This essay was originally published on August 20 2019.
Simultaneously, racism and white supremacism have assumed a new importance. President Donald Trump is a virulent racist and demagogue who consorts with white supremacists, praises them, gives them aid and comfort, and even includes them as high-ranking members of his campaign (Steve Bannon) and administration (Stephen Miller). The mass murder in El Paso by a self-identified white supremacist in August 2019 was a vivid and terrifying reminder of the rise in white supremacist activity, violence, and mass murder since Trump’s election. And Trump’s belated, tepid, and manifestly insincere response was a vivid and terrifying reminder that the U.S. government is being led by a white supremacist sympathizer whose base of voters, numbering in the many millions, is inspired by his racist messages.
In late August of this year, two events further underscored the frightening political valence of white supremacism in our politics. On a Saturday white supremacists associated with the Proud Boys , Patriot Prayer, and the Three Percenters marched in the streets of downtown Portland, in an “End Antifa” rally kept under control by an enormous police presence that largely succeeded in keeping the neo-fascist marchers separate from a much larger crowd of counter-protesters organized by Popular Mobilization, a coalition of anti-fascist groups. Also on Saturday, hours before this march, Donald Trump Tweeted this message: “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.” Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!” Trump’s point was clear: Antifa and not white supremacists are the real problem, indeed a “terrorist” threat; and the job of the government is to protect white supremacists from these dangerous left-wing Antifa “terrorists.”
The message was not lost on the fascist demonstrators. Proud Boys protest organizer Joe Biggs was clear in his post-rally comments: “Go look at President Trump’s Twitter. He talked about Portland, said he’s watching Antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success.”
And so it goes.
Portland is perhaps the epicenter of ideological conflict and violent confrontation between highly organized, well-armed, and often violent far-right fascist groups and antifascist groups that include self-identified Antifa. The situation there is highly charged. And, as the Intercept recently reported, elements within the Portland police department have played a role in this situation, through their alleged solicitude toward far-rightists and their harshness in dealing with their antifascist opponents.
But Portland is hardly alone in dealing with the politics of white supremacy. On the following day, a New York Times piece about the place where I live, Bloomington, Indiana, came as no surprise.
“Amid the Kale and the Corn, Fears of White Supremacy at the Farmers’ Market” reports on the controversy that has been raging here in recent months over whether or not one of the market’s vendors, Schooner Creek Farms, which has been linked to the so-called “white identity” movement, ought to be allowed to continue operating in the market. To make a long story very short, the vendors had been operating in the market for years without significant incident, but in the spring information about their ties to Identity Europa, a right-wing hate group, was made public. A group, “No Space for Hate: No Platform for White Supremacy,” was soon formed to publicize these ties and to organize a boycott of the vendor. A website was set up by the group to inform local citizens about the racist nature of “white identarianism” and the links between this movement and white supremacist violence. As the Times reports, there were a number of contentious public meetings. Many activists went beyond boycotting, to demand that the vendor be removed from the market. The city government refused to take this measure on the grounds that doing so would violate both the First Amendment and the contract all vendors sign with the market, which is run by the city.
The controversy intensified. The Times accurately and dispassionately describes its high point: “Anti-fascist protesters showed up one weekend dressed in black to stand in front of Schooner Creek Farm’s vegetable stall. A week later, armed members of a conservative militia group drove into Bloomington to support the farm against what they called `anti-fascist enemies.’” That same day a protestor carrying a sign denouncing racism in front of the vendor’s booth was arrested after being asked by police to leave (carrying political signs within the market center is contrary to market rules, a matter of some local controversy. There is extensive political activity permitted at the periphery of the market). The protestor was arrested, then quickly released, and all charges were dropped the following day: a brave civil disobedient, this person was subsequently outed by media and has since been the target of scurrilous threats. The armed members of the Three Percenter militia were not asked to leave or arrested, because according to Indiana’s absurd gun laws, carrying a licensed weapon is allowed virtually anywhere, and they were within the law.
At that point, the city decided to close the market for two weeks, to deescalate the sense of looming confrontation, and take appropriate security precautions to ensure a peaceful and safe situation, in which the vendor could stay open, boycotters and protestors could spread their message at the periphery of the market, and consumers could attend the market without fear. The logic behind the closure was publicly explained in an extraordinary speech by Mayor John Hamilton that centers on the difference between legal and moral responsibility, and is worth citing:
Two days ago, I announced that due to public safety concerns I was directing the cancellation of the Community Farmers’ Market for the next two Saturdays. I took this action based upon specific recommendations from our local public safety officials, and after consulting with others locally and nationally. It was a very painful decision to suspend our beloved Farmers’ Market — affecting hundreds of local farmers and family members and thousands of patrons and visitors — but it was necessary because our first obligation is to protect public safety.
Today I want to share some background of the decision, continue our ongoing conversations, and also begin to chart the path forward in light of current realities. We have work to do together, including more conversations to have, to move forward and reclaim our Community Farmers’ Market. Perhaps today’s Herald Times editorial put it best: we want our Farmers’ Market back.
With public safety as a top priority for any city administration, I begin by highlighting two major challenges to our ability to provide that public safety. Both are avoidable challenges, created by humans, by terrible policies and actions, but not under our local authority.
First is gun control. Let me state the obvious — when conflict and tension are present in public gatherings, it is dramatically more difficult to protect public safety when firearms and other weapons are also present and pervasive. If any here are familiar with the memoir “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun,” by Geoffrey Canada, you’ll recall that story among other things vividly and poignantly portrays how the presence of guns dramatically changes fights and conflict and culture. Our national laws, and particularly our Indiana laws, are disgraceful and endanger us and should be changed. Most directly here, they work to hamstring us locally from virtually any attempts to manage the presence of firearms at our Farmers’ Market. I have publicly opposed these dangerous laws and policies from my first day in office and that remains a priority.
Second is a toxic stew of bigotry and hatred, of intolerance and divisiveness, that is being brewed by many, all across the country, including our own President. I am ashamed, agitated, and angered, I’m furious, that coming from our White House are messages of bigotry and racism — we cannot hesitate to say so — that seek to affirm and foment those deep and dangerous parts of humanity, parts that civilization and enlightenment and progress work so hard to improve. I won’t give those words the dignity of repeating them here. We all have heard them. Shamefully, dangerously, evilly disrespecting four US Congresswoman of color. And also a great American city, once home to Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall. These are outrageous. And destructive. They are encouragement to those who are racist, disgruntled, who suffer from mental illness. A threat to public safety. We see far too many eruptions of violence from organized groups and from individuals, spurred on by this atmosphere of bigotry.
In dealing with potential local violence, among other things, we face these two terrible external realities of guns and a toxic national atmosphere. They affect our community and our Farmers’ Market, like they affect every community in America. And it’s worth noting, not only in America, but across the globe as authoritarian leaders foment hate and violence.
Amid these two external realities, locally we’ve also witnessed tension and conflict increasing in the market over the past several weeks. Despite intensive efforts from city staff and volunteers (and would you please join me in thanking city staff and volunteers who have worked so hard and with such dedication over the past weeks……) focusing our attention on the market, two days ago, our public safety officials reported to me information identifying threats of specific individuals with connections to past white nationalist violence. After discussion, we made the determination that protecting public safety required the two week suspension.
So another reality we have in Bloomington is the presence of the doctrine of white supremacy — its pervasive role in our collective history, and its presence still today. I realize that this does not jibe with the Bloomington many of us think of, that we are proud of, that we cherish. But as I said last month, we know and must continuously acknowledge that today’s more progressive Bloomington has grown through our 200-year history in a soil laced with the toxin of racism. Like our state and our country, our community was long home to both overt and covert white supremacy, built in our laws, culture and mores. That doctrine and system of beliefs is still a scourge on our community and country. It demands and deserves unqualified condemnation and vigorous opposition.
Thank goodness so many Bloomingtonians, and I count myself among them, have worked and do work against that scourge, striving to repair damage done over generations, seeking to quell revivals or uprisings of the bigotry and hate that can appear among us, and envisioning our community moving forward from that past. Our community is indeed dedicated to inclusion, and welcoming all. That is part of our local DNA now. But we have to recognize that legacies and remainders and reminders persist, in us and among us. And at our Farmers’ Market.
As a community, then, one thing we must do together is fight against racism and bigotry and their legacies, wherever they arise, including at our Farmers’ Market. Like many, I have spoken out condemning connections to white supremacy in our market. We know active community members have organized education and advocacy campaigns, as well as economic responses including boycotts, and I am fully supportive of those efforts. As I’ll talk about more in a minute, it takes a community to respond to these challenges.
As a city government we also must fight to protect and defend our constitution. That document, and the ideals that inspire it, the principles contained in it, more than anything define our country. As a mayor, I swear to uphold our constitution in my work. The First Amendment certainly allows a mayor to speak out forcefully against white supremacy and work against racial injustice in all its forms. The First Amendment also prohibits using the coercive power of government in response to the content of individual speech or thoughts, even those odious to our community. It means not punishing individuals with government action because of the content of their beliefs or statements. We don’t police your thoughts. The First Amendment prohibits government from that, and any actions to the contrary could just result in civil money awards to organizations we certainly don’t want to support.
Let me directly address the arrest last Saturday of a protestor against white supremacy — whose spirit and goals I certainly share. As is widely known, longstanding market rules prohibit flyers or placards in certain areas. Protesters have been complying with those rules for weeks, leafletting and educating at entrances to the market. The First Amendment requires our government to enforce this rule in a viewpoint neutral manner, regardless whether a sign advocates something that I as mayor, and our own government and the vast majority of us supports, such as denouncing white nationalism, or whether it’s a sign we find abhorrent like favoring white nationalism. Or a sign for or against a woman’s right to choose, or any sign at all. That even-handed approach to enforcing market rules regarding protest is constitutionally required, and resulted in the actions last Saturday.
So what comes next? Where do we go from here? As I said at the outset, given the threat of violence that has required this pause, we have more work to do, conversations to have, knowledge to gain. What happened over the last two months has gone beyond our local control, in a sense, as some of these external realities and other forces combined to threaten our community’s safety. We need to reclaim our market.
There is a key role for city government. We will protect public safety at the market. And manage and run the market for the vendors and patrons, in a way that reflects our city and our values. We have to examine, together, whether and how we can do that better, including with next year’s vendor contracts and agreements. We have to understand all the nuances of constitutional boundaries. In the immediate two weeks, we will be improving programming, increasing staff and volunteer presence, and enhancing safety procedures at the market. But we certainly don’t know all the answers. We welcome ideas about how best to do our work, as we gather in coming days. That will include ongoing convenings with some national experts to help us respond effectively and safely to the situation we face.
There is a key, perhaps more essential, role for the community at large. Our Farmers Market doesn’t belong to the City government. It belongs to the community. It has for 45 years. Our market has been damaged. Attendance has recently declined 50%. Repair won’t be simple or easy. The City government will play our role, but recovery will absolutely depend upon the community embracing the market, as individuals and as organizations, to help restore it to the thriving central place we want it to play on our summer Saturdays.
Many individuals and organizations have been embracing the market, seeking to protect it and help it — help us — move ahead. Even in the past two days, we’ve seen heartwarming efforts from folks identifying new options for vendors for the coming two weekends, offering their spaces as alternate venues. We saw a beautiful bustling Tuesday market yesterday. United Way and Downtown Bloomington Inc and others are offering help. This is Bloomington, pulling together to get through challenges. We collaborate and cooperate. Please keep your eyes out for a list of those alternative spaces, and go patronize our hard-working farmers, who’ve already dealt with crop loss this year due to a very wet spring.
My office and Parks and Recreation welcome any and all ideas and suggestions about the best steps to take. We will be announcing more gatherings and more plans in coming days. I encourage, and expect, many of you, individually and in groups, to manifest your support for the market and this community too, with your own gatherings and your own collaborative efforts.
Our goal is to reopen and restore the market as a place that reflects Bloomington’s best, and that reflects our values. In other contexts we’ve talked about our Safe, Civil, and Just community. That’s what the market should be too. We know that safe civil and just doesn’t necessarily mean tranquil. It doesn’t mean always easy or comfortable. It means physically safe. It means civil and just, meaning respectful and inclusive, equitable and fair. It also should be fun. When we reopen the market it will be because our community embraced the market as something we believe in and will not let go.
Take a deep breath. Look around you. This is Bloomington, and this is one of our challenges to meet. It’s a community market. With community challenges. That we will meet with community solutions. This is Bloomington. We got this.
The following Saturday the market reopened without incident. But a small number of vendors and protestors and their supporters refused to participate in the market so long as Schooner Creek remained, and they set up an alternative venue. Efforts continue to pressure the market to remove the vendor, and the controversy continues to divide the politically active members of the community.
In recent weeks there has also been some KKK leafleting in Bloomington. This is not the first time. And as reprehensible as it is, it is also unsurprising, because Bloomington is a small liberal “oasis” in Southern Indiana, in a state with a history of racism and KKK activism. We also live at a time when white supremacist networks are national and global, promoted by the appropriately named “world-wide web” and given succor by the current President of the United States. Bloomington is not Portland. There is no history of violent confrontation here, and no history of police complicity with the far right. Indeed, while there are far right groups operating in Southern Indiana — the notorious Matt Heimbach organized his neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party from his home in Paoli, Indiana, a mere 45 miles south of Bloomington — there do not appear to be any active white supremacist groups in town.
But white supremacism is obviously a danger everywhere. Having lived in Southern Indiana for over three decades, having been actively involved in an earlier iteration of the current controversy about community responses to hate in Bloomington, and having played a role in providing security to the local synagogue at a time when it was vulnerable, I have never doubted this.
And so it is important to be crystal clear: white supremacism is evil, and it ought to be politically challenged and opposed through all lawful means, by civil society groups and by government. Local, state, and national governments have a duty to treat it as the danger that it is: to monitor it; to promote vigorous public education and communication against it; to make sure that all law enforcement personnel are properly trained to deal with it; and to work proactively to provide an environment of safety and civility for all citizens as they go about their daily lives, with a special concern for those citizens who are most vulnerable to racism. And all of this ought to be superintended by a Justice Department that is serious about civil rights enforcement and equality before the law. In other words, these things are inextricably linked to the defeat of Trump in 2020.
The effort of white supremacist groups to justify themselves as forms of “self-defense” against Antifa ought to be exposed and condemned, and President Trump’s recent Tweet about Antifa ought also to be condemned for what it is: a way of supporting white supremacy.
Antifa is not a “terrorist” organization, in the first instance, because it is not an “organization” at all. It is a movement of sorts, a loose network of groups, mostly locally based, that are linked by a common commitment to employing direct action techniques to oppose fascist groups that are often highly organized, coordinated, armed, and actively violent.
While white supremacist organizations exist to exclude, harass, and harm those deemed to be “not white,” and have a strong and explicitly racist agenda (so-called “alt right” language about “not hating non-whites but loving white identity” notwithstanding), Antifa groupings seek to react to and to counter such organizations, and are explicitly motivated by a commitment to anti-racism. This difference matters, a point developed in an excellent essay by Peter Beinart published two years ago in the Atlantic.
Most importantly, while Antifa groups definitely promote a style of in-your-face direct action and “no-platforming” that has some of the trappings of violence, and have sometimes engaged in acts of vandalism and even violence (this weekend’s “End Antifa” march in Portland was promoted as a response to a July 3 attack on far-right journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo by Black Bloc-clad Antifa, an attack that has been blown out of proportion by right-wing media but which definitely took place), there has not be a single killing linked to Antifa.
To call Antifa “a terrorist organization” is not simply false. It is absurd. And it is itself an act of racist provocation, as well as representing a serious threat of repression. And especially because of the amorphousness of “Antifa,” such a designation would surely serve as a pretext for a much broader targeting of left groups and activists in the resistance to Trumpism.
The real, serious danger today comes from the far right, which can be legitimately described as a “terror network” of national and indeed global proportions, which actively promotes violence, and which must be taken seriously as a source of violence.
But to say that Antifa is not equivalent to white supremacist organizations, and is not a “terror organization,” is not to say that Antifa is good. In my opinion Antifa is not good, even if it is not as bad as the racists it opposes.
Non-violent direct action and civil disobedience is one thing. Verbal incitement, vandalism, in-your-face threats, and physical intimidation are something else. Something that can easily get out of hand, and escalate in violent ways that serve no good purpose.
In my opinion the situation at the Bloomington Farmers’ Market is a case in point.
The Schooner Creek vendors are clearly associated with Identity Europa, a white supremacist organization. Their claim that they are “white identarians” but not “white supremacists” could be a lie or dissimulation, or it could be a symptom of the kind of susceptibility to white supremacist double-speak that is surely common among many who use this language and identify with racism (David Graham has just published an important piece on this in the Atlantic). Whether they think of themselves as racists or not, there is no doubt that they associate with a racist organization that promotes racist ideas, they participate in racist discussions, and in this sense at least they are racist. Their affiliations and beliefs are objectionable, wrong, and reprehensible. The boycott of their vegetable stand is an admirable effort, a civil society effort, to let them know that the Bloomington community does not share or support those beliefs, does not welcome their proponents, and expresses solidarity with those who are threatened by talk of “white identity” and “white nationalism.”
At the same time, the notion that their presence at the market represented a clear and present danger, and their removal represented an act of “de-nazification,” as a recent Daily Beast piece suggested, seems wrong. For there was nothing “Nazi” about their stand, whatever the vendors themselves had in their heads as they went about the business of selling their vegetables. It is one thing to say “we want our Farmers’ Market to be a place of equal respect and dignity, and we will not patronize people who are known to be racists, and we hope that our boycott will cause them to leave — ‘No space for hate.’” It is another thing to try to coerce or intimidate them to leave.
When the Antifa showed up at the Schooner Creek booth, clad in Black Bloc garb, a line was crossed. It doesn’t matter that the effort was motivated by anti-racism. It doesn’t matter that some of the protestors might have been heartened by their presence. It doesn’t matter that they apparently did not do anything but stand there menacingly. For their presence was an effort to intimidate the vendors and potential customers. See for yourself.
Does that look like robust democratic citizenship or egalitarian public assembly to you? Those people were there to intimidate. Period.
And so, rather predictably, the next week a bunch of Three Percenters showed up with holstered pistols, claiming to be there “in defense” of the freedom of the vendors:
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this self-described “patriot.” He would hardly be the first American to organize a “citizens’ militia” or “posse comitatus” as a form of “self-defense” against the so-called “tyranny” of a government intent on enforcing civil rights. He too might be sincere in imagining himself to be neither a “racist” or a “white supremacist,” but a Jeffersonian patriot and latter-day Minuteman defending aggrieved white people, a perspective promoted both by Trump and by the NRA. And yet he is a leader of an organization that is dedicated to defending Americans (which Americans?) from “Obama,” that strongly supports Trump, that participates in white supremacist rallies throughout the United States, and whose members have committed many violent, racist acts. And he has a gun on his hip.
This affable guy is a dangerous racist, and he leads an organization of armed right-wing extremists.
Antifa did not cause him to be what he is, nor did it cause his group to come into existence. The Three Percenters are the latest in a long line of right-wing, racist “Patriot” groups, and many of these groups have long been in existence in this state, as they have been in many states in the region, and throughout the country.
But he and his group did not appear on the scene at the Farmers’ Market, or anywhere in Bloomington, until after Antifa appeared the previous week. That is a fact. And it was the synergy between the two groups that turned a tense situation over a boycott into a dangerous flash point.
In a just-published piece in the Nation, “ White Supremacy is Terrorism, Not a Difference of Opinion: An Indiana city learns that a weak response to white supremacists has predictable consequences ,” Ed Burmila takes the city government to task for not acting decisively against the Schooner Creek vendors, who he regards not simply as people with vile opinions and associations but as terrorists:
The same ways the City would prevent a street gang or a terrorist organization from participating in such a community event — on the grounds that they are dangerous groups that regularly engage in violent crimes — could and should have been leveraged against people involved in Identity Evropa. Instead, the City did nothing. Doing nothing emboldens white supremacists, and tacitly communicates that their actions will be tolerated up to a clear line: Just don’t shoot anyone, and we’ll leave you alone.
Here’s the problem: the couple who run Schooner Creek Farm are not a street gang or a terrorist organization, and there is no evidence that they have conspired with a terrorist organization or planned to commit any crime. They participate in far-right chat groups and have some racist friends (I believe they also have non-racist friends. A longtime Bloomingtonian, a progressive, shared with me that he was very surprised to learn about their racist ties, because for years they had seemed like nice people; a similar story is recounted here, and it is worth reading in all of its nuance) and sell vegetables. What should the city have done about this given the fact that they were in violation of no laws and the Mayor of Bloomington is no Xi Jinping or Recep Erdogan? Further, what was the implicitly horrible “predictable consequence” that indeed unfolded as a result of the city’s refusal to forbid them? There was no violence. There was no neo-Nazi march in town. The Farmers’ Market soon reopened without incident and with strong attendance (I know; I was there). No Space for Hate is still displeased, as is its right, and it is continuing to press for alternative arrangements. And life goes on. Contentious politics in a fragile and flawed democracy.
There was a real danger of violence. That danger was the product of a situation that involved an unfortunate Antifa escalation of tension. If there was any predictable consequence, it was this: if you get in the face of bad people with bad friends who have guns, it is likely that those bad friends are going to show up tomorrow. This was the danger, a danger not taken seriously by the Antifa people, at least in terms of its likely consequences for the ordinary people who congregate every Saturday at the market to buy and sell produce and crafts and to see their friends. And this danger was averted, as a consequence of caution, and forbearance, from a wide variety of individuals and groups, and especially government officials. And it is a good thing when such danger is averted.
To say this is not to imply that there is no “everyday violence” in the everyday lives of many citizens, people of color (are Jewish people threatened by neo-Nazis “people of color?”), poor people, immigrants. But there is a big difference between the indignities of everyday life in a Southern Indiana college town and pogroms, gang clashes, or mass shootings, things which did not and do not occur here. Bloomington has long billed itself “a safe and civil city.” I have problems with this slogan; there are limits to the rhetoric of “civility.” But I am relieved that things remain safe. A civil war would not be so good.
Of course this maintenance of “the peace” does not “solve” the problem of white supremacism in Southern Indiana, nor does it solve the broader problems of racism and injustice that plague American society. Those are big political problems that require big political solutions. They represent real challenges for cities and their police forces and social service agencies, for states, and for the federal government in Washington, D.C.
To say this is not to issue a blanket condemnation of a politics of confrontation — though there is a difference between this and sheer thuggery. Natasha Lennard, writing not long ago in the Nation, in a piece entitled “It’s Time to Make Nazis Afraid Again,” noted that “Antifa is a promise to neo-Nazis and their bedfellows that we will confront them in the streets; we will expose them online and inform their place of employ. We are not asking venues to deny space to far-right events; we are vowing that all far-right events will be bombarded and besieged.” In this piece, and in her recently-published book, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, Lennard offers a nuanced discussion of the different tactics for resisting fascism in daily life and in collective action. There may be times and places where the tactics described above make sense, in response to real dangers of actual violence, and in situations where there is good reason not to trust that police will enforce the law fairly (though I am deeply skeptical that in any constitutional democracy like the U.S. it ever makes sense to organize violence, even in the face of an unjust police force). But there are great dangers to these tactics, especially when they cross the line from metaphorical to actual “besieging,” and these dangers are exemplified by what has transpired in Bloomington.
One danger is that the exemplary effort to publicize and contest “white supremacy” can become overwhelmed by what Loretta Ross, writing last week in the New York Times in another related context, recently referred to as the “toxicity” of “call out culture.” A veteran social justice activist, Ross notes that it is easier to identify and denounce enemies than it is to do the hard work of building support for social justice among adversaries and potential allies. And she wonders “if contemporary social movements have absorbed the most useful lessons from the past about how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work. Can we avoid individualizing oppression and not use the movement as our personal therapy space?” While I think the efforts of Bloomington’s No Space for Hate have been exemplary in publicizing and contesting “white supremacy,” I also think that this campaign took on a life of its own in a way that simplified the issues at stake, and exaggerated both the danger posed by the Schooner Creek Farm vegetable stand and the righteousness of the protestors themselves (at the same time, nothing justifies the threats that have been made against the protestors; these threats are outrageous and they should be investigated and prosecuted). I am not worrying about the feelings of the Schooner Creek vendors here, nor am I worried about whether an opportunity for “mutual understanding” with the white supremacists and their friends was foreclosed. I am not in favor of seeking political dialogue with white supremacists . But I do believe that political dialogue within the broader political community is necessary if there is to be any productive outcome beyond the doxing of a few individuals. And I doubt that the approach pursued here thus far lends itself to such a broader political process of addressing racism or other forms of injustice.
Indeed, as the controversy here has unfolded, it is not simply the vendors who have been denounced as Nazis. The Bloomington city government and police force have been denounced by some as “complicit” in white supremacy if not themselves racist, because they have placed “law enforcement” over “antifascism.” And a great many liberals in the community who have sought to deescalate the situation have been called out for their “white privilege” and their “insensitivity” to “people of color.” When this happens, real political discussion becomes reduced to a question of simple and reductive “identity,” and liberal progressives are turned into “enemies” of a purist left. There are two problems with this. One is that no one authorized the purists to speak on behalf of “people of color,” and a great many people of color do not wish to sign onto to that particular political agenda — which the presence of many people of color at last week’s Farmers’ Market demonstrated. The second is simply that possibilities for broader political debate and dialogue within the community are foreclosed when arguments become reduced to questions of racial or class identity and to one’s essential innocence or guilt.
And at the same time that certain enemies are imagined, other, real enemies — like really dangerous armed and trained white supremacists — are not treated with the seriousness that they deserve. The intimidation tactics of the Antifa who surrounded the vendor are one good example; they were playing with fire. And then, when the fire came the following week, some of the protestors really did not know what to do. The day that the Three Percenters came to town was also the day that the civil disobedient carrying the anti-racist sign was arrested. Eight Bloomington police officers participated in the arrest. Facebook immediately lit up with angry comments: “how dare the police send eight officers to arrest the one peaceful protestor while doing nothing about the armed Three Percenters around her.” Here’s the thing: the eight police officers surrounded the one peaceful protester precisely because she was one peaceful protestor surrounded by a bunch of angry, armed white supremacists who were fully within their rights according to Indiana law and yet who were very dangerous. The police were trying to defuse the situation and protect the protestor and others who might be endangered if the situation escalated further. How do I know this? Well, it just so happens that through my work twenty years ago with another Bloomington anti-hate group, Bloomington United, I came to know the local police chief and some of his top officers. One of them told me. But he didn’t have to tell me. Because it was obvious, just as it is obvious that a city government that was not supportive of anti-racist protest would not immediately release the protestor and drop all charges and have the mayor express admiration for the protestor in a public speech.
There are real dangers posed by white supremacists to their target populations, to civil society at large, and to democracy. Some forms of concrete social self-defense might sometimes be necessary. As I wrote last October, after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, security measures, perhaps including trained, armed civilian guards, are an appropriate response for vulnerable synagogues, mosques, and churches in places where there is an upsurge of KKK activity or a palpable threat of white supremacist violence. Other forms of civilian monitoring are also appropriate. But such efforts do not constitute a public policy. They are no substitute for gun control, or for public policies to address racism or sexism or gender discrimination or rural despair or injustice. They are no substitute for healthy relationships between communities everywhere and professional law enforcement officers. They are surely no substitute for organizing politically to defeat Trumpism. They may make perfect sense as limited forms of self-defense within the boundaries of the law. But they do not constitute a politics.
The United States is a deeply flawed constitutional democracy in danger of being further abridged by the current occupant of the White House. But it is still a constitutional democracy. Governments can be changed, and policies reformed, through normal political processes — competitive elections, intergovernmental bargaining and policymaking, and litigation — and through more “extraordinary” forms of dissent, protest, and even civil disobedience, that are within the law. There is much injustice to fight, and the deck is stacked against the effort (I published a book on this over thirty years ago). But the U.S. is not Syria or China or Turkey or Somalia, and neither Bloomington nor Portland is Kashmir or Hong Kong or Gaza or the New York city depicted in Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York. Citizens are free, within limits to be sure, to organize, and to associate, and to demand change through legal means. Precisely because racism and white supremacy have deep roots and are not a matter of individuals, the only way to effectively challenge these things in a political sense is through legal and political means.
Antifa is not a threat to U.S. democracy. White supremacists are. And a President who offers them inspiration and encouragement is an even greater threat.
But neither is Antifa an appropriate or representative form of democratic response to these threats. By minimizing the importance of the rule of law, it exaggerates the danger of the far right, while simultaneously underestimating the risks, to public safety and to broad public appeal, associated with an escalation of conflict. The current situation in Bloomington is a useful case study of how a community can respond to white supremacy in its midst. But, contrary to its critics, it is not a story of feckless and inadequate government response to a clear and present racist danger. It is a story of how a righteous protest can take on a life of its own, generating unintended and potentially violent consequences, and of how fragile, and how important, is the rule of law, especially at a time of Trumpist authoritarianism.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (New York: Public Seminar Books, 2018). You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.