The first collection of its kind, this anthology by members of the Mohawk Warrior Society uncovers a hidden history and paints a bold portrait of the spectacular experience of Kanien’kehá:ka survival and self-defense.
Providing extensive documentation, context, and analysis, the book features foundational writings by prolific visual artist and polemicist Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall (1918–1993) — such as his landmark 1979 pamphlet, The Warrior’s Handbook, as well as selections of his pioneering artwork. This book contains new oral history by key figures of the Rotisken’rhakéhte’s revival in the 1970s, and tells the story of the Warriors’ famous flag, their armed occupation of Ganienkeh in 1974, and the role of their constitution, the Great Peace, in guiding their commitment to freedom and independence. We hear directly the story of how the Kanien’kehá:ka Longhouse became one the most militant resistance groups in North America, gaining international attention with the Oka Crisis of 1990. This auto-history of the Rotisken’rhakéhte is complemented by a Mohawk history timeline from colonization to the present, a glossary of Mohawk political philosophy, and a new map of Iroquoia in Mohawk language. At last, the Mohawk Warriors can tell their own story with their own voices, and to serve as an example and inspiration for future generations struggling against the environmental, cultural, and social devastation cast upon the modern world. (From Between the Lines)
Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall was a prolific Kanien’kehá:a painter and writer from Kahnawake, whose work continues to inspire generations of Indigenous people today.
On Saturday, a group of 20 neo-Nazis clad in red shirts and black masks targeted a drag brunch in Columbus, Ohio. The drag queen brunch held at Land-Grant Brewing Company was a fundraiser for the Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), a drop-in community center for queer youth that provides community health, education and leadership programs. While the drag brunch took place inside the brewery…
An eviction defense in Detroit received national exposure on social media and news outlets like The Young Turks, Yahoo News!, Business Insider, The Root, as well as pop culture websites like The Shade Room. Several organizations on the Left came out to defend Taura Brown, a Black woman battling kidney disease and cancer, from a retaliatory and forceful eviction from her home. The non-profit – Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) – sought to evict Taura because she spoke out against the way she was misled and mistreated by the organization. The roughly 30 people who participated in the eviction defense were racially integrated and inter-generational. They represented Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), The Detroit Club of the Communist Party USA, Detroit Will Breathe (DWB), Detroit Tenants Association (DTA), the Washtenaw County General Defense Committee, and independent activists.
The standoff between court bailiffs and activists lasted more than 4 hours, as reported by a Bridge Detroit article on the eviction defense.
Self Organization Establishes Continuity of Struggle
Many of the activists and organizations participating in the home defense were participants of the 2020 BLM movement in Detroit. In fact, DWB, which was formed during the height of the 2020 protests, utilized the influence and resources they garnered during 2020 to aid Taura’s struggle against eviction. Since its founding, DWB has organized on a class independent basis that rejects endorsing or campaigning for any bourgeois party, be it Democrat or Republican. This is how DWB has been able to resist co-option by the Democrats and their stooges in NGOs and labor bureaucracies, and instead harness the power of the movement to decide for itself its demands and actions, expanding the movement in Detroit beyond the single issue of police brutality to connect with various struggles against systemic racism.
The organization that spearheaded the eviction defense, Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), was created during Occupy and has also been able to sustain itself in important struggles around housing in Detroit over the years on a class independent basis. DED not only rejects the idea that you can rely on the courts and the law to resolve the housing crisis, the organization points out the ways these institutions enforce the interests of banks and landlords. Only grassroots organizing of people facing eviction, their neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and their supporters can stop evictions and resolve the housing crisis.
The approach of the various organizations towards the eviction defense of Taura Brown was one of class independence; all understood that neither political party was going to save us or make the fight we knew was needed to stop this eviction. This fact was made more concrete by the failure of liberal and even progressive politicians to take up Taura Brown’s struggle. Equally important and impactful was the fact that practically all of the organizations and activists, Taura Brown included, participated in the mass mobilizations against police brutality and the demand to defund and abolish the police.
A Militant Defense By Forces With Social Weight
Although relatively small in number, in part because the eviction was carried out at the beginning of the work day, the home defenders were able to use their bodies to give militant resistance to the bailiffs, who used physical violence, slamming people onto the ground, and grabbing people by their necks. The home defenders forced the bailiffs to retreat twice and eventually call in reinforcements.
Part of the power of our presence was the political authority of the BLM movement and its exposure of police brutality and misconduct. In Detroit, that was expressed in popular opposition to the violence of the police against protesters in 2020, which has created a dynamic where police violence against the movement has political consequences and backlash for the police. The 2020 protests in Detroit also created boldness within the movement to directly face the police, with one of the chants of the movement being “We Don’t Back Down to Bullies With Badges”. The police were present at the eviction defense to ensure that the balance of power were in favor of the bailiffs, but did not seek to arrest any of the home defenders or take a physical role in helping carry out the eviction.
Our presence also helped draw media attention to Taura Brown’s eviction, and helped the movement continue to expose the true nature of the police as enforcers of exploitation and oppression in the service of the capitalists.
Ultimately, after regrouping and bringing in reinforcements, the bailiffs were able to force their way into the home and remove Taura’s belongings out of the home. However, home defenders were able to make sure Taura’s medical equipment and valuable belongings were secured and in her possession. They also gave strong, militant resistance to eviction that can set the type of standard that we will need as poor and working class people who continue to face unjust evictions and an increasingly severe housing crisis.
Key Takeaways of the Struggle
While this experience is powerful and holds many lessons, it comes with important limitations that have to be reckoned with. It should be clear from Tuesday’s eviction defense how much effort and resources the state has in enforcing the interests of the landlords and the capitalists. To deal with that will require more than just 100 more activists, a fact that does not dismiss or minimizes the importance of having 100 more activists in the struggle for housing in Detroit. It should, therefore, be understood that a main limitation of Tuesday’s mobilization is the general absence of a mass movement in the streets fighting against evictions and for housing to be a basic human right. The absence of a mass movement is not because people are not concerned or themselves impacted by the growing housing crisis. Rather, it is the result of the absence of a political alternative that could consistently challenge the authority of the capitalists, their state apparatus, and their political parties.
Without class independent self organization, that is, organization that is democratically controlled by the movement itself, the working-class and oppressed lack the space needed to create their own demands and the need to fight for those demands using the methods of the working-class, like strikes, walkouts, and mass, militant street mobilizations. Without self-organization, the working class and oppressed also lack a way of rebuking the co-optive efforts of the Democratic Party who, alongside the bureaucratic leaders of the NGOs and unions, bring the movement back into the fold of reformism. They convince the movement to demobilize and abandon their radical aspirations in favor of “practical” results that never actually address the needs of the working class and oppressed.
The Biden administration was able to co-opt the BLM movement with the assistance of some of the Left who saw the Democratic Party – and not the working-class and oppressed — as the only way to beat Trumpism and the threat of fascism. The Biden regime then proceeded to act on their campaign promise of “nothing fundamentally changing” and even relied on repressive measures to put sectors of the working-class and oppressed back in line for daring to struggle, like Biden did with the railroad workers.
This is why the revolutionary Left must play an active political role in promoting the need for organizations that are democratically controlled by the movement itself and are explicitly and consistently class independent. These organizations must reject the limits of reformism which, among other things, believe that only politicians and capitalists have power. They must fight to win their demands using the methods of the working class. These organizations must also seek to regroup the best elements of the BLM movement and other important struggles. A specific orientation towards the incipient labor movement highlighting the strategic power of the working class will be essential if we are to effectively fight not only evictions, but more broadly to make the revolutionary transformation that is ultimately necessary to make demands like housing as a human right real.
We know that the housing crisis in Detroit and across the country are going to get worse, and that more eviction defenses will be needed. This is why we must utilize the experience and exposure of the eviction defense in Detroit to prepare for the struggles to come, bringing more sectors into the struggle, all the while expanding it to include other struggles of importance for the working class and oppressed. Our preparation cannot simply be a tactical one, but must be a political one that aims to create a common program of the working class and oppressed that can help the movement sustain itself against the burnout and disorientation that comes from lacking an overall strategic plan that is national in scope and practice.
— Atlanta Community Press Collective (@atlanta_press) March 5, 2023
This weekend also shows that the movement has staying power. For over two years, the autonomous and decentralized struggle to defend the Weelaunee forest has fought to oppose the construction of a massive corporate backed, 85 acre police counter-insurgency training facility, as well as a contested land grab by Ryan Milsap of Blackhall Studios, the company behind such films as Venom and the Jumanji reboots. Groups such as Community Movement Builders, which organizes in “working-class and poor Black communities” and local environmental coalitions have been at the the forefront of this battle, which has been marked by everything from marches organized by local school children to targeted property destruction claimed via anonymous communiques on websites like Scenes from the Atlanta Forest.
People used to like to use this term: diversity of tactics, and we’ve gone a step further, we’ve created something that actually mimics the forest itself, this is an ecosystem of tactics. So it’s not a bunch of things working against or in-spite of each other, its several tactics working in conjunction and in relation to each other. Everything from the Muskogee stomp dance to marches of preschoolers to leafleting the community old-school style, to windows being smashed, to people building tree-houses in the forest and refusing to move. [It’s] punk shows and dance parties and religious services and garden planting…and a lot of these things are difficult for some people to understand why they matter; why they’re connected to each other, but its important to understand that we have to reach every aspect of human society.
According to folks on the ground, over 1,000 people answered the call to take part in the most recent “week of action” which kicked off this Saturday, marking the largest number of supporters which has ever mobilized, as things began in the early morning on Saturday, March 4th. Around 10: 30 AM, protesters gathered at Gresham Park, listening to various speakers, ranging from local organizers with Community Movement Builders to clergy, before marching nearly two miles through the forest to Weelaunee People’s Park, the site of some of the movement’s first public gatherings, and the remnants of a gazebo and paved trails which were destroyed by workers, hired by Ryan Milsap.
After arriving at Weelaunee People’s Park, the crowd then began setting up tents to camp in, communal kitchens, and a sound-stage for a two-day music festival featuring a plethora of musical acts spanning a wide variety of genres. Over 1,000 people soon filled the space, enjoying literature tables and food, while volunteers, forest defenders, and festival participants worked to cook, set up sanitation, and created all sorts of communal infrastructure. “It was an incredible project of social reproduction,” Jean stated, complete with “full kitchens, hand washing, bathrooms, food, and multiple kitchen stations.”
By 10:30am on Saturday, the beginning of the week of action, about 50 activists arrived [and] began gathering near the playground at Gresham Park. The mood was festive. Families arrived with children running straight for the playground…By 11:00am, the scheduled start time, the crowd grew to over 200. Passenger vans shuttled participants from a nearby church to alleviate parking concerns of previous weeks of action.
At 11:30am a powder-paint covered Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune formally kicked the the rally off acknowledging the variety of individuals, tactics, and beliefs of those gathered. “There are many things we do not agree on,” Johnson began, “but we all came here to what?” he continued. “TO STOP COP CITY,” the crowd yelled in response.
After about an hour of speeches, one last group chant, “we have nothing to lose but our chains” announced the start of the march to from Gresham Park to Weelaunee People’s Park. Over the course of the two-mile walk, the group’s energy remained charged. The diverse crowd chanted slogans like, “if you build it, we will burn it” in unison as drummers kept up a relentless beat, pushing the march forward.
With no police in sight, the group finally arrived in the parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park, and the jubilant mood returned in earnest. The group gathered one final time around a speaker who led all those gathered in a combination chant and promise, “I will defend this land.”
After spending the night in the forest, on the second day the music festival continued, while an autonomous group of around 200 forest defenders converged on where the construction site for “Cop City” was based. There, marchers according to Unicorn Riot:
[A] march of several hundred opponents of the project (generally known as ‘forest defenders’) took over a police surveillance outpost along a power line clearing near Intrenchment Creek. The crowd set off fireworks and threw other projectiles over the barbed wire fence of the outpost, causing the police to retreat.
Barricades of tires and other debris were set up at the outpost entrance and two UTVs, a Front End Loader, office trailer, and mobile surveillance tower were destroyed and set on fire. Several port-a-potties were tipped and barbed wire fences bent, twisted and rendered insecure.
Police have made repeated statements to the press about the throwing of “Molotov cocktails,” in an effort to paint a picture of human life being threatened, however the only violence against human beings reported was later in the evening at the hands of the police. In fact, as the New York Times reporter on the ground at the demonstration wrote of the targeted property destruction, “As vehicles were set ablaze, law enforcement officers looked on and initially did not intervene.”
These actions destroyed recent progress made on the Cop City project and its infrastructure, setting back development which has already been marked by construction delays, lawsuits, protests, and companies dropping out.
Additional “Cop City” construction defense infrastructure appears to have been destroyed by fire as forest defenders overrun the outpost. pic.twitter.com/O3huFUWxK7
— UNICORN RIOT 🦄 mastodon.social/@UnicornRiot 👈 (@UR_Ninja) March 5, 2023
After the Cop City construction site was damaged and set on fire, the group of protesters left the area, while law enforcement then slowly began to amass at Welaunee People’s Park where the music festival was taking place, over a mile away. “Tina,” who was at the music festival throughout the day spoke to It’s Going Down in a recent interview, stating that hundreds of people were at the music festival, largely from the local Atlanta area. “It was going really well, [then ] cops lined up on the road, they came in opposite of the music festival. They would bring in a couple cars; this lasted a few hours.”
In video coverage from Unicorn Riot, police can be seen walking into the festival-area with high powered automatic weapons and in videos posted to Twitter, people at the music festival, some with dogs and small children, are seen running from the police. “Cops were picking off random music festival attendees,” reported Jean, who also stated police were heard screaming, “We’re gonna fucking kill you motherfucker.”
“They came out in full force, [but] the crowd stayed together,” Jean stated, as police deployed pepper-balls and tasers on concert goers and rolled out a Bearcat unit along with an LRAD, a machine which uses a painful sound cannon against large crowds.
In the face of this violence, according to Tina, the several hundred people still at the festival self-organized to get people rides out of the park and shuttle them to safety. When police threatened mass arrest, people locked arms and chanted that they had children there and demanded to be released, to which police finally relented, allowing people to leave the area in groups. According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, at least 35 people were arrested late Sunday.
Jean was quick to note that the main force on the ground was the Georgia State Patrol (GSP), the same agency which is behind the murder of Tortuguita, is locally referred to as “cowboys,” and is known for being largely white. Last year, Georgia “agreed to pay a $4.8 million legal settlement to the family of a Black man who was fatally shot by a state trooper trying to pull him over for a broken tail light.”
Ironically, a police statement released late Sunday claimed (correctly) that those at the music festival were, “peaceful,” yet this did not stop them from brutalizing a crowd filled with families and even young children. The statement read, “A group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment…” If this is so, then why did police knowingly threaten hundreds of “peaceful” people with arrest and even possible violent death?
Where does the movement go from here?
Already, like clockwork Marjorie Taylor Greene, fresh from CPAC, where speakers called for the literal “eradication” of transgender people, is tweeting about “ANTIFA” and “Communists,” while the police are again trotting out civil-rights era tropes of “outside agitators.” But people like Jean don’t buy that these attacks will stick like perhaps they once did. “The amount of solidarity is incredible here, the outside agitator tropes are not flying in the forest struggle. From church groups to pre-schools to HBCUs, everyone is enthusiastically embracing that this is not a “local struggle” and are asking people around the country to contribute,” Jean stated. “Along with the action [in Downtown Atlanta] on January 21st, this is a show of emergent movement strength: the numbers, people showing up from around the country, the strong local showing of Atlantans, the ability of a group to cohere and take action…”
It’s sadly no surprise that police would arbitrarily attack and arrest Cop City festival-goers at random tonight. They have a history of using unconstitutional force and collective punishment against opponents of their proposed training facility. [thread]
What happens next in the forest remains to be seen. When emerging movements are attacked by police they often grow, as they did when cops in New York mass arrested Occupy Wall Street protesters on a bridge in Brooklyn or attempted to brutalize Water Protectors at Standing Rock with attack dogs. As Jean argued, “The sort of absolute lack of disciple on the state’s side is horrible for us, but also incredibly advantageous in the long run.”
— Atlanta Community Press Collective (@atlanta_press) March 4, 2023
Staring at the photos of smoke billowing from the husks of burned out police cars in the Atlanta forest, its hard not to compare them to the images of youth standing triumphantly in front of the burning third precinct in Minneapolis back in 2020, only days after George Floyd’s murder. While it is unclear where things will go from here, if the state was planning on isolating forest defenders and attempting to scare the wider public from getting involved by slapping people with trumped up charges, then perhaps they should consider defunding their “training” facility and re-investing in a new PR firm, because the fight to stop Cop City isn’t going anywhere.
cover photo: Unicorn Riot and Atlanta Community Press Collective
Two years after the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, the threat of fascism has only grown. In just the last month, a neo-Nazi couple was arrested for planning to “completely destroy” Baltimore, a majority-Black city, by attacking its power grid; and in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has launched an offensive against public education, particularly Black studies — in an effort described by historian…
Community Movement Builders agree with the people’s demand not only to de-fund and eventually abolish the police force, but also call for the demilitarization and decentralization of all policing institutions in the United States. As the rebellion raged, state and city governments attempted to pacify protesters by firing so-called “bad apples,” insisting on more training, changing the names of programs and task forces, taking down confederate monuments, appointing commissions to study issues and moving money around. Community Movement Builders maintain that radical change will only take place when Black communities control their own institutions to resolve their own conflicts and keep themselves safe.
Community Movement Builders call for People’s Assemblies (PA) and People’s Community Patrols (PCP) in order to envision and establish a restorative and transformative justice system that views Black people as humans. We understand the ongoing rebellion as the people’s expression of their democratic will. For over 50 years, Black radicals among others have exposed the ways in which the voting/electoral system in the U.S. is manipulated to favor candidates who safeguard racial capitalism and endless war. The PAs and PCPs signal the people’s preparedness to make their own decisions on how to govern and protect their own lives.
To do so, Community Movement Builders propose that the total funding allocated to the Police Department and corresponding programs and task forces be diverted to organize, carry out, and implement the results of the PAs and create PCPs. The PAs would be the first steps towards local communities managing their own municipal budgets. These efforts must be connected to a larger plan for decolonization and redistribution of resources and capital.
In the meantime, Community Movement Builders demand the following reforms:
Only non-lethal arms can be used for purposes of self-defense. Police use of potentially lethal weapons can only be exercised under specific instances that endanger the general public (e.g. mass shootings, hostage situations, etc.).
All military and police troops will immediately withdraw from the streets to allow protestors to occupy public space.
The cash-bail system will immediately end and all current inmates being held for inability to pay money bail will be immediately released from custody.
All current inmates who are aged 60 and older; who require quarantine because of positive coronavirus test result; or who have existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus, including: chronic lung disease, asthma, diabetes, heart condition, liver disease, obesity, pregnancy and other conditions identified by health professionals in ongoing research will be immediately released from custody.
All youth detention centers and residential facilities should be reformed to support a pathway for youth reentry into larger society as soon as possible, with needed resources to provide, housing, clothes, food and access to education. Resources should be reallocated to implement programs focused on social-emotional learning, the hiring of more in-house counselors and therapists to work with our youth on a daily basis while serving their sentences or awaiting trial.
All remaining political prisoners on U.S. territories will be immediately released from custody. This includes but is not limited to organizers from the Black Panther Party, The Republic of New Africa, The Black Liberation Army, The Weather Underground, the American Indian Movement and MOVE. These heros/sheros of our struggle(s) have served enough time in a criminal injustice system meant to destroy movements fighting for basic human rights and self-determination.
All detainees in immigration detention centers will be immediately released from custody.
Police Departments will immediately decertify, fire or suspend without pay any officers involved in the use of deadly force against unarmed civilians pending investigation and ensuing trial.
Police Departments will fire officers who have multiple complaints of excessive force and their partners who silently witnessed such acts and/or who assisted them in falsifying evidence.
Police Departments will fire officers whose actions out of uniform are violent, including social media hate speech, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
All police records will be made available to the public.
Police officers without complaints of excessive force on the job at home will remain until the Departments are phased out and will be subjected to routine psychological and risk assessment evaluations (including racial/ethnic bias) to determine fitness to transition to the new system.
Independent Civilian Review Board(s) with subpoena power will be established. No law enforcement personnel can serve on these Boards. No police departments, appointed police comissioners or elected officials will have the power to overturn disiplinary decisions. Taking into account gentrification, metrics such as zip codes will be used to ensure the eligibility and participation of comunity residents on these Boards.
District Attorney offices in conjunction with the Independent Civilian Review Board(s) will review all civilian fatalities at the hands of the police for the period of 2000-2018. Reviewers will identify cases of excessive and unlawful uses of force for investigation and trial.
An Independent prosecutor will be identified to prosecute all cases of misconduct of police officers.
Police Departments will terminate all contracts with military and mercenary consultants. In particular, any and all contracts with the Israeli Defense Force or any subsidiary that trains police in the U.S. to use the same deadly tactics used against Palestinians fighting for their human rights.
Police Departments will cease to purchase any additional tanks and armored weapons and will immediately dispose of any and all such equipment in their possession.
Police presence will be removed from all public schools.
Recruiters for any armed forces will be permanently removed from all public schools.
Police presence will be removed from all social service/welfare agencies, including public housing.
Police officers will no longer serve as first responders to mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence calls. Instead, a team of mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence counseling, conflict resolution, and social work professionals will intervene.
Minor offenses like turnstile jumping, vending without a permit, a broken tail light, failure to signal, expired tags, and other non-violent offenses that currently warrant booking, impounding a vehicle, or pretrail incarceration will no longer be penalized/criminalized.
Marijuana will be decriminalized and all sentences of those arrested for non-violent drug offenses will be retroactively vacated.
Police Departments shall no longer seize and auction off property of arrestees who have not been convicted of any crime.
The city of San Francisco has voted to legalize the use of killbots in specific emergency situations like active shooters and suicide bombers, with high-ranking officers making the call as to whether their use is warranted.
Police crime tape surrounds the scene of the mass shooting outside of Club Q on November 21, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Co.
Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Over the weekend, the paper of record’s editorial board described a “chilling preview of what the future might look like if violence from the right begets violence from the left.”
The event that precipitated those fears at the New York Times offices in Manhattan? A would-be showdown that never was at a Roanoke, Texas, restaurant’s family-friendly drag brunch. An armed far-right group, including Proud Boys and self-identifying “Christian fascists,” turned up to harass brunch-goers — a sadly commonplace form of fascistic intimidation that’s hardly news.
Instead, what concerned the Times about this event was that the armed fascists were met and obstructed by armed anti-fascists, who had been asked by members of the local community to provide security for the brunch.
In the end, no one was hurt in this alleged portent of political violence and the restaurant owner’s son, a performer at the drag brunch, thanked the anti-fascists of the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club for “keeping us safe.”
Just a week had passed since the Club Q massacre, which left five attendees of an LGBTQ club dead, when the Times decided to draw an equivalence between the fascists who threaten LGBTQ-friendly spaces with guns and the anti-fascists with guns who volunteer to defend those spaces — a new low in bothsidesism.
For as long as marginalized and minority communities have been threatened and imperiled by armed white supremacists and fascists — a violence foundational to this country — they have been condemned for taking up arms in self-defense.
It is a profound mischaracterization of the history and principles of armed community defense to suggest that armed anti-fascists and anti-racists are engaged in escalatory political violence that is worthy of the same condemnation as the fascists they confront.
Oppressed groups and their allies have time and again seen guns as necessary defensive tools. This has been true at key points in the history of Black struggle in the U.S. — formerly enslaved marronage communities, Black civilians in the late 19th century who blocked jails to stop lynchings, and the Black Panthers, who were originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense — but also among the queer militants of Bash Back! in the late 2000s. Yet the decision to take up arms in community defense has consistently been decried as escalatory and extremist.
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside of Club Q on November 23, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Co.
Photo: Chet Strange/Getty Images
History of Self-Defense
Debates about violent and nonviolent protest, and what constitutes violence at all, are well worn. It’s important to note, though, that the presumption that armed community defense serves to escalate violence is simply not borne out in U.S. history.
The late political scientist Cedric Robinson highlighted in his epic “Black Marxism” that even in slave rebellions and marronage communities, there was no doubt a reliance on armed physical violence to ensure escape and sustain freedom, but there was a remarkably small number of retributive killings of white enslavers.
In the past century, too, white supremacist, far-right deadly violence in this country has so dwarfed the number deaths caused by Black, Indigenous, and queer armed struggle that talk of mutual escalation is obscene. In the last 30 years alone, over 85 percent of extremist killings are attributable to far-right actors. A separate New York Times report last weekend found that at 700 armed demonstrations since January 2020, 77 percent of those openly carrying guns were right-wing.
These numbers aren’t incidental but reflect something inherent about how white supremacist, anti-LGBTQ ideology operates: The goals are eliminationist. This is what makes the “bothsidesing” so horrifically off base: The far right has made clear their commitment to eradicate trans people, either through violent law or extralegal violence.
The far right has made clear their commitment to eradicate trans people, either through violent law or extralegal violence.
It is amid this larger picture that the Times wondered about a “chilling future.” With queer communities quite aware that police are more likely to harass them than help them, would it truly be less chilling to imagine a future in which armed right-wingers are met with no serious opposition?
Groups like Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club — which is one chapter among many anti-fascist John Brown Gun Clubs in the Redneck Revolt network nationwide — will not end the anti-trans, white supremacist violence of the far right. By showing up, though, they can at least give pause to the would-be assailants of these embattled communities.
To say that armed community defense is necessary and justified is not to say that there are not difficult questions around the issue.
It’s an understandable impulse to fear that the more guns on a scene, the more likely one is to be used, resulting in deadly violence. It’s a tragedy at the heart of all too many domestic violence murders, that women who keep guns in the house to defend themselves against abusive partners are killed with those very weapons.
Then there is the notion that teachers should be armed to defend against school shootings, which is belied by the facts: The more guns brought into schools, by teachers or cops, the more dangerous gun-related accidents there have been.
The proliferation of guns in the U.S. is intolerable, exceptional in its deadly consequences, and has always been organized around white supremacy — from various historical moves to bar Indigenous or Black people from owning guns, to the first federal “gun control” law in 1968, which was part of a massive crime bill that endowed police forces with military-grade weapons.
There’s every reason to be wary of the misuse of “self-defense” as a pretext for violent action — it has, after all, been the legally accepted justification for centuries of racist killings. Yet it is not the armed anti-fascists who are initiating the potential for gun violence in these instances; they go where the armed fascists go. And the fascists with guns, political support, and consistent police allegiance are turning up at restaurants, libraries, night clubs, school board meetings, and polling stations because they want to expunge whole marginalized communities from public life — by threatening them with a gun’s barrel, if not killing them with a spray of bullets.
So-called moderates can rely on tired tropes about violence begetting more violence. But such a stance, usually held from a comfortable distance, refuses to see that the fascist violence targeted at LGBTQ existence — and the lives of Black people — seeks to be annihilating and total. Thankfully, there are braver anti-fascist forces willing to stand in the way.
The crisis of neoliberalism fuels social breakdown and a backlash from violent “anti-crime” vigilante groups. It’s a destructive, authoritarian vision of order that the Left can directly challenge.
A private security guard patrols the Mount Moriah suburb of Durban North, South Africa, as armed community members and vigilante groups step in to tackle crime and unrest. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP via Getty Images)
South Africa’s state and society have been stripped by vulture capitalism and predatory governance.
Rampant corruption within the energy sector, involving both South African politicians and international companies like Bain and McKinsey, has led to regular power and water outages across the country. Organized criminal syndicates have implanted themselves in almost every part of the economy, contributing to the virtual collapse of public health care, transportation, and the commercial freight sectors. Internal strife in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has paralyzed government’s daily functioning, and ferocious struggles over access to outsourcing contracts and public funds have led to the sabotage of infrastructure and political assassinations.
In August, Cape Town gang members posted videos waving AK-47’s and demanding protection fees from government workers attempting to fix rail infrastructure. Meanwhile, the buses that working-class passengers have been forced to use as an alternative transport are themselves targets for robbery, with criminals brazenly holding upmorning commuters. Attacks on long-distance passenger buses have become so endemic that a court ruling ordered Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to intervene after failing to act on several years of escalating violence.
The daily reality of instability, danger, and rising murder rates, in a society where the police is widely regarded as both corrupt and incompetent, has led to cynicism about the government’s capacity to ensure even a modicum of stability and order.
This cynicism is aggravated by how political elites implicated in mass corruption, such as former president Jacob Zuma, have avoided accountability from the criminal justice system. In July 2021, Zuma’s supporters, including members of the intelligence agencies and police, organized looting and attacks on infrastructure in retaliation for his incarceration on charges of contempt of court. This was not a spontaneous riot but an insurrectionary effort to destabilize the state.
Despite high-profile Zuma supporters openly encouraging violence on social media, which led to hundreds of deaths, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government gave Zuma an early release while failing to prosecute the organizers of the most destructive political violence since South Africa’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s. At a recent court appearance, Zuma publicly thanked rioters for “standing beside me when times were tough.”
In contrast, the police are notorious for not standing by the citizenry when times get tough. South African Police Service (SAPS) officers regularly fail to respond to emergency calls and refuse to report criminal cases. In the lead-up to the 2021 violence, the police failed to act on intelligence about planned attacks; during the most severe rioting, state security forces were conspicuously AWOL.
Along with a gang-to-gun pipeline, where compromised officers sell weapons to criminal syndicates, thirteen police stations were robbed for arms and ammunition between 2019 and 2021.
According to Max Weber’s classic definition of the state according to its “monopoly on violence,” the modern state’s political legitimacy and power stem from its ability to control the use of force in a defined territory.
Contemporary South Africa is not in a state of formal war or facing territorial disputes from other powers. But rapacious self-enrichment and the collapse of basic services has led to a hollowing out of the state, where the government primarily functions to extract taxes and rent while offering its subjects nothing in exchange.
Conservative understandings of crime treat it as an intractable human evil.
Against this backdrop of social disintegration, nonstate actors have emerged to offer extreme solutions to the crisis of public order.
In the midst of the July 2021 riots, groups armed with machine guns and machetes, and with links to both local private security companies and gangs, were implicated in a series of racialized killings in Phoenix, outside Durban.
In Soweto, Gauteng, a self-proclaimed activist named Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, dressed in military fatigues, organized a blockade to protect the Maponya shopping mall from being destroyed. He was praised by Ramaphosa and wildly feted in the media — then used his platform to become one of the most prominent xenophobic demagogues in the country.
Over the following year, he would become a news fixture as leader of Operation Dudula (“force out”), a xenophobic social movement with a paramilitary element which has been regularly implicated in violence and harassment against foreigners. By August 2022, the organization was blockading public hospitals and denying access to people they accused of being migrants.
In September, vigilante groups in Limpopo burned three Zimbabweans to death for allegedly stealing cables, and chased other migrants out of their homes.
Rather than condemning such horrific violence, many of South Africa’s political parties give xenophobia legitimacy by painting migrants as the central cause of crime and using them as a scapegoat for their own failure to create social and economic stability.
South Africa has a long history of street justice. During apartheid, the police were almost exclusively focused on political repression, and they allowed violent crime to run rampant in grimly impoverished black townships and informal settlements.
This saw the rise of street committees and other popular vigilante organizations that delivered harsh and rapid sentences to people accused of robbery and assault. Some of these, such as the Western Cape Witdoeke (“white scarves”) became proxy forces for state-sponsored political repression.
Postapartheid, such formations have persisted. In many cases, they have been implicated in mob justice and public violence, such as xenophobic pogroms in 2008 and 2015.
Vigilante groups have also been formalized into the country’s massive private security sector. Mapogo A Mathamaga initially gained a reputation in the 1990s for hard-line tactics such as throwing suspects into crocodile-infested waters, but is now better known for its commercial services guarding homes and businesses.
The frequency and severity of daily crime means that vigilantes often operate with varying degrees of popular legitimacy and are seen as protectors who are prepared to go outside the law to protect communities from harm.
After members of an extortion racket called Boko Haram were killed in a drive-by shooting in Mamelodi in 2021, the media began to circulate the story that this was the work of a local “John Wick,” cleaning the streets like the fictional assassin played by Keanu Reeves. Despite little evidence to prove this figure’s actual existence, with the killing most likely being done by a rival operation, it resonated with the belief that South Africa needs ruthless defenders to stem crime and disorder.
Crime, whether it comes in the form of interpersonal violence or property theft, is a profoundly disempowering experience. The idea of fighting back, of striking out at criminals in whatever form, offers the catharsis of taking back a sense of control.
The destabilization that underpins vigilante fantasies of individuals seeking harsh retribution is further fueled by both the government’s commitment to austerity, even in the midst of mass unemployment, and security policies that support militarized but ineffective policing in place of more effective and transformative public safety measures.
While the South African situation is especially extreme, it reflects a wider global context where neoliberalism has eroded the state’s ability to ensure social stability while also facilitating violence and predatory criminality.
Community members wielding machetes stand watch at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban, July 2021. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP via Getty Images)
Latin America — a continent that was at the forefront of early experiments in economic shock therapy and deregulation — has experienced the rise of highly organized vigilante forces. Urban militias — often involving former police in Brazil, self-defense forces in Mexico, and paramilitary groups in Colombia — all emerged in the context of the violence associated with the narcotics trade and popular frustration with the authorities.
But these self-proclaimed defenders all revealed a much more ambiguous reality. In Colombia, paramilitaries functioned as death squads, which targeted street children and sex workers. Groups with names like “Death to Car Thieves” attacked alleged local criminals, only to then demand extortion fees from residents and businesses.
In Mexico, so-called defense groups emerged during intensified narco-violence. But while presenting themselves as enemies of the drug cartels, many of these groups were themselves heavily implicated in trafficking and working as gunmen for criminal organizations. In the state of Michoacán, the Los Viagras group started as a paramilitary wing of the Knights Templar Cartel, then switched sides to fight them as vigilantes, before evolving into a feared trafficking syndicate in their own right.
Vigilantism and the harsh worldviews that underpin it resonates with far-right ideology. Both Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duerte have presented themselves as the political equivalent of extrajudicial militias: hard men prepared to do whatever necessary to protect decent people.
In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump energized existing far-right movements and inspired a new generation of “border vigilantes” and anti-government militias. Members of groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers were instrumental in planning the 2021 Capitol attack.
During the riot, the skull–shaped logo of the Marvel comics character the Punisher was noted on the clothes of participants. The Punisher was originally created to exploit the post-Death Wish vigilante film boom of the 1970s. In the comic and live-action versions, Frank Castle is a basically psychotic military veteran on a murderous lone war against crime.
However, the logo has evolved from its popular culture origins, becoming a menacing symbol used by a variety of different forces claiming a stake in hard-line anti-crime politics. In addition to militias, police officers themselves have adopted it as a logo for the “Blues Lives Matter” backlash, and it also appears as the insignia of private security companies in the suburban badlands of Johannesburg.
It may seem ironic that the self-proclaimed side of strict law and order embraces a vigilante fantasy of lawless retribution. But this is reconciled in the conservative worldview by the ideology that the law is too liberal and soft on various criminals and imagined social degenerates. It therefore becomes necessary to break the law in pursuit of a higher moral order.
In an atomized world, where the concept of a wider public good has been subsumed into privatized stress and precarity, the fictional vigilante, represented in the ongoing popular cultural fixation with characters like Batman, offers a vicarious fantasy of individuals generating social order through the force of personal will.
Taking Crime Seriously
In contrast to the lone wolves of popular culture, real-world vigilantes are disturbingly sociable. They offer a sense of collectivity and meaning for their members and supporters. The online rhetoric of Operation Dudula, for example, presents it as a force of popular democracy, where ordinary citizens are taking back control from both criminals and an absent, disinterested state.
But this is an ideal of community that is fundamentally based on exclusion. Crime is seen as a foreign intrusion from the outside rather than a problem created by the structures of society itself.
This is a vision of democracy that ends at the border. The response to crime and violence becomes increased radicalization, such as when armed-robber-turned-xenophobic-politician Gayton McKenzie proudly announced that he would “unplug the oxygen” of foreign nationals in state hospitals.
The constant urge to purge society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The profusion of armed anti-crime groups itself leads to more instability and conflict. In South Africa, xenophobic vigilantism has seen reprisals, such as when Somalians clashed with taxi operators in the streets of Gqeberha in 2021.
South Africa has become a grim exemplar of a future where the breakdown of societal and governmental institutions inspires a retreat into violently enforced ethnic and religious silos.
Rampant inequality, climate breakdown, and the widespread proliferation of weapons technology all point to a twenty-first century where existing state power will be challenged by increasingly destructive criminal and extremist groupings.
Intensifying conflict becomes a legitimation for vigilantes to tool up with more weapons and even more extreme tactics. But rather than wanting to end street crime, vigilantes thrive off worsening conditions because they creates new opportunities for power and profit.
Offering a progressive challenge to this phenomenon requires understanding not only its political and socioeconomic causes but the psychology of what the fear of crime does to both individuals and collectives.
The stress caused by a daily reality of risk and social collapse is interpreted by the body politic’s nervous system as anger, feeding the visceral desire to lash out at anything, or anyone, to restore a sense of coherence to the world. When channeled through authoritarian and domineering social values, such as the belief that crime is a phenomenon which can be forcibly removed in one fell swoop, collective violence becomes inevitable.
A leftist counter to vigilantism certainly requires acknowledging the anger and despair created by crime. As Benjamin Fogel observes, it is naive to view the fear of crime as just a right-wing shibboleth. Instead, the daily lawlessness of capitalism and the protection rackets and militias that emerge in response need to be understood as a form of oppression in itself.
One response is to use a materialist analysis to pour cold water on the overheated revenge fantasies offered by right-wing vigilantes. This entails framing the social misery that violent nonstate actors thrive off not as the result of supernaturally depraved outsiders but the direct consequences of exploitative power structures.
Whereas conservative understandings of crime treat it as an intractable human evil, a socialist counter needs to articulate how many current threats and harms can be reduced through greater social interventions and redistribution. A progressive approach to crime certainly would entail increasing general social stability through creating decent jobs, ensuring better housing and public spaces, and reducing the material deprivation that fuels disorder.
But it also means challenging patriarchal and authoritarian mindsets that normalize violence and abuse. And it means redefining popular understandings of crime to illuminate how so much risk and harm spring from the murky nexus between business and political power, and how white-collar criminals can cause as much social harm with a pen as bandits do with a gun.
Vigilantism thrives when people believe that the world around them has descended into a Hobbesian race to the bottom. Defusing its sinister allure requires offering people tangible proof of a better tomorrow.