Charlottesville: fighting white supremacists

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President Trump’s defence of white supremacists following the 11 August confrontation between racist neo-fascist groups and anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, continues to create divisions within the US ruling class. While Trump seeks to reassure his reactionary electoral base that he remains committed to their interests, major sections of the ruling class are horrified that his stance will merely stoke the fires of class opposition. They do not care about the daily racism experienced by people of colour: their concern is to restore conditions of profitability on the backs of the working class with the minimum of resistance. AMY LIU reports from Phoenix, Arizona.

The spark for the events in Charlottesville was a decision by the local council to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War and a renowned racist and slave owner. Like most statues of Confederate leaders in the southern US states, it was put up in the early years of the last century as a symbol of white supremacy in the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws. White supremacist and neo-fascist organisations announced their intention to congregate at the statue to defend it as part of their goal ‘to take America back’. On 11 August, 200 of them marched in downtown Charlottesville wearing Nazi armbands, waving Confederate flags, carrying the tiki torches long associated with the Ku Klux Klan, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ and other racist slogans. The Confederacy, which fought to maintain slavery, still lives in the hearts of the 'alt-right' to this day, although it claims that it is only a matter of preserving an important heritage.

Anti-fascist and socialist organisations mobilised alongside local community groups and Black Lives Matter to oppose the racists. There were running battles with the fascists which continued even after one of them drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing Heather Heyer, a local paralegal and IWW member, and injuring 20 other anti-fascists. In a separate incident, a 20-year-old black man, Deandre Harris, was beaten by white supremacists with metal poles, leaving him in the hospital with severe head injuries. Eyewitness Taryn Fivek of Workers World Party recounts: ‘We were also facing 1,500 cops and National Guard who were mobilised against us, not there for our protection. And there were heavily armed militia forces... They were on the same side as the police and the state.’ Police also used armoured vehicles to control the anti-fascists. However, Jason Kessler, the organiser of the far-right rally, was chased off by protesters when he tried to hold a press conference after the rally, and Richard Spencer, a renowned Neo-Nazi who was scheduled to hold another rally at Texas A&M University, had to cancel the event for fear of counter-protests. 

However, it was Trump’s response to the events that turned it into a major political embarrassment for the US ruling class. Firstly, it took him 48 hours to make any statement, and when it came, he blamed both sides for the events, condemning what he called ‘hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides’, repeating the phrase ‘on many sides’ for emphasis. This refusal to directly criticise the white supremacists proved too much for chief executives on his business advisory councils who started to announce their resignations from 14 August. After claiming that there were queues of CEOs wanting to serve on these committees, Trump was forced to disband them as replacement volunteers failed to materialise. Pushed to denounce the neo-Nazis, Trump almost immediately back-tracked at a press conference on 16 August where he again blamed both sides, and claimed that ‘not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch’, and that what he called ‘alt-left’ groups were ‘very, very violent’ in Charlottesville. He then emphasised that in his view there were ‘many fine people’ among the white supremacist protesters.

Applause for Trump’s stance from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke merely added to the dismay of Republican leaders: one by one they sought to distance themselves from the president. Among them were Attorney General Jeff Sessions who called Heyer’s murder a terrorist act, as well as former Presidents Bush senior and junior, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney who wanted Trump to apologise for ‘making racists rejoice’ and Senate leader Mitch McConnell who declared ‘there are no good neo-Nazis’. The Democrats also weighed in, sensing an opportunity to further undermine Trump’s position. Even AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had to distance himself from Trump: the self-serving and reactionary union leader ($300,000 annual salary) had also been a member of a Trump advisory committee. Burnishing anti-racist credentials is simple for bourgeois politicians when it comes to condemning openly racist neo-Nazis or white supremacists – but that does not extend to attacking brutal racist policing, or the appalling treatment of migrant workers let alone US imperialism’s wars abroad. The record of the Obama administration was one of intensifying repression against migrants crossing the Mexican borders and an accelerating rate of deportations of undocumented people.

The explosion of anger at Heyer’s murder among working class people is sowing the seeds for the development of a real anti-racist movement. Three days after Charlottesville, protesters took down a Confederate statue in Durham, capital of North Carolina, a state fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After eight people were arrested, more than 100 people turned themselves over to the police as an act of solidarity, supported by hundreds more. The action was led by members of the Workers World Party: Lamont Lilly, vice presidential candidate of the party, said: ‘It was a community all together who did that — which was responsible for that toppling of racism. But it takes a movement, it takes a mass of people to support that and keep the movement sustainable.’

Meetings and rallies in support of Charlottesville have taken place throughout the US, and have started to reveal the divisions that exist within the movement. Some 600 people attended one in Phoenix. It frequently seemed no more than a feel-good event. When a black woman urged white people ‘to put their bodies and careers on the line in every space, and their life on the line’, because this was the daily experience of black people faced with police brutality, another participant argued ‘I encourage them [the left] to speak out and be peaceful, come up with a strategy and attack the problem at its root, and that's government. If we're not going out to vote and putting ourselves in position of government to make change, you can protest all you want but you won't change the system.’ A local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People said ‘more incidents like Charlottesville will happen again, so we have to educate and organise and show more people are against the alt right and the Trump administration’ as if the Democrats were not part of the problem. By contrast, Antifa leader Eric Holden said there needed to be a class war: ‘People are dying because they are indiscriminately killing people left and right with the use of police terrorism’; yet when he called for a mobilisation to stop an alt-right Make America Great Again Fest planned for 7 October, someone shouted ‘We have to be peaceful, though!’

The fact is that the strategy of liberals and their methods of defeating fascism through voter turnout and peaceful discussion reveals more about the privilege of middle class white people. Their desire to stay peaceful even in the face of thugs who want to systematically erase parts of the population based on skin colour, gender, sexuality, shows that the working class must find independent means to create change. Liberal politics is not enough. The situation is changing. Trump’s support is at an all-time low; even before Charlottesville it was only 22% amongst millennials (those who came of age from the turn of the century) whereas 62% opposed him. Organisations like the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation are showing that campaigning out on the streets and taking a resolute working class standpoint is the way forward.

Charlottesville eyewitness: ‘Sticking together to battle white supremacy’

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Workers World Party comrade Taryn Fivek's eyewitness account from the counterprotest of the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Virginia, on 12 August, which ended in the brutal murder of IWW comrade Heather Heyer (originally posted on workers.org).

Sent to scout ahead where people were forming up to march, my comrade Nate and I were consulting with a journalist we knew in the street. Suddenly there was a very loud noise, which I first thought was a bomb, followed by a lot of screaming. The noise turned out to be the sound of a car hitting bodies not more than 15 feet from us.

After the car hit the bodies, the Klansman put the car in reverse and you could see the car was totaled from hitting the bodies at high speed. He also slammed into two cars parked along the street, waiting to go. It seemed as though the people in those cars were also in shock. I saw someone comforting an elder, a Black woman, in one of the cars, like she might be having a heart attack.

I looked at the scene and tried to determine who might need help the most and ran to a woman, who later we found out was Heather Heyer, to try to keep people from moving her. I could see by the way her eyes were moving that she had suffered severe injury to her spine and head, and shouldn’t be moved.

Your judgment of time in moments like these is never accurate, but it seemed to me it took a long time for the paramedics to arrive.  I don’t think there were people there who were qualified to deal with that level of trauma. Heather, who was a 32-year-old paralegal worker and a staunch anti-racist from Charlottesville, died. Others were gravely injured.

The slow-moving emergency crews were just another example of what we in the anti-racist counterdemonstration were aware of: The state was out in force to protect the Klan and Nazis, not to save the anti-racist demonstrators.

Cops and Klan work together

The left outnumbered the Klan scum and Nazis in the streets. But we were also facing 1,500 cops and National Guard who were mobilized against us, not there for our protection. And there were heavily armed militia forces, looking like they were just back from Iraq, with automatic weapons, sidearms and hunting knives. They were on the same side as the police and the state.

We had to realize we’re not facing just the more extreme and unpopular figures like Jason Kessler or David Duke, and the Nazi-like characters who follow them, but we were facing the imperialist state. We need to overthrow the system. The system that incubates and helps these Klan terrorists flourish.

The anti-fascist forces in Charlottesville were diverse. Various Christian groups were involved, some clergy, as well as anarchists and people from a lot of different tendencies. A huge diversity of people were there, including from the African-American community. Local people, even those who were not in the streets with us, were supportive, honking their horns at us and our banners.

As far as I saw, we were the only revolutionary Marxist tendency there for the entire day. Other tendencies like the Democratic Socialists of America showed up in the afternoon, and some were in the streets near where the car struck.

Given the balance of forces, the crowd of our people, the militant left forces, acted in a defensive way the entire day — at least up until the murder. The Klan and Nazis, on the other hand, knew they could act with impunity. They knew they had the state backing them up.

During the day a dozen racists jumped on and beat a Black youth, Deandre Harris, with clubs and kicks, injuring him severely, without intervention from the police.

Our side knew we faced the hostility not only of the Klan and Nazis but also of the state. I admire the fact that everyone in the movement acted in a defensive way, confronting the racists where necessary but not recklessly.

Attack angers anti-racists

After the car attack, however, the idea that the left would tolerate racist speech or behavior disappeared. People were furious, lost all fear and no longer held back.

A Klansman walked through the crowd, where people had blood on them, with a “Make America great again” hat on, and someone came out of nowhere and sucker-punched him. I saw Klansmen getting confederate flags torn out of their hands.

People didn’t care any more. They spit in the face of the racists and that scared the Klan. They were terrified. So the racists snuck into the parking garage and slipped out of town because they knew how angry the people were.

A lot of the Nazi-Klan program was shut down. I saw a video of a press conference, and what looked to be locally based white elders just shut it down. We know that decent people of all types will come out against the Klan and Nazis, but it’s important that these same good people make the connection between the Klan and the Nazis and the state that allows the racists to act with impunity.

We’re angry too at the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), which appeared in court to allow these Nazis to come into the street against the wishes of the local people. So it wound up that the cops were there to protect the Klan. They watched as the racists threw rocks, maced us, threw bricks at us and finally killed Heather. It was not just a question of abstract free speech.

Workers World Party participation

The WWP contingent from three different branches — New York, Baltimore and Durham, N.C. — with many friends from other areas, including nearby Roanoke, Va., numbered at times 50 or more people, and acted in a coordinated way. Our political approach could be seen in the big, colorful banner, reading, “Make racists afraid again; Smash white supremacy!”  We were vibrant, loud, unashamed.

The contingent was courageous and multinational, youth and elders alike. That gave me — and I’m sure others, too — confidence and courage because of how we stuck together, had each other’s backs, made decisions after a democratic discussion and then followed the leadership.

That our tactics were coordinated turned out to be a really wise approach, especially when Nate and I were sent ahead. That’s when the car struck the people. There are no guarantees, but WWP does its best to plan its tactics as best as possible and not just do spontaneous actions. The decades of experience in street action is passed between the generations of WWP comrades. We make sure to do things intentionally and consciously.

Nate and I were in touch with the comrades responsible for our group. They asked us to come back to the delegation, so we left with them that night. It helped so much to be in the midst of our comrades’ solidarity.

Some in the WWP delegation from Durham stayed to make sure any of the anti-racists who might have been arrested were able to make bail. We feel this solidarity with all anti-fascist fighters.

US: Trump administration in chaos

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Divisions in the US ruling class are becoming more open as the Trump administration faces the impossible task of dealing with the US’s position as a relatively declining imperialist power in an unending economic crisis. In a few weeks, Trump has managed to alienate sections of his own party, attacked his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and pushed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer into resigning his post. He has isolated the US on climate change by withdrawing from the Paris Accord. He has criticised South Korea and China for steel dumping, and condemned the EU for protectionism. Organised working class resistance is needed. The recently-announced People’s Congress of Resistance is offering a way forward as a movement of principled opposition, and hopes to mobilise widespread support by the time it convenes in Washington in September.

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Organising behind bars to fight prison slavery

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Pelican Bay hunger strike protest

If there is one thing that I learned in my time inside, it is that prisons cannot function without the labour of prisoners. We cook the food, maintain the gardens, clean the wings, work at reception, do the laundry, pack the canteen bags…Without us, prisons could not afford the cost of keeping us imprisoned. Ironic isn’t it? It has inspired me to see, therefore, recent prisoner resistance in the United States. Across the country, prisoners have started to recognise the system’s economic dependence on them. Nicole Vosper of the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) writes.

In 2013, the largest hunger strike in recorded history took place in California. More than 30,000 participants effectively ended solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison. This huge victory is as a result of prisoner organising. With mass incarceration so linked to for-profit prison industries, prisoners now have more opportunities for leverage than ever, and are moving beyond hunger strikes to withdrawing their labour as well.

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Free Leonard Peltier!

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June 1975: Two FBI agents enter Jumping Bull, Pine Ridge Reservation, to question a man over an alleged theft of a pair of boots. A fire fight breaks out which lasts 8-10 hours. Both agents are killed. Leonard Peltier, who was present at the scene, flees to Canada. The shootout sparks the biggest FBI manhunt known to date.

June 2017: Leonard Peltier is serving two consecutive life sentences for first degree murder of the two agents. He is 72 years old. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the European Parliament and Amnesty International have all said they consider him to be a political prisoner, who had an unfair trial, and have called for an urgent appeal.

Divide and rule

The Native American community in the 1970s was divided between those supporting the government-backed Bureau of Indian affairs (BIA) and the ‘traditionalists’, who opposed it. Established in 1824, the BIA provided contract and grant-based assistance for matters such as education, social services and infrastructure. Its critics maintain that it was funded with the specific purpose of destroying their language and land, and that its priority was assimilation. It is a misconception of reservation life to imagine that Indians can live easily on the money from the land lease agreements and the bleak reality of reservation life is one of absolute grinding poverty, with essentials such as petrol and bread completely unaffordable. I personally witnessed some of this devastation myself when I visited a Blackfoot reservation in the Rockies, writes Leah Jai-Persad.

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