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Tigertown Beats Nazis Down: Reflections on Auburn and Mass Anti-fascism

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Members of Unity & Struggle and other comrades collaborated on this piece, which challenges us to reflect on the strategy and tactics of revolutionary anti-fascism. Originally featured on Lifelong Wobbly.

Written by three members of the Atlanta General Defense Committee[1]

“Outside Agitators” – but who’s agitating?

The scene in Auburn, AL when we showed up was one of the most bizarre we’ve ever seen in a political context. Neo-nazi spokesperson Richard Spencer had just been allowed to begin his speech in Foy Hall, after a local judge negated Auburn University’s decision to cancel his event. The live stream showed a packed audience, though some were opponents. Outside, there was a large crowd of students and onlookers. Standing in the crowd, looking to our left and right, it was often impossible to tell if our neighbors were spectators, trolls, anti-Spencer Auburn students, college republicans, or fascists.[2] We were able to identify some people in the crowd as fascists due to their MAGA hats or giant American flags, but they did a much better job of blending into the crowd than many of the anti-fascists did.[3] Many of the anti-fascists were dressed in black and  were armed in helmets and other aspects of the “uniform” that made them stand out from anyone from Auburn.[4] The most visible fascists themselves were already in the auditorium, which meant that for the next several hours, the only visible “outsiders” for the crowd were the anti-fascists. For people in the crowd, anti-fascism looked like a specialized thing, while the fascists themselves were abstract and out-of-sight.

Before we talk more about what happened, let’s talk about Alabama and Auburn. It seems unlikely that many anti-fascists were familiar with Auburn before Spencer’s speech was announced or had ever spent time in Alabama.. We don’t mean to score cheap points here. Obviously, most of us have not been to most parts of the US, and may not have heard of every city. However, we think that the US left simultaneously ignores and scorns the South in general and the “deep south” in particular. Furthermore, Auburn – home to one of Alabama’s two main universities – has its own particular culture and significance within Alabama. Think of the biggest deal you can imagine people making of college football – double that, and add a little more for good measure. That’s how important football is for Alabama, and Auburn is their number two school. To say the town’s culture revolves around football, and the state’s culture revolves around the football of the University of Alabama and Auburn University, would be an understatement. Alabama head coach Nick Saban has been called “the most powerful man in Alabama,” and that’s probably not an exaggeration.[5] Indeed, it seems that one of the biggest missteps Spencer took in Auburn was to speak against black football players and berate people for supporting them – attacking Auburn football may have galvanized the school and the town against him in a serious way.[6]

There is a dominant stereotype that white people in the Deep South are ignorant conservatives. This stereotype comes from liberal institutions (think of the character Kenneth on 30 Rock), and it carries over into the left if it is not consciously challenged (which it usually isn’t). Of course this contributes to a hostile or skeptical attitude from Alabamians when there is any engagement. There hasn’t been any meaningful Left presence in Alabama since the 70s, and very few attempts by contemporary left groups to engage seriously with Alabama.[7] When the US left spends decades ignoring the deep South, we are telling ourselves and the rest of the world that we don’t believe there’s any meaningful organizing to be done there. The right wing doesn’t make the same mistake. In Alabama, groups like “The League of the South” have open meeting halls, billboards by the highway, and have announced the formation of a “Southern Defence Force”.

This is important because it heavily influences how we approach a situation like this. For those of us who believe in a mass-based, working-class-oriented anti-fascism, it comes down to some central questions. Can we imagine a mass anti-fascist movement in Alabama? Can we actually imagine that large numbers of Alabamians would agree with our program and strategy for fighting fascism? Or do we basically think that mass anti-fascism might theoretically work elsewhere, but not in a place like Alabama?

These questions deserve attention because they had a huge impact on our orientations towards this situation. Entering unfamiliar terrain with preconceptions about the political territory set up a situation that would characterize the rest of the night – a theatrical production of specialized antifascists versus specialized fascists, where everyone else was just in the way.[8] We saw little talk beforehand about how Auburn students might engage, or how we might relate to them. It seems that all of us (present authors included) made decisions based to some degree on a lack of faith in the possibility for mass anti-fascism in Alabama. Most of us would probably say that we think mass anti-fascism is an ideal, preferable to “squad-vs-squad” style anti-fascism.[9] However, in practice we tended to write off the possibility that large numbers of Alabamians might actually agree with our program for fighting fascism if we actually presented it to them. If we want to stop the normalization of fascism, then we have to “normalize” anti-fascism – even (maybe especially) in places like Alabama.

There were some attempts on our side to preemptively address some of these concerns.We had designed flyers to explain our positions to the crowd, but due to haste and confusion these were not distributed. There had been some attempts on reddit and elsewhere to connect with folks in Auburn ahead of time, which was a good start, but we should have followed up on them more systematically. By the time Spencer’s speech was starting, the damage had been done – the bloc was isolated and pressed between a police barricade and a crowd ranging from indifferent to hostile. Onlookers, potential allies, and low-key fascists were all intermingled in an incoherent mass, with police scattered throughout. Furthermore it was getting dark, making it harder to talk with people and less likely that people would read or care about flyers. The only clear distinction was between the black-clad antifascist activists (who were visibly not from Auburn) on the one hand and the jumble of people with illegible politics (but generally from Auburn or looking like they could be) on the other.

In short: we treated them like “others” who might get in our way and ruin things for us; is it any wonder they treated us the same?

Auburn2

Auburn’s “White Students Union” had been agitating against “Atlanta Antifa” ahead of time. They put up posters around campus warning people against “Atlanta Antifa” as scary outsiders who might attack bystanders. The spectacle that the black bloc provided played right into this.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that there were low-key fascists blended within the crowd, at some points agitating or “trolling” us quite effectively.[10] This was separate from a noticeable trend of random individuals who had come out to troll for less clear reasons: there were some individuals who seemed to be mostly trying for jokes, but others were in small groups, wearing MAGA hats or carrying flags, and communicating closely with each other. In other words, the fascists attempted to seize the possibility for agitation that we had abandoned. In fact, at some points it did seem that the fascists or trolls were able to influence the crowd, but because they were blending in well, it was tough to determine exactly when this was happening.

“Spectators” only exist when spectacles produce them

As we were arriving, we were seeing messages that people felt “trapped” by the crowd, that the crowd was full of “trolls” and “spectators” and “stupid liberals.” This seemed improbable to us. When we arrived we saw more context.

There were several hundred people in the crowd, most of whom looked like traditional Auburn students. Interspersed were small pockets of people dressed in all black. Shortly after we arrived, one of the black-clad people started walking through the crowd, shouting and attempting to agitate them. The crowd quickly felt like it was being yelled at by a person that had obviously marked themselves as separate from the crowd, and subsequently tensed up.[11] People began to crowd around and heckle this person, filming them at the same time. At one point as tensions rose it seemed like there could be a fistfight between this white punk-looking antifascist person and a black person in the crowd – which would have been an absolute disaster the moment it hit the internet.

This was just one early example that antifascists were treating the crowd as the “other” and were displaying anti-fascism as a specialized activity, not something for Alabamians unfamiliar with urban political scenes to take up and make their own.

The bloc continued to make these kinds of decisions throughout the night – at one point the bloc had managed to maneuver out of the middle of the crowd and down a street. Other people, many of whom looked like frat members, followed closely behind the bloc, seemingly looking for excitement. We worried that as the bloc tried to disperse, some of the people following them might try to pick fights. Luckily, some pigs on bikes zoomed in a divergent direction and led those followers astray, buying the group time and space. The bloc deliberated and decided to head straight back into the crowd, placing themselves again in the middle and riling the crowd up in its procession. This time we were sure that violence would break out – only, a Holocaust denier stole the show and locals congregated around him instead, mostly to confront him . The bloc consistently reinserted itself into the crowd and made itself the object of spectatorship, rather than something the crowd could engage with, or at the very least, accept and act along sides. The spectacle of specialized anti-fascism undermined the concrete possibility of mass anti-fascism.

Possibly the most dangerous moment came when about twenty or so people in black were chanting together and were getting hemmed in by the larger crowd. Some of the crowd may have been spectating, some hostile – it’s hard to tell. The vibe was already tense when the group began chanting what sounded like “Atlanta, Atlanta, Antifascista”.[12] In response, someone in the crowd began an Auburn fight song that none of the out-of-towners knew. Everyone from Auburn immediately joined in, fists pumping, and those of us from out of town were conspicuously silent, confused, vastly outnumbered, pressed in, and scared. It felt like the situation was on the razor’s edge of a brawl, which would have have ended very, very badly for everyone wearing black.. By showing ourselves as outsiders, we handed the MAGA bro’s an opportunity to throw a punch and start a brawl, potentially with popular support. Luckily, they didn’t seize this opportunity. After Berkeley, that would have been an absolute disaster, and a demoralizing turn on the national level.

Tigertown Beats Nazis Down – but the black bloc doesn’t

Eventually the fascists had to leave Foy Hall. The police had barricades set up so that the crowd was all along the edge of the path that the fascists took towards the edge of the campus. This was part parade, part walk of shame. As the fascists were parading out in full insignia, our people took the opportunity to rile the crowd up and remind them that these were actual, flesh-and-blood nazis, helping to stir up militant chants along the route. It seems that allowing people to actually see that the nazis were real, not abstract and not a joke, did a lot to reorient the tensions – antifa were no longer the only people who were visibly not from Auburn.

At a certain point, the barricades ended, and the nazis and the crowd met. A confrontation developed directly between some students and the fascists. Some fascists, outnumbered and overpowered, had to flee at a sprint from the students.[13] There were some antifascists there when this started, but they were far outnumbered by the students who chased the fascists off campus and into the downtown area. The militant vanguard of the students seemed to be  “good ol’ boys,” the same type that we had been writing off or at least vaguely wary of the whole night. They not only ran the nazis off campus, they caught up to some of them in the town and pushed, beat, or taunted at least a few of them to chants of “Tigertown Beats Nazis Down”. This sudden militancy of the crowd was a victory salvaged from the jaws of defeat; the militant posture of the black bloc was not only completely ineffective, but at several points it led to the edge of disaster. We have to wonder at this point whether the presence of the black bloc had any positive impact.

Pride of Alabama: victory belongs to the Auburn students, not us

Before the events, outsiders travelling to Auburn had discussed goals and the roles we could we play as outside militants. At one meeting, we discussed that shutting down the event would probably not be likely. Other goals we discussed were to maintain a radical space and presence and defend it if need be (presumably in some kind of bloc formation). One of us had raised ideas of being among the crowd, with the goal of promoting militancy and resiliency among the crowd, explaining our positions, and building links for future organizing, but this idea did not receive much interest. It seems that the “default” option of going as the bloc was never seriously challenged. In reflection, we think that these goals all assume that we would be the most militant force present, the most organized and able. We also notice that the goals don’t include anything about building relationships with students who were coming out to oppose fascism. Each goal we could imagine, stated or unstated, we failed to meet that day.

We failed, but the Auburn students did not. They were the most militant, the most able. While they weren’t organized in any political fashion, loose social networks and an identity around their school allowed them to move quickly and decisively to chase out the fascists from the campus and run them out of town.

This was fundamentally different than previous experiences of “spontaneity” we’ve witnessed – and parts of it are difficult to reckon with.[14] This was not a preconceived political act from an organized body, nor was it a spontaneous action of oppressed people who feel powerful in a moment. This was mostly “bro”-looking football fans – many of whom we suspect initially attended as spectators – suddenly catapulted into a political act.[15] It’s likely that the scene of organized, decked-out neo-Nazis riled some students up – they realized this was real, these were really neo-Nazis. It’s possible that some out-of-town antifascists in the crowd were able to effectively encourage a more militant approach towards the nazis at this point. It’s likely many students broke into a run simply because others were running. And it’s also possible that the scene of any visible “outsiders” – be it the black bloc, the fascists, or another football team’s fans – could have roused a similar sentiment: This is our campus, our town, and outsiders are not welcome.[16]

But what happens when a group of students, with little understanding of the current threat of fascism, with little experience with political protests, not “activists” or even necessarily politically concerned, and many not directly affected by the current threat, find themselves suddenly thrust into a political act? Activity changes consciousness. Many of these students now have an experience of running fascists out of town, an experience they identify with, and which will impact their consciousness in unexpected ways in the future.[17]

Lessons

Auburn Ain’t Atlanta

 One of the central principles of mass anti-fascism is that “we don’t cede territory.” This means that we should not just assume that the far right has a monopoly on places likes rural Alabama, but instead we should actively seek allies, build relationships, and support the development of an organized anti-capitalist, anti-racist militancy. Many of us are still defaulting to squad-vs-squad skirmishes, but the fascists are not.  The speaking events of Milo or Spencer are about recruiting and building a mass base for fascism. We think the most promising way to prevent the development of mass fascism is through mass anti-fascism. The worst thing we can do right now is to keep insisting on the black bloc as the default tactic. This is the path towards catastrophic failure.

In order to make friends, we’ll have to understand the limits of certain tactics. Black bloc is a tactic, not a strategy or an identity, and a single tactic should never be our default. Instead, we’ll have to put our goals up front, then decide on a strategy to achieve those goals, and tactics that might be useful as part of that strategy. Furthermore, those who insist on bringing the “black bloc” identity, regardless of the local context, will end up being obstacles to building a mass anti-fascist movement. They have to be struggled with, or left behind.[18]

One alternative tactic is to just dress in clothing that won’t stand out and mingle throughout the crowd, not appearing to be an organized force.[19] This can provide safety, so that no small group is singled out by police or hostile forces; it can also allow space for comrades to build relationships with people in the crowd, to feel out the mood, and to try to raise the militancy throughout the crowd. We should take seriously the old Maoist idea of being among the people “like fish in the sea”. This is something that at least some of the fascists were doing in Auburn, and we can’t cede that space to them.

This doesn’t mean that the black bloc tactic will never be useful in some situations. Keep a bandanna in your literal and figurative back pocket – or keep two in case someone else needs one. But otherwise, we think we might begin by dressing in a way that doesn’t immediately set us apart from the rest of the crowd.

Recovering the art of the agitator

Agitating a crowd in a political context isn’t the kind of skill that any of us are born with or develop accidentally. When there have been successful labor or socialist movements in the past, this was a skill that movements deliberately trained people in.[20] This is something that we have been mostly ignoring for decades, and we are paying for it now. But we have to begin somewhere.

The Picket/Guard Training that has been developed by the General Defense Committee identifies some possible roles that can apply in a mass public action, such as picket captain, marshal/security, and MC. We think “agitator” should be added to this list as a possible useful role, especially for actions like this one in Auburn or anywhere else where we will be acting within a larger crowd and trying to raise the militancy and resiliency within it. We envision that agitators can work in pairs throughout the crowd, in coordination with each other and other parts of the group, with the goal of raising the temperature of the crowd, encouraging it to defend itself, or supporting any other goals. Working in pairs allows for immediate feedback if something seems not to be working, or working well, and also allows for better debriefing (and security). Of course, like with any other “role” there should be some fluidity – it’s not to say that only some specialized people will try to agitate the crowd while others don’t at all. Rather, it’s that some people would be focusing on this while others are focusing on other useful tasks.

A mass approach requires a higher level of coordination. If we’re serious about confronting fascism– and doing so in a way that allows for mass engagement and helps develop mass militancy– then we’ll need to get serious about group cohesion, group discipline, and accountability. As we mentioned above, at one point there was one person trying to “agitate” the crowd but who only succeeded in agitating them against the black bloc. The movement that we need now has to move beyond that kind of individual, unaccountable behavior.

Communications – One Big Signal Group isn’t working

It seems that the only plan for communication in Auburn was to put everybody who was coming into town on one Signal group, and leave it at that. What this meant was that there was a lot of confusing chatter and there was no plan about how to keep communication on essential topics. Furthermore, many of the people did not know each other, so it was often unclear who was giving certain information or ideas, there were a lot of texts like “Who is 867-5309?”, and there were times where it felt like the conversation was totally hijacked by one or two people. Furthermore, if we didn’t check it for a few minutes, there might be 100 messages waiting to be read. It wasn’t totally useless, but often close. This should be assessed before future actions. There should be plans for smaller communication groups over a variety of apps/mediums, including walkie talkie apps or physical walkie talkies, as well as people who are designated as “runners”. Of course, all of this requires actual organization ahead of time.

Avoiding false lessons

It’s Going Down wrote that “it was the ability of the police to control the crowd that allowed Spencer to speak – not the ability of the Alt-Right to hold their ground.” Although the article was generally good, we disagree with that point. We don’t think the police played the only critical role in controlling the crowd in this situation. Another major factor was the inability of antifascists to actually engage with the crowd. Berkeley and Auburn both require some serious self-criticism and evaluation of our strategies up to this point, and probably a total overhaul of the way we engage in anti-fascist organizing. We’ve tried to outline what we think are some key points above, and we’ll summarize them again.

First, to prevent fascism from “normalizing”, we have to “normalize” anti-fascism and make it something that people who are not already activists can identify with, and find a way to participate in.[21] We have to ditch the Black Black as a uniform. We have to assess each situation in its own context, but we think the default should be to dress like how we expect the crowd to dress, while keeping the bandannas in our back pockets.

Second, to keep fascism from developing a mass base, we need to build a mass base for anti-fascism. To a large degree that means organization, both in the day-to-day when we are not physically confronting fascists, and on the more tense days when we are. We should approach any confrontation with fascists by setting goals, and figuring out the strategy and tactics that will achieve them. This means being organized ahead of an action to apply that strategy. The Picket/Guard training from the General Defence Committee has a good framework for how to approach this.

We still have the possibility to develop a mass anti-fascist movement in the US. But time is not favoring us, and if we continue to apply old strategies like always showing up in black bloc, we will begin to see worse and more demoralizing defeats. On the other hand, if we develop our mass approach, we could end up being really surprised by how many people might be open to it. If even Southern, white football “bros” are open to running fascists out of town, then our approach and program could inspire and unite a lot more people than we expect.

[1] This piece was originally written and distributed locally. We are publicizing it in order to contribute to debate within the broader movement. At the time of writing, we had the benefit of a YouTube video made by two Auburn weight-lifting “bros” that reinforced many of our observations or suspicions. Unfortunately, that video has been removed. We have had to adjust some points as a result. “Tigertown” is another name for Auburn, after the mascot.

[2] Most anti-fascist events don’t have this kind of intermingling.. The usual events include two camps, both standing on opposite sides of a barricade, with at least one line of cops in between them.

[3] Many of the white men in the crowd were dressed like “Good ol’ boys”: Baseball caps, polo shirts, cargo shorts, and sandals. Most of the fascists were dressed the same. At the time we caught ourselves assuming that anyone dressed this way was conservative, but at several points they confronted the fascists most directly. (MAGA = Make America Great Again.)

[4] Some images show a good example: someone in all black holding an Anti-Fascist Action sign and staring stand-offishly into the distance behind black sunglasses, studiously avoiding interaction with anyone around them.

[5]The next most influential man in his state is probably Governor Robert Bentley. But Saban is Nos. 1 through 10 on the list of Alabama power brokers. He would be in the top 10 even without his three national titles with the Crimson Tide. The position itself—head football coach at Alabama—gives you a platform of power. But because of the program’s wild success, Saban is the best-liked person in the state. He has the most visible job in the state, and given the religiosity with which Alabamians apply themselves to college football, Saban now has another title: the pontiff of pigskin.Source.

[6] It is not clear how much of the crowd was aware of this when it happened or how much this contributed to student anger in the moment. Some of this observation is coming from reading comments on reddit.com/r/auburn. Or, as the students in the video said, “He said we shouldn’t watch football and came to Auburn – probably not a good idea.”

[7] Until recently, the only Left organizations that had even tried to build a presence in Alabama were Socialist Alternative and the IWW. (The IWW came close to establishing a branch, but many of the key members walked away in disgust over what they perceived as a bureaucratic, authoritarian, and distant attitude from the executive board when they were chartering in 2015.) Recently, it seems that the Socialist Party and DSA have built groups in Alabama as well.

Notes

[8] In the General Defense Committee’s Picket/Guard training, we learn to think of pickets, protests, or marches as a theatre performance, where many roles might be filled. In this case, we think that most anti-fascists generally tended to see people from Auburn as “spectators” of the theatre rather than participants in it; likewise, many students considered themselves spectators.

[9] “Squad vs Squad” or “Vanguard vs Vanguard” is shorthand for the kind of anti-fascism that was dominant in the 80s and 90s, where small, specialized groups of anti-fascist punks and skinheads engaged in street fights with small, specialized groups of fascist punks and skinheads. This is in contrast to “mass anti-fascism”, which focuses on organizing as broadly as possible within the community to oppose fascists.

[10] There are some interesting overlaps between agitation and “trolling” – this is beyond the scope of this piece, but worth thinking about, especially insofar as all of the time and energy that fascists spend trolling means that they are honing their agitational skills much more than we are.

[11] The content of what they were yelling was also problematic. In form, it was antagonistic towards the crowd, treating the crowd as antagonists towards the black bloc. In content, it was about how the black bloc was there to “protect marginalized communities that couldn’t protect themselves” – a racist and vanguardist attitude. At a recent debrief meeting, several of us agreed that we failed to intervene.

[12] It’s Going Down reported that the chant was “Alerta, Alerta, Antifascista,” but many of us heard it as “Atlanta”, and we suspect the crowd did as well. In contrast, we noticed that we got pretty good responses when we turned some of their football chants against Spencer. We might’ve missed a good opportunity for a “War Damn Antifa” banner.

[13] Several fascists have tried to claim that the crowd ran right through them, which is a lie. It’s true that some groups escaped attention and were able to walk away, but the crowd did chase after several Nazis, and those Nazis did eventually have to escape the crowd under police escort.

[14] We acknowledge that on this section in particular we are theorizing “blindly”. There are many question marks. Was it totally spontaneous? Were there networks (fraternities, for example) that weren’t visible to us that had planned for something like this? Did it start as a small scuffle that pulled in more students, or was there a large group ready to throw down already? Did any antifascists from outside Auburn play a role in the start of the scuffle? How much were the students looking to fight fascists, and how much would they have settled on any fight, for example with the black bloc?

[15] We spoke to many people who explained, “I’m here to see what’s going to happen. Some sh** might go down.” Some brought up the potential for scuffles between antifa-types and fascists; some planned to hit the bars after.

[16] This is part of why we think the threat of a brawl between antifa and the crowd was real. We also have to point out here or elsewhere that to many of the students, the anti-fascists looked much more like the fascists (especially the “Traditionalist Workers Party”, who were dressed in all black, with helmets, and keeping a bloc formation) than they looked like Auburn students. There were some times where even we couldn’t easily tell which side people were on.

[17] On the flipside – what would have happened if the students had had the “experience” of running antifascists out of town?

[18] This problem of people who attach themselves to a movement precisely because of its irrelevance is not new. Harvey Swados nails it perfectly in Standing Fast, his excellent novel about American Trotskyists in the ‘30s and ‘40s: “Let’s be frank,” Joe said. “There are guys who are in the Party now because we’re small. If we really grew, if we really became an influence, they’d flee.”

[19]Sometimes people talk about “grey bloc” but that isn’t quite the same. That’s more of a modified version of black bloc, and not what we’re proposing.

[20] Standing Fast also has some great descriptions of how agitators used to be trained deliberately, almost in an apprenticeship with an older, more experienced agitator.

[21] To be clear, we mean something more akin to “popularize.” When we say “normal” we put it in quotes because the concept of “normal” is gendered, sexualized, and racialized, and it’s used against people. We really mean “people that do not dress in black bloc at actions, do not identify with a certain politics, and are unfamiliar with the political scenes specific to many large US cities.”

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