BRATTLEBORO—A clandestine regional group that is part of a nationwide anti-fascist movement appears to be organizing at the community level in southern Vermont.
Several posters encouraging people to join Northeast Antifa (NEA) have appeared on the town’s streets, and a representative of the organization has told The Commons that the organization is developing a network in Brattleboro.
In an email message to several recipients at the newspaper, the organization also included links to an NEA Instagram post publicly accusing a local resident of being a member of an alt-right neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division (AWD).
In addition to the email and Instagram, NEA publicly accused Dylan Chambers of neo-Nazi activities in a practice known as “doxxing,” or releasing personal identifying information. The group identified Chambers as the person responsible for posting an AWD “Black Lives Don’t Matter” poster in Brattleboro in July 2018.
“Dylan Chambers, a member of Atomwaffen Division and a militant neo-Nazi, is a military trained threat to his community,” wrote “Garfield but Anti-Fascist,” a Twitter user who broadcast a thread of links to Chambers’ social media and military records to provide some degree of support to the allegations. Garfield used the NEA material and made additional allegations based on research he conducted with other “affiliates” of antifa.
“Please make sure Brattleboro as a community knows about his ideology,” Garfield urged Twitter followers.
In an interview with The Commons (see sidebar), Chambers denied that he was responsible for the poster, but he admitted that he had been involved with alt-right and white supremacist groups prior to his moving to the region.
A clandestine organization, a public presence
Northeast Antifa is part of a worldwide anti-fascist (antifa) movement, and a quick search of Facebook turns up scores of antifa groups dotting the United States.
Antifa is generally regarded as a movement, not an organization, and it is generally described as decentralized and non-hierarchical, as independent organizations loosely united by a common cause.
“P.,” an inside source within the larger movement who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Commons that antifa focuses on gathering and publicizing intelligence about fascist and white-supremacist individuals and groups at the regional and national levels.
In an interview with The Commons, Garfield — who posted the Twitter thread — said that NEA tends to be “a little bit more centralized than other anti-fascist organizers that I have observed.”
The method of organization is clandestine. The communications between The Commons and NEA were conducted through encryption, and voice calls were conducted through voice scrambler technology.
NEA’s communications are tightly controlled, and the structure of cell organization — a standard practice in underground movements — has the dual purpose of allowing rapid communication while eliminating the likelihood that if one individual is identified other participants in the movement will be discovered.
“I have my friends I organize with, and one of them vouched for NEA, so I knew I could trust their info,” said Luke, a local NEA affiliate, who said he responded to the poster.
“I think it is interesting that some people found [NEA’s public outreach] to be too public and others hadn’t heard anything about it,” he added. “Of course, we have to protect ourselves, but outreach and education are also crucial.”
Antifa is best recognized for the “black block” element of the movement: armored individuals dressed in black who come to protests to counter right-wing extremists like the Proud Boys.
Most of the publicity that Antifa has received comes from these activities, which have included protests and ongoing street battles in cities like Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C.
Last summer, President Trump sought to have antifa labeled a “domestic terrorist group,” an effort that did not succeed in part because antifa is an ideological movement, not a group, and in part because there is no official designation as “domestic terrorist group” in U.S. law.
Still, antifa groups are explicit about their intention to counter aggressive violence with violence in self-defense.
On its Instagram page, Northeast Antifa describes itself as “an armed New England anti-fascist & anti-capitalist community organization resisting against fascism, oppression, and exploitation.”
P. was quick to emphasize the defensive role of violence in antifa principles and to reference the group’s antecedents in other battles against right-wing violence throughout history, including abolitionist John Brown in the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859 and the Black Panther Party of the 1960s.
“We aren’t a vanguard — we are community defense,” said P.
Brattleboro an ‘important operational point’
According to its representatives, NEA is mainly based in the Boston area. Its organizing efforts in Brattleboro are part of a larger initiative to create antifa networks within cities and towns across New England.
The effort to build these networks is not exclusively about the black block dimension of the movement, which has already prompted a police response.
In June 2020, WAMC/Northeast Public Radio in Albany, N.Y., published a leaked email from Linda Tyler, the mayor of Pittsfield, Mass., that described how Massachusetts State Police planned to deploy forces into the Berkshires because of information “that Antifa plans to leave major metropolitan cities and head to smaller cities and towns.”
In Brattleboro, NEA say it’s about building a network and organizational structure.
“We are active in Brattleboro mainly with our spreading of promotional materials around the area,” P. told The Commons, describing the town as “an important operational point for recruitment and logistics, and just a friendly community for us to operate in.”
P. said that southern Vermont could play an important role in providing food and other supplies if right-wing extremists escalate conflicts in protest of President Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“[W]e really want communities to organize themselves, but most people don’t even know where to begin to defend each other and meet everyone’s basic needs,” Luke said. “I organize in Brattleboro because that is my community.”
Rise of the far right in Vermont
Both P. and Luke talked about the rise of far-right groups in Vermont as an impetus for Antifa’s drive to organize in the area.
On its national map of hate groups in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified two such groups operating statewide in Vermont: the Patriot Front, a white nationalist group, and the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group.
Other acts of aggression against people of color and messages of support for their safety have emerged in recent years.
Kiah Morris, who is Black, served as a state representative from Bennington from 2014 to 2018, decided not to run for re-election after repeated harassment from Max Misch, a right-wing activist and self-described white supremacist who often came to her public events bearing weapons.
In October 2020, a newly painted Black Lives Matter mural on the road outside the Putney Central School was vandalized by someone who peeled rubber for almost a hundred yards over it. No perpetrator has been identified.
The threats to public safety have only escalated.
In recent months, Slate Ridge, a private property shooting range in West Pawlet, has drawn the attention of press reports focused on the fear that the enterprise which bills itself as an educational consultant had created within the Rutland County community.
“Men from Slate Ridge have harassed locals online and in person,” said Mike Dougherty in a podcast from VTDigger, which first reported the story. “They also appear to be stockpiling weapons and ammunition, and they’ve promoted symbols of far-right antigovernment groups. But state authorities say that without evidence of criminal activity, there’s no way for them to intervene.”
“Liberals claim not to believe that the far right is essentially conducting paramilitary training in this region, as in many other regions, but it’s 10 years more advanced in this region,” said P.
Where will antifa fit?
Social justice leaders based in Windham County said that they were unaware of NEA’s organizing efforts in the area, and expressed a general sense that it is unclear how antifa might fit into the work that is already being done in Vermont.
“I’m curious, but also careful,” said Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP. “It’s like that old saying ‘feed with a long spoon.’”
“We are in such an uncharted time with the executive branch behaving in ways that are startling to anyone under the age of 70,” he said.
Gillom was referring to President Trump’s message to the Proud Boys movement “to stand back and stand by” in an October presidential debate, and to his call to rally supporters to demonstrate in the capitol on Jan. 6, when the results of the November election will be ratified by Congress.
“I think it is premature to say whether [antifa’s] role will be helpful or not,” Gillom said. “Since the election of Trump there has been an extreme polarization of the country, and the springing up of a lot of groups, and now there is all this mobilization [of right extremist groups].
“There has been a big, big shift in our politics in the last four years, so we’ll have to see,” he continued. “I just don’t know. It would be hard to predict the future at this point.”
“I haven’t really seen explicit antifa in the area or anyone reaching out in the area,” said Wichie Artu, a member of the racial justice organizing leadership team of the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro and of the Governor’s Racial Equity Task force in Vermont. “All I know about them is that they’re not an official organization, but more like an idea, the ideology of being antifacist.”
“A lot of the work we do is to try to dismantle supremacist culture and bring voices to the people most impacted by government policies,” said Artu, “I think that Northeast Antifa is trying to bring resources to the area, and that collaboration could happen, but I also wonder, especially being from Boston, how much that can actually help us.”
Both Gillom and Artu emphasized that racism in Vermont is not simply covert, showing up in implicit bias and structural inequities, but also overt, in the form of hate crimes and the sense of threat that people with black or brown skin may often feel here.
“Brattleboro has the worst statistics in the state around traffic stops [of people of color], and there is overt racism happening and happening often,” said Gillom. “The stories are not being told [and] the experiences are not being amplified enough.”
“There is an implicit fear, especially because all around the media we see things like Trump supporters driving trucks through crowds to actually kill people — like, that really happens,” said Artu. “And whether it has actually happened or not in our area, the fact is that the behavior is associated with these particular groups of people with these [extremist] ideologies.”
“And it’s scary,” he said. “It’s really scary.”
What happens after Jan. 20?
Washington, D.C. could become a focal point for right-wing protests by groups like the Proud Boys as the end-game of the Trump presidency unfolds and the Biden administration takes office.
Trump has called for a massive protest on Wednesday, Jan. 6, when Congress is set to formally certify the results of the Electoral College.
A hotel that became a gathering place for Proud Boys coming into the nation’s capital from out of state has cancelled all reservations for the period around Jan. 6. The potential for violent street fights on that day seems real.
Both P. and Luke of NEA said several times in various interviews with The Commons that the real concern is what will happen after Jan. 20, when Biden takes office. They made it clear that NEA’s regional organizing efforts are partly intended to prepare for the worst.
A brief prepared in October for the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies warned of the growing threat of domestic violence and terrorism from right-wing extremist groups, noting that “white supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted 67 percent of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020.”
“They used vehicles, explosives, and firearms as their predominant weapons and targeted demonstrators and other individuals because of their racial, ethnic, religious, or political makeup — such as African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and Jews,” the report said. [See sidebar.]
The antifa source who conducts intelligence at the national level describes a similar scenario.
“I can see very visibly that things are escalating in terms of rhetoric and in terms of willingness to actually carry out violence against people,” the source said.
“The nationalist MAGA-type people like the Proud Boys and their affiliates are starting to radicalize in a really concerning way,” the source said. “They’re starting to more openly embrace blatant neo-Nazism and neo-fascism in a way that really wasn’t happening before...and that obviously lends itself to more extreme violence.”
What that means for Vermont, and what will unfold as NEA continues its organizing efforts in Windham County and in other regions of the state is unclear. But amid this uncertainty, the organization’s representatives are preparing for the worst for the best of reasons.
“We are the direct street resistance against the capitalist state and the fascist paramilitaries,” P. said. “We aren’t heroes. We are people putting our lives on the line to protect who we love and what we love so much.”
“We aren’t a bunch of white boys playing thug,” P. said. “That’s a right-wing lie.”