BRATTLEBORO—When an email signed by Northeast Antifa arrived at The Commons a couple of weeks ago, I agreed to look into it. I knew everyone else would be going on break for a week, and it was not clear in any case if there was a real story there or not. It seemed interesting and something to follow up.
I didn’t realize that I would spend the next two weeks thinking about this story — first, by reporting the piece about the regional antifa movement in last week’s newspaper, and then seeing that reporting play out hours later in the short-lived occupation of the Capitol by white supremacists and loyalists to President Donald Trump on Jan. 6.
For a lot of people in the United States, the events in Washington, D.C. came as a shock.
There is no denying the violence and the ugliness of a president calling on his MAGA tribe to storm the Capitol. And people died. The sense of threat that people of color already feel in the United States was magnified, tenfold or more.
I have been working on this story with a younger colleague, Lucas Sillars, who had a key interview with Kurt Braddock, a professor at American University who consults with international and national security agencies.
In an interview for last week’s newspaper, Braddock had told Sillars that Jan. 6 might be violent.
“Based on what we see in the Capitol, looks like I gave you the appropriate quote yesterday about something happening. If you have any people in D.C. (or if you go to D.C.), tell them to stay low and be careful,” he wrote Sillars. “It’s going to get ugly.”
As the events unfolded, he emailed us.
“Usually, I really enjoy being right,” Braddock said, “but I don’t like being right within 24 hours when it has to do with something like this.”
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Summoned by Trump in a speech outside the White House, a MAGA mob marched to the Capitol building and desecrated a sacred space — sacred, at least, in the way that America’s democracy (small “d”) and our republican (small “r”) form of governance are sacred to most Americans.
Livestream footage showed the unprecedented scene in the Capitol of pro-Trump marchers, some of them from right-wing extremist gangs, breaking through the barricades and entering the people’s house.
We all saw the violence. Five people died, including a former Air Force pilot turned QAnon adherent shot in the neck by a law enforcement officer and a Capitol Police officer who was beaten by a protestor wielding a fire extinguisher. The full extent of the carnage is still unclear.
What is clear: the greatest threat to our democracy is white terrorism from inside our borders. To find any historical parallel with what happened, one has to go back to British troops setting fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812.
Since the election, this insurrection has been unfolding on social media in plain sight. But no advance notice lessens the dread of seeing a mob egged on by the president of the United States, shattering glass and breaking the doors in their wake.
One of the mob paraded a confederate flag through a space that included a bust of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts who was beaten nearly to death in 1856 by Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery representative from South Carolina.
For a few hours, it seemed that the Confederacy had won the Civil War — or that something was so unmoored in American democracy that it might as well have.
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How did this happen?
The clear failure of law enforcement goes beyond the question of poor tactical planning. News accounts are still unfolding, but some sense of conspiracy seemed involved behind the inaction. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that the chief of security in the Capitol had to wait an hour before he got permission to call in the National Guard.
It has been widely reported that right-wing extremists have infiltrated police departments around the country, including New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The nation’s military also wrestles with the problem of white supremacists in its ranks. In last week’s issue of The Commons, we wrote about one such man who had clearly developed neo-Nazi views by the time he joined the military.
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that police departments around the nation — in Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington state, and New Hampshire — had either suspended public safety officers or placed them in disciplinary processes for attending the riot in D.C.
The recurring question of which side law enforcement is on in the current national crisis is tied inextricably to the Black Lives Matter movement and the deep and complex history of race in the U.S.
One local Black American scholar posed this question to me: “What do you think it would have been like if those were Black people trying to get into the Capitol?”
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Weiai Wayne Xu, a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts who does data-based research into far right and far left communities, told The Commons that social media creates an environment rich for recruitment of right-wing extremists.
Xu said that a common theme of anti-institutionalism, a sort of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend dynamic, lets evangelical Christians consort comfortably with rabid neo-Nazis. Groups like supporters of QAnon or the Proud Boys draw adherents in through hashtags on posts and the rabbit holes of the internet.
The spread of lies through social media is so profound that Americans now are divided — not simply by matters of policy, but by basic disagreements about what is factually, provably, objectively true.
Even after the storming of the Capitol, a majority of Republicans in the House still voted to contest a presidential election that had clearly been decided — and about which more than 60 baseless lawsuits from the Trump campaign were filed and lost. The very premise that this election was stolen — the common bond that united the throngs of supporters — is a lie.
Supporters of QAnon lure in people through a focus against pedophilia that any reasonable person would find noble — who would not take a stand against pedophilia? But, Xu explained, adherents lead followers into wild conspiracy theories that Democrats are behind a massive child-trafficking ring.
The role of social media is also an essential component, serving as a venue to seed disinformation and perpetuate provable untruths.
Perhaps the most striking events of the past week were that the president was shut out of Twitter after enabling the riot and subsequently posting content that only fueled the violence. And, after Apple and Google removed from their respective digital marketplaces mobile apps for Parler, an alternative platform where much far-right disinformation is posted without consequence, Amazon dropped the entire service from its hosting.
Both Xu and Braddock talked about how the Proud Boys organize around concepts of whiteness and masculinity.
Recruits to this far-right group — the ones Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during his October debate with Biden — are also drawn in by the fetish with guns and gun rights.
Xu observed that as Trump leaves office, the extreme right is letting go of its “blue lives matter” ideology as it starts to see law enforcement as an enemy — a change made all too clearly last week.
The point was echoed by “Garfield,” a person who gathers, aggregates and publicizes intelligence on Twitter for the antifa movement.
Garfield, whom I interviewed for last week’s antifa stories, pointed to a street battle in Salem, Ore. last month as a turning point.
According to an Associated Press report, on Dec. 21, “Police declared an unlawful assembly at Oregon’s Capitol building [...] as protesters gathered and some attempted to force their way in during the third special legislative session of the year.”
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Since the riot, some right-wing voices on outlets like Newsmax, OAN, and Fox News have claimed that the violence was fomented by antifa agent provocateurs who infiltrated the MAGA demonstration.
Multiple credible news sources, from Reuters to The Associated Press to Politifact, have debunked this talking point, which began spreading after participants in the riot began seeing public backlash for their behavior.
Two sources within the antifa movement, one with Northeast Antifa (NEA) and one who operates independently at a national level, said that this was not true. The NEA source, whom I know as “P.,” said that antifa were present at the riot in order to gather information but played no role in the violence, a point that Garfield echoed.
Although antifa may have had some individuals monitoring the scene, Garfield said, no way would it have been involved in the actual violence. The group uses infiltration as a means to discover individuals within the extreme right but not to instigate violence, they said.
Antifa is organizing in Brattleboro now — that was how my work on this story began. A local source who calls himself “Luke” said that more than 10 people are affiliates in NEA’s Brattleboro cell now.
The question of what antifa stands for and what it means that it is present in the local community is important.
The sense that my antifa sources give me is that they are deeply concerned about the last days of the Trump presidency and what might happen on Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. Their organization in Vermont is focused on developing community self-defense mechanisms should these become necessary, but more so on building out an organizational network that can be called on if events require.
The demonization of antifa has been a handy tool for the extreme right, and the group feels under pressure in the Boston area. In a conversation with P. after Jan. 6, he spoke of the fear of a SWAT team bursting into his place. He was using a voice scrambler, and we were talking on an encrypted message board.
I asked P. whether he thought that maybe, after Trump finally leaves office on Jan. 20 and the Biden administration takes charge, perhaps the sense of threat would diminish. He was not sure, but of course he would like that outcome. It is really too early to tell.
On the morning of Jan. 6, one of my antifa sources sent me a photograph of a banner, signed by NEA, that had been put up the night before out windows from the Hooker-Dunham Building’s top floor. “brattleboro stands with d.c. & boston antifascist counterprotestors,” it read. “bye trump hello biden. still not our president!”
Antifa is genuinely a decentralized movement, not an organization — all evidence points to that. It is impossible to define any ideology other than that it is anti-fascist and opposes white-nationalist and white-supremacist groups when they appear.
NEA itself is well-organized and the ideology is not defined beyond saying the group is, as described on its Twitter account, “a New England anti-fascist & anti-capitalist community defense network resisting fascism, oppression, and exploitation.”
After many hours of conversation with NEA sources, I believe that faction of the movement has Marxism in its roots, based deeply in a sense of how vastly unequal American society has become.
Organizing at a community level is textbook strategy for any group that wants to change society, from environmental movements to the Black Panthers, a movement that antifa emulates in many ways, though it is nearly entirely white in its make-up, as Garfield acknowledged.
A close friend lives in the neighborhood where both George Floyd and Dolal B. Idd — two Black men — have been killed by police. Part of a system of community-based public safety patrols, my friend said of antifa that “they are just so valiant,” praising the courage with which white members seek to provide self-defense protection for non-violent protestors.
She also said that she is always worried that violence might escalate when antifa is on the scene — not necessarily on their instigation, but because of the right-wing extremist and police violence that their presence may provoke.
“It can seem like something of the ‘white savior’ complex,” said a local source, a person of color who studies American racism. “But maybe we need that right now.”
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It is impossible to know what the next weeks and months will bring, but as a reporter it seemed good for people to see the Confederate flag paraded before the bust of Charles Sumner, to see the actual defilement of a sacred space by white terrorists.
It is important to see the enemy for what it is, and white terrorism is the greatest threat to the nation right now — unleashed by a man who will be president for a few more days.
I am not alone in believing that every person who broke into the Capitol should be arrested and imprisoned. Sedition should not stand in the United States. It cheers me up a bit to know that antifa intel folks and other left-wing researchers are working to identify who was in the mob and that the FBI will get that information.
A few final thoughts:
• The sense of threat that I feel is real, and it is shared by so many of my friends who have black or brown skin. Last Wednesday in Los Angeles, a Black woman was assaulted by a large group of pro-Trump protestors.
According to a story in Buzzfeed, she was pepper-sprayed while pinned in the arms of a white man trying to help her escape the crowd by carrying her to safety. She said that she felt lucky to be alive.
In a time when law enforcement has proven to be at best unreliable and at worst acting in concert with racist white terrorist movements, no one can minimize the sense of threat we feel.
• The question of what it means to be a “white ally” is not simply about putting a sign up on the front lawn. It is about one’s willingness to put one’s own body on the line to protect people who are under attack in this nation.
• I also want to say that truth matters. It is time to end false equivalence and to stop letting propaganda machines on the right masquerade as news sources.
Trump is shut down on Twitter. Good. About time.
Cumulus Media, which owns many right-wing talk radio stations, told their hosts to cool their rhetoric about election fraud or be fired. Good. About time.
• I was so inspired by the reporters who brought me the news of the riot, most of them women.
Martha Raddatz on ABC has reported from Baghdad and Kabul and said this all felt new and different — frightening in a different way.
Lisa Desjardins covered the riot for PBS and did heroic work. When Congress was evacuated to safe spaces in the basement of the Capitol she was asked to stay safe and she said, “I’m safe, I am surrounded by congressmen.” She brought an amazing firsthand look at history in a way that should remind everyone of how much journalism matters.
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I’m tired, to be honest, after two weeks on this story. Just fucking tired.
I know I will weep my heart out, but I still do believe that the arc of history bends toward justice.
I know that what happened last week will be written into U.S. history.
It was a good day for our nation.
A 33-year-old Jewish man and the pastor in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church were elected as senators from Georgia, a bastion of the old South, and the chance of gridlock in Congress has been lessened, even though it is 50–50 and there will have to be movement from the center, not the right or left.
And we got to see the extreme right for what it is: the QAnon Kool-Aid drinkers, the Proud Boys, the Patriot Front, the National Socialist Movement, the III-percenters, and all their ilk. There were out there.
And we were watching them.
And we can more clearly see the hard work ahead of us.