At the start of the Trump presidency, Chris Hedges made this prediction:
The paramilitary forces of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will soon hire 10,000 more agents, and the border patrol, which will hire 5,000 more agents, along with Homeland Security, have all deputized local and state police to function as their auxiliaries. They will be flooded with cast-off military issue equipment. These paramilitary forces will not disband once they have finished terrorizing and deporting some of the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. They will turn on their next victims: Muslims, African Americans, Asians, dissidents. This militarization of society is designed to carry out the race war that Trump and those around him see as inevitable at home and abroad.
Two years later, the factors are aligning in the way that Hedges described they would. The effort from Trump and his allies in the Senate to classify Antifa as a terrorist organization is a veiled attempt to criminalize dissent. Since Antifa is a non-hierarchical autonomous movement with no listed members, under Trump’s policy one could theoretically become labeled a terrorist for posting a photo of a classic German anti-Nazi poster because it resembles the common modern Antifa icon. Even voicing opposition to fascism may soon start putting people on the terrorist watch list. And from there will come the opening for a crackdown comparable to Pinochet’s death squads or to Hitler’s extermination campaign against leftists.
The totalitarian implications of this proposed Antifa law originates in the attacks on civil liberties that took place during the War on Terror, wherein the president was given the authority to indefinitely detain any American without trial in the name of fighting terrorism. The legalization of torture against American prisoners and Obama’s extrajudicial drone assassinations of American citizens, which have also been justified by the post-9/11 terrorist scare, also show what our government would be able to do to its own citizens for speaking against fascism. We’re close to reaching a point where identifying as an anti-fascist can easily land one in the same category as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who was assassinated through a drone strike in 2011 under the rationale that he was allegedly involved in terrorist activities.
With the expansion of the Guantanamo political prisoners camp in the Trump administration’s construction of new migrant detention centers, the U.S. now has an extensive network of concentration camps. The militarization of ICE and border patrol agents, as well as the moves towards having the military run and build migrant camps, further shows the prescience of Hedges’ vision of the immigration police coming after American citizens next. Whether through the Antifa law or some other means (like the AUMF bill from last year that would let the president detain Americans for opposing any U.S. military action), the government will create an atmosphere where political speech becomes punishable. And the state has set plenty of precedents to make this crackdown violent.
Already, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has started an apparent campaign to intimidate Americans who protest U.S. foreign policy, with the CBP having recently interrogated and seized the phone of pro-Maduro socialist Sergio L Torr after he came back from a Venezuela solidarity trip. “It is impossible to have a rational dialogue with people who view reality through the binary lens of black and white—us and them,” Chris Hedges has written about the authoritarians in Trump’s vein. “They do not recognize the right of dissent. Dissent is at best obstruction and probably treason. Fanatics, in power, always become inquisitors.” This is the logic that law enforcement will increasingly apply to dealing with dissenters in the coming years.
The great question of socialists, anti-imperialists, environmentalists, and supporters of social justice in these times is how we can overcome a massive campaign of violent repression. The answer to this lies in where we can find the balance between violent and nonviolent resistance strategies.
Balance is the key word, because both an excess in violence and an unreasonable refusal to consider using violence can kill a movement. As Chris Hedges has warned about, offensive violence in a situation where the state militarily dominates society emboldens the capitalist security apparatus to intensify its violence against the revolutionaries. But there are countless cases in history where oppressed people have had to either resort to defensive violence or else be defeated in their revolutionary efforts. (For example, if the entire Indian independence movement had followed Gandhi's dogmatic commitment to nonviolence, it likely wouldn’t have succeeded in overcoming the British empire’s violent crackdowns).
And as Michael Parenti has written in his book Blackshirts and Reds about the unfair way that ruling class propaganda gets us to think about violent revolutionaries:
Revolutions in Russia, China, Vietnam, and El Salvador all began peacefully, with crowds of peasants and workers launching nonviolent protests only to be met with violent oppression from the authorities. Peaceful protest and reform are exactly what the people are denied by the ruling oligarchs. The dissidents who continue to fight back, who try to defend themselves from the oligarchs’ repressive fury, are then called “violent revolutionaries” and “terrorists.”
To succeed amid the war that our government plans to wage against us, we‘ll need to recognize these nuances while approaching both nonviolent protest tactics and self-defense tactics in an educated and disciplined way.
There are very effective nonviolent tactics for forcing change, ones which have made peaceful resistance statistically much more effective than violent tactics at toppling regimes. According to the research of Erica Chenoweth, author of “Trends in nonviolent resistance and state response” in the Global Responsibility to Protect, revolutions have won nonviolently by using three main tools: strategically documenting and publicizing the violent actions of the regime in order to hurt the perceived legitimacy of the power structure; building institutions that can protect those in the movement and give them a strong tool for organizing; and making alliances with foreign governments that can help the movement.
For those of us in American anti-capitalist movement, this means taking actions like supporting and contributing to the alternative media, building socialist organizations like the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Party of Communists USA, and working to establish solidarity between the American socialist movement and socialist states like China. Such measures will give a structural backing to our direct nonviolent revolutionary actions, such as blocking traffic, carrying out strikes, and providing sanctuary for those targeted by ICE.
These are our avenues for gaining power. Our avenues for keeping that power after we’ve won it, and for physically protecting our movement’s members, runs through the armed self-defense approaches used by the Black Panthers. Taking inspiration from Malcolm X’s maxim that “it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks,” the Black Panther Party for Self Defense practiced militant self-defense programs for black communities as a security measure for their movement towards revolutionary socialism. Armed leftist organizations like the Civil Defense Corps are now carrying on the Panthers’ legacy at a time when self-defense for the oppressed is especially important, and more educationally oriented leftist gun groups like the Socialist Rifle Association are reinforcing their agenda. I recommend joining these organizations as much as the socialist parties that I’ve mentioned.
With this week’s shooting of twenty people in El Paso by a pro-Trump white supremacist, the cause of building up these modern versions of the Black Panthers is shown to be urgent. But we must recognize that just as these self-defense groups are crucial for protecting the larger nonviolently oriented socialist movement, that broader movement is crucial for the structural survival of the armed leftist organizations. The Black Panthers were destroyed as an organization by a campaign of state terror, racist gun control laws, and law enforcement infiltration of their leadership. We need a mass movement that’s large enough and well organized enough to withstand the state’s methods for sabotage.
This is a monumental task, but it can be done if we do the proper organizing towards it. The essential ingredient in this project is approaching it with finesse and nuance; as important as armed self-defense is, arms should be treated as a secondary aspect in a movement that will need to use nonviolent civil disobedience practices to succeed. And before we glorify nonviolence in a morally black-and-white manner, we must acknowledge that the oppressed have historically had to resort to physical force to defend themselves, and that this will logically be the case in America’s near future. If we do our work with these facts in mind, we’ll be equipped to defy whatever measures the capitalist state takes to maintain its power.
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