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No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements (City Lights Open Media) by [Hilary Moore, James Tracy, Robin D.G. Kelley]

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Written without sparing the fissures and blind misunderstandings, No Fascist USA! is a must-read for people who know little about this fugitive period and also for those who lived it.”—CounterPunch

"This would be a difficult project for a book of twice its length, but there is an effortlessness to the way that Moore and Tracy weave together complicating and competing political ideas, taking us through organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, the Weatherman splits from SDS, the formation of the Black Liberation Army, the underlying revolutionary politics to the John Brown that were informed by a group called the May 19th Communist Organization, not to mention the wealth of history of the broader movements themselves. … No Fascist USA! beautifully preserves the stories and characters in a way that flows well for the density of what it contains, but is also set up to inform actual organizing work. This is not dead history, it places the reader inside the continuity of its pages, hoping that the wins and losses of the Committee can serve as strategic information."—Shane Burley, Full Stop

"No Fascist USA! is an important addition to histories of 20th-century anti-racist movements in the United States. Authors Hilary Moore and James Tracy spent time with veterans of the organization of the book's title and have come up with an overview that is both interesting and useful. … Moore and Tracy conclude that 'The challenge is to move toward ever more diversity, depth, and nuance, while winning hearts, minds, and communities with the common dream that better world is possible.' Given the rising tide of proto-fascist politics in the United States, let’s hope that many more people take that challenge. This book will remain a worthwhile tool in the struggle to reach that better world."—January Magazine

"With its savvy blend of youth culture and street confrontation, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee tried to stop Trumpism before Trump. They confronted the rise of white nationalism in prisons, workplaces, and music scenes when precious few paid attention to it. If more people had grappled with their warning decades ago, we might be in a better place today. While I wish we did not need this book as badly as we do, I am grateful that Hilary Moore and James Tracy have gifted us this urgent read.”—Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

"We learned from history. You can too!"—Terry Bisson, author of Fire on the Mountain and former member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee

"James Tracy and Hilary Moore deliver a searing, bold new work that examines another painful and complicated chapter in American race relations. In an eye opening account, They are able to connect the dots of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, a band of contemporary predominantly white activists, and its efforts to expose white supremacist organizations. With a fresh eye and new research, their book uncovers with stunning precision how these groups remain active and exposes some of their unlikely alliances."—Laurens Grant, filmmaker, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Freedom Riders

"No Fascist USA! is not only timely, but also essential in the present period of accelerated white supremacist activity and anti-racist organizing to combat it. In telling the story of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, the authors, without romanticizing or condemning, draw important lessons from the fifteen-year history of the group."—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

"No Fascist USA! brings us the unromanticized, and largely untold story of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. . . . we learn how their work exposed the complicity of the state—all the way to its highest levels—as well as the media's role in the spread of white nationalist ideology. This book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the roots of what happened in Charlottesville, and the burgeoning white nationalist membership lists in the U.S. today. We cannot possibly take on the challenges we face without learning from the past. This book is a necessary and long overdue contribution to inform the way forward."—Carla F. Wallace, co-founder, Showing Up for Racial Justice

"Yes! This book is right on time! As a Black woman supporting Black liberation struggles, it has been terrifying to grasp the resilience and reach of fascism in the U.S. and around the globe, and disheartening to see how many White people want to sign petitions and express discontent with current political conditions, but won't acknowledge that there is a ongoing race war that they're benefiting from, and who won't put their actions behind their beliefs. This book is about an imperfect effort to be brave, to be committed, and to risk the privileges of Whiteness in order to relinquish the entire construct of white supremacy. And from where organized people of color are sitting, this kind of work is absolutely necessary. Studying the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee will give readers an understanding of the complexity of deconstructing the weapon of white supremacy from the inside out. Thank you Hilary and James for the precision of this analysis, and the true north of this star."—adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, and facilitator of Black liberation movements

"I've waited thirty years for this book! Our emergency hearts have always driven uprisings to stop white terrorism, but it always takes more than black-bloc tactics in the streets to stop fascists. No Fascist USA! firmly connects today's militant anti-fascist street-fighting movements with important living radical histories to disrupt the cycles that keep the spectre of fascism alive in the modern era. The struggles faced by the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee continue today in our difficult arc towards collective liberation."—scott crow, author of Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense

--This text refers to the paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Author introductions and Chapter One of

NO FASCIST USA!

The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements

 

AUTHORS’ PREFACES

 

“Now more than ever, we must unforget the past as the very survival of ourselves and humanity depends on it—from an honest unforgetting of the long history that has led us to this point, to a revaluation of our immediate past.”

—Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

“We have to do better.” The words kept falling out of my mouth. I was sitting on the curb waiting for my friend to arrive. “We have to do better.” I wasn’t cold, but I was shaking. Earlier that day I had seen someone stabbed and I was still in shock.

It was the summer of 2016, during the final heated months of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, when white supremacists stabbed at least five people in Sacramento, California, less than a mile from where I was born. Months earlier, the Traditionalist Worker’s Party and the Golden State Skinheads—two white supremacist organizations—had been awarded a permit to demonstrate at the grounds of the state Capitol. Their goal was to unite their organizations and create a mass coalition to support Donald Trump and defend the white race. This was before Charlottesville, but here too the F.B.I. tracked the rally and later framed the white supremacists as victims.[1] It seemed like white nationalists were escalating their violent actions on a weekly basis.

I grew up drinking root beer and practicing kickflips on skateboards with my friends on the same Capitol grounds where the white supremacists staged their rally, an event that represented the exact opposite of all I held dear. And yet, my decision to go to the rally wasn’t clear cut. I felt critical of how much attention went to street confrontations with white supremacists, and how little went to those who are doing the long-haul work of organizing to create a world where everyone has safety, dignity, and belonging. Slogans like “Nazis get out!” felt insufficient, and at times just as misguided as excitement to “punch a Nazi.” Yet, I also felt frustrated that, in my five years as an anti-racist political education trainer with commitments to build broad anti-racist movements that can win, we had very few strategies ready to confront white supremacy in the flesh. Ignoring the rally seemed like the worst option. Conflicted as I was, I chose to go because I had a group of reliable friends who were committed to keeping people safe and unwilling to concede public space to those seeking to advance a white supremacist agenda.

On the morning of June 26, 2016, approximately 300 people arrived at the rally site early with banners that read things such as “Smash Racism” and “From Olympia to Atlanta Antifa Fights Back.” One hundred or more cops in full riot gear were there early too. Hours passed without a sign of the white supremacists. As we waited, people around me passed out free food and water, while others walked the large perimeter looking for signs of the white supremacists. Then the call came. “They’re here! We need people here!” Many of us ran to a strategic spot in attempt to create a human barrier that might prevent the white supremacists from reaching the steps of the Capitol. Within minutes the stabbings began.

Witnessing the violence filled by body with visceral, hot rage. But when a knife-wielding white supremacist stood at attention for chants of “Sieg Heil,” I froze. A large group of counter-protestors quickly surrounded the man and began to beat him. Horse-mounted police intervened, ushering the white supremacists into the shelter of the Capitol building, a maneuver never attempted just moments before when the white supremacists stabbed five people.

Later that night, reflecting on all that had happened, I realized we had to do better. The next day I began contacting people who had confronted the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s and 1980s. I needed to know what they had learned while confronting organized racism and supporting social movements that were fighting for self-determination. I reached out to my dear friend James Tracy and asked him to help make sense of this history. What lessons did they learn, and might we apply those insights and strategies today? Asking and answering those questions together lead us to write this book.

—Hilary Moore

Berlin, March 2019

 

I first met members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the spring of 1989 when I was a teenager in Vallejo, California. At the time, several white supremacist organizations announced that they would stage an “Aryan Woodstock” white power concert in the unincorporated land between blue-collar Vallejo and Napa’s wine country. In the lead up to the concert, I talked to a woman from the Committee who was distributing copies of the group’s newspaper, No KKK, No Fascist USA. I asked her what it was all about, and in the next five minutes she effortlessly connected a critique of U.S. imperialism, advocacy for Black Liberation struggle, and an invitation for me to join others protest the concert.

             None of these subjects were a hard sell for me. The racist crop of skinheads that had long been a part of the area were a source of annoyance at the Punk and New Wave shows my friends and I would attend. My father, a Vietnam Veteran, had unintentionally turned me into an anti-imperialist once he was able to tell me what he had witnessed in the Army. Black Liberation? I was down for that. I had worked as a janitor at an art gallery in town with a former member of the Black Panther Party who introduced me to the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program and shared back-in-the day stories with me as we mopped floors.

Most of my friends, adherents of the Gospel According to the Dead Kennedys, thought that white supremacy was bullshit. Two of my friends actually joined fascist organizations during this time. Nevertheless, when I met the woman from the John Brown group, I felt the need to declare that it seemed like the entire San Francisco activist scene only cared about Vallejo, a distressed Navy town, when the Nazi skinheads came around. Much to her credit, she actually engaged me in a serious discussion about how the extreme right functioned as a barrier to solving the everyday problems we faced, and thus why the right needed to be curtailed at every corner. I was convinced enough to attend a few community meetings and demonstrations. As a nerdy kid, however, I was not brave enough to attend the final rally where anti-fascists overwhelming outnumbered the white supremacists.

The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was just one part of a larger movement that valiantly mobilized against the rise of racist organizations during the 1980s. I’ve always respected their willingness to go to the wall to oppose the reactionary and violent elements of the extreme right. As a result of studying them with Hilary Moore, I came to admire how the abolitionist spirit of John Brown and Harriet Tubman were honored in their organizing. At other points, I scratched my head at some the choices the organization made.

I imagine that it must have been difficult for the John Brown group’s former members and allies to initially trust our requests for interviews. However, every one of them graciously shared with us their memories, analysis, politics, and sometimes their regrets as well. Most expressed that they were sharing their stories in the hope that the next generation of activists might learn from their history. I am extremely grateful to all of them for this leap of faith. As an author, I’m aware that writing history grants a great power to determine emphasis and set forth an analysis. I hope we have proven up to the task.

Since 1989, I’ve come to recognize the ways that racism doesn’t need skinheads and Klansmen to wreak havoc and terrorize communities. It has always been alive and well in the everyday, mundane life of the United States—in planning codes, redlining, the educational system, the justice system, policing, prisons. Unlike the 1980s, there exists today a higher level of public consciousness about white supremacy, patriarchy, and power thanks to social movements like Black Lives Matter as well as sustained efforts by public intellectuals like Angela Y. Davis, bell hooks, Robin D. G. Kelley, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore who infuse historical understanding, political resistance, and social vision with insurgent optimism.

In the 1980s, the John Brown-Anti Klan Committee was a militant grassroots force which envisioned an entirely different state of affairs than the one we live in now—one where struggle, organizing, and education, succeed in abolishing white supremacy, fascism, and the violent legacies of settler colonialism. Then, as now, it is a future worth fighting for.

—James Tracy

Oakland, May 2019  

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

INTRODUCTION

PAST AS PROLOGUE

 

“For one, when a white man comes to me and tells me how liberal he is, the first thing I want to know, is he a nonviolent liberal, or the other kind. I don’t go for any nonviolent white liberals. If you are for me and my problems—when I say me, I mean us, our people—then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did. And if you’re not of the John Brown school of liberals, we’ll get you later—later.”                                                                    

—Malcolm X, 1965

 

On August 12, 2017, Tiki torches blazed across Linda Evans’s television set, illuminating crowds of white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally. She was seeing the last moments of what began as a demonstration against city’s plans to expel the statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park. Charlottesville had recently changed the park’s name from “Lee Park” to “Emancipation Park.” This was one incident in a long series of battles over Confederate statues in public places.[2] Outraged over the pending removal, 500 white nationalists, many clean-cut and well-coiffed in polo shirts and khakis, marched through the town with torches angrily chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

Like many others, Evans’s first response to the events in Charlottesville was emotional: she felt terrified by the reality that mobs of aggressive white men were in the streets. The scene was all too familiar for Linda. In 1980, she was one of the core members in the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, an organization that formed, in part, to fight the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and an assortment of other racist organizations. The events in Charlottesville, for Linda, prompted flashbacks to those frightening times. “Fire at night is what got to me the most, for them to be allowed to march like that.”[3] During every effort Linda had been part of to oppose the Klan, she had witnessed authorities protect white supremacists, including one occasion in Austin when racist white Marines shot at an effigy of a Black community leader. “It was just so clear,” said Evans, “that what we’re seeing today is a continuation, consolidation, and legitimization of the white supremacy we were fighting back then.”

No Fascist USA! is the story of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, a national network of white activists who took up the cause of combatting an emboldened white supremacist movement. That movement, energized by a friendly face in the White House—Ronald Reagan—successfully rolled back key gains of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras, and unleashed a new wave of racist violence in America. From 1977 to 1992, the Committee established over a dozen chapters nationwide. Its mission was to counter the advance of the far-right and to support a host of revolutionary groups, particularly those organized by Black and Brown revolutionaries.

This history provides a glimpse into the challenges that anti-Klan activists faced in an era before the internet made instantaneous critique and flash organizing possible. Despite the different political contexts, many of the strategic questions that anti-racist organizers faced then are equally relevant today: Are there ways of confronting racists and fascists that do not provide them with new opportunities to spread their message? How are alliances and solidarity best strengthened given the shifting and complex relationships between primarily white organizations and organizations of color? How do activists prepare for possibilities of violence and self-defense against groups that always seemed eager for bloody battles? Can forces within the state be trusted to be allies in the fight against white supremacy?

Grounded in the idea that white supremacy must be countered and abolished, members of John Brown mounted fierce responses to the Ku Klux Klan when they rallied in the 1970s and 1980s. In their 1980 publication, The Dividing Line of the 80’s: Take a Stand Against the Klan, the Committee described the threat:

The Klan, in Tupelo, Mississippi, elsewhere in the South, in northern cities, in prisons and the armed forces, is in open, armed conflict with the Black Liberation Struggle. The Klan, along with I.N.S., has become the border control of the Mexican/U.S. border; it is one of the major armed forces against Mexicano/Chicano peoples.[4]

In addition to tracking the Klan’s activities, the Committee sought to expose connections between racist groups and law-enforcement authorities. Ahmed Obafemi, a Black Nationalist activist, coined the name of what would become John Brown’s well-known campaign, “Blue by Day, White by Night.” Here, they publicized Klan members who were working in law-enforcement agencies or held government positions, giving them access to official influence and power. “In 1976,” read The Dividing Line, “Earl Schoonmaker, the head reading teacher at Eastern (N.Y.) State Prison, was exposed as the Grand Dragon of the Independent Northern Klan. A Klavern of at least 35 was forced out into the open by the struggle of Black and Latino incarcerated people.”[5] Given their dedication to outing state authorities’ ties to white supremacist groups, the Committee refrained from requesting police protection while protesting the Klan, and did not lobby local governments to “Ban the Klan.” This also rested on their belief that the state organizes its power through white supremacy. In other words, the role of the police in U.S. society often functions in a manner that is similar to the role of the Klan.

A key part of the Committee’s political analysis examined the role of the state in the far-right’s resurgence. Through their literature, they confronted the ways these entities often worked in an interlocking fashion. The Dividing Line, for example, described instances in which state authorities and elected officials directly financed violent far-right organizations (“J.B. Stoner, chairman of the National States Rights Party, under the direction of the Birmingham Police, led a bombing of a Birmingham church in 1958 and was paid $2,000 by police”), supported the Klan in its organizing efforts (“U.S. Senator Robert Byrd was a high-ranking Klan recruiting organizer”), and engaged in violent crimes (“Rowe, [an F.B.I. agent in the Klan] with the explicit approval of the F.B.I., participated in the murder of four black children in the bombing of a Birmingham church, the murder of Viola Liuzzo (a white civil rights worker), and Leroy Moton a Black man”). Building on this history, the Committee also linked the threat posed to society by the Klan with the threat posed by the state, particularly the impunity with it covertly targeted, monitored, and disrupted political groups.[6]

A distinguishing characteristic of the John Brown group was its alignment with organizations fighting for self-determination. When Imari Obadele, a leader within the Republic of New Afrika wrote, “Our biggest threat comes from the white civilian armies, the Ku Klux Klan and those other semi-official forces who for one hundred years have done the dirty work of military oppression in the South,”[7] they refined their role, declaring:

The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee is a national organization that fights the racist violence of the KKK and Nazis, and their underlying cause, the system of white supremacy. We take our name from John Brown, the 19th Century white abolitionist who gave his life fighting against slavery and white supremacy. In the spirit of John Brown, we fight racism, build solidarity with the Black Liberation Movement, and support all struggles for human rights and self-determination.[8]

How to mobilize white people to fulfill that task was the central tactical question that animated the group. In the process, they encouraged white people to assume risks usually expected of people of color, including the risk of physical harm and public humiliation. The group insisted that it was white people’s responsibility to get in the way of the threats posed by white supremacists. This approach was intended to undermine the age-old norms of white silence, complicity, and active participation in racialized intimidation, coercion, and violence. In this sense, the Committee continued the work of the white Civil Rights organizers who travelled to the South just two decades before. But the Committee’s members were distinctly different in choosing not to view nonviolence as the only strategic option against white supremacy. They also diverged from much of the previous era’s radical optimism by rejecting the idea that long-lasting change would either come from a reformed political system or a unifying conversion to a socialist system.

Following cues set by their allies, Republic of New Afrika, they determined that political liberation would involve the revolutionary dissolution of the United States and the subsequent formation of distinct “New Boundaries.” This sentiment was in the ether at the time, reverberating in anti-imperialist struggles and supported by the larger cultural milieu of resistance around the world. Many adherents of this view envisioned a “New Afrika” formed from the Southern slavocracy states with a Black majority: Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. The persistence of such calls was, in part, a reaction to several conditions. One was the intensification of racist terror—including the mysterious murders of two dozen Black children in Atlanta, and the general uptick in the killings of Black people across the United States during the period.[9]

The group also embraced the principle of leadership from the oppressed. This meant following the political lead of those most targeted by white supremacists and those who organized to counter them. For the John Brown group, supporting the strategies of those on the frontlines of the fight was part and parcel of the work of combatting racism. The Committee made swift and bold moves to address these issues, conscious of their advantages as white people. This awareness informed how they produced printed materials, conducted outreach, articulated demands, and chose points of intervention.

 

THE KLAN REINVENTS ITSELF

The Committee’s work was sharpened by the Klan’s campaign to rebrand itself. In 1865, the Klan forged an image of itself as protector of the lost Confederacy, a role practiced through violent opposition to the post-war period of social, economic, and government reorganization in the United States known as the Reconstruction Era. From 1863 to 1877, Black communities mobilized to win U.S. citizenship (13th Amendment), protection under the law (14th Amendment), voting rights (15th Amendment), and the right to hold political office. In response to the sudden emergence of Black citizenship, rights, and political power, the Klan formed and used terrorist violence like floggings, mutilations, lynchings, shootings, and arson, all in effort to regain white control of state and federal governments.[10] Of the 265 Black politicians elected into office during this period, thirty-five were murdered by the Klan and other white supremacist organizations.[11] Most of these atrocities, which traumatized Black people throughout the country, were largely tolerated by state authorities and federal officials, as that effort reconsolidated state power through white people.[12]

Once state-sponsored racial segregation was codified in the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v Ferguson, the Klan went into a lull, only to rekindle through a wave of suspicion and antipathy toward immigrants after World War I. Here, the Klan’s violent intolerance widened from Black people to “aliens, idlers, union leaders . . . Asians, immigrants, bootleggers, dope, graft, night clubs, road houses, violation of the sabbath, sex, pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior.”[13] This “Second Wave” of the Klan was the largest, with somewhere between four to six million members, in the U.S. during the 1920s. Hiring a public relations team, the Klan became a normalized feature of American life with a semi-professional baseball team, 150 newspapers, and two radio stations. They achieved significant influence in U.S. political life with sixteen senators, eleven state governors, sixty members of Congress, and numerous state municipal elections running openly as Klansmen.[14] In fact, the Klan had become such a deeply embedded feature of American politics that a proposal made at the 1924 Democratic National Convention to oppose the Klan lost by one vote.[15]

Few images capture the Klan at its peak better than photographs taken on August 8, 1925 showing 40,000 Klansmen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. demanding stricter laws against immigrants, even though a draconian one had been passed just a year prior.[16] Klan Grand Wizard H.W. Evans, who led the march, had relocated the national offices to Washington two years prior in order to have a greater influence on Congress. The Washington Post effusively described the day as “One of the greatest demonstrations this city has ever known.”[17]

In the 1960s, the so-called “Third Wave” of the Klan worked hard to deploy the trope that they were not against Black people, but rather for white people, white heritage, and white rights.[18] This rebranding allowed the Klan to advance allegations of “reverse racism”— that gains made by Black people would come at the expense of white people. As a result of this view, the Klan in this period pushed the idea that if Black people had a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People looking after their interests, then white people should have a National Association for the Advancement of White People looking after their interests. The Klan made few actual amendments to its original platform. It adapted its communications strategy in attempt to remain appealing to whites in the transformed cultural context of the post–Civil Rights era. It was also the era when the Klan and similar organizations concentrated on infiltrating the military as a method of building power. In Vietnam, Klan-affiliated soldiers burned crosses to celebrate the assassination of Martin Luther King. In 1979, heavily armed Klan members held a recruiting rally outside an Army base in Virginia Beach.[19]

 

PART OF THE MOVEMENT

The Committee used its regular newspaper, Death to the Klan!, to connect people and communities fighting racism. This helped to develop momentum and links that contributed to the decentralized Anti-Racist Action networks from 1987 to the early 2000s. From beginning to end, the Committee emphasized the importance of maintaining strong alliances with people who had gone to prison for their political actions. They did so by helping them maintain active connections to social movements.

We began writing this book at a time when racist and fascist networks were once again more visible and on the rise at home and abroad. In order to find effective strategies to out-organize the proponents of white supremacy, it is important to understand the historical forces at play and how they echo through time. The Committee was one of many anti-Klan organizations in motion during the 1980s. Their militant stand called into question many of the assumptions held by others equally committed to the abolition of racism and fascism in the United States. Rather than focusing on the personalities of individual racists, they saw white supremacy as the common element in all the various political, social, legal, and cultural legacies of settler-colonialism. Their 1980 Principles of Unity outlined their beliefs in this regard:

The Klan and organized white supremacy are a major way the US has always oppressed Third World people within its borders White supremacy has been a part of every counter-insurgency terror plan that the US has developed. The struggle to free the land of the Black nation has been a fierce life-and-death struggle of Black people for 400 years. The Black nation will win its freedom. The freeing of the land will shake the very foundations of US society; the freeing the land will defeat white supremacy.[20]

While there are plenty of parallels with our contemporary situation, there are some key differences. Many members of today’s far right are media savvy and far more capable than their predecessors of assuming a kind of mainstream respectability. On the surface, battles over the removal of Confederate symbols, like those that animated Charlottesville, can seem trivial. However, such incidents are often skillfully exploited as “breakout moments” where white nationalists attempt to energize their networks and propagate their messages to new constituencies. In Charlottesville, one person told reporters, “We are simply just white people that love our heritage, our culture, and our European identity.”[21] The conflicts playing out today over flags, names, symbols, and historical markers are clearly part of deeper social struggles over competing narratives of U.S. history, their meanings, and implications for the future.

Today’s far-right networks include many middle class and wealthy participants, and their coalitions are complex. Neo-Nazi groups (Traditionalist Workers Party, Vanguard America, National Socialist Movement), followers of web-based far-right platforms (The Daily Stormer, National Policy Institute, Nationalist Front), white supremacist groups (Ku Klux Klan, Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Identity Evropa), and various armed militia groups (Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, Virginia Minutemen Militia, Light Foot Militia)[22] are often able to subordinate their differences in the interest of building a unified movement.

Today’s anti-racist and anti-fascist organizers face the same challenges as their political ancestors in terms of building and maintaining diverse coalitions. Typically, those willing to confront white supremacists in the streets include students, clergy, and local community members. In Charlottesville, national organizations like the broad chapter-based Showing Up for Racial Justice, and Redneck Revolt, which advocates armed self-defense, worked to find common ground on the frontlines. Strategies to confront white nationalists are mixed. For instance, some groups in Charlottesville were determined to remain nonviolent under any circumstance, and sang songs like “This Little Light of Mine” to counter white nationalists’ chants of the “Our Blood, Our Soil!”[23] Others came prepared to defend themselves in the event that they or other counter-protestors were attacked, and arrived equipped with face-masks, first-aid plans, and shields.

The confrontations in Charlottesville ripped open many of the tensions simmering just under the surface of the anti-racist coalitions. Internet pundits and media commentators suggested that the violence could have been avoided had counter-protesters remained peaceful or chosen to not directly confront the racists. Professor and theologian Cornel West, a well-known adherent of nonviolence who was present in Charlottesville, had a very different take: “Those twenty of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean?”[24]

The role of the police often comes into question. In Charlottesville, the police stationed around the corner did nothing to prevent white nationalists from using sticks to severely beat DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old Black man, in a parking garage. As the police “stood to the side and did not try to prevent” skirmishes, a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of anti-fascists, injuring nineteen people and killing Heather Heyer.[25] What’s more, these moments are often cast into arguments over “picking sides.” President Donald Trump weighed in on the violence by saying, “I think there is blame on both sides.”

In addition to the president, plenty of news outlets were also unwilling to pick sides. Adam Johnson, an analyst with the non-profit watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, studied six national newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, and the Washington Post— in the month following Charlottesville. According to Johnson’s report, these papers “published 28 op-eds or editorials condemning the anti-fascist movement known as antifa, or calling on politicians to do so, and 27 condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists, or calling on politicians—namely Donald Trump—to do so.”[26] Johnson’s study concluded that while most “both sides” columns added a qualifier clarifying that there was no moral equivalency between antifa and neo-Nazis, this framing could not help but imply that there was. And a few explicitly argued that, yes, anti-fascism was just as bad as fascism.[27]

When alt-right leaders spread racist messages at college campuses nationwide, those who opposed them often argued bitterly against each other over tactics and strategy. What role should militancy play when confronting the far right? Should those who espouse a rhetoric of racial subjugation and genocide be given platforms to spread their views and enlist new recruits? To what degree are the state and commercial media complicit in spreading the messages of the far right?

These are old questions that harken back to another time when the far right was on the march in the United States—the 1980s. Then, as now, far-right aggression was emboldened by a friend in the Oval Office. And during Reagan’s time, the Klan was not the only racist organization on the scene either. The Aryan Nation’s recruitment efforts targeted those influenced by Christian Identity teachings and the view that a race war was imminent. The White Aryan Resistance cleverly operated within youth culture in a concerted effort to expand its ranks with young people. The National Association for the Advancement of White People used a polite middle-class veneer in an attempt to make notions of white supremacy appear more approachable. This marked the first time in U.S. history that homegrown and imported white supremacist tendencies began to officially collaborate. This resulted in the “Nazification of the Klan,” the formation of the “United Racist Front,” and increased outbreaks of violence such as the Greensboro massacre that took place on November 3, 1979.

Fascist movements have played a role in U.S. politics since the 1930s. In Right Wing Populism in America, Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons describe fascist activities as building “national, racial, or cultural unity and collective rebirth while seeking to purge imagined enemies.”[28] While most fascist organizations have not had direct access to state power that other right-wing groups have historically enjoyed, they still have played a pivotal role influencing U.S. politics. Even when such organizations have been in a lull, their fascist tactics, cultural cues, and ideology have been able to influence forces across the political spectrum, including dominant discourses.

The call to uphold the rights of white people was notably popularized by Klansman David Duke in attempt to rebrand the Klan’s image in the late 1970s. In his revival of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, Duke gave the Klan’s agenda a new face. He described his group as “primarily a white rights lobby organization, a racialist movement, mainly middle-class people.”[29] This preceded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke which codified a precedent for “reverse racism.”[30] This marked a shift of retrenchment in the courts, as well as created alliance-building opportunities between street-based reactionaries and mainstream politicians.

Today’s white supremacist networks build upon the rhetorical foundation laid by Duke. A 2017 report by Daniel Kreiss and Kelsey Mason in the Washington Post argued that the right reinforces racial affiliation as a basis for political power. Inequality, in the white nationalist imagination, has little to do with economics or the distribution of rights and resources. As Duke did, todays far right argues that white pride does not equal white supremacy. This allows proponents to sideline discussions of structural inequalities and trumpet the idea that people naturally prefer the company of their own group. Kreiss and Mason argue that, despite this,

“The alt-right seemingly eschews white supremacist language, at least in some public forums to broaden the movement’s appeal, its racially pure vision of a white America is as racist, exclusionary and anti-democratic as that of the segregationist ‘authoritarian enclaves’ of the Jim Crow era.”[31]

 

CONTESTED HISTORIES

No Fascist USA! is a collection of stories from the underexplored history of anti-fascist activity in the United States. The book follows the formation of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, its dedication to movements for self-determination, and its confrontations with organized white supremacy in the streets and within the state. Chapter One traces the deep shifts in the political terrain of the radical left in the United States from the 1960s to 1980s. It begins in New York with political prisoner support networks and the John Brown Book Club, and examines the impact of Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur’s escape from prison and the Greensboro massacre. Chapter Two shows how Reagan’s election gave the green light for racist vigilante mobilizations and raised the stakes of the politics of confrontation for the Committee and groups across the country. Chapter Three maps the Committee’s place in relationship to the larger Anti-Klan movement. Chapter Four explores the evolution of the organization’s approach through the deployment of cultural politics from both the left and right. Chapter Five traces the paths that key activists took after the dissolution of the Committee. Chapter Six offers lessons for continuing the fight against organized and structural white supremacy today.

Narratives about any part of dissident political history of the United States will always be contested. This is especially the case when such narratives affirm efforts to sabotage white supremacy, confront empire, or do not conform to fixed notions of nonviolence. There are many worthy books about the political family from which the Committee sprung. The best of the bunch tends to avoid the one-dimensional portrayals of activists as either sainted revolutionaries or as misguided and dangerous insurgents. We have attempted to live up to their examples. If any insight on this history is to be successful, it must explore the real-world motivations, politics, assessments, and context of the people it examines. This has pushed us to rely on interviews with veterans of the Committee and to grapple with their contributions and failures. It also caused us to examine the gaps between what activist organizations like the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee thought would come of their actions and what eventually transpired. We walked away from our long conversations with them in awe of their courage, appreciative of their theoretical work, and sometimes perplexed by their strategic choices.

Researching this history was surprisingly easy in terms of gathering archival materials. Those involved wrote extensively and debated publicly, making their case in published statements, graphic flyers, and booklets. Many of the people we interviewed who were in the Committee, or close to it, have continued to organize.

The materials we used to research this history all have strengths and biases. We studied the Committee’s own newspapers for understanding their positions, campaigns, and organizational evolution. We conducted over four dozen interviews, many with former Committee members, some with those who worked with them, and some who were critical of the group’s approach. We examined commercial newspaper coverage of major events to which the Committee was responding. We read declassified FBI documents, including accounts from undercover agents. We scoured toolkits generated by a variety of organizations within the anti-Klan movement of time.

Throughout this book, we have attempted to define words and terminology in a manner close to how radical activists in the 1970s and 1980s did. The meanings of words change over time as they are tested through debate and social struggle. No one definition of these terms was ever universally accepted. We define white supremacy as a system that delivers economic and social advantages to white people at the expense of people of color. This system is multi-layered and includes practices and advantages delivered to those who do not personally subscribe to ideas of racial superiority. The particular type of white supremacy discussed in this book is that propagated by the far right—those who actively organize and promote racial subjugation. While those of the far right always keep the option of violence on the table, they also incorporate other tactics, electoral and otherwise, to advance their agenda. Conversely, anti-racism is shorthand for the political project of undermining or eliminating both individual racism and systemic white supremacy. Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s description of racism is particularly useful in expanding the endgame of systemic white supremacy: “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”[32]

Any definition of fascism is bound to be incomplete. A good start is offered by Matthew N. Lyons, “Fascism is a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.”[33] We add that the social hierarchy mentioned here typically includes politics that embrace the genocide and /or intolerance of groups based on their ethnicity or religious background. In academic circles, the racial aspect of fascism is often debated, with some positing that fascism doesn’t actually need to be racist in order to be fascist. That debate can be held elsewhere. For the purposes of this study, we could not find a single fascist organization active in the United States during the 1980s which did not embrace genocide and expulsion. We also point to the value of understanding fascism as an adjective, rather than a noun, to help understand its adaptive nature. In other words, an arguably democratic government may display fascistic behavior without being considered a totalitarian government.

The 1980s also saw what the Committee described as the “Nazification of the Klan”—a process where sectors of the white supremacist movement jettisoned notions of working within the United States system and committed themselves to the overthrow of the government. In this book, the terms racism and fascism can seem to be used interchangeably, especially when taken from a movement publication or in a direct quote from a participant.

Throughout, we hear activists refer to “the state” and denounce “state violence.” We think of the state as the sum total of the dominant legal, social, and cultural institutions. By this definition, state violence is violence carried out or implicitly sanctioned by these institutions. As we will read, the concept of state violence is often complicated by implicit or explicit collaboration or tolerance of non-state violence. For example, the line between state and non-state racists is easily blurred when law enforcement does little to protect communities of colors from Klan-like organizations, or when elected officials appear to signal tolerance of such actors.

Closely related to this is the concept is imperialism, the process of a nation or state extending domination over another. As we will explore, fighting imperialism was a core part of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee’s ethical and political mission. The group believed that descendants of colonized people living within the United States belonged to distinct nations within nations. This meant that self-determination was the main solution to imperialism here and abroad. Self-determination in the traditional sense refers to a right of a people to establish determine their own future and allegiances free of outside interference from a colonial or occupying force. During the time period covered in this book, it also describes the right of oppressed people (or nations) to separate from the larger governments and establish new sovereign nations.

Given the clear rise of white nationalism today, parallels to the resurgence of organized racism experienced during Reagan years are chilling. We hope that readers with anti-racist commitments will draw their own conclusions after looking at the projects and perspectives of those who were willing to lay down almost everything—even their own freedom—in the service of abolishing white supremacy.

 

CHAPTER ONE

ONE LONG REIGN OF TERROR

“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”

—George Jackson

Harsh endings punctuated 1977. Elvis Presley performed his last concert, then died unceremoniously from drug induced cardiac failure on his bathroom floor. Apartheid activist and political leader in South Africa Steve Biko was killed in police custody, a death attributed to massive brain injury. And world renowned Brazilian soccer star, Pelé, played his final game. Abrupt beginnings and fantastic distractions filled the holes. Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th president of the United States. Rocky won the Academy Award for best picture. The Atari 2600 gaming system made its debut. And legendary English punk band, The Clash, released their self-titled first album. While the coy hijinks and serial misunderstandings of Susan Summer and John Ritter, in the sitcom Three’s Company, enveloped American pop culture, a lesser known dramatic saga was unfolding.

On June 1, 1977, Khali Siwatu-Hodari, a Black man incarcerated at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, wrote an open letter to plea for support. The Ku Klux Klan was infiltrating prisons in the region, with large numbers of Klansmen holding jobs as guards and prison teachers.

 

An Open Letter:

On behalf of myself and the men at Eastern Correctional Facility, and all prisoners throughout the state of New York, I issue this open letter as an appeal for support. I am calling on all individuals and groups, and on the press, to support and join our fight against the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of organized racism in New York State. The Klan is a growing force in this country, as well as in the prisons, and it will take a concerted, conscious effort to expose and root it out.

For years we have waged a struggle against the Klan, even while as many as 60 members and sympathizers patrolled outside our cells. We thought we were alone. But now it is clear that the Klan is recruiting from Buffalo to New York City, in the high schools of Ulster and Sullivan Counties, through civic associations, and school boards, in government and openly boasting about their racism in the press.

A massive offensive must be mounted.

Historically, the Klan has operated in secrecy. Two years ago, men at Eastern broke the clandestine organizing of guards and teachers in the prison by exposing none other than the Grand Dragon of the state, Earl Schoonmaker who was passing out white supremacist literature among white prisoners. State authorities have done little to rid us of this degenerate element, thereby condoning Klan violence against the prisoners. The Klan has used the publicity generated by our exposure to promote its new “non-violent” image and initiate new recruitment campaigns, continuing to preach its vicious hatred of Black and other Third World peoples.

State authorities use the Klan’s new image to justify their inaction. In the meantime, Klan organizing in this very prison and others is on the rise and reported in detail in newspapers and magazines. The Inspector General has investigated our charges, and a report is now being suppressed by the state government. We can no longer rely at all on the state of New York to carry out even the most minimal defense of our rights.

Therefore, we have taken two courses of action. First of all, we have initiated two federal lawsuits against the Klan, charging harassment and abuse of Black and other Third World prisoners. These suits charge guards as well as officials and give us the power to force the state to reveal what we prisoners already know about the Klan. These suits will be heard in Federal Court in New York City and must be supported. Secondly, we have worked on compiling this press packet, with the aid of outside supporters, to bring the word to the public in as much detail as possible.

We ask that you show your solidarity with our struggle against the Klan by coming out to support the suits this summer, and by using this material to continue to investigate Klan activity all over the state. You, the concerned people and press, are our only hope of broadening the campaign we began here in the prisons three years ago. We will continue to fight the Klan in every way possible here, but the power of a united force, fighting inside and outside against the Klan is our hope of a total victory. Unite to Smash the Klan! -Khali

Khali Siwatu-Hodari

(nee Frank Abney)

 

Siwatu-Hodari’s letter coincided with a resurgence of the Klan that followed a long period of decline after peaking out in the 1920s.[xxxiv] Far from being solely a Southern problem, the Klan wreaked havoc across the United States, including in the Northeast. Building slowly, the Klan infiltrated police departments, prisons, and the military. For incarcerated people, this led to a constant state of siege, harassment, intimidation, and violence.[xxxv] In 1974, a brutal beating of an incarcerated Puerto Rican man at Napanoch, New York, led others incarcerated to establish the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) behind bars.

Prison guards’ harassment of the incarcerated surged along with increased efforts to sever connections to their outside support. A white woman named Nancy Loori gave up her position as director of volunteer services at Napanoch after receiving death threats. People on the inside contacted outside supporters, alerting them that Klan members were employed by the New York State Department of Corrections. The Klansmen were attempting to prevent incarcerated Black people from utilizing recently established educational programs. Later in 1977, the New York Daily News conducted an investigation into allegations that the Klan staged a rally on land owned by a correctional officer. But this was not exactly breaking news. Since 1974, and consistently throughout the rest of the decade, the New York Daily News not only exposed extensive Klan infiltration and recruitment efforts within Napanoch prison, but incidents in which such infiltrators attacked Black incarcerated people, including firebombing their cells. Reporter Brian Kates observed the growth of the Klan in the North, “Nowhere has their influence been greater than in prisons. In New York alone, Klan units have gained a stronghold among both guards and incarcerated people at correctional facilities in Napanoch, Walkill, and Attica.”[xxxvi]

Shortly before Siwatu-Hodari sent his letter, another major incident publicly revealed the Klan’s activity within state institutions. This time, Klan activity was exposed inside California’s Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. It was well known that the Klan had a chapter operating on the base. Numerous active-duty white Marines wore KKK symbols, posted threatening flyers in common areas, and carried large knives in order to intimidate Black Marines.[xxxvii] It was only when long-simmering racial tensions erupted into violence that the situation became news. Although an investigation uncovered a group of sixteen Klan members on the base were armed with a .357 magnum revolver, clubs, knives, and KKK paraphernalia, it was thirteen Black Marines who were charged with assault after barging into a room and attacking those inside thought to be holding a Klan meeting. The actual KKK meeting was being held in the room next door.

Witnesses testified that Marine Klan members regularly distributed recruiting materials and emblazoned the words “nigger sticker” on their knives. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the Klan in court, prompting the resignation of thirty-five people. Finally, the Marines arrested and transferred one Klan member, Cpl. Daniel Bailey, in a last-ditch effort to quell the racial tensions. The events at Camp Pendleton intensified anxieties that the Klan, and other white supremacist groups, were infiltrating the armed forces in preparation for an impending race war.[xxxviii] This incident contributed to the sense that the Klan, while increasingly marketing itself as a nonviolent cultural institution, was still a paramilitary vigilante group that was allowed to operate within the shadow of state institutions.

Around this time, Judy Gumbo and Stew Albert, two veteran activists living in upstate New York, received Khali Siwatu-Hodari’s letter. Working to bring young white radicals into support organizing for incarcerated people, Judy used her position as professor at State University New York at New Paltz to build contacts. Together, with formerly incarcerated people who were now students, they formed the Inside-Outside Prison Coalition, a campus-based group that leveraged university resources to support political prisoners. The group produced flyers about the plight of political prisoners, organized fundraisers, and screened films about state surveillance, the targeting of activist groups, and the rebellion at Attica State Prison. They also visited incarcerated people during frequent trips to Naponach and other New York state prisons. New Paltz students on parole were the first to introduce outside activists to Siwatu-Hodari, a member of the Black Panther Party, and president of the NAACP chapter in the Napanoch prison. These connections were instrumental in creating the conditions for the founding of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. For instance, Bob Boyle, originally from New York City, was an early member of the Inside-Outside Prison Coalition. He was studying at New Paltz and worked on political prisoner cases through the National Lawyers Guild.

Prison support work in upstate New York began mingling more intentionally with the work in New York City. It wasn’t long before Boyle connected with Lisa Roth, a New Yorker who had worked in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at her high school and later the Students for a Democratic Society. Roth helped form the group Friends of Assata and Sundiata, which was at the forefront of radical organizing. She recalled how, at this time in the late 1970s, the movement was forced to grapple with the realities of imprisoned comrades. “By the early to mid-seventies many former members of the Black Panther Party were in prison throughout New York. So many of us who got our start doing anti-racist support work for the Black Panthers ended up doing prisoner support work.”[xxxix]

Even the most committed activists had trouble understanding the implications of Siwatu-Hodari’s letter. Could staff throughout the New York prison system be members of the Ku Klux Klan? They were skeptical. Lisa admitted, “Our initial response was that the prisoners meant that the guards were really, really racist. They couldn’t possibly mean that they were members of the Klan. But they struggled with us and urged us to research the situation.” Siwatu-Hodari’s letter made clear that prison support activities such as running errands for people inside were not an adequate response to the threats posed by the Klan. “We were pushed to respond,” remarked Pam Fadem, a founding member of the Committee, “The Klan was burning crosses in the prisons, beating people. We were pushed to respond by Black leadership.”[xl]

The support network in New York City was taking off around the same time. To explore how best to respond to the fact that so many leaders were imprisoned, Pam Fadem, Lisa Roth, and Alan Berkman formed the John Brown Book Club, a study group that met in Roth’s living room.[xli] At this time, Berkman, Fadem, and Roth—all of whom from Jewish-American families—were part of an anti-racist, anti-Zionist organizing committee at City College of New York. The co-mingling of these two groups—the Inside Outside Coalition and the Book Club—gave way to the official formation of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee.

“Our main strategy was to bring white people into contact with the Black revolution and allow them to be changed by it the way we had been,” explained LauraWhitehorn, who joined the group after it formed.[xlii] All of the founding members had participated in the early Civil Rights and Black Power movements through organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group decided to bring these threads together—political prisoner support, anti-Klan work, and rigorous study of liberation movements. The choice of John Brown as a namesake struck a defiant pose. For them, it signaled that the era’s liberal white agenda fell far short of the work that needed to be done to abolish white supremacy.

Throughout the history the Black Freedom movement, the reliability of white allies was constantly tested. An early emblematic rift was the controversy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Civil Rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer brought sixty Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party activists to contest the seating of their state’s Jim Crow delegates to the convention. The all-white Credential Committee yielded a mere two seats while keeping the old-guard delegates in their positions. This drove home a sense that the government, established political parties, and many white allies would be unreliable—and if pushed, hostile—to the goals of Black Freedom movement.[xliii] Writing from solitary confinement in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his frustration with moderate white clergy who denounced his nonviolent direct-action tactics. King wrote: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate….”[xliv]

In this context, adopting the name John Brown intended to indicate the lengths the group was willing to go to abolish white supremacy. In 1859, Brown led a group of twenty-one people in a raid on Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal in Virginia. Brown’s goal was to seize weapons and catalyze an abolitionist war against white enslavers. The U.S. Marines, led by soon-to-be Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, defeated Brown’s militia. In his last speech before being executed, Brown appeared to be at peace with his decisions: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so, let it be done!” [xlv]

Harper’s Ferry was the culmination of Brown’s lifelong commitment to end racialized slavery in the United States. A decade prior, he had helped Black people in Massachusetts form a self-defense organization to counter the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. When the fate of Kansas as a free or slave state was undecided, Brown’s small group of guerillas attacked and killed many pro-slavery settlers. There were some who reached the conclusion, as Brown did, that only principled militancy could undo white supremacy. Yet, there were others who believed that a more peaceful legal fight was a better way to end slavery and place the nation on a road to greater equality.[xlvi]

In the long arc of racial justice organizing, people have held many views about John Brown. Black activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee initially cautioned white people who travelled to the South to avoid emulating Brown and adhere to collective decision making as part of a group. In contrast, Malcolm X held up Brown as exactly the type of white person the movement needed: “If a white man wants to be your ally, what does he think of John Brown? You know what John Brown did? He went to war. He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves.”[xlvii]

In their first act as the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, members discovered that Klan leader Janice Schoonmaker was serving on a local board of education and that there was a Klan Youth Corps campaign to recruit in East Coast high schools. Their research involved connecting names of active Klan members to towns, and identifying what, if any, roles they played within public institutions. Once they had a scoop, they looked for ways to publicly expose Klan members. As Whitehorn described, “We had a list of names of the Klan guards in the different prisons. We made posters with their names with the intention of going to the small towns they lived in in upstate New York to expose them.” Members regularly drove the two hours between Napanoch and New York City in order to gather information.

The group’s early research culminated in the publication of their first pamphlet. In it, they publicized thirty-five prison guards that incarcerated people exposed as active members or sympathizers of the Klan. Digging deeper, members of the group travelled to Albany to locate the incorporation papers of the New York Klan. They printed these papers, exposing the Grand Dragon of the New York Klan, Earl Schoonmaker (married to Janice) had been a prison teacher and the head of the Napanoch chapter of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.[xlviii] Following complaints from a white female prison employee who alleged that she was threatened and harassed for showing sympathy to incarcerated Black people, Schoonmaker had been investigated, and in December 1974 he was suspended from his job. In 1975 the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the prison, but this did very little to tangibly improve prison conditions. Despite the disciplinary action and widespread attention in the press, including coverage in the New York Times, violence continued at the prison. Activists behind bars were often placed in solitary confinement, assaulted, and harassed.

The Committee worked to publicize inmates’ demands to immediately remove Klansmen from their jobs at Napanoch. During the summer of 1977, prisoners took over a cellblock to protest Klan-instigated brutality, a rodent-infested mess hall, and the use of rotten eggs in their food. Court records showed that about fifty inmates overwhelmed several corrections officers and took thirteen hostages. Felix Castro, imprisoned leader of the Latinos Unidos organization, was credited with negotiating the return of prison staff and later faced charges of instigating the uprising.[xlix] When news broke that Klansmen were planning cross burnings in the local Klan unit, or “Klavern,” at Pine Bush, New York, the group decided to investigate Schoonmaker more closely. To get more information about his role, Whitehorn agreed to go to Schoonmaker’s house posing as a journalist. She wore a wig. “I sat in his house asking him questions, ready for him to reveal something we could use, but it was nothing that surprising,” she recalled. “He hated Black people, Jews, and the Catholics.” They made every effort to attend Schoonmaker's deposition. Laura Whitehorn, Terry Bisson, Lisa Roth, Nancy Ryan, and Afeni Shakur all piled into Laura’s van.

Incarcerated people at Napanoch continued to demand that Klansmen working at the prison be fired. John Brown members met with them regularly, as they were increasingly concerned about the threats they faced for challenging the white supremacists. Here they learned that prison guards associated with the Klan had received clearance by the administration, and several had received promotions. Some guards maintained their jobs and retaliated against activists on the inside with intimidation tactics and harassment. One guard wore his Klan robe inside the prison and burnt a paper cross in front of the cells of the incarcerated Black men.

At this point, the John Brown crew decided that bringing more people into the fight was needed to increase prison support work and fight white supremacists in prisons. They also focused on educating people about the connections between police brutality at home and the role of empire in suppressing populations in Third World countries. Their first pamphlet, Smash the Klan! opened with the letter from Siwatu-Hodari and outlined important details of the pending case against the prison. It also offered fact sheets and contact information for getting involved. The pamphlet stated:

 

We have known about Early Schoonmaker’s Klan affiliation for 3 years. We have had lists of violent acts against prisoners at Napanoch and other prisoners. These are not unrelated to the atrocities which have characterized the Klan’s 100 years of racist terror. Exposure of the Klan’s whole history and strategy is a responsibility that must be shared by all honest forces in this country.

 

With this tangible anti-Klan material, the group made their initial attempts conducting public outreach in white communities. First, members went to supermarkets. “It wasn’t particularly strategic, but that is where we thought we would find white people we could talk to,” remembered Boyle. In addition to free Smash the Klan pamphlets, they offered “Death to the Klan!” T-shirts for $3.50, and buttons for 60 cents.

Never taking an official position on the role of white working people, they often completely missed the opportunity to organize around labor and economics. When shoppers stopped by their table in Brooklyn, members tried out conversations with white people who weren’t already part of the movement. Bob recalled talking to a working-class white woman when she approached the table.

“She had three crying children, she was carrying her stuff, maybe she was a single mother, maybe not. And here I am going to law school and telling her that she is privileged and if she didn’t support Black Liberation, something was wrong. This was the line. We couldn’t talk to this woman from where she was coming from, that she worked all week and was dealing with the kids and had to do her shopping, was probably living in a three-story walk-up. It wasn’t getting anywhere.”

While the concept of “white privilege” had yet to be popularized, the Committee continued an open-ended analysis that had already gone through several iterations throughout the decades. W.E.B. Du Bois never used the term but theorized in 1935 that white workers received positive psychological wages based on their skin color. Depending on their politics, theorists have emphasized the individualistic aspects of the idea or the structural causes. The basis of the theory is simple. People of color in the United States are excluded from economic, social, and political access that whites provide for one another. The interlocking system that upholds this inequity is led by elites with near full participation of less privileged white people who also get limited access to power. The process of chronic exclusion involves a violence against equality, fairness, justice, and freedom. This violence lies as the core of white supremacy and its legacy from the era of settler-colonialism through to the current period.  

In 1960s and 1970s, Theodore Allen developed these ideas to assert that there was no scientific basis for the category of the white race, and that it was invented as a method of class control. He based this thesis after meticulously searching through pre-colonial records in Virginia and finding no mention of “white” until after the Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The rebellion united Black and white laborers against a colonial regime that was seen as coddling indigenous raids on settler colonies. Fearful of what might come after, Allen documented the use of whiteness to confer material and social advantages—privileges—on whites in order to sabotage potential Black-white alliances. Allen described privilege as a “poison bait” that would never allow working-class power.[l] Cedric Robinson forever changed this debate in the early 1980s with his seminal work Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. He argued that the roots of racism reach far back into Europe‘s history, where the “tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”[li] This meant that racism wasn’t only a tool of capitalist elites, but that capitalism and racism were inextricably interwoven.

In the mid to late 1980s, two more important distinctions arose. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh emphasized the day-to-day advantages of privilege through her famous writings on “the invisible package of unearned assets” that white people can count on “cashing in each day.” “White privilege,” wrote McIntosh, “is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”[lii] Author J. Sakai put forward that, as a whole, working-class white people could never truly be revolutionary due to unbreakable attachments to empire and settler-colonialism. He further argued that the white portion of the working-class was not part of the proletariat at all thanks to their status as settlers, and that the citizenship and labor struggles of groups who later would become white was “nothing more nor less than a push to join the oppressor nation, to enlist in the ranks of the Empire.”[liii] Sakai’s distinction reverberated through the Committee, for they saw white privilege as the means that the state uses to organize its support base.

The events in New York prisons made it clear that Jim Crow wore a different face outside of Southern states. New York was simply “Up South,” as Malcolm X had described. The normalization of increased Klan activity was rampant. In a blow to the people incarcerated at Napanoch, the New York High Court ruled in April 1977 that prison guards were allowed to join the Ku Klux Klan. Months later, members of the NAACP and Latinos Unidos took over a wing of Napanoch, taking eleven hostages. A grand jury returned indictments against ten of the men involved. The men were then quickly transferred to other facilities, hampering further organizing.[liv]

With legal channels shutting down, it seemed to many anti-racist organizers that the “massive offensive” Siwatu-Hodari urged against the Klan was the only option left on the table. The newly minted John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was more than happy to oblige.

AUTHORS PREFACES

[1] Sam Levin, “ Revealed: F.B.I. Investigated Civil Rights Group as ‘Terrorism’ Threat and Viewed KKK as Victims,” The Guardian, February 1, 2019. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/01/sacramento-rally-F.B.I.-kkk-domestic-terrorism-california.    

INTRODUCTION

[2] P.R. Lockhart, “Supporters of Confederate Monuments had a very bad week,” Vox, January 19, 2019.

[3] Not all City officials sided with the white supremacists. Charlottesville City Councilor, Kristin Szakos, received multiple death threats for simply raising the question of the removal of statues. The city’s Vice Mayor, Wes Bellamy championed removal efforts. Jacey Fortin, “The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm,” New York Times, August 13th, 2017. 

[4] The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. The Dividing Line of the 80s: Take a Stand Against the Klan, a pamphlet on the fight against white supremacy. New York. The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, 1980. Formed in 1933, the INS, or Immigration and Naturalization Service, was a part of the Department of Justice. In 2003, under the Bush Jr. Presidential Administration, the Homeland Security Act reorganized this branch of government, transferring the investigative, deportation, and intelligence functions of the department were transferred to three agencies, the most well-known is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. In this transition, ICE was granted heightened civil and criminal authority.

[5] The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, The Dividing Line a pamphlet on the fight against white supremacy, 15.

[6] Loch K. Johnson. A Season of Inquiry Revisited: The Church Committee Confronts America’s Spy Agencies. (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2015).

[7] The Dividing Line, 16-18.

[8] John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. “Who We Are,” No KKK! No Fascist USA! Newspaper of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, Spring/Summer 1989.

[9] The original concept of the New Boundaries plan maintained in part the colonial legacy of the United States, regulating Native Americans to a nation in the northern tip of Canada-arguably some of the coldest on the continent.

[10] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “A History of Lynchings.” NAACP.org. https://www.naacp.org/history-of-lynchings/ (accessed January 21, 2019). Between 1882-1968 there were 4,743 recorded lynchings. 72.7% were Black, 27.3 were white, believed that they were helping Black people or taking anti-lynching positions. Additionally, the New Orleans Massacre and the Memphis Massacre, both in 1866, were two notable events where Black neighborhoods and groups of Black delegates were attacked by mobs of white men.

[11] History.com editors. 2010. “Black Leaders During Reconstruction.” HISTORY. A&E Television Networks. June 24, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/black-leaders-during-reconstruction.

[12] Brian Stevenson and the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, Third Edition. Equal Justice Initiative. Accessed March 9th, 2019 lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

[13] “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism.” 2011. Splccenter.org. Southern Poverty Law Center. February 28, 2011.

[14] Gordon, Linda. 2019. “Populism, Fascism, and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s.” Marcus Bierich Lecture. Lecture, April 4, 2019.

[15] Mike Wallace,. “Madison Square Mayhem,” New York Times, January 11, 2003.

[16] Historian Linda Gordon notes, “The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, named for Washington Klansman Albert Johnson in the House and Pennsylvania’s David Reed in the Senate, ensconced into law the Klan’s hierarchy of desirable and undesirable ”races” by assigning quotas for immigrants in proportion to the ethnicity of those already in the United States.” Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017).

[17] H.W. Evans, The Menace of Modern Immigration. Dallas. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1924. Washington Post. “White Robed Klan Cheered on March in Nation’s Capital,” Washington Post, Sunday, August 9th, 1925.

[18] The “Third Wave” of the Klan became known for its shift toward militancy, as led by the Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson. Say more about Third wave

[20] John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, “Principles of Unity,” Death to the Klan! Newsletter of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, (Volume 1. No 3. Jan/Feb 1980).

[21] Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protestors Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” NBC News, May 14, 2017.

[22] Joanna Walters, “Militia Leaders who descend on Charlottesville condemn ‘right wing lunatics’,” The Guardian, August 15, 2017.

[23] Joe Heim, “Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death,The Washington Post, August 14, 2017.

[24] Democracy Now!, “Cornel West & Rev. Traci Blackmon: Clergy in Charlottesville Were Trapped by Torch-Wielding Nazis,” Interview by Goodman, Amy. Pacifica Radio Network. August 14, 2017. www.democracynow.org/2017/8/14/cornel_west_rev_toni_blackmon_clergy

[25] Citation needed

[26] Adam Johnson, “In Month After Charlottesville, Papers Spent as Much Time Condemning Anti-Nazis as Nazis,” Fair, September 13, 2017.

[27] Marc Theissen, Yes, Antifa Is the Moral Equivalent of Neo-Nazis, Washington Post, 8/17/17. James S. Robbins, Trump Is Right—Violent Extremists on Both Sides Are a Threat, USA Today, 8/30/17. Alan Dershowitz, The Hard Right and Hard Left Pose Different Dangers, Wall Street Journal, 9/10/17.

[28] Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000).

[29] Anti-Defamation League, “Imagine A World Without Hate, ” Imagine A World Without Hate. www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/David-Duke.pdf.

[30] Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

[31] Daniel Kreiss and Kelsey Mason, “Here’s what white supremacy looks and sounds like now. (It’s not your grandfather’s KKK.),” Washington Post, August 17, 2017.

[32] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2007).

[33] Matthew Lyons, “What is Fascism?,” Political Research Associates. https://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/12/12/what-is-fascism-2/ (accessed May 9th, 2019).

CHAPTER 1

[xxxiv] Civil and federal lawsuits greatly contributed to the Klan’s decline in membership in the 1970s. Making them “wary of organizing into chapters, naming officers and expanding across state lines.” See Branko Marcetic, “Fighting the Klan in Reagan’s America,” Jacobin Magazine, August 25th, 2017 and Klanwatch Project, “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 6th Edition. 2011.

[xxxv] Eddie Ellis was instrumental in shaping the early moments of the movement of formerly incarcerated people in the United States. As Black Panther member, and former target of the COINTELPRO, Ellis became a lifelong supporter of education for people incarcerated. He also pushed the movement to adapt its language to reflect power relations and humanity of those on the inside more clearly. Instead of saying inmate or prisoner, he urged the use of the term “incarcerated person.” Many of the historical texts quoted in this book was part of this shifting moment, and therefore the reader will see a range of terms used. As authors, we use the contemporary phrase to align with the evolving politic.

[xxxvi] Brian Kates, “We still haven’t kicked the Klan,” New York Daily News, February 1st, 1979.

[xxxvii] Kip Cooper, “KKK Acts Resume At Pendleton,” The San Diego Union, November 30, 1978. 

[xxxviii] Robert Lindsey, “Marines Transfer Leader of Klan to Ease Tension,” New York Times, December 4, 1976. Bill Richards, “ACLU Role in Klan Suit Against Marines Provokes Dispute,” January 29, 1977.

[xxxix] Lisa Roth, interview with Hilary Moore and James Tracy, January 16th, 2017, San Francisco, CA

[xl] Pam Fadem, interview with Hilary Moore and James Tracy, February 23rd 2019, Berkeley, CA

[xli] The John Brown Book Club also served as the publishing arm of Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and the Weather Underground.

[xlii] Laura Whitehorn, interview with Hilary Moore, November 2016, New York, NY.

[xliii] Chana Lee, “Anger, Memory and Personal Power: Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights Leadership,” in Sisters in the Struggle African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, (New York: New York University Press: New York, 2001.) 160-164.

[xliv] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. Claybourne Carson, (New York, Warner Books reprint edition, 2011). 187-204.

[xlv] John Brown, “John Brown’s Last Speech,” (speech, Charlestown West Virginia, November 2, 1859), Zinn Education Project, https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/john-brown-last-speech

[xlvi] Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, (New York: L Henry Holt and Company, 2011).

[xlvii] Malcolm X, “On Afro-American History” (speech, January 24, 1965). https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isr/vol28/no02/v28n02-w179-mar-apr-1967-int-soc-rev.pdf

[xlviii] Schoonmaker’s Klan affiliation had been public since at least 1974. Michael T. Kaufman, “Upstate Prison Teacher Defends His Klan Role,” New York Times, December 23rd.1974.

[xlix] Juanita Diaz-Cotto, Gender, Ethnicity and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press 1996). 231.

[l] Jeffrey B. Perry. “The Developing Con­juncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” Cultural Logic, July, 2010.

[li] Robin DG Kelley, “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?,” Boston Review: Race, Capitalism, Justice, January 12, 2019.

[lii] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, www.interpretereducation.org. Accessed January 2, 2019: www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/white-privilege-by-Peggy-McIntosh.compressed.pdf

[liii] J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (City Unknown: Morning Star Press, 1983). 49

[liv] Diaz-Cotto, 21-22.

--This text refers to the paperback edition.

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  • ASIN : B07SXSFWTM
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  • Publication date : February 27, 2020
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