The far-right media circuit has turned “Antifa,” whatever they think that means, into their catch-all boogeyman. This movement has its roots into the fight against the rise of interwar fascism, the battle against the National Front in Britain and neo-Nazis in post-war Germany, and Anti-Racist Action in the U.S.
This new documentary sheds light on the reality of Antifa, speaking with experts like Mark Bray and the One People’s Project’s Daryle Lamont Jenkins.
The far-right organization, known for linking up “Patriot” militias with Alt Right white nationalists, became notorious for taking up the “free speech” rally model started by Lauren Southern in the “Battle for Berkeley.” In Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding suburbs, their organizer, Joey Gibson, instigated violent clashes with leftist protesters as he refused to tone down the “America First” rhetoric. In May, Jeremy Christian, a man who eagerly joined Patriot Prayer’s events, murdered two on Portland public transit in an Islamophobic frenzy. Gibson’s response was to hold his June 4th rally just a couple of weeks later in a federal park, which drew over three thousand protesters in a show of unprecedented antifascist unity.
On August 26, in the wake of the savage race riot and vehicular murder in Charlottesville, Gibson decided to bring his act down to the Bay area, where a number of far-right provocateurs were intending to join him. This would start with a “Freedom Rally” along the waterfront, which activists countered with a mass “poop in” by bringing their dogs to the beach without waste bags. The following day they the “anti-Marxist” message would be brought to the streets, picking up on the white supremacist conspiracy theory that modern “progressive” values are actually the result of subversive Jewish “Cultural Marxism.”
Patriot Prayer’s plans sparked one of the quickest engagements of mass organizing in years as coalitions formed around the city with everything from radical art shows to a mass marches to disallow Gibson access to the streets or city parks. While the Bay’s progressive line-up began their plans, it was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 that stepped out in front to lead this community revolt. Just days before the Alt Right was to descend on the city, Local 10 passed the “Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco,” calling for “all unions and anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and all the oppressed.” ILWU was instrumental in raising the antifascist coalition’s profile enough to force Gibson to cancel the event, and when he tried to move it to San Francisco’s Alamo Park, the union took to the streets and helped form a block to prevent entry.
Right now, labor in the United States is being pushed to a state of execution. With the political power in the hands of the beltway right, attacks on public sector unions, collective bargaining, exclusive representation, and the rights of workers to organize, are forcing labor to look past immediate contractual gains and to the larger contradictions the working class faces. Capital’s attack on unions is happening at the same time as a radical right populism is sweeping the U.S., with Trumpism ushering in what the Freedom Party brought to Austria, Brexit offered to the UK, and what Le Pen could have leveled on France. With the Alt Right as the militant fascist edge of this movement, organized labor is placed where it is often put in times of crisis: uniquely targeted and decisively necessary.
“Then they came for the trade unionists…”
Looking at the historical fascist movements that rose to power in interwar Europe, labor is crushed swiftly and decisively. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the SS took control of the trade unions in 1933, banning them as working class institutions and molding their organs into the German Labor Front. With 7 million members, Germany had one of the largest labor movements in the world, bolstered by the social democrats and the revolutionary German Communist Party (KPD). In Italy, Mussolini took a different approach and captured the unions entirely, creating large Fascist Trade Unions with over four million members. These organizations were extensions of the fascist state, losing their ability to fight for workers interests as Mussolini gained power by cruelly crushing socialist and anarchist partisans. The attack on unionists was, largely, an extension of the fascist attack on the organized left as leaders rightly understood that both sides had the ability to pull heavily from the experiences of the working class. While Hitler and Mussolini appealed to the bourgeois classes by suppressing worker movements, it was an appeal to the broad masses that gave fascism its power. The class conflict implicit to capitalism is then suppressed in favor of mediated class collaboration; the fire for change the fuels class struggle then rechanneled into reactionary battles between identities, racial, sexual, and otherwise.
The unions themselves were, at the time, the largest and most successful results of social movements, a hundred years of struggle to create massive organizations that took on the interests of the oppressed classes. That strength, rooted in the ability to withhold labor, could bring the country to its knees, and its nature is rooted in the working class unity that necessitates antiracism. If the unions are weakened, removed as militant vehicles for the desires of working people, then mass movements lose one of their key strategic vessels.
Unions today are often defined by their concessions, what was allowed to them by the state during the 1920s and 1930s. But a union is more that Collective Bargaining Agreements and grievance procedures. It is simply an expression of unified class power, the ability of a group of workers to exert power through solidarity. For workers today (and throughout the history of organized labor), their subjective experiences of class and identity are more than just pay scales, but include everything from racial discrimination by management to the fear of violence they have leaving their houses in the morning. For non-white workers, that violence continues, both from the state as police murders continue unchallenged, and through vigilantes, from the KKK in earlier generations to the Alt Right terrorizing campuses and city centers today. Unions can expand their conception of working class struggle to take on issues not only at the bargaining table, but also throughout the world that workers inhabit, something that is only becoming more necessary as those traditional rights are legally eroded. With a larger financial infrastructure than most left organizations and the growing injection of labor into broad coalitions, they have the tools and membership to be active in directly undermining the radical right surge.
IWW General Defense Committee
For many syndicalists, the IWW has been a centerpiece of this radical experiment for a century, starting as an alternative to the increasingly compromised AFL models of negotiated labor. The IWW continues to explode at moments of contradiction, organizing that stretches models to the point of redefinition. The non-contract campaigns of the Burgerville Workers Union, the prison organizing of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and solidarity networks are windows into what is possible when the strictures shackling organized labor are ignored and the basic principles of organizing are opened up to the imagination.
It is no wonder that the IWW then looked to the past to rebuild a project that could extend the reach of the organization into the increasingly caustic world of tenancy, police violence, and insurrectionary racist threats. The General Defense Committee (GDC) was first started in 1917 as a technically-separate organization from the broader IWW to take on issues like state repression of members around anti-war protests and during later red scares. Because it was a legally separate entity, it could take some shelter from state attacks on the IWW that seemed imminent. The GDC was brought back to take on issues that were not strictly workplace derived, and antifascist work has become the brand it is best known by. The Twin Cities branch chartered a GDC in 2011, yet their antifascist committee started long before that as members had previous experience as founders of Anti-Racist Action in the 1980s and the Torch Network that is known for linking up Antifa organizations. The GDC has grown to over 200 members with committees being chartered across the country.
The Twin Cities GDC Local 14 started by confronting a 2012 appearance of David Irving, the notorious WWII historian turned Holocaust Denier, building the praxis that would instruct their later work. As opposed to the close-knit and highly secretive format that describes most Antifa organizations, the GDC has used a “mass antifascist” approach. This means focusing on bringing in large coalitions of people, generally being public about their image, and trying to do popular education and engagement. This still results in the battle over “contested spaces,” music venues, public arenas, and college campuses. This can also mean in direct engagement, forcing the neo-Nazis out of their speaking event or meeting spaces, but it is done through appeals to huge community contingents. Mixing a radical analysis, direct action, and broad community involvement are the same principles that have made the Wobblies such a success in workplace organizing, and it those winning methods that they are using to turn entire neighborhoods and social networks into mass antifascist forces. Since the rise of the Alt Right starting in 2015, the GDC has been present in almost every major action, from shutting down far-right agitator Milo Yiannoupolous in Seattle, De Paul, and the University of Wisconsin, challenging Infowars at the Republican National Convention, and shutting down fascist neofolk artists like Blood + Sun.
Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective
In Portland, a group of trade unionists whose roots in militant antifascism went back thirty years came back to that anti-racist organizing by looking exactly at where they work. In places like the Carpenters Union, workers were regularly forced to interact coworkers who were openly adorned with neo-Nazi iconography, such as portraits of Hitler in visible tattoos. For many neo-Nazis who had been involved in skinhead gangs and were felons, building trade unions provided a pathway to a good and stable job that often shielded them from political fallout and did not penalize them for criminal histories. Organizers from the Carpenters Local 1503, Ironworkers Local 29, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 10, and antifascist organizers came together to form the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective (PNWAWC) to confront the influx of the far-right from inside of the labor movement.
One of PNWAWC’s key strategies was to put through antifascist resolutions in union locals whose membership may actually have some allegiances to white supremacist formations. IUPAT Local 10 and the Carpenters Union Local 1503 passed this resolution, next attempting to build antifascist committees internal to the local. IUPAT went as far as forming an Anti-Racist Mobilization Committee that will be used to get union members to support antiracist community actions and to reach out to other trade unions to do the same.
Their work extends to antifascist strategies that are often well known to Antifa and Anti-Racist Action groups, which many of their members started in. This includes organizing as a coalition with groups like Rose City Antifa to confront far-right assemblies, especially in “contested spaces,” refusing access. Doxxing, information dissemination, and popular education are all a part of this, as well as committing many of their members to act as community defense and security in situations that could result in fascist intimidation. After a local public-sector union had been hosting antifascist events from groups like the Portland Assembly and Demand Utopia, threats began coming down on the union hall. When several alleged far-right agitators showed up, donning masks, the collective coordinated unionists and organizers to surround the building, refusing to allow them on the property.
Portland Labor Against Fascists
Many organizers with some relationship to PNWAWC came together to form the Portland Labor Against Fascists coalition to have a labor presence at the growing number of collisions between far-right rallies and the public. When Patriot Prayer announced its June 4th rally despite the pleas of the city, including the Mayor’s office, multiple groups organized to surround the event. On one side was a more mild-manner coalition of progressive groups brought together by the International Socialist Organization, while adjacent to the in the park was the united Antifa block. On the south side of the far-right rally was the labor coalition, organized, in part, by Trotskyist organizations like the Internationalist Group and Class Struggle Workers, and with members from the various building trades as well as Amalgamated Transit Union 757, CWA 7901, and different AFL-CIO affiliates.
The rhetoric here was simple: destroying the narrative that the Patriot militia and blue-collar white power groups have, that they are acting in the interests of the white working class. With Ironworkers and IBEW electricians on the megaphones, they were able to speak to worker exploitation, not from “mass immigration” or affirmative action, but from mega-corporations that are crushing wages and collective bargaining. Since some participants in the Alt Right come from those represented trades, hearing from people in the same professions and workplaces makes a difference. This has been the strategy of non-labor specific organizations like Redneck Revolt, who use the language of gun-rights and government mistrust to speak to the same crowd that the militia movement recruits from.
As the cultural wave of reactionary anger turned into a Trump presidency, many in the broad labor movement were forced to speak up out of the crisis of circumstance. With the heavy focus of Alt Right groups like Identity Europa on campus recruitment, student and faculty groups have found common cause in confronting their threat. The Duke Graduate Student Union and the University of California Student Workers have come out to endorse student projects like the Campus Anti-Fascist Network, which is using a nationally coordinated approach to long-term mass antifascist movement building. As Patriot Prayer’s event loomed on the horizon in Berkeley, a large coalition formed for the Bay Area Rally Against Hate that would link up a huge swath of community and labor organizations. This again drew from unions with an association with education and college campuses, including the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, AFSCME Local 3299 (a UC Berkeley local), SEIU Local 1021, and UAW Local 2865, as well as a contingent of Berkeley student workers. The Alameda Labor Council and San Francisco Labor Council both signed as endorsers, a success for such a highly partisan affair. ILWU Local 10 was a leader in the effort to block Patriot Prayer, bringing out retired members who had joined the movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s. IUPAT Local 10 voted in a resolution and public statement that put their full support behind the ILWU’s decision in the bay, saying that they take from their example “in the struggle for workers’ rights against racism, war, and police repression.”
While many large unions have avoided using the language of antifascism, there has been an impetus for many to rise up on the primary issues of racial victimization in the Trump era. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined the Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff in a “categorical rejection” of Islamophobia, and after the comments Trump made after the Charlottesville violence he decisively pulled out of the American Manufacturing Council. Trumka is far from a radical unionist, but it shows the tone that is shifting inside large labor institutions. In years past, the rhetoric of “America First” echoed into union halls as jobs were being offshored. This attempt to stoke a subtle racism while mobilizing workers against de-industrialization lost them the ability to effectively fight the experiences of racism that workers face, and there are signs this decision is being reversed as they continue to lose ground with their attempts at class collaboration. The movement by many unions, from UNITE HERE Local 2850 to National Union of Healthcare Workers, to become “sanctuary unions” is another turn, acknowledging the horror of ICE deportations that are entering into their member communities. Local 2850 has been working to add protections for immigrants into contracts as well as going for local and statewide resolutions in support of their immigrant workforce.
The role of large labor organizations is more mixed than militant unions, but with their large memberships and financial infrastructure there are opportunities they can lend to antifascist movements. This may end up more passive than anything, the allying of resources, buildings, and participation in coalitions, while leaving the more open antifascist work to organizers free from the strictures of non-profit status. As unions have increasingly diverse membership, they will be pressured to stand up for the issues that fascist ideologues have owned, confronting mass deportations, the victimization of racial and gender minorities, and the increased threat that far-right politics represent to their membership.
The position of unions as a conceptual force is even more central as its mechanisms of class power are some of the most profound in history. The ability to use solidarity to dethrone the authority in a workplace can be expanded to the community, and the mass base, the ability to strike and worker empowerment can all be pivoted to see not only institutional injustice, but also the insurrectionary violence of white supremacy, as a target. Fascist politics splits the working class, a fragmentation that spells defeat in even the most class reductionist sense, and there is every reason for union members to be on the front lines.
Back in August, I wrote an article for Red Pepper magazine asserting the synonymy of the alt-right and its historical antecedents in the eugenics movement. The breadth of the movement’s influence at its height in late 2016 had it reaching in political spheres well beyond its original core in the white nationalist movement connected to Richard Spencer. That I catalogued this reach into GamerGate earned me quite a bit of impotent ire on the r/KotakuInAction Reddit where they claimed I didn’t know what eugenics, the alt-right, or GamerGate are.
One of the more worrying claims on the Reddit was that my account and rejection of eugenics rejects evolutionary biology and sociology. Barring a restriction to literature from before 1950, little could be further from the truth. In actuality, these disciplines widely reject the key claims of biological determinism made by eugenicists by accounting for existing legal, economic, and political institutions. What follows is a list of readings that articulate contemporary critiques of eugenics.
The world has been in tumult for decades, with more crises still ahead of us—from ecological and economic to political oppression and wars. These slow disasters will demand new approaches and open new possibilities. I think it’s time for all of us within civil society to think about how we want to respond, autonomously and collectively, without waiting to be saved by the same reactionary governments and corporations that have produced the crises in the first place.
In this essay, I will try to sketch a set of potential practices, praxis, and thinking centered on the narrow use of what I name as liberatory community armed self-defense. This distinct concept draws upon the histories of community self-defense, as practiced by various groups of people worldwide, and from the liberatory principles derived from anarchist and antiauthoritarian traditions.
The concept of community armed self-defense is a distinct development from grassroots social and political organizing models and notions of community defense, which at their core assert the right of oppressed peoples to protect their interests “by any means necessary.” That would include signing petitions and voting on one end of the spectrum to extralegal means of direct action, insurrection, or rebellions on the other. The Black Panther Party, for example engaged in community defense not only through their armed patrols but also through their survival programs, which opened health clinics and free schools in poor black neighborhoods otherwise lacking these kinds of services. This essay is an attempt at a critical reassessment of liberatory community armed self-defense: to re-envision the histories and analysis, to examine the praxis and bring these lessons forward to future engagements, and to broaden and strengthen our tactics and responses to crisis.
A Working Definition
Liberatory community armed self-defense is the collective group practice of temporarily taking up arms for defensive purposes, as part of larger engagements of collective autonomy in keeping with a liberatory ethics.
I am proposing liberatory community armed self-defense as a distinct idea borne out of a reassessment, spanning decades, of the historical experience of armed struggle and broader theories of the right of self-defense.
Self-Defense usually describes countermeasures employed by an individual to protect their immediate personal safety, and sometimes their property. Within the US, self-defense is discussed almost exclusively in legal terms relating to “rights” recognized by governments or constitutions, and only occasionally as human rights. By limiting the discussion to the rights attached to individuals, this framing fails to consider community interests, structural violence and oppression, and collective actions. The discourse thus completely neglects the defense of communities as such, and especially leaves out the political demands of people of color, women, immigrants, queers, and poor people.
Community self-defense in any form is not defined by laws but by ethics based in need (to protect) and the principles of anarchy (whether people call it that or not) by which groups of people collectively exercise their power in deciding their futures and determining how to respond to threats without relying on governments.
As a concept, LiberatoryCommunity Armed Self-Defense attempts to take into account unrecognized types of violence and the limits marginalized groups face in their ability to determine their own futures or collectively protect themselves. For example, in 1973, when the American Indian Movement took up arms to defend “their people” in the occupation at Wounded Knee, they did so to bring attention to the horrible living conditions on the reservations and the violence their communities faced both from a lack of basic services and from armed vigilante squads. The town of Wounded Knee was not itself under attack, but it represented what First Nations were facing everywhere. AIM’s stand was a clear example of community armed self-defense, but it doesn’t fit neatly into existing typologies of self-defense.
Some Important Distinctions
Liberatory community armed self-defense is different from other forms of armed action for two major reasons. The first is that it is temporary but organized. People can train in firearms tactics and safety individually or together but would be called on more like a volunteer fire department—only when needed and in response to specific circumstances. Second, and possibly more importantly, power-sharing and egalitarian principles are incorporated into the group ethics and culture long before conflict is ever engaged. These two overarching ideas separate it from most armed conflicts.
For instance, right-wing militias—like the anti-immigrant patrols of the Minutemen Militia along the U.S./Mexico border, or the racist Algiers Point Militia operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—have nothing to do with the type of community armed self-defense rooted in collective liberatory principles. These militias are built on abstract fears and racist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and a macho culture where the strongest or loudest is the leader. They are typically organized in military-type hierarchies with no real accountability to the people in civil society and the communities they operate within. These types of militias are far too similar to the types of the groups liberation movements have had to defend themselves against.
That said, the adoption of armed tactics in any conflict or threat situation always has the potential to morph temporary defensive measures into permanent military hierarchies unless conscious efforts to counter that tendency and share power are maintained. A liberatory approach is necessary to minimize, or at the least mitigate, that danger.
The armed component should never become the center; otherwise we risk becoming standing militaries. To avoid that, and to equalize power as best we are able to, a liberatory analysis is necessary to nurture those who are learning to exercise their power, and for those who need to be accountable to their groups or communities. The liberatory framework is built on anarchist principles of mutual aid (cooperation), direct action (taking action without waiting on the approval of the authorities), solidarity (recognizing that the well-being of disparate groups is tied together) and collective autonomy (community self-determination).
Defensive arms should be used only for the goals of collective liberation and not to seize permanent power, even if their use could potentially, and possibly necessarily, escalate conflicts. In any case, arms are not the first line of defense and are only taken up after other forms of conflict resolution have been exhausted.
The use of arms is only effective for the long term if it is part of a dual power framework. Dual Power means resisting exploitation and oppression, while also developing other initiatives toward autonomy and liberation as part of other efforts in self-sufficiency and self-determination.
Those engaged with guns should hold the same power as others involved in other forms of community defense or self-sufficiency. Carrying arms should be seen as a privileged task, with the same importance as childcare, growing food, or taking out the garbage—and not more. To maintain a balance of power, rotate all armed tasks and training among all those willing to participate. All firearms training needs to include dynamic and evolving liberatory ethics and practices in addition to how-to and safety. Within any training or operation, there should be an emphasis on challenging internalized assumptions about class, gender, and race to interrupt typical gun culture.
Reflections and Questions Toward a Theory
These notes are only a beginning. Many questions remain, including those concerning organization, tactical considerations, the coercive power inherent in firearms, accountability to the community being defended and to the broader social movement, and ultimately, one hopes, the process of demilitarization. For example: Do defensive engagements have to remain geographically isolated? Are small affinity groups the best formations for power-sharing and broad mobilization? How do we create cultures of support for those who engage in defensive armed conflict, especially with respect to historically oppressed people’s right to defend themselves? What do those engagements of support look like? Additionally there are many tactical considerations and questions to be discussed and debated to avoid replicating the dominant gun culture. How do we keep arms or arms training from becoming the central focus, whether from habit, culture, or romanticization?
There can be an end to the senseless violence for domination or resources. But if we want to transcend violence in the long term, we may need use it in the short term. We thus need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our approaches and our methods. When is armed engagement appropriate? How would we want it to look? How do we create cultures of tacit or direct support and include people who would never themselves engage in armed defense? How will we keep from centralizing power? When do the consequences outweigh the benefits? There are no blueprints; we have to create this together, step by step. We need to challenge ourselves and overcome our self-imposed limitations and shed our preconceptions of what resistance and liberation are like. When we do, we will gain confidence in potentially using deadly tools with a liberatory consciousness. That means we have to understanding that the values of power-sharing and openness are every bit as important as the power of carrying loaded weapons.
Arms will never offer the only answer to exercising or equalizing power. Only we can do that, but they can be a deterrent against real threats, and can greatly expand our tools of liberation. Community armed self-defense opens up the possibility of changing the rules of engagement. It doesn’t always make situations less violent, but it can help to balance the inequity of power among individuals and diverse communities. I am not calling for us all to rise up in arms but to rethink how we defend ourselves. We can dream, we can build new worlds, but to do so we must not forget to resist on our own terms.
All revolutions start as the basic refusal of an oppressed person to follow along with the rules of their own subservience. The autonomous Marxist tradition breaks from many understanding of economics and history to say that it is what it calls “Working Class Self-Activity” that brings about crisis. In 2007-8 we saw an economic collapse not just because of the nefarious actors on Wall Street, but because an entire working class decided to refuse to go along with the destruction of real wages and living standards. Through de-industrialization, attacks on labor unions, and the depletion of the social safety net through neoliberalism, the actual wealth of the collective working class was set ablaze. Debt soared, and workers began to, en masse, take out loans they couldn’t pay back, buy houses they couldn’t afford, and run up credit cards they didn’t care to pay off. They refused to play by the rules of the system that was forcing them into economic and social retreat.
That principle has echoed through history. The crisis of the Civil War came after decades of increasing slave revolts. The similar principle can be seen in peasant revolts across the world, the story of the labor movement and its insurgent actors, and the student uprisings starting in the 1960s.
Kevin Van Meter dives deep into this phenomenon, which he calls “everyday resistance.” This is the kind of resistance that happens no matter if someone is attuned to revolutionary class politics or not. It is the kind of resistance that comes as an act of survival. Stealing from work. Clocking in your friend who is late. Creating mutual aid networks to care for kids. Fighting back against abusive husbands. These are all acts of resistance, and they are, as Van Meter asserts, the foundation of all radical and revolutionary politics.
The question here is how to mobilize this everyday resistance into a fully formed mass movement, and how antifascism and the resistance to Trumpism can build on the instinct towards survival.
The below talk was given at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.
The history and theory of antifascist resistance were forged both out of the integral battle against fascist forces, as well as the intersections of radical left politics that wanted to go beyond acting simply as a station of resistance. The rise of the Alt Right, Donald Trump, and identitarianism and right populism throughout the West has made this more relevant than anyone would have guessed only a few years ago.
Within that, two authors have written books that dive deep into how to understand the rise of fascism in the 21st century, and the growing mass antifascist movement. Historian Mark Bray wrote Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook analyzing the history, strategy, and theory of ‘militant antifascism,’ a movement that sees direct resistance as necessary. Journalist Shane Burley just released Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It breaking down the key ideas, history, and tactics of American fascists, and how mass antifascism is rising to stop it.
Both authors came together in Portland, Oregon at the historic Powell’s City of Books to discuss the books, fascism in the age of Trump, and what can be done to stop white nationalism.
With today being Samhain (Halloween), we thought we would share this now classic essay/zine on the radical history of this holiday and tradition. We have reposted the version found at Mask Magazine, including their photo selection, and have also included a link to the zine version below.
By Bradly Stroot
Origins of the Halloween Spirit
Though widely recognized across North America, the origins of Halloween are poorly understood by many of its celebrants, likely due to their dark, unsavory, and disorderly nature. Its calendar date and etymology are undeniably Christian (from “All Hallows’ Evening,” the night before All Saints Day on November 1st), but the spirit that animates this “Halloween machine” is widely thought to originate from the pagan New Year celebrations of the Keltoi people (or Celts) of Ireland.
The Keltoi, whose name is likely derived from kel-, the Indo-European prefix for the “hidden,” were a diverse constellation of Celtic-speaking tribes that spread across much of Europe and the British Isles between the Iron Age and Early Middle Ages, even occupying Rome for a period of time around 400 BCE. Because of these hidden people’s refusal to commit their oral history and scholarship to written records, much of the most spectacular accounts of these “primitive” pagans and their “bloodthirsty” human sacrifice have been written by their imperial enemies like Julius Caesar and thus should be considered suspect at best.
What is known almost for certain, however, is that many Keltoi of the British Isles believed in an afterlife called Tir na tSamhraidh, or the “Land of Summer.” The doors to this Other world were only opened once a year on Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), the period between the two nights of October 31 and November 1. According to Nicholas Rogers, the author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,
“Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead. It was quintessentially ‘an old pastoral and agricultural festival […] It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh, the ancient mounds or barrows of the countryside. To ward off these spirits, the Irish built huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice. […] In Celtic lore, it marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness. […] It represented a time out of time, a brief interval ‘when the normal order of the universe in suspended’ and ‘charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.’”
These liminal interludes, as Barry Cunliffe calls them in The Celts, were particularly dangerous because “they were times when anything could happen and it was only by careful adherence to ritual and propitiation that a precarious order could be maintained.” Lisa Morton, another Halloween scholar and the author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, crucially adds that this was the only time of the year with a relative abundance of food and alcohol which contributed to Samhain’s festive and mischievous atmosphere. She also adds that, in addition to Beltane on May 1st, it was one of the two most important days in the Keltoi’s often frightening heroic folk tales, like that of,
“the Formorians, a race of demonic giants who have conquered Ireland after a great battle, demand a yearly tax of two-thirds of the subdued survivors’ corn, milk, and children, to be paid each year on Samhain. The Tuatha de Danann, a race of godlike, benevolent ancestors chronicled in Celtic mythology, battle against the Fomorians for years, but it takes the Morrigan, a mother god, and the hero Angus Og to finally drive the monsters from Ireland – on Samhain, of course.”
In these multiple accounts of Samhain, we can find themes that will come to define Halloween and follow it through its long history – particularly those of liminality, excess, celebration, mischief, darkness, fire, demons, and, perhaps most important to this essay, rebellion. When I obsessively began researching Detroit’s Devil’s Night a month ago, it was not immediately clear what its connection with this larger tradition would be, but as a began to work backward I began to uncover a genealogy that I couldn’t ignore. From the anti-Christian heresy of the medieval British Isles to the widespread arson of 1980s Detroit, we will see as this spirit of Halloween will continue to intersect with several notable subversive moments throughout its long life, constantly re-inventing itself to evade the forces of law and order.
The Witch Hammer, c. 700-1590 CE
Though Samhain provided Halloween with these raw, disorderly materials, it actually gave the holiday very little in terms of concrete practices or symbolism, excepting bonfires. These traditions, including the name of Halloween, came later in the Medieval period with the violent imposition of Christianity and its holy days, All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day.Originally celebrated on May 13 as a remembrance of Christian martyrs who had died at the hands of pagans, Lemuria (as it was previously known) was moved to November 1st by the Pope and rebranded as a more palatable, positive celebration of “all the saints.” Later, the early Church added All Souls’ Day on November 2, conveniently bookending the celebration with an opportunity to pray for the souls of the deceased that were trapped in Purgatory. According to Morton, however, “it seems more likely that the gloomy, ghostly new celebration was added to cement the transformation of Samhain from pagan to Christian holiday.”
Three centuries later, this gloomy and ghostly nature of All Souls’ Day transformed from an exceptional, temporary celebration to the daily reality of most Europeans as the Black Death began to spread throughout the western hemisphere. Beginning in 1346 and peaking around 1350, the plague killed as much as 60 percent of Europe’s population and left the surviving population with an unavoidable preoccupation with death. This, coupled with the simultaneous spread of the printing press, led to the mass circulation of Danse Macabre imagery and a generalized perception of Death as a personified subject, which one can still see in modern celebrations of Halloween. Though the figure of Death was originally portrayed as an animated skeleton, the opportunity was quickly seized by the Church and early capitalists to re-purpose this body of enmity in order to target a rebellious subject whom they had both long considered a threat but were now finally strong enough to destroy: the witch.
According to Arthur Evans’ recently republished 1978 book, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture,
“Despite its contempt for magic, the early church did not organize a full-scale attack against magicians and witches because it was not yet strong enough. The Christianity of the early middle ages was largely an affair of the King and the upper class of warlords. The rest of society remained pagan. In addition, early medieval Christians were hampered by a general breakdown of centralized authority in both church and state. Anarchy favored paganism.”
However, as Evans continues,
“By the early thirteenth century, […] the church was much better organized and ready to act. Its immediate target was heresy: the numerous and widespread attempts to combine traditional Christianity with elements of the old religion. To deal with this, the church launched crusades and started the Holy Inquisition. […] Now it began to look at the historical sources of heresy – the surviving old religion that modern historians view as ‘folklore,’ ‘peasant fantasy,’ and ‘strange fertility rites.’ Feeling its privilege, power, and world view threatened by these sources, the fifteenth-century ruling class fantasized that Satan was conspiring to overthrow the power of Christ’s church on earth.
With this consolidation of sovereign power and the figurative marriage of Satan and witches began what came to be known as The Great Witch-Hunt. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici traces the lineage of this mass genocide beyond just the Christian elite’s fear of paganism but to a whole world of generalized peasant revolts and the powerful, undomesticated women who likely organized them. Though this population was likely quite heterogeneous and their activities today may be likened to those of midwives, abortionists, sex workers, and popular healers among others, their enemies were able to collapse their commonalities into the identity of the witch, which could then be surgically targeted for removal.
According to Evans, the early Church “turned homosexuality into heresy” and began to collapse the two identities so that to call someone a heretic was to call them a homosexual, and vice versa. And “because of the methods of the Inquisition, […] great numbers of Lesbians and Gay men must have lost their lives.” We can also assume that the many individuals who today might have self-identified as transgender were likely also targeted for extermination. Besides the story of Joan of Arc: Transvestite and Heretic, there is unfortunately very little other research into this history and, therefore, my only reference point for this period will be Federici’s figure of the witch-as-woman.
The authorities obsessed over that these witches largely lived alone, relied on public assistance, were sexually “promiscuous,” and encouraged non-procreative sex (by means of contraception and abortions). Because these activities interfered with male supremacy, heteronormativity, population growth, compulsory labor, domestication, and order – in a word, civilization – the witch started being painted as a threat to life itself. According to Federici, “Witches were accused of conspiring to destroy the generative power of humans and animals, of procuring abortions, and of belonging to an infanticidal sect devoted to killing children and offering them to the devil.”
But, according to Federici, these accusations did not spontaneously generate from the witches’ own neighbors overnight. Instead, a highly-organized campaign of indoctrination was introduced from above and spread from to village to village traveling public officials. All this was only possible with the mass generation of propaganda using the most advanced technology of the day – the printing press. Of particular importance to re-imagining these rebellious women as demon-worshipping baby killers were the widely circulated copies of the Malleus Maleficarum and the evocative images created from the engravings of Hans Baldung Grien. In his most famous work, Witches’ Sabbath, one can see precursors to images of witches we still can find on Hallmark cards today – deformed bodies gathering around a bubbling caldron with their animal familiars (later portrayed as black cats), and flying through the air to their subversive meetings with the devil.
Of special significance to the history of Halloween is this last component – the mass gathering of witches at the Sabbath, or Sabbat. Though widely exaggerated by its enemies, some historians have speculated that the Sabbat was an actual nocturnal gathering of thousands where peasants plotted popular revolts against ruling social enclosures.
Given the potentially subversive nature of these massive gatherings, it should be of no surprise then that the “witches” who attended became a target of extermination to the forces of order. Curiously, according to Morton, this is about the same period when a term closely resembling “Halloween” first begins to appear in the English language.
“The choice of All Hallows’ as a major holiday for witches and devils was no doubt coerced from the accused with a political agenda in mind. […] A spectacular witch trial took place during the reign of the Protestant king James I: in 1590, dozens of Scots were accused of having attempted to prevent James from reaching his queen-to-be, Anne of Denmark, by gathering on Halloween night and then riding the sea in sieves while creating storms by tossing live cats tied to human body parts in the water. After the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, as they were called, Halloween was forever to be firmly associated with witches, cats, cauldrons, brooms, and the Devil.”
Mischievous Nights c. 1600-1900 CE
After this brutal erasure of an entire population and the undomesticated form of life that they represented, one can see a marked change in the culture surrounding the celebration of Halloween, particularly in its embrace of romance, parlor games, and tempered mischief in place of unbridled revolt. According to Rogers, one popular tradition of this era was a public choral performance that encouraged marriage and procreation with refrains celebrating “the wise virgins awaiting the coming of the bridegroom.” These public affirmations of marriage also announced the beginning of the seasons of Christmas and misrule, a temporary period of permitted mischief wherein urban leaders were ritually usurped from power in mock coups by impersonated sheriffs and mayors.
Simultaneously in the countryside, according to a sixteenth century account written by Philip Stubbs, large groups of drunken revelers would parade the churchyards with their horses, singing and dancing “with such a confused noise that no man can heare his own voice,” and demand contributions from their neighbors in order to continue their “Heathenrie, Devilrie, and Drunkennesse.” According to David J. Skal, the author of Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, it is also within this era that the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern develops, complete with a Christian folk etymology of harmless mischief:
“Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on earth until Judgement Day. Jack’s perpetual prank is decoying of hapless travelers into the murky mire.”
In this new era of “civilized” Christianity, previous bloody wars between pagans and early Christians were replaced by relatively minor inter-religious skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics – that is, until November 5, 1605. Successfully recognized by its simple injunction to “Remember, remember the fifth of November!”, this was the day that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic malcontent, was caught placing thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a vault beneath the protestant House of Lords, later known as the Gunpowder Plot.
Fawkes was soon publicly hanged as a Catholic traitor and the date of his failed attack was chosen by the Parliament as “a holiday forever in thankfulness to our God for deliverance and detestation for the Papists.” Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night (as it came to be dually known) co-existed peacefully for about 40 years until, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of all festivals excepting the anti-Catholic celebration. It was then, due to their relative proximity of one another, that November 5 began to take on many of the sinister and mischievous elements of Halloween. Young people would spend weeks preparing for the night by going house-to-house dressed in rags and demanding firewood or money for the massive bonfire roasts of Pope effigies that would come to define the night, a tradition that some historians consider as the origin of trick-or-treat, which will be discussed later. According to Rogers, if no firewood or money was given, it was “considered quite lawful to appropriate any old wood” from these households.
It also around this same time, according to Rogers, that the oldest recorded use of “Mischief Night” is noted by a headmaster to describe his school’s theatre performance that ended in “an Ode to Fun which praises children’s tricks on Mischief Night in most approving terms.” Though originally celebrated on May 1, it eventually found it’s home on in Great Britain on November 4, the night before Bonfire Night, and later in the US on October 30. According to Rogers, it was during this transitional time that Halloween itself began to reappear in the British Isles as a festival distinct from Bonfire Night while still retaining some its most disorderly practices such the targeted destruction of private property, particularly by young, working class men in Scotland and Ireland.
“Mimicking the malignant spirits who were widely believed to be abroad on Halloween, gangs of youths blocked up chimneys, rampaged cabbage patches, battered doors, unhinged gates, and unstabled horses. In nineteenth-century Cromarty, revelers even sought out lone women whom they could haze as a witch. […] ‘If an individual happened to be disliked in the place,’ observed one Scot in 1911, ‘he was sure to suffer dreadfully on these occasions. He doors would be broken, and frequently not a cabbage left standing in the garden.’ Such was Halloween reputation as a night of festive retribution that in some parts of Scotland the imperatives of community justice prevailed over private property, to a point that the Kirk-session found it impossible to enforce law and order.”
These accounts of masculine mob attacks to deliver “community justice” to “unpopular” neighbors and “lone women” are not included as an endorsement for their obviously proto-fascist and misogynistic nature; instead, these moments illustrate how, by means of the witch-hunts and other violent forms of domestication, women had been excluded from the sphere of rebellion and continued to be a target of attack. It is also important not to overlook these moments’ qualities of retribution and ungovernability that will better situate the widespread vandalism of Irish-American immigrant youth and Detroit’s prolific teenage arsonists.
Black Halloween, 1845-1945 CE
Much like the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, the potato blight of 1845 dramatically impacted the course of Halloween’s evolution as it spread across Ireland, killing both the country’s staple food crop and over one million Irish peasants from the resulting starvation. Over the course of the next seven years, one million more Irish would leave their homes, many sailing to North America where they soon outnumbered all other immigrant groups combined. It is not surprising then that this is also the context in which that Halloween celebrations and revelry, long disdained by earlier Puritan settlers, begin to appear in the United States. As Lesley Pratt Bannatyne writes in her book Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, “Wherever the Irish went, […] Halloween followed along.”
In their new homes across North America, Irish immigrant youth continued to experiment, innovate, and spread new forms of devilry during the Halloween season, often creatively adapting to the idiosyncrasies of each environment. In some Midwestern towns, this took the form of removing farmers’ gates to free their animals, while on the East Coast, this took the form of weaponizing the relatively abundant supply of cabbages. Lamenting that “gangs of hoodlums throng[ing] the streets” had replaced the “kindly old customs” with “the spirit of rowdyism,” William Shepard Walsh, a nineteenth-century historian details that:
“Mischievous boys push the pith from the stalk, fill the cavity with tow which they set on fire, and then through the keyholes of houses of folk who have given them offence blow darts of flame a yard in length. […] If on Halloween a farmer’s or crofter’s kail-yard still contains ungathered cabbages, the boy and girls of the neighborhood descend upon it en masse, and the entire crop is harvested in five minutes’ time and thumped against the owner’s doors, which rattle as though pounded by a thunderous tempest.”
In keeping with Halloween’s long tradition of liminality, Tad Tuleja posits in his essay Trick or Treat: Pretexts and Contexts that these attacks on rural households:
“may be seen as an attack on domestic borders. The majority of popular pranks were ‘threshhold tricks’ that assaulted, if only temporarily, ordered space. […] Buggies, which provided cohesion to far-flung rural communities were ‘dysfunctionalized’ by being placed on barn roofs. Even the popular custom of tipping over outhouses served metonymically as an attack on the house-as-home.”
Though many of these mischievous deeds against rural neighbors were treated with a wide berth of tolerance by the authorities of the day, the tactics of urban immigrant youth soon sharpened and escalated to the alarm (and beyond the control) of fledgling police forces, taking on a character resembling something closer to asymmetric urban warfare. After the collapse of the American stock market on October 24th, 1929 (or Black Tuesday, as it came to be known), the next few years saw Halloween mobs specifically targeting symbols of luxury and the infrastructure of the metropolis, with a notable peak in 1933 (uncoincidentally at the height of America’s Great Depression) that came to be known as Black Halloween.
According to multiple accounts by Lisa Morton, Nicholas Rogers, and David Skal, this period was marked by youth gangs ripping down street signs, sawing down telephone poles, opening fire hydrants, disabling streetlights, barricading streets with stolen gates and refuse, dragging tree stumps onto railroad tracks, removing manhole covers, tearing up the boards of wooden sidewalks, smashing storefront windows, holding shopkeepers hostage, unhooking poles from the tops of streetcars, spreading grease on trolley car tracks, putting empty barrels over church steeples, attacking the police, and burning “almost anything they could set afire.” Rogers adds that as the celebration of Halloween started to spread westward, so did these flames. In 1908, anonymous vandals in Belton, Texas burned several freight cars, houses, and 1000 bales of cotton which in total cost the city upwards of $6 million in today’s money, when adjusted for inflation.
Many of these attacks were focused around immobilizing the movement of commerce through the metropolis but specifically, as Rogers observes, “the new symbol of prosperity, the automobile, became the object of destruction. Revelers soaped windows, deflated tires, and at busy intersections unceremoniously ‘bounced’ cars, or rocked them from the back to the discomfort of the passengers.” Skal also notes the class antagonism to be found within these accounts, adding that,
“one report took special notice that a car overturned by a ‘mass attack’ of hoodlums was a ‘sedan of expensive make.’ The stucco of America’s social contract was likewise severely chipped by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, and in a small way, the customs of Halloween pranking reflected more generalized anxieties about civil unrest.”
Skal goes on to write, in a notable account of multiracial rebellion, that
“on Halloween 1934, the pranks of masked children parading through the streets of Harlem rapidly escalated from harmless flour and ask pelting to rock throwing to automobile vandalism. The police estimated that four hundred youngsters, both black and white, were involved in the various melees, which culminated with a car being heisted and rolled down a fifty-foot embankment in Riverside Park, where its tires were slashed.”
Though it would be pleasant to imagine that these sorts of multiracial conspiracies were common in this period, it should not be surprising that not only was this rare, but actually antithetical to many of Roger’s accounts of non-white participation in these mobs. In fact, three years earlier on Halloween night of 1931, a violent street battle developed between 400 black and white adults on the same streets of Harlem. As urban youth began to materially sabotage the fragile economy, white mob attacks began to develop into larger race riots, and widespread looting overtook the Halloween celebration of the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, it was not to be long before the forces of order would have to once again intervene to restore order to the holiday.
The Taming of Halloween, c. 1945–1960
After three decades of annual insurgency by tireless immigrant youth, it became obvious to authorities that the rebellious spirit of Halloween had to be severed from the holiday once as for all. As Skal writes, “although Halloween never even registered in the national debate, the many local controversies surrounding the holiday echoed much larger political themes about anarchy, order, and wealth distribution.” He continues, citing the accidental death of a young girl (after her dress caught fire from a Jack-o’-Lantern) as another source of public unease regarding Halloween, which,
“to many observers, seemed nothing but an invitation and excuse for social disaster. Fear of a seething underclass was a strong subtext of other reform movements of the early 1930’s; film censorship campaigns, for example, got especially worked up about the Halloweenish content of horror and crime movies, each genre anarchic in it own way. Such entertainments were widely viewed as demoralizing threats to public order, October 31 all year long.”
This particular passage is striking because it likens to the desperate counter-revolutionary concessions of the Roosevelt’s New Deal with the concerted efforts to “civilize” Halloween by police, schools, politicians, churches, and civil groups. While this certainly took on forms of updated strategies from previous centuries – erasure in the form of film censorship, romance as costume balls, parlor games as church lock-ins, and so on – it also presented a newly available option in the post-Depression era: consumption. Rogers explains that “by making Halloween consumer-oriented and infantile, civic and industrial promoters hoped to eliminate its anarchic features. By making it neighborly and familial, they strove to re-appropriate public space from the unorthodox and ruffian and restore social order to the night of 31 October.”
Though there is evidence that Halloween rebels were being bought off with candy as early as 1920, it is not until after the Halloween unrest of the mid-1930’s and post-WW2 production boom that we begin to see trick-or-treat being explicitly promoted as a tangible solution to restore order to the reviled holiday.
The precise origins of the tradition itself are disputed by some historians, but many agree that it partially arose from Depression-era “house-to-house parties” that some neighbors would co-operatively host on Halloween to save money. Morton notes that one of the first national mentions of the term “trick-or-treat” can be found in a 1939 article entitled A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigage?, which specifically names the practice as “a method of subverting rowdy pranking.”
“Whatever its specific sources, inspirations, or influences,” writes Skal, trick-of-treating “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property protection strategy during the late Depression.” However, he continues,
“it is the postwar years that are generally regarded as the glorious heyday of trick-or-treating. Like the consumer economy, Halloween itself grew by leaps and bounds. Major candy companies like Curtiss and Brach, no longer constrained by sugar rationing, launched national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween. […] The begging ritual was modeled for millions of youngsters in the early fifties by Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in Disney’s animated cartoon ‘Trick or Treat,’ accompanied by a catchy, reinforcing song of the same title.”
In addition to promoting trick-or-treat as a subtle alternative, Rogers also cites this specific Donald Duck cartoon as a propaganda piece critical for “the taming of Halloween,” explaining that “rather than experience real-life shenanigans, children could find them in a Walt Disney cartoon.” By the late 1950’s the enmity that had come to define October 31st had been almost completely supplanted with a fabricated ethic of consumption, whether in the form of candy or experiences. This “generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” as Jean Baudrillard conceived of a hyperreality, was apparently so effective that one police sergeant in Los Angeles publicly expressed his confusion about the disappearance of teenage rebels after an oddly peaceful Halloween in 1959.
Of course, these measures were not applied uniformly across the entire continent, and in some places the destruction previously associated with Halloween were simply displaced to the day before, on October 30th. As Rogers recorded of an older man’s prouds remarks of his boyhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, “there was only mischief. The adult world could not buy us off with candy or shiny pennies. They didn’t even try.” In these small pockets of lingering mischief, particularly in the newly developed suburbs of the period, the vandalism took on a decidedly less class-conscious tone, reverting to a previous form of pranks that targeted “unpopular” or stingy neighbors by smashing their pumpkins or stealing their gate. And because of their relative isolation to one another, many of the areas developed hyper-localized terms for their own sports, like Vermont’s Cabbage Night, Montreal’s Mat Night, upstate New York’s Gate Night, New Jersey’s Mischief Night, and Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night.
This map from Joshua Katz, NC State University, visualizes where people call the night before Halloween “mischief night.”
The Demonization of Halloween, c. 1967-Present
On July 23rd, 1967, after the police raided a party for two returning Vietnam GIs at an illegal speakeasy on the Near West Side of Detroit, crowds made up mostly of black residents soon gathered outside and began throwing bottles and stones in retaliation. The police were forced to retreat and the remaining crowd quickly seized the opportunity to pillage a nearby clothing store. The incident quickly widened into full-scale looting throughout the entire neighborhood. Sidney Fine, in his book Violence in the Model City, recorded accounts from witnesses that described this moment as possessing a “carnival atmosphere” of multiracial looting, in which the police were totally outnumbered and were forced to watch this “gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of buildings” from a careful distance. By the next afternoon, the first fire had been set at a nearly grocery store and a small mob blocked a firetruck from putting out the flames. According to historian Herb Colling, the local media initially refused to report on the unrest for fear of it spreading to other parts of the city, but the unavoidable smoke of a burning Detroit soon began to fill the city’s skyline.
Over the next 24 hours, the fires and looting spread across the entire city targeting both black and white-owned businesses, notably resulting in 38 handguns and 2,498 rifles being appropriated by the rebels. In response, President Johnson was forced to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 that could authorize the use federal troops to put down an insurrection against the U.S. Government. Beginning at 1:30am on July 25th, over 8000 Michigan Army National Guardsman and 4700 U.S. Army paratroopers descended upon the city to violently put down the uprising. In the following three days, countless horrors of brutality, sexual assault, and assassination were visited upon those who continued to fight against the forces of order.
By July 28th, after the last fire has been set, the troops began to slowly withdraw from the city and authorities began to survey the damage. All told, the five-day period between July 23-28 resulted in 2509 stores being looted or burned, 7231 arrests, 1189 injuries, and 43 deaths, 33 of whom were black residents. Unlike the 1943 Detroit race riot, however, observers noted a high participation of white residents in looting stores, setting fires, and sniping cops which raised questions about whether the uprising could be simply categorized as a ‘race riot.’ The Great Rebellion, as it came to be known instead, set off a wave of unrest that would continue to spread to over two dozen cities and return to Detroit the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is following this period of social upheaval and counterinsurgency that one finds the development of a diffuse anxiety within the white population over “inner city issues,” and their subsequent mass exodus to the suburban peripheries, later known as white flight. In these shiny new refugee camps for the white middle class, an alienating fear of the Other lingered and would soon prove to be a death knell for trick-or-treat, one of their children’s last remaining sources of autonomy and comradery outside the family unit. Much in the way that authorities were forced to suppress the mischief they initially promoted in place of unbridled revolt, they now found themselves losing control over the unrestrained throngs of begging children that they created to replace the uncontrollable vandals before them. As Morton argues:
“Given trick or treat’s almost universal suburban popularity, its emphasis on representation of outsiders, and the way it empowered its participants, it was perhaps inevitable that trick or treat was about to experience a backlash. Adults, it seemed, were unwilling to grant their children that power after all. In 1964, a New York housewife named Helen Pfeil was upset at the number of trick or treaters whom she thought were too old to be demanding candy and handed them packages of dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool. Within three years, the urban legend of children being given apples with hidden razor blades surfaced, and parents began to worry about Halloween.”
Though only two deaths (both of which were later attributed to family members) and a small number of injuries were reported over two decades of “Halloween sadism,” the media was quick to portray the holiday as rife with poison, satanic cults, and stranger danger. As one 1975 Newsweek article leading up to Halloween claimed,
“If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home with something more than just an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.”
Civic groups and churches again rushed to this opportunity for a decisive social enclosure, that is, of removing youth from the street once and for all. Across the continent, thousands of “alternatives to trick-or-treating” were suddenly being hosted at shopping malls, museums, zoos, schools, spook houses, and community centers while some hospitals continued to reinforce the paranoia of Halloween sadism by offering to x-ray the die-hard trick-or-treaters’ candy for dangerous metal objects.
These “tales of Halloween sadism,” Rogers eloquently argues,
“were measured against the vision of a stable, congenital decade of trick-or-treating in the 1950’s. This was a decade of Cold War politics and Red scares. Yet beyond the zone of leftist agitation, it was also a decade of relative social peace, of continuing baby boom, of consumer affluence and suburban development. The 1960’s and 1970’s, however, posed new challenges to the social and political fabric of the United States. This was the era of civil rights agitation, of urban ghetto riots, of student and antiwar protest, of youth countercultures, of feminism and gay liberation, of Watergate. In the South, African-Americans defeated Jim Crow, but in the North they faced de facto resegregation as whites fled to the suburbs in the wake of rioting in Watts, Newark, and Detroit.”
Within five years of The Great Rebellion, the composition of Detroit’s population had completely changed, producing a majority black inner city ringed by a hostile periphery of white suburbs. “In the aftermath of the riot,” As Ze’ev Chafets explains in his once controversial 1990 book Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, “Detroit became the national capital of disingenuous surprise. People suddenly discovered what should have been obvious – that beyond the glittering downtown, the leafy neighborhoods, the whirring computers, there was another city: poor, black, and angry” that “seethes with the resentments of postcolonial Africa.” This comparison was clearly not lost on those who would soon be tasked with recycling counterinsurgency measures developed against anti-colonial uprisings to be used against a new form of annual black insurgency – that of Devil’s Night.
Although 1983 is widely recognized as the official beginning of Devil’s Night because of its dramatic increase in dumpster fires, there is evidence to suggest that there was an already low-level insurgency associated with Halloween dating back to at least 1979 and, conceivably, to 1967 itself. It was only in 1984, probably due to a combination of the widespread media hype of the 1983 arsons and the World Series victory by the Detroit Tigers on October 31st, that there was a marked increase in building fires. With over 297 fires on October 30th alone, 1984’s Halloween season set the high water mark for destruction with “the worst fire scenes I’ve seen since the riots of 1967,” according to a former Detroit Fire Department chief.
This last statement should also not be overlooked, because within it is a glimpse of authorities’ conceptual framework for viewing Devil’s Night – that is, not as an isolated incident, but as an aftershock of The Great Rebellion that rivaled its destruction and, therefore, should be eligible for the same levels of counterinsurgency. But to do would require more than just a single comparison; it would require resorting to racist and supernatural tropes to target an opaque and population that had long been mystified the white population. Much in the same way that the witch was manufactured to target a heterogeneous population with the figure of a supernatural, life-stealing Other, the figure of the Devil had also been revived to literally demonize the insurgent black youth of Detroit. According to Carole Nagengast’s Violence, Terror, and the Crisis of the State, “the goal of state violence is not to inflict pain; it is the social project of creating punishable categories of people.”
Though many residents and politicians speculated about the circumstances that produced the widespread arson of 1984, David Skal notes that the influential Detroit Free Press newspaper noticeably avoided any sociological analysis in the months after, instead favoring a “law-and-order approach to Halloween Eve arson and crime, including gun control, aggressive prosecution, and more jail cells.” According to the authors of an enlightening research paper entitled Preventing Halloween Arson in an Urban Setting, it was the following that Mayor Coleman Young then created a “Devil’s Night Task Force,” tasked with goals of “reduced arson, raised community awareness, and increased involvement in the fight against arson” over the next decade. Each spring, appointees from the mayor’s office, Detroit Neighborhood City Halls, city departments (including public health, fire, police, youth, public lighting, law, recreation, information technology, planning, among others), community organizations, churches, public schools, and the private sector would convene to begin creating strategies based on insights gleaned from previous years.
With these in hand, fire and police officials from each neighborhood would collaborate with neighborhood snitches and influential clergy to create “decentralized action plans” to enact a larger eight point, city-wide strategy: Deployment of Public Safety Personnel, by means of mobilizing all available police, firefighters, and helicopters; The Elimination of Arson Targets by means of towing abandoned cars, removing tires from dumping sites, and demolishing thousands of vacant homes and buildings; Volunteer Training by means of offered orientations to Adopt-A-House volunteers who wanted to guard abandoned buildings or Neighborhood Patrols who wanted to seek out arsonists on foot; Media and Communications by means of an aggressive PR campaign to convey “the dangers of arson”; Activities for Children and Teenagers by means of church and city-sponsored movie marathons, dances, carnivals, etc.; Youth Curfew in the form of a 6pm curfew for those under 18, whose violators would face expedited processing at temporary nighttime courtrooms; and Prohibition on the Sale of Fuel by means of criminalizing the sale of dispensing of gasoline into portable containers.
In each of these eight headlines, we can find almost perfectly mirrored strategies depicted in Kristian Williams’ essay The Other Side of COIN, many of which he directly cited from U.S. Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and British brigadier Frank Kitson’s strategies against anti-colonial movements in Kenya, Cypress, and Northern Ireland. Of particular significance to many of these strategies is the goal of “monopolizing the use of force” and establish legitimacy in doing so, which the Army field manual asserts as “the main objective.” One can particularly see this in the conflicting strategy of guarding and demolishing abandoned homes, a clearly desperately attempt to re-establish control over a territory that had subverted its monopoly on destruction by self-immolating. As part of maintaining its fragile legitimacy, however, the city couldn’t simply call in the National Guard again; instead it had to source its army from the remaining loyal segments of the city’s population to do its bidding. This “Halloween anti-arson intervention,” when viewed through Williams’ simple equation reveals its obvious and undeniable nature: Community Policing + Militarization = Counterinsurgency.
Between 1985-1996, largely by means of these counterinsurgency strategies and anti-gang initiatives, the city of Detroit was able to considerably reduce Halloween-time arson within the city. Though it is tempting to conclude that this may have been the moment when the rebellious spirit of Halloween was finally killed, to do so would deny the almost constant low-intensity insurgency that remained and would later spread to other cities like Camden and Cincinnati. In 1994, after the new mayor of Detroit publicly declared the death of Devil’s Night and mobilized a significantly smaller number of citizen patrols, the numbers of arsons dramatically rose, forcing him to mobilize an army of 30,000 “Angel’s Night” volunteers the following October. Given this constant obligation to douse its flames, perhaps we should not speak of the death of Halloween, but instead, its temporary imprisonment.
But if the history presented here is any indication, moments of disorder are not only unpredictable but evasive by their very nature of disrupting of linear time and ordered space. As the rare moments of social peace between upheavals become ever shorter and the fires of Detroit blends into Camden and Ferguson’s into Baltimore, it’s possible to conceive of the spirit of Halloween returning not as a discrete moment in October, but, in the words of one old revolutionary, “a holiday without beginning or end.”
“Shane Burley’s book includes a wealth of information about today’s far right groups, ideologies, strategies, and subcultures…. It also says a lot about the need for a multi-pronged approach to antifascism, and illustrates this argument with numerous and diverse examples of antifascist activism, past and present. It is the kind of book we need to help us understand—and end—fascism today.” — Matthew Lyons, from the foreword
We can no longer ignore the fact that fascism is on the rise in the United States. What was once a fringe movement has been gaining cultural acceptance and political power for years. Rebranding itself as “alt-right” and riding the waves of both Donald Trump’s hate-fueled populism and the anxiety of an abandoned working class, they have created a social force that has the ability to win elections and inspire racist street violence in equal measure.
Fascism Today looks at the changing world of the far right in Donald Trump’s America. Examining the modern fascist movement’s various strains, Shane Burley has written an accessible primer about what its adherents believe, how they organize, and what future they have in the United States. The ascension of Trump has introduced a whole new vocabulary into our political lexicon—white nationalism, race realism, Identitarianism, and a slew of others. Burley breaks it all down. From the tech-savvy trolls of the alt-right to esoteric Aryan mystics, from full-fledged Nazis to well-groomed neofascists like Richard Spencer, he shows how these racists and authoritarians have reinvented themselves in order to recruit new members and grow.
Just as importantly, Fascism Today shows how they can be fought and beaten. It highlights groups that have successfully opposed these twisted forces and outlines the elements needed to build powerful mass movements to confront the institutionalization of fascist ideas, protect marginalized communities, and ultimately stop the fascist threat.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared at places like Jacobin, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Labor Notes, Roar Magazine, Upping the Anti, and Make/Shift.
From the introduction to Fascism Today:
White nationalists have a revolutionary vision, one that opposes the state and dominant white culture as much as it does the left and non-whites. It wants to reimagine this world as one that is exclusively for white interests, where the “strong” rule over the “weak,” where women know their place and gender is firmly enforced. They have reached into the culture and found a firm grasp and are going to use this moment in the sun to grow, to expand their influence, to make themselves a militant threat to the values of democracy and equality. The battle for those on the left, the organized faction interested in great human equality, is now to understand who the Alt Right are and what they want, and they must look past the contradictory phrasings and confusing tactics to do that. The incidents of reactionary violence, the mobilization that figures like Trump and his racial scapegoating has inspired in working-class people, and the mainstreaming of explicit nationalism has made real the threat that was only in the background of many political battles over the last sixty years. Fascism has never been silenced exclusively by its own ineptitude, but instead by the concerted efforts of organizers that risk everything to stop it. Fascism attacks all of our movements: from the labor movement to anti-racist struggle, the growth of the LGBT fight to that over ecological liberation. Fascism makes these battles intersectional since it acts as a orchestrated attack on the core values of all of these movements, making real the idea that all oppression has a common center. Fascism is an attempt to answer the unfinished equation of capitalism and, instead of challenging the inequalities manifested through this economic system, it hardens them. With the election of Donald Trump, this “worst case scenario”, Fascism taking a hold, now seemed possible, which added material impetus for movements on the left to link up and take charge. This changed everything.
Fascism Todayis available for excerpt
Shane Burley is available for interview
Events like May Day are a temperature check for the collective hive mind of the left reflecting on the year behind them. Because it is a tradition that skates back more than a hundred years, it rarely stands out as the most pressing of days, mainly because it is part of a regular organizing cycle. Good years or bad losses, May Day comes on the same day.
In Portland, Oregon, it was the obvious confluences of forces, the ongoing revolt happening in Trump’s America, that helped to ignite the substantial growth around its activities. How the Portland May Day Coalition planned for this year’s event was largely based around the practical work of the groups involved, how it tied into the ongoing projects of the component organizations. The Portland Committee for the Human Rights in the Philippines (PCHRP) held an earlier event in the day along with the Brown Berets and Gabriella outlining the JustPeacePH project, supporting the peace talks currently happening between the Government Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the People’s Democratic Government of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). They were then leading the anti-imperialist contingent in the following march, linking together the struggles against colonialism in the Global South and the increased victimization of Latinx immigrants from the Southern U.S. border and the long-standing history of workplace organizing that May Day signifies.
The Burgerville Workers Union was celebrating the anniversary of its break-out campaign, one that went public in multiple shops a year ago, bringing with it one of the most dynamic and persistent struggles seen from a direct union shop in the Pacific Northwest. The showing from organized labor was large, as it usually is, and there was a clear openness to the growing linkages between social movements as the possibility of nationwide Right-to-Work and the further erosion of state programs lends urgency to an already dire attack on working people.
You wouldn’t hear about any of this, however, because what came next was a full-frontal assault on the long-planned event, its organizers, and their neighbors.
From the march of almost a thousand people through the streets of the Southwest Downtown district came the militarized invasion of hundreds of police, letting loose with explosive weaponry and laying siege on a crowd comprised of families, people with disabilities, and many raising their voices for the first time. From many photos from that afternoon it is hard to see what happened, a haze that filled the gap between skyscrapers from the canisters of “tear gas” that were fired with only seconds in between. When the police forcefully rushed the crowd, which had already formally dispersed, they began a frightful chase through the streets of the commercial and financial territories. It would be obtuse to point out that the narrative that the police offered, which began even before the actual force was felt as they took to Twitter to premeditate the media stories, was dishonest. Instead, it showed a clear set of priorities, ones that double back on several decades of crowd control, ones that had evolved to avoid the kind of escalation that was doubled down on here.
The Cop in Our Heads
In Mike King’s recent treatise on the repression of Occupy Oakland, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough: The Policing and Repression of Occupy Oakland (Rutgers University Press, 2017), he reflects on the way the repressive police measures evolved nationally to the more complex web they have today. During the wave of confrontations starting the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the urban uprisings that rocked urban areas in the 1960s, police used heavy handed dispersal tactics that were aggressive to forcefully put down that unrest. While some would argue they are tame by today’s standards, they were an outgrowth of the institutionalized white supremacy that was holding on for dear life. Starting in the 1970s, police entered a new phase acknowledging that the “brute force” strategy they were employing was only escalating and mobilizing increased opposition, and it began radicalizing a generation of those injured in street fights. They began systems of negotiation and compromise with protest movements, offering up permits for demonstrations. This concept relied on the negotiating power of the state, and a large majority of American social movements have been brought in on these agreements, usually accepting some limitations in exchange for less direct police repression. A permit is much easier than going through a mass crackdown on a simple street march, so why not?
The effect of this change was, by and large, for the police to transfer their authority of containment from the station to the protesters themselves, turning the organizations and leadership themselves into the acting agents of the state’s boundaries. If protesters were given legal leeway, they would then police themselves, and it could even hold a few people in leadership roles accountable for the actions of participants. This can and does have the effect of turning many in a project against other elements, where those engaging in certain tactics are necessarily blamed for putting others at risk, all outlined in the structures of the permitting system. This created a structure that, when mixed with a moderated police presence, would both contain the social movements and make sure that the effective repression came without social backlash. As the years went on and the war on drugs, gangs, and poor people broadly took shape, the structure of police engagements increased volatility across the board, until now the police that surround broad-based political rallies look liked they are armed to “liberate” Fallujah.
Since centrist Democrat Ted Wheeler took the reigns of the Portland Mayor’s office, he has made the decisive move to crack down on the growing discontent in the city. The election of Trump, the organized resistance to gentrification and displacement from housing organizations, and the reaction to ongoing police killings of black and brown “suspects” has led to a climate of resistance that is growing exponentially. This hit a fever pitch in the days after the election where thousands flooded the streets, blocking every major highway and shutting down businesses. The direct action taken by some protesters, amounting to broken windows and other property destruction, was not out of bounds for the city’s history, nor was it maliciously interpersonal as the police department persisted. Nonetheless, the police, under oversight from the mayor’s office, went after suspects aggressively, charging some with compounded multiple felonies in stacked cases that shocked even the most jaded activists. In one case, a protester is facing upwards of thirty-months in prison for some broken car and bank windows, using riot charges to compound the offense and turn it into a veritable “anarchist scare.” In another, they tried to charge different broken windows as separate offenses so as to make the case eligible for a state statute that allows excessive sentencing if the acts of property destruction are seen as separate incidents.
Wheeler’s actual approach seems to be done within an amnesia of institutional memory, the lack of a known history. “Little Beirut,” as Portland was named in the 1990s by George H.W. Bush, has always had a long history of militant street protests and projects, from the Earth First! and ELF campaigns of the 1990s to the more recent Black Lives Matter insurgencies. For Wheeler to lean on the side of aggressive policing, especially in situations where the police appear as the clear instigators, he is acting without a clear understanding of the role of police in the escalation of confrontation. The police were not there to quell unrest, they were the foundations of that unrest, and their presence, violent victimization of protesters, and unwillingness to even own up to their own “let them police themselves” idea has ended the specter of the police as an institution of “public safety.”
What they destroyed with their flash grenades was the police in the protester’s head, not the willingness of protest movements to take the streets.
So what happened?
Twenty minutes into the march on its negotiated route, as they went down 2nd Ave, the police summarily announced that the “permit for this march has now been revoked.” This mid-march revocation is a new concept for the city, one more step in the extra normality the events took. This decision was allegedly because a window at the Federal Courthouse had been cracked and some in the Black Bloc had thrown Pepsis at the riot cops that were encroaching on the route, a reference to the disastrous recent Pepsi ad with Caitlin Jenner and the “peace” brought by handing the police soda. Apparently, that doesn’t work in real life.
While some will see even that as an escalation, it comes after the police honed in on the rally park beforehand, confiscating mundane objects like flag poles and surrounding march attendants, often destroying materials. The conception of the permitted march as one that would be free of police intervention seemed dashed quickly, so the impetus to follow the narrowing constraints was compromised.
Within a few minutes of the first notifications an order of dispersal came that, because of their position at the back of the march, only a few people could hear. Many of the families, younger children, people with disabilities and special needs, and others were towards the front. The first they heard of this dispersal was when flash grenades started indiscriminately flying into the crowd. Dozens flowed in violent bursts in the next few minutes as protest goers frantically tried to figure out just what was happening. Security volunteers were ushering people to safety, yet there seemed to be no safe spot as flash grenades were going off in every corner and there was literally no sidewalk area that people could crowd into in compliance. Legal observers from the ACLU tried to document this in flurried rushes, but as full tear gas canisters began flowing into the streets, there was mass confusion, especially as people were collapsing, struggling to breathe in the chemical cloud.
The response from the Black Bloc came in kind, with debris being lit on fire in the area between the cops and the protesters, the windows being busted out at a Target location, and a police SUV vandalized. The police chased protesters around the city, bum rushing crowds with dozens of officers in formation, attacking those that appeared the most vulnerable. Many noticed riot police prioritizing a houseless woman in the area, while others saw that anyone in marked attire, whether or not they were a part of the Black Bloc, was suspect. By the time many arrived back at the park where the opening rally was the police were in tow behind, declaring that this was “now officially a riot,” and promising the use of projectile weaponry.
Unity Through Struggle
While there are often disagreements over tactics and strategy, the May Day Coalition immediately placed the blame on the police, both for instigating violence and propping up false allegations on their social media and PR outlets.
Today the Portland police chose to violently escalate a peaceful march. The people asserted their (lawful) right to be in the street and express solidarity with immigrants, with workers, with Indigenous sovereignty, and against capitalism. The Portland Police Bureau responded by
1) Forcibly removing the accessibility vehicle, which was present to allow those with mobility issues to participate and raise their voices
2) Fabricating stories about “Molotov cocktails” being thrown at them, which thousands of eyewitness reports will refute
3) Trying at every step of the way to force themselves into a crowd that very clearly did not want them there
4) Arbitrarily revoking the march permit and informing only the rear of the march, while the elderly, youth, and folks with mobility issues were at the front
There will be a lot of articles about “the march turning violent” but make no mistake, the PPB attacked a permitted march whose only goal was to keep moving along its planned route because some noisemakers and name-calling were enough of an excuse for them to use their large surplus of explosives and chemical weapons against those who had committed to rise, resist, and unite, against fascism and capitalism.
In general, the local media parroted the police as well as they could. There was minor vandalism of the KOIN news truck while KGW did their best to turn the event into a veritable “car chase,” complete with their helicopter live-streaming the protest locations. The Portland Mercury, which leans a little to the left of the rest of the regional outlets, did a large spread of photos and videos, indicating that the police charged after very minor vandalism and even went after a press photographer. Even in their photos you can see protesters flung to the ground as twenty-five were arrested, reporters being screamed at to walk away from their posts.
After the arrests were made and the streets cleared, mayor Wheeler eventually made a public statement echoing the kind of liberal non-committal signaling that many “progressive” Oregon politicians are known for.
In Portland we respect peaceful protest, but we do not and cannot support acts of violence and vandalism. That’s not political speech. That’s crime… Last night was another chapter in a story that has become all too familiar in Portland: Protests that began peacefully but devolve quickly due to the actions of those whose only desire is to damage people and property.
This “tough on crime” rhetoric seems perfectly in line with the language of Trump’s administration, and it could be simply that Wheeler does not want to deal with what will likely be several years of escalating conflict as the austerity and white supremacist machinations of the political state unfold. He thinks that by demonizing protesters, using extreme acts of violence, and shifting the narrative, he will be able to create a ghost of fear in the collective left, and turn them in the direction of moderate parades like the Women’s March instead of the more militant formations. The police have followed up with broad requests for information on protesters, and will likely do what they have done in the past: post pictures of people they are suspecting for different activities to try and get the community to turn them in.
This is not, however, the historical legacy of the city, nor the pattern that the growing revolutionary spirit has had over the past decade. Instead, the truth is that this will not actually stop the organizations from participating in growing demonstrations, but instead show them that the middle ground provided by state actors offer little comfort. Long-term movement building and organizing is what will actually create a force capable of resisting the mission of Trump and the profiteers in Portland, and even these kind of momentary showings of force from the police are not going to scare off those who have committed to confronting this terror. As Trump attempts to rename this as Loyalty Day, and the Alt Right and white nationalists acted as the strong-arm of the police in many cities, the flung Pepsi cans seem to fade in importance.
On May 2nd, the organizers in PCHRP, the AAPRP, the Burgerville Workers Union, and all the other organizations and projects continued their work. No matter how the police and mayor’s office intend on reframing this work, the projects themselves have a life that goes far beyond one repressed event. The question is if the state will make it a priority to put down these social movements as the administration continue to speed to the right, and how we will respond. This highlights why the movement against police violence is at the critical intersection of all other struggles, but also why we need to make this a collective fight with our arms firmly linked together. The revolutionaries of the city are more unified than they were before the event, the realities of repression has a way of firming up alliances in defiance. The opinions about the efficacy of the Black Bloc are diverse(and principled), but an understanding was forged clearly, and the sight of the Black Bloc defending protesters and acting with conscious unity has bridged a divide that, at times, seemed unresolvable. Many in the Bloc brought in large Black Widow props, owing to the defensive actions that the spiders take in mutual aid and lending to the language of direct action.
When the grenades landed, we were seen as one large mass, all dangerous (though people of color and other marginalized identities took on a special focus from state actors). Our fate is firmly in the hands of each other since, as has been the record, the only way we are to continue is if we find solidarity even in these moments of repression. If the state wants to instigate violence, then they will see our numbers grow, our resistance mount, and our spirit firm up into the vocalized rage. The next time will be larger, permit or no permit.
By David Van Deusen (Co-Founder of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective)
“Gonna leave the city, got to get away, Gonna leave the city, got to get away. All that hustling and fighting man, you know I sure can’t stay.” -Goin’ Up To The Country, Canned Heat
“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” -Ballot of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan
[This article was first published in print format in Catamount Tavern News & the Northeastern Anarchist in 2008]
Vermont, 2008- From 1965 through 1975 it is estimated that 100,000 young people migrated north to the Green Mountains; most simply passed through. Still, many thousands remained. These newcomers, mostly white, of mixed class background and primarily from the eastern cities, shared the commonality of being part of a loosely defined 60s counter-culture. This youth migration culminated in the founding of 50-100 communes by 1970. Their forms varied; some were organized around radical left politics, others around agriculture, many more lacked any defining focus beyond the vague parameters of the hippy counter-culture. What they all had in common, whether this was individually articulated or not, was a desire to transcend mainstream America. With this, social experimentation as opposed to adherence to traditional political-social-family structures became the counter-culture norm.
The first wave of communards hit the Green Mountains in the mid-60s. By 1967 a number of communes were established, especially in the southeast part of the state. Of these, a good deal of their members cut their teeth in the Civil Rights Movement, and the continuing resistance to the war in Vietnam.
Robert Houriet, an early communard and a current resident of the Northeast Kingdom, recalls, “The commune movement began with the Civil Rights Movement. The Freedom Houses in the south became the incubators of the communes… People continued to live communally because they wanted to restore the broader community of the Civil Rights Movement.”
However, Houriet [who authored Getting Back Together, a book on communes in 1969] contends that this first wave was not necessarily intending to organize Vermont – at least not at first. In fact he understands these first commune pioneers essentially as political refugees suffering from both urban police repression and political burnout.
“The first phase was an escape, but it was an escape which had a utopian element… The big bang came after the Chicago [Democratic National] Convention. The Chicago convention [and the ensuing riots] was the epigamic event where people realized the political movement was over –fractured beyond repair. You can go to the Weathermen or you can go to Vermont,” says Houriet.
Many of these early migrants, a good number of whom were formally members of or allied to the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), sought to take refuge in these northern hills. It was a time for reflection, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and an evaluation of their personal and social lives. But it was not long before two things occurred. First, after 68’ the trickle of counter-culture migrants turned into a flood. This mass second wave quickly led to the formation of dozens of new communes, especially in the north. Second, the older SDS/political elements realized that any attempt to circumvent personal and economic alienation was intimately tied to the external community. And with that, new efforts at political organizing were rekindled.
One commune, Red Clover, was at the forefront of these new efforts. Members, including John Douglas, Jane Kramer, Robert Kramer, and Roz Payne, began as a radical media collective in New York City called Newsreel. By 1969 this group, now transplanted to Putney, formed an organization called Free Vermont. The goal of Free Vermont was, simply put, to bring forth a popular revolution in the Green Mountains. To do so they worked to consolidate the newly arrived counter-cultural elements into the radical left. To a smaller extent, and with mixed results, they also sought to radicalize the native population. Free Vermont’s political analysis also hinged on the belief that the urban centers of the United States were teetering on revolt, especially in the Black community. In the event of widespread urban insurrection, it was their contention that Vermont, and other rural areas, should be prepared to act in a supporting role. Towards this end they acquired firearms as a means of self-defense. But the acquiring of weapons was by no account considered a strategic end by Free Vermont. They realized that to foster a meaningful and socialist revolution and/or to provide the anticipated broader revolution support, it was first necessary to build up their own effective institutions which in turn would give the counter-culture left a non-capitalist (or at least a more participatory) means of subsistence and production. By enlarge these new institutions took the form of producer, consumer, and service orientated co-ops and collectives. By bringing people together within co-ops it was hoped that the ingrained cultural posits of individualism and authoritarianism could be, in part, replaced with a new cooperativism compatible with the basic principles of socialism.
As Free Vermont began to reach out to the communes, they soon launched a number of co-ops across the state. In Brattleboro they opened a free auto shop (Liberation Garage) and worker-owned and operated restaurant (the Common Ground). They began dozens of food purchasing co-ops. A free health clinic was formed in Burlington. A children’s collective school called Red Paint was formed in southern Vermont. A Peoples’ Bank was started whereby economically better off communes deposited money that could be accessed by communes of lesser means. They organized forums against the war, organized woman’s groups, and around ecological issues. Free Vermont also printed a leftist newspaper which was distributed by the thousands in the high schools and communes alike. In the north, where many communes focused on agricultural pursuits, farming co-ops were formed. Attempts were made to circumvent the highly capitalistic produce markets in Boston and New York by establishing a cooperative distribution center. The success of these endeavors varied, but for a few years, perhaps between 1969-1973, one could squint their eyes and almost see the outline of a true cultural revolution on the horizon. Free Vermont, though counting a hardcore activist base of no more 100, soon attracted ten times that many fellow travelers; a sizable force in a state that at that time had a total population of less than 400,000 people.
John Douglas, co-founder of Free Vermont and current Charlotte resident, recalls “[Our goal was] fucking revolution! Free Vermont was… the umbrella organization we had put together… We traveled around Vermont rooting out communes and collectives. We really were focused on bringing the state together politically around [opposition to] the war [in Vietnam], around the [Black] Panthers, [and] Civil Rights.”
Roz Payne, who later went on to form another Free Vermont commune in Burlington called Green Mountain Red states, “We were living together and we were trying to create a better world together… We were trying to make changes in our lives and the politics of the world as far as racism and imperialism and capitalism.”
But the story of Free Vermont is not the whole story. In Plainfield the Maple Hill Commune, which had dealings with Free Vermont but should not be considered part of its political core, also had their own impact on their surroundings.
Jim Higgins, a former Maple Hill resident and presently a writer for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, recalls “[In 1971] I went on to form the Plainfield Co-op with a lot of my old communards… One of our goals was to bring into our co-op network local born adults. It was an energetic effort to reach out with our ideas of cooperative business practices and wholesome food and subverting the system as it were through tremendously reduced prices… There was many co-op discussions about products we would offer that would bridge the gap, so we vigorously pursued non-food products from [wood]stoves to chainsaws, to ball jars, snowshoes, [and] skis; products that generally had interest to those around us who would not necessarily be interested in brown rice and soy beans. That helped a great deal simply breaking social barriers. They had to come into the co-op to buy it. ”
The experience of the Maple Hill Commune, who also took an active role in organizing demonstrations and teach-ins to end the conflict in Vietnam, is not dissimilar from experiences of dozens of other communes across the state. In short, the Commune Movement was a force, or at least a point of conversation, in many a small Vermont town.
Internally, a good number if not most communes sought to break the subtle and not so subtle chains of sexism. More often than not (and as a rule on Free Vermont Communes), decisions were made democratically, by all the members, housework was expected from males, while tasks such a splitting winter wood was also done by women. Childcare was collectivized and was performed by both sexes. Political meetings would include woman’s caucuses. The Liberation Garage in Brattleboro held free auto repair classes, organized by Jane Kramer, especially aimed at teaching women how to fix their cars and trucks. In Burlington the Green Mountain Red collective was pivotal in opening a free woman’s health clinic (which today is merged with the local Planned Parenthood). The Red Clover Collective organized a touring performance which taught and celebrated woman’s history.
In many ways, Vermont communes, or at least the more politically active communes, did not suffer the same fractures that much of the broader U.S. left did when feminism came into its own in the early 70s. This was a result of the genesis of the Free Vermont Movement. Free Vermont was essentially founded by the Red Clover Collective, which itself was an outgrowth of the older Newsreel Collective. And here, the Newsreel Collective already recognized the problems of internal sexism and found ways of correcting these tendencies.
Roz Payne, who was considered one of the political heavies of the movement, contends, “Free Vermont was a political activity that we had undertaken to organize and politicize all the [Vermont] communes. And we’re the ones that…came out of a Newsreel Collective that talked about woman’s issues starting in 67, 68, and 69 when we were making films in New York and we had those discussions. ‘Why were only the women holding the microphones…and why are all the men holding the cameras?’ Then John Douglas got cameras for [women] to use… These were issues that we brought up earlier. So we already had those issues [dealt with]… I never felt oppressed in my commune around the women or the men.’
However, their efforts did not result in perfection. Female communard, Lou Andrews, recalls her days on the rural Franklin Commune (which was a core Free Vermont commune) as a time where she felt more liberated than previously in mainstream society, but one where men still had a disproportionate influence upon the general direction of the commune. In her opinion this influence was a subconscious force; one that was not guaranteed by formal process, but one that existed none the less.
As far as the division of labor goes, Lou, who now lives in Burlington, assesses her commune as a mixed bag, but one that clearly falls more in the direction of sex equality than does the traditional nuclear model. “It was always a struggle to get men to do the dishes… [But] we all gardened. Men and women canned the food. Men and women drove the horses. And men and women did the sugaring, although it was men who primarily were what we called ‘the firemen’ who in the sugar house fed the wood into the evaporator. And that was kind of a little macho deal going on. Cause they got to where cowboy chaps (ha ha ha).”
Roz, current resident of Richmond VT, also recalls that not all communes were free of the traditional divisions of labor based on sex. “You’d find some of the more rural communes the women were in the kitchen, and the men were outdoors doing stuff. So [Free Vermont] would talk about that, and we would have women’s meetings, a communal women’s grouping that would break off to discuss the things that were happening with various people.”
While Free Vermont sought to build equitable relations on the communes and a radical base of operations in the Green Mountains, it did not lose sight of its second purpose. As the local counter-culture became better organized, aid was offered to the urban revolutionary movement. In some instances children of Black Panthers from the eastern cities were sent north to attend the Red Paint collective school. Political aid was offered too. One former communard (who will remain unnamed) contends that the first dynamite procured by the Weather Underground Organization [an armed leftist group who carried out 27 bombings between 1969-1977 including those on the US Capital Building and the Pentagon] came from a granite quarry in Barre. John Douglas, for his part, states that Free Vermont helped establish safe houses for Weathermen and Black Panthers who went underground. They also facilitated clandestine border crossings into Quebec. But these activities were not committed without a price. Free Vermont communes were raided by the police and FBI. Government informants were known to be operating in many quarters. Douglas tells of a gathering he attended at the Franklin Commune (in far northern Vermont) where a group of federal agents posing as bikers offered to provide them with hand grenades and dynamite. Douglas declined. This surveillance and harassment ultimately lead to a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and tension. In turn these pressures contributed to the eventual decline of the movement.
While many of the hippy communes collapsed due to lack of rational internal organization or focus [see Barry Laffan, Communal Organization and Social Transition, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1997] the decline of the more overtly political communes has more to do with political repression, disillusionment (as neither the local or urban insurrections came to pass), and again a new round of burn out. Just as they were compelled to evacuate the cities by the end of the 60s, the radical communards felt an increasing pressure, though be it maybe in a more personalized and defuse form, to abandon their communal lands in the face of a new backlash of political repression and interpersonal pressures. By 1976, following the end of the Vietnam War, less than half of the original 100 communes remained. By 1980 all but a few were gone. While many former communards remained in Vermont, and while a number of the institutions they founded continued, the general trend was overwhelmingly a turn away from models espousing collective living and working. Instead they increasingly turned to a private home life, or a traditional nuclear family arrangement. Cooperative farms were replaced with privately owned and operated organic farms. Radical agricultural organizations, such as the Northeast Organic Farmer Association (NOFA), drifted into a modest liberal reformism. Calls for insurrection were heard less, while calls for issue based reformism became louder. Where in 1970 the battle cry was for a complete new left social revolution, the mantra of the 80s was for a nuclear freeze. In short, as the Commune Movement broke down, and as its participants began to return to more individualistic-traditional living arrangements, their politics, though remaining left, grew more moderate.
During the declining phase of the Franklin Commune it is interesting to note the further observations of Lou Andrew. She contends that when the difficulties of operating the collective farm were exasperated by a serious house fire, it was the men who were the first ones to leave the commune, and oftentimes Vermont too. On the other hand she notes that the women were more apt to try to work through the difficulties longer and ultimately, to at least remain in Vermont. Andrews speculates that the reason for this dynamic is because woman found their social relations and power within a communal structure to be more liberated than that which they previously experienced in mainstream America. The men on the other hand had a male dominated outside world to return to where they would at least be afforded the same limited rights and privileges that were too often elusive to women.
In the end the Commune Movement did not vanish into thin air, nor did all communards drop out of the social and political arena. The Vermont of today is inescapably a product of those times, just as it is also a product of other progressive migrations; be it radicals coming north during the Great Depression, the anarchist and socialist labor movement brought by Italian immigrants in 1900, or yeoman farmers/Green Mountain Boys who pioneered Vermont during the 1760-70s. The Commune Movement is just the latest of these defining eras of Vermont’s history, and its epitaphs and advancements are perhaps most apparent in their relative newness. The Bread & Puppet Theater (now considered a staple of Vermont culture), the dozens of food co-ops (perhaps the most per-capita in the world), a large free health clinic in Burlington (now employing over 60 people), a number of worker-run businesses (i.e. the Common Ground in Brattleboro), NOFA (and by extension Rural Vermont which began through NOFA), and countless farmers’ markets are all direct results of organizing done by Free Vermont and the communards of the 60s and 70s. However, its true legacy can perhaps best be seen through its indirect contributions.
Generational diffusion of the basic values of the 60-70s counter-culture has resulted in the left being more firmly embedded in all corners of Vermont making the state the most progressive in the country; the only state never visited by President G.W. Bush. In recent years Vermont (population 600,000) has led the nation in many important social issues. Universal healthcare is provided for all its children (and will continue to be regardless of the eventual outcome of the Federal SCHIP debate), funding for public education has essentially been socialized, gay couples retain the same civil rights as straight couples, and more than 70% of the people firmly oppose the war in Iraq (in 2003 three thousand marched on the rural state capital to oppose the war). Even Vermont’s organized labor is greatly influenced by the Commune Movement.
In 1998 a Central Vermont anarchist group known as the #10 Collective [themselves members of the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and largely influenced by the political teachings of Vermont 60s radical Murray Bookchin] played a lead role in forming the Vermont Workers’ Center. One of the prime movers of this collective was a young man named Jason Winston. Jason, like thousands of other native born Vermonters, was the child of counter-culture parents. And today the Workers’ Center, with a constituency above 20,000, functions as a grand coalition of most the major Vermont labor unions as well as individual workers. As such Vermont labor has been a leader in opposing the current war, and in the fight for the establishment of single payer universal healthcare. This fact can also be understood as another indirect influence of the leftism of the 60-70s. In a word, those communards that stayed, those that organized, those that eventually became neighbors and friends with thousands of native working class Vermonters, did in fact have an impact on public opinion.
Electorally Vermont, unlike most of the US, recognizes four major political parties. In addition to the Democrats and Republicans, there is also the very far left Liberty Union Party. This party, which received 5.7% of the vote for State Treasurer in 2006, was formed in the 70s as the electoral expression of the Commune Movement. Besides the Liberty Union, there is also the social-democratic oriented Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives were formed by former Liberty Union member Bernie Sanders (now serving as the first socialist in the US Senate) and includes many activists and supporters from the commune days. Sanders won his first election in 1981, becoming the socialist mayor of Burlington. He formed the Progressive Coalition, the forerunner of the Progressive Party, shortly thereafter. His victory was a result not only of gaining the backing of key unions, but also of support work done by former communards. One such communard, Barbara Nolfy of the Franklin Commune, went on to serve in his administration as a member of a newly organized Burlington Woman’s Counsel. Furthermore, Progressive Party Chairman Anthony Pollina (who won 25% of the vote in the 2002 Lieutenant Governor’s race and is currently considering a run for Governor in 2008) was once an organizer with counter-culture allied NOFA. Presently the Progressives are the strongest third party in the nation, with six seats in the State Legislator (including the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee), the Mayorship of the largest city (Burlington, population: 39,000), several City Council positions, and countless Town Select Board seats as well as lesser elected posts.
And again, our present seems to be witnessing a generational revival of cooperativism. In 2006, on the heels of greatly falling wholesale milk prices, the Dairy Farmers of Vermont (co-founded by Anthony Pollina) opened a farmer owned milk processing plant in Hardwick. More generally, of the forty worker-owned businesses in the state (which employ 2000 people), 10% are organized as democratic co-ops. From the Red House construction company in Burlington, to the Brattleboro Tech Collective, to the popular Langdon Street Café and Black Sheep bookstore in Montpelier, worker and farmer co-ops are again on the rise.
But just as the Commune Movement has had its effects on Old Vermont, Old Vermont has had its effects on the counter-culture activists and institutions that have survived. Its long standing tradition of local democracy through Town Meeting has focused much of the continuing political angst of the left out of closed off communities, and into the directly democratic Town Halls, where their ideas have spread throughout the population. It should come as no surprise that hundreds of Vermont towns have passed resolutions against the war, for the impeachment of the President, against GMOs, and in support of universal healthcare. And where the old co-ops have drifted into more traditional business practices, the unions have been there to organize the workers [such as the United Electrical Workers at Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op, and Burlington’s City Market –both of which are large area employers]. In a very real sense the relationship between Old Vermont and the Vermont of the communes has become symbiotic; elements of each driving the state in both a more democratic and more socialistic direction.
This continuing trend to the left can even be observed in the declarations of the State’s General Assembly and other bodies of Vermonters who have gathered in capital building in Montpelier. Pressured from below, in 2007 the State Senate passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush, and both the House and Senate passed a resolution calling for a military withdrawal from Iraq. In 2003, the day the U.S. invaded Iraq, hundreds of Vermonters met in the State House where they unanimously passed resolutions condemning the acts of the Federal Government as illegal and immoral. And again in 2006 more than 200 Vermonters held a meeting in the State House to discuss the possibility of secession from the United States (a cause now supported by 13% of the population). Former communards and 60s-70s radicals were undoubtedly present at both events. All these declarations, as symbolic as they may be, point to the leftward trajectory of politics in Vermont; a trajectory which, in part, was set in course by the Commune Movement a generation before.
The final chapter on Vermont’s Commune Movement cannot be written until history reveals whether or not those heady days of the 60s and 70s were a cultural abrasion, or an immediate harbinger of things to come.
For Robert Houriet the future, and therefore the past, holds a bitter promise. “We were just ahead of the economy,” says Robert. “We were trying to go back to 1930 at a time when the economy was going off the scale in terms of abundance. A false abundance, as it turns out… [The final victory of the cooperative movement] will have to be economically determined. People will do this because they have to, because they choose to do what is possible. And what becomes possible is [determined] when the price of oil becomes too high, when the price to the environment becomes too high not to do it that way. Not for idealistic reasons, but because they have to. The farmer [for example] will feel the pinch… –they can’t achieve the mechanization, the storage, the distribution without doing it cooperatively. So cooperativism will become efficient. It will become necessary that people adopt cooperative methods.”