of parliament.
White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women.
Whatever “break” from the past having a woman leader signals, “Meloni would also represent continuity with Italy’s darkest episode,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in The Atlantic. And the continuance is very real: The Brothers of Italy’s direct forebears, the neofascist Italian Social Movement, was formed by supporters of Il Duce after World War II.
The idea that a woman leader “opens doors” for other women, as Clinton suggested, is of course laughable. That’s especially true when that leader is a fascist keen to stop abortions and do away with employment quotas that favor women — quite literally shuttering women in the nuclear home — while locking out immigrant women from Italy’s body politic all together.
The media got this right much of the time, giving prominent billing to Meloni’s far-right nationalism, but numerous English-language headlines focused solely on her being Italy’s first woman prime minister.
It’s tempting to say that her position as a woman leader should be considered irrelevant, given her and her party’s vile anti-immigrant, nationalist, racist, anti-LQBTQ+ politics. But ignoring her womanhood misses some crucial points about her political ideology.
Being a woman — a white woman, that is — is not in conflict with Meloni’s fascism. White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women, particularly when it comes to upholding racist, pro-natalist narratives.
Italy may never have had a woman prime minister, but white women in leadership roles within the forces of reaction is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider Phyllis Schlafly, the paleoconservative, anti-abortion leader of the anti-Equal Rights Act campaign in the 1970s, who made much of her role as a traditional wife and urged other women to stay in the home.
The fact that Schlafly was herself a powerful conservative activist was no threat to her political vision; the same is true for the rabidly traditionalist Meloni. A fascist society is also a society of rigid class structure; a woman leader is no impediment to keeping working-class women in their place.
Meloni, like her less polished far-right counterparts in the U.S. Congress — Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others — weaponizes her role as woman and mother to police the boundaries of womanhood and reproduction. She has framed her poisonous anti-immigrant positions as a defense of Italian (white) women’s safety, conjuring well-worn tropes of migrants “importing” sexual violence.
Her party’s white supremacist platform is explicitly pro-natalist, seeking to bolster the low birth rate of native Italians as a bulwark to “ethnic substitution,” or what fascists here call the “great replacement.” Meloni’s far-right coalition is expected to usher in more stringent abortion restrictions nationwide. Abortions, which have been legalized in Italy since 1978, are already difficult to access in many areas, especially where Brothers of Italy has locally governed.
Meanwhile, in line with the typical allocation of resources in Herrenvolk democracies, Meloni’s social welfare proposals are aimed specifically at Italian families, while excluding immigrants and those outside the bounds of the straight, cis family. Meloni is thus continuing the legacy of what Ben-Ghiat called Mussolini’s “natalist obsession.”
It’s no accident, and certainly no surprise, that Meloni paired her deeply reactionary reproductive politics with attacks on Italy’s LGBTQ+ communities. Like Republicans in the U.S., Italy’s first woman prime minister is a fervid enforcer of traditional gender roles. Brothers of Italy, alongside other far-right parties, last year voted down a bill that would have made violence against queer and trans people a hate crime.
Meloni has consistently denounced “gender ideology” — a term used with increasing frequency by anti-trans ideologues who deny the fact that neither gender nor sex function as strict binaries. “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby,” Meloni said earlier this summer. “Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death,” she added, while campaigning on a platform that will endanger the lives of immigrants and Italian minorities.
For those who would like to defend women’s reproductive freedoms but not support trans rights, Meloni, like the U.S. far right, offers another reminder that these issues must not be disentangled. Attacking gender-divergent people is as much a centerpiece of fascism as is pro-natalism. And, as with the Brothers of Italy’s entire program, it’s no less fascist when a woman says it.