Political movements have often faced threats of physical violence from forces of oppression. So, in this episode, I’ll be looking at some ways you can get involved in community self-defense and talking to some folks currently involved in self-defense projects. There’s a trigger warning this episode. I’ll be talking about a variety of incidents of right wing violence. You may want to skip this episode if you’re not in a place to hear about this right now.
Mylo is part of Queer Fight School.
Sharona and Moishe are organizers with Outlive Them. Find them on Twitter or Facebook. Read their writing on Medium.com. They performed “In Kamf” by David Edelstadt toward the end of this episode. Find the full translation on Yidlid.org. Report to the hotline they mentioned at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mentioned in the Episode
For more on leftist organizing and firearms, check out the Socialist Rifle Association. To hear about gun clubs, check out Rev Left Radio’s episode about the Huey Newton Gun Club and Coffee with Comrades episode #31, “We Keep Us Safe” to hear from organizers with the Socialist Rifle Associations.
For even more on firearms and community defense, check out Red Strings and Maroons, a Channel Zero Network show dedicated to these topics.
Listen to 12 Rules for What episode 2 “Masculinity w/ Feminist Antifascist Assembly,” the episode quoted in the conclusion of this episode, to hear more about feminism and anti-fascism. 12 Rules for What is another Channel Zero Network podcast. Read “Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo: Gender, Politics, And The Struggle Against Fascism” on It’s Going Down for more on this topic.
Read “Imagining Many Forms Of Community Self-Defense” on It’s Going Down.
Read more about the FBI’s surveillance of Occupy in “Revealed: how the FBI coordinated the crackdown on Occupy” by Naomi Wolf in the Guardian.
Current Event Links
Stories mentioned in the COVID-19 intro
- “This Week In Fascism #52: Neo-Nazi Plot To Attack Hospital; New Chair Of Young Republicans Has Far-Right Ties” from It’s Going Down
- “FBI says man killed in Missouri wanted to bomb hospital amid coronavirus epidemic” by Michael Kosnar and Phil Helsel for NBC news.
- “Under the Virus’s Cloak, Trump Pursues Long-Sought Policies” by Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Annie Karni in the New York Times
- “For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power” by Selam Gebrekidan in the New York Times
- “The Rise of Coronavirus Hate Crimes” by Anna Russell in the New Yorker.
Hi, this is Amy, the producer of Rebel Steps. Before we start this episode, I want to address the moment. We wrote and recorded this episode before the COVID 19 outbreak was unfolding around the globe. First, just want to send some love and support to all our listeners. We know it’s a really challenging time. Thanks for taking time to listen to this episode. Also, if you’re working on mutual aid projects or a rent strike, we’d love to hear from you. You can leave us a voice message at rebelsteps.com/mailbox or email us at email@example.com.
Second, even though this episode isn’t explicitly about covid-19, antifascist organizing and community self-defense are more pressing than ever. This situation has brought out the forces of reaction in a variety of ways. In the US, we’ve seen a rise of anti-Asian incidents in the streets and a racist response from our institutions. We’ve seen a Neo-nazi attempt to bomb a hospital. We’ve also seen states around the world rush to consolidate their power. In the US, the Trump administration is using coronavirus as a reason to reject asylum seekers, seek anti-union policies, and avoid oversight. In Hungary, the Hungarian Parliament gave far-right populist leader Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree indefinitely, citing the coronavirus as the reason for turning the state into a dictatorship.
It’s clear that rightwing groups and increasingly fascist states are taking advantage of the current situation. We’ll need to defend ourselves as we navigate this crisis and as we come out on the other side.
Stay safe out there. Here’s the episode.
Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
In this episode, I’ll be looking at some ways you can get involved in community self-defense and talking to some folks currently involved in self-defense projects. Before I start, I want to let you know that there’s a trigger warning this episode. I’ll be talking about a variety of incidents of right wing violence. You may want to skip this episode if you’re not in a place to hear about this right now.
I want to begin by outlining why I find this topic especially important.
Political movements have often faced threats of physical violence from forces of oppression. Law-enforcement, vigilante fascists, and corporations are committed to fighting social movements however they can.
One example is the FBI’s COINTELPRO of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This program often utilized illegal methods to infiltrate and destroy various social movements, perhaps most notably the Black Panthers. Cointelpro operatives deployed a range of tactics from sending anonymous letters to stir up conflict to harassing those participating in the Free Breakfast for Children Program to break up the Black Panthers.
More recently, Occupy Wallstreet faced heavy surveillance. This included everything from banks sharing information gathered by private security firms with the FBI to campus police providing law enforcement with information about students.
The government has continued to make their animosity toward social movements clear. For example, in 2017, legislators in many states introduced laws that allowed cars to run over protesters legally. None of these bills passed, but it still signifies an alarming disregard for the lives of protesters.
This is especially disturbing when considered in the context of Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville in 2017. She died when a neo-nazi deliberately ran a car into a group of demonastrators.
That episode is one of many that marks a dangerous uptick of fascist violence in the past few years. Both in the US and internationally, we’ve seen fascists and white supremacists perpetrate mass shootings at Synagogues such as the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and Mosques such as Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. There was also the anti-immigrant shooting in El Paso, Texas that happened in 2019.
Beyond these larger episodes, there is much fascist violence that doesn’t make national headlines. From desecrating Jewish cemeteries to roughing up activists at a bar in Portland to just the everyday violence of racist police forces, there’s a lot to be wary about.
This introduction is not to dishearten us, but merely to stress that self-defense will have to be part of any movement for it to succeed. I need to underscore this point because some groups seem not so sure about this. Those more aligned with electoral solutions may be more trusting of the state. They may look to the police or the FBI for protection.
For me, I don’t need to look much further than seeing police rough up, beat, and arrest protesters at the demos I’ve attended to disagree. I think you’ll find ample evidence in the news that police and the state in all its other forms are, at best, unable to protect us and, more often, aligned against us with those who seek to hurt us.
And historically, we see that the state and the police are often key to fascists’ rise to power. Mark Bray, in his book The Anti-Fascist Handbook, stresses this point writing “It’s no surprise that history shows that parliamentary government is not always a barrier to fascism. To the contrary, on several occasions it has been more of a red carpet. When interwar economic and political elites felt sufficiently threatened by the prospect of revolution, they turned to figures like Mussolini and Hitler to ruthlessly crush dissent and protect private property.” He goes on, saying “As for the police counteracting fascist violence – at times the police have arrested and persecuted fascists, yet the historical record shows that along with the military they have also been among the most eager for a ‘return to order.’”
Some of you may be surprised to hear anti-fascist organizing mentioned in this introduction on self-defense. And some of you may buy the need for self-defense and still remain uncomfortable with idea of explicitly anti-fascist organizing. Unfortunately, the media has done an excellent job painting anti-fascists or “Antifa” as dangerous aggressors, not the protectors. But I see antifascism as just another facet of community self-defense. As I’ve outlined above, the past few years have brought a steady increase in fascist violence. Fascist organizations are working to hurt me and people I care about. They hate women, they hate people of color, they hate the LGBTQI community. And their views lead directly to violence.
If we are not organizing against them, we’re letting the world get more dangerous everyday. We can’t sit by and let them get stronger without challenging them.
Against the onslaught of fascism and state repression, community self-defense can take many forms. This can range from legal aid to jail support to cop watches and anti-ICE organizing. In this episode, I’ll be exploring physical self-defense and community care.
Grey: My name is Grey and pronouns he/they. And I work with this little project called Pop Gym. I’m on the collective. I help out instructing some of the classes and I’ve been working with the organization since the beginning which is been about a year and a half now.
Mylo: Hi my name is Mylo. I use gender neutral pronouns so they/ them or ze/hir and I run Queer Fight School. Grey and Milo run self defense classes and workshops.
Grey and Mylo run self-defense classes and workshops. For some, these sort of classes are the first thing that come to mind when discussing self-defense. Grey and Mylo both had accessibility in mind when creating their programs.
Grey: Pop Gym, at its most basic, is a group of folks that want to try to provide free or low cost martial arts and self defense programming around New York City. Our interest in a start a little bit earlier, it started even before the Trump election, just because we noticed that folks in our community were always interested in having a place to go to where they can learn self defense or martial arts. And some places were doing it some places were open, some places were closed, some places are you know mainstream schools. But we wanted a place that wasn’t macho that wasn’t like super toxic, that was safe and accessible. And we wanted to kind of create a programming which you didn’t have to be like a certain type of person to do martial arts self defense because inherently self defense is a right for everyone. Similar to food, it’s not like food is only for foodies are people who really love food it’s also for everyone whether they love food or not. So we think of martial arts and self defense the same way. And certainly after the election of Trump in 2016, it became more important for us to provide this programming so we can organize together and started with our first program which is our self defense workshop which we’ve done more than a hundred times in New York and across the country and even at one as far as Europe.
Mylo: So Queer Fight School started as just a project I was doing at the gym that I was training at. I was training in martial arts gym doing Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The Gym that I went, the head coach was a queer women of color and she had done a really good job at the gym of building a culture that really focused on empowering non -men. It was not like the most completely safe space because, that’s I mean you can’t really create like us save space in this world right. But she did a really good job. There was like a lot of women there. They were really good at encouraging each other and building a space that definitely felt a lot less meat heady or macho than most gyms. With her help I created a class that was just for women, trans folks, gender non conforming people. Just to kind of help continue this idea of bringing queers into martial arts and making it a little bit easier for people to get in. It was also a donation based class and the martial arts gyms can be very expensive, more so than like a local Blink or something. It was donation based, whatever little money I got I just get to the gym because they let me use the space.
The 2016 election spurred Grey to take the next step toward starting POP gym.
Grey: Even before Pop Gym, I’d been helping co-organize or promote self defense workshops around New York City for the past two years. Whether just general workshops or workshops for women, trans, GNC. non binary folks. Also being a part of like a little by little of kind more mainstream gym culture, also being part of activist communities where people are very much in need of self defense skills. And it all kind of came to a point around the Trump election where there was a lot of people feeling very nervous and afraid of the future for all the right reasons and there was kind of this beautiful moment right after election where there’s people on social media seeing what they can offer other people only giving as much as they can. Whether it’s cooking or like knitting or just like a shoulder to cry on. And so that point I thought about what I could offer and the thing that I had was martial arts and so I started doing that kind of like one on one or like little by little. And then some other folks and this group of instructors that we currently work with, we wanted to do this free martial arts program. We also wanted to do something different, something that was financially sensible, and that was queer positive, that was body positive, that was trying to make a safe space as possible for people that I think for decades in this culture have been pushed out of gyms. And usually the response and that is like Oh no like our gyms have like queer folk, in femme folk and trans folk. And that’s absolutely true but those people don’t realize sometimes just the amount of bullshit those folks have to like put up with. From the way I see it like those folks love what they do so much so that they can kind of like pushed through a lot of the bullshit. And that’s absolutely great and more power to them. I’ve worked to folks like that for a long time. But then like what about everyone else who maybe loves it but doesn’t like the culture or hasn’t fallen in love with it yet but can’t get past the culture. And it’s just really unfortunate that those folks don’t have access to these skills. You know society doesn’t promote folks empowering themselves of these life skills. And so we want to create a programming that fill that gap and that’s what we’ve been doing.
Mylo came to self-defense through some personal experiences that felt unsafe.
Mylo: came to martial arts kind of later in life I think than a lot of people tend to. I think people tend to take like martial arts classes when their kids and either they stick with it or come to it again. I had taken boxing classes and Muay Thai classes here and there but still as like an adult. But I’ve always had an interest in Muay Thai as a sport and MMA as a sport. And then I have a tumultuous relationship with one of my brothers. Throughout my life, we’ve had bad run ins in a way. Like he’s a correctional officer, he’s conservative, and I am completely opposite. And we’ve had a couple of run ins with each other where it had gotten like physical. And then I had one that was like especially scary and sort of like a turning point, three or four years ago before I started doing Muay Thai. And it was just one of those things where it like came to like a physical altercation. And for me it was a moment where I was like I really don’t feel safe. And I think like as a queer person, as a person of color, you know, as a small person, there are many instances where you don’t feel safe, but this was the particular one where I was like I’m not walking in the street, like I’m in my mom’s house, and this should be like a safer space for me to existent in. But it was still like the scary run in. And after that I was like okay I really want to do something to feel safer or feel empowered or feel like even stronger even just like physically stronger, so then I went and found a Muay Thai Gym. I started going Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu. And I think a lot of really great things came from that. Self defense yes, but also just a sense of confidence a sense of awareness of my body and its capabilities and then a culture of queer empowerment, which I had been lucky to experience in a lot of different ways. But never like in a way that was directly linked to my physical body. So then once I found that through martial arts I really wanted to continue to build the queer martial artists community and trying to teach the classes was a way to do that and get more people in the door.
These projects don’t just offer self-defense skills. They also serve as an important space for self-care and community-care.
Grey: Self-defense in a lot of ways when it comes down to it community care and this is kind of another form of community care. It’s just more physical. And so doing a project this and really kind of delving into what is radical community care through the lens of this project, I just love it. I wake up every day and it’s like jobs don’t usually work out, regular life doesn’t work out, but like if I have this project and I’m like interacting with people and like having a time punching some pads with people. That’s like all I need. It’s great.
Mylo: It just became so much more than self defense thing, even though that’s why I became drawn to it. I would really like to change the culture of martial arts gyms in general and really have people be able to experience this thing that is sort of all these things wrapped in one, right. It’s a sport. It’s also like a form of creative expression. It’s something that helps you maintain mental health. It helps you maintain physical health. And it’s really just an act of community building. Both Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu depend so heavily on training partners and a community, even though it’s about improving yourself. It’s this really amazing balance of learning about yourself through a communal practice. And that’s such a wonderful thing. I would like as many queer people, trans people, gender non conforming people, to experience that as possible, because it’s really, it really has changed my life quite a bit.
Leftist gun clubs are another type of group that integrate community building and physical self-defense. To hear about gun clubs, Check out Rev Left Radio’s episode about the Huey Newton Gun Club and Coffee with Comrades episode #31, “We Keep Us Safe,” to hear from organizers with the Socialist Rifle Associations. I also recommend Red Strings and Maroons A podcast about firearms, community defense, and its history.
Sharona: My name’s Sharona, one of the co -founding members of Outlive Them NYC. I’m a New Yorker and a musician.
Moishe: I am Moishe. I’m one of the cofounders of Outlive Them NYC And I’m a New Yorker, a musician, and educator and writer and a worker.
Sharona and Moishe are both organizers with Outlive Them.
Sharona: Outlive Them NYC is a coalition of Jewish Anti -fascists and anti racist allies and accomplices organizing to build a mass base of opposition against white nationalism in New York City and strengthen Jewish solidarity with black, brown, and indigenous, LGBTQ+, women’s and worker’s struggles. Rooted and inspired by a radical Jewish anti-capitalist organizing and history of radical social movements across the diaspora and all the amazing culture and activity and life that came out of that.
Outlive Them was founded in response to a need for self defense for Jewish Communities.
Moishe: utlive Them NYC began in the fall of 2018 in response to both the Pittsburgh pogrom and the call to action from our international comrades around the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht and the international days of action around that. So it was both in response to a very very much a direct and visceral thing and we know people, we work with people, we organize with people who are connected to the Tree of Life Synagogue. But it’s also a local thing for you know those of us trying to organize the million plus Jews in New York City for example. And it’s also very much an international thing that was in response to this larger constellation of struggles.
Sharona: After something like the Pittsburgh pogrom, something that I had known intellectually but had not experienced in my body or in my community, was the absolute fact that we can no longer operate on the ally modes of Jewish organizing where Jews show up for other people as allies, which of course is important in many ways. But also must to show up as ourselves, for ourselves for our survival, in linked arm, complete solidarity with other oppressed peoples who are threatened by Christians supremacy, white supremacy, hetero patriarchal capitalism, all of it. That seems to have resonated with people a lot, especially like I said right after Pittsburgh. There’s a visceral feeling for many people that I need to show up for my survival, where can I go to do that.
Their group is grounded in the history of anti-fascist struggles and community self-defense, going back the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
Sharona: In the East End of London which is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were gonna come marching through town or plan to have a giant rally and, like we see today, they bussed in hundreds of fascists, the same thing we see a fascist rallies in the United States. They bring in their people from elsewhere. The Jewish community mobilized, the Irish community mobilized, working class communities of all different backgrounds mobilized, literally to build barricades in the street and said you’re not entering our community. You’re not marching through our streets. So that much more literal sense was like we’re going to defend our community because we know once the fascists get here, they want to do harm. They want to do violence. Their end goal is to destroy our communities and to destroy us.
The Battle of Cable Street is an example of anti-fascism but also of people just defending their own communities. Sharona points to a recent demonstration at Stone Mountain, Georgia, as another source of inspiration and another example of this.
Sharona: Another example of this another example of this sort of community self defense that took place in the past year was at Stone Mountain Georgia where the KKK and a coalition of other neo Nazis were gonna have a demonstration as they have in many years past. And this extremely broad coalition called the Flower coalition of over forty organizations, some explicitly anti fascist, some anti racist, some faith groups, some more liberal groups, came together and mobilize to chase them out
Background: [people chanting “KKK stay home today” and “Sandblast Stone Mountain”]
Sharona: The Flower Coalition is a great example of community self defense. Their website is flowerunited.org. I encourage everyone to check it out.
Both of these are examples of anti-fascist street demonstrations. But Sharona and Moishe recognize that the work of community self-defense includes many types of organizing. They don’t want to limit themselves to just street demos.
Sharona: One thing that’s important to us is having a low barrier to entry for people who want to get engaged in anti fascist organizing. Putting yourself at risk of bodily harm to show up in a street action with people you don’t know that well is an incredibly high bar to clear for people who are interested and definitely are anti fascist and want to be in an antifascist collective or group or mobilization or something like that. So it’s important for there to be different ways for people to be engaged in this sort of work, whether it’s from behind a computer screen or by doing outreach at the local library or by doing de radicalization of your next door neighbor’s baby brother who’s watching some weird YouTube videos. Mutual aid for one another is a form of community self defense because if our comrades are struggling to find housing, if our comrades are struggling to eat, if our comrades are struggling to find jobs, there are things that we can do to defend one another from the ravages of capitalism and from losing our people who are so desperately needed in the fight and are so important to the fabric of all of our communities. So providing food, shelter, these things are community self defense, we’re defending each other.
Moishe: There is also a need to work very closely with other people from other communities than our own which we are doing now in the form of an a rapid response network to racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti semitic graffiti or acts assault and physical violence that are happening all across the city. We have a local, kind of hyper local network, of people who can respond rapidly because they live there, they work there, and we’re trying to build that out right now. That too is a form of community self defense and if you do see racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic anti semitic or hetero patriarchal graffiti on your streets you can add up our hotline, NYCtips@riseup.net
That tip line is for New York City but you can always start your own tip line in your own community.
At the end of the day, anti-fascist organizing and community self-defense is about caring for each other. The building blocks of a strong community are our relationships with each other. That’s why Outlive Them takes special care to develop those relationships in their group.
Sharona: I don’t think that we can do effective community self defense and defend our communities from fascists without trusting our comrades. And we can’t trust our comrades if we don’t have accountability to one another and the world around us isn’t set up to provoke that in our relationships. There’s something about really intentional relationship building that is to me a core part of community self defense. It’s not just getting in black bloc and being an intimidating force on the street. It’s about building resilient communities that can take risk together and communicate well together, trust one another, know that they can take care of each other in the case of repression. At a really basic level, ways of treating each other that form our capacity to be honest with each other and make mistakes and change our minds are things like using trigger warnings and content warnings because some people have been through traumatic things that you may or may not know about you want to treat each other with care. Checking in after actions whether it is fliering something or disrupting something, cooling off together afterwards, maybe just having a bite to eat or taking a walk or going someone’s apartment. Book ending things with time together, because you never know what’s gonna come up thirty minutes later.
Some of this community building takes the form of celebrating Jewish holidays.
Sharona: We’re also lucky in that the Jewish tradition whether you’re religious secular or somewhere in between gives you a hundred opportunities, a hundred plus opportunities, for a gathering together as a community and celebrating something, or mourning something, or marking something. So it’s been gratifying and rewarding to find ways to shape and reshape these traditions together as anti capitalists and to begin to do some work to reclaim traditions that may have felt stale or irrelevant to our lives before by talking about it together and discovering what use it could play in building our community.
It’s so easy to succumb to the media’s portrayal of antifascists as only about street brawls or demonstrations. It’s easy to flatten community self-defense to just being about physical self-defense. But effective community self-defense and anti-fascist organizing are so much more than that. The second episode of 12 Rules for What, a podcast tracking fascists and the far right, explores feminism and antifasiscm. One of the hosts Alex discusses broadening our analysis of what antifascist organizing is:
Alex: There is a welcome deemphasis of militancy as like individual prowess, men testing themselves against other men, and toward a sort of militancy that means like militantly organized, people acting together, people supporting each other, caring for each other, recognizing that the movement is built from many different parts, which often the anti-fascist legal support or care support has been either not done, and has really messed up a lot of people, or has been invisibilized and left to partners or left to like friends or children or whatever. The people who go to prison to visit people or after in the street have a meal cooked, things like that. Which has really been in the background and now it’s increasingly being foregrounded. And I think that’s to be commended.
So as you work within your own group, look for those opportunities to support community self-defense. Perhaps your role is sometimes at anti-fascist street demos. But Maybe sometimes it’s being a marshall at a permitted march, keeping people safe from oncoming traffic. Maybe it’s providing material aid to those facing legal issues or recovering from episodes of violence. Whatever your role is, It’s all part of the same fight, one we can’t afford to lose.
Moishe: It’s important to clarify the stakes of what we’re talking about when we talk about self defense. People understand and imagine self defense to be many different things. But I think first of all, before people figure out for themselves what form of self defense makes sense in the context of their own community and their own conditions of life, they have to figure out what the stakes are. For many of us who have been on the front lines for the past few years, including not just street actions but people who do the volunteer labor, the reproductive labor, all of the labor that goes into forging effective resistance to the onslaught of white nationalism and Christian nationalism, the stakes are our lives. Our lives are at stake. It’s not just those of us who were in the path of Dodge automobile in Charlottesville, Virginia, which I was on August 12, 2017, it’s everybody was targeted every day by the state and by militarized police violence. So what we’re talking about when we talk about community self defense is going to mean something different for different people based on what they’re able to do, what the people in the community want to do and need. That’s something that none of us can really define in advance for them. There’s also a certain humility that comes with talking about self defense or talking about the work of anti fascism. We really are up against the most powerful forces in the world and they literally want to exterminate us.
[music playing, vocals come in]
You’re hearing Sharona and Moishe perform En Kamf, or Battle Song, by Yiddish sweatshop poet and anarchist David Edelstadt. The lyrics describe the author’s commitment to continuing to struggle, even in the face of repression. One stanza of the poem translates to “But we won’t be frightened, by prison and tyranny, we must awaken humanity, and make it happy and free.”
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
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