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Banning the Proud Boys—be careful what you ask for

Governments of the neoliberal centre won’t contain the social dislocation and discontent that feeds the growth of fascism

Canadian PoliticsSocial Movements

Members of the Proud Boys rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, November 28, 2020. Photo by Anthony Crider/Flickr.

The federal NDP has called for the far-right Proud Boys to be banned in Canada and declared a terrorist group. The party is now widely circulating a petition to that effect. Obviously, the role this violent group played in the recent disturbing events in Washington is a major motivating factor in this initiative. Although the Trudeau government has not yet agreed to move against the Proud Boys, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s spokesperson has indicated that “Our national security and law enforcement agencies are very actively engaged in monitoring the activities of these groups, and gathering the evidence required to support a determination of listing as a terrorist organization.”

I want to be very clear that I’m no advocate of free speech for fascists. It’s my firm belief that hate needs to be shut down, and I don’t for a moment deny that those who face racist threats and violence have every right to call upon the authorities to act against the perpetrators. I’m not even suggesting that demanding the state prosecute or ban fascist formations is something that can be completely ruled out. If I had been in Athens recently, I would have joined the great mass of people who took to the streets to celebrate the successful prosecution of the Golden Dawn fascists.

Nevertheless, I think we should be very wary of relying on the state to legislate the threat of fascism away. Measures taken against the far right are something of a double-edged sword that can easily be turned against the political left and used to threaten workers’ rights. There are lots of examples of this that readily come to mind. After the defeat of the Nazi regime and the restoration of a liberal democracy in West Germany, Section 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch or criminal code outlawed the “use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations.” It was applied against the far right but it was primarily used as a weapon against the left, culminating in the banning of the Communist Party in 1956.

In my own experience as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) during the struggle in the 1990s against the brutal austerity agenda of the Harris Tories, I saw the readiness to criminalize protest and brand those who fight to defend communities under attack as “terrorists.” When a protest against homelessness we organized on June 15, 2000 was attacked by the police and a major confrontation ensued, the police chief accused us of engaging in “domestic terrorism.” The following year, the Mayor of Toronto smeared OCAP as “organized crime at its finest.” The most draconian public order sections of the criminal code were used against us in an effort to stifle the fight against the austerity attacks that we had taken up.

Indigenous resistance in Canada has long been treated by law enforcement agencies as a terrorist threat. Examples abound. Responding in 2016 to the RCMP’s Project SITKA, a massive intelligence gathering operation targeting hundreds of Indigenous activists, the group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression stated that “Innocent advocates were investigated and catalogued based on little more than a perceived potential threat that their expression might pose to the state.” Nor should we imagine that it is only a matter of spying on people and gathering information. Recall that in 2019 this same RCMP was deployed against Wet’suwet’en land defenders in British Columbia. As the force drew up its repressive plans, officers were told to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want,” and notes taken during this briefing session state that “lethal overwatch is req’d.” Indigenous people who oppose pipeline interests are going to face the repressive zeal of Canada’s colonial police force more readily and to a greater extent than racist Proud Boys.

Perhaps the most glaring and destructive example of the double-edged sword, however, is labelling as hate speech expressions of solidarity with the struggle for freedom of the Palestinian people. This is an international phenomenon that is fully at work in Canada. Those who challenge Israeli crimes or the political ideology of Zionism are routinely accused of anti-Semitism. The current weapon of choice in this regard is the infamous International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Independent Jewish Voices has compiled a set of international examples of how this document is being used to threaten free speech on Palestine. What is so striking about the weaponization of anti-Semitism is that it takes an accusation of hate speech that should be levelled at the far right and hurls it at the anti-racist left in an act of political gangsterism.

A protest camp on Wet’suwet’en territory before the violent eviction by RCMP officers, January 2019. Photo by Unist’ot’en Camp/Facebook.

No state neutrality

The notion of the state as the honest and impartial broker of the common good is a liberal delusion. Laws are not drafted on behalf of or enforced in the interest of working class people. The events on Capitol Hill that prompted calls to shut down the Proud Boys are proof enough of that. Apart from all the ways the fascist thugs were assisted and enabled by those who were supposed to police them, it is now abundantly clear that the far-right crowd included more than a few “first responder” participants.

To be sure, Trump overplayed his hand when he unleashed the disturbance in Washington, with the Proud Boys and a white supremacist rabble as his shock troops. The attack on the Capitol created some fear and lots of anger within the US establishment and its international allies. On that basis, state security forces have developed a sudden interest in right-wing terrorism. This is not the norm, however, and it won’t last. Police agencies in both the US and Canada have long displayed the most relaxed attitude towards the threat of right wing violence and they see the threat to the interests they serve and protect as coming from the left.

On August 16, 1933, Christie Pits was the scene of Toronto’s “first and largest ethnically based riot.” This is a Star page from the day after the fight. Image courtesy the Toronto Star archive.

There is, of course, a very different approach to dealing with the dangers posed by fascism that has a long and noble history. Working class organizations and communities touched by the hatred of the fascists have mobilized to deny them the control of the streets they seek. In 1936, Oswald Mosley’s fascist black shirts attempted to march through the Jewish district of east London under massive police protection. The fascists and cops were stopped at Cable Street by a vast and defiant working class mobilization. Three years before that, in Toronto, the Jewish community and its allies stood up to the fascists in the famous Christie Pits Riot. In both cases, the police were scarcely on hand to defend communities from fascist attack, but the right was still confronted and pushed back by the united action of working class people. As those who have participated in protests against gatherings of the far right in Toronto in recent years know very well, little has changed and the police can be expected to protect the fascists from those who challenge their hatred and violence.

Indeed, the communities targeted by the racism of the fascists would find the suggestion that they should expect the police to keep them safe extremely odd. In Toronto, Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than white people. The cops actually represent a far greater threat than the one posed by the Proud Boys. Do we seriously imagine that Canada’s colonial police force, the RCMP, is going to protect the Indigenous communities they terrorize from any fascist threat? Fascists did indeed attack a rally organized in Red Deer by the Black and Indigenous Alliance AB earlier this year and the RCMP watched the attack unfold. As the fascist threat grows, it will garner support from members of the police and the military, and legislators will be more likely to target working class resistance than to shut down the far right.

I’m not suggesting that we should never call for governments or state authorities to take action against fascists. If a mosque or synagogue is attacked, we should demand this be investigated as the hate crime it is and challenge the cops when they drag their feet. As I previously mentioned, the Greek movements were completely correct to demand the prosecution of the Golden Dawn thugs. However, the state acted as it did in that case because of massive pressure from working class organizations and communities that had faced the racist violence of the fascists. In the case of the Proud Boys, the political leaders in the US have had a nasty shock and want to act against the far right at this moment. Prodded by the NDP, the Canadian government may take its lead from this. However, the action they take will be in their interests and is not the result of working class pressure. Whether they ban far right groups or not, they will be more likely to target Black Lives Matter protesters and those who resist their austerity agenda than they will be to take any sustained action against right wing hate mongers.

Organizations of the far right may be outlawed but it is wrong to ignore the dangers for the left that comes with this or to place any great hopes in the state as our protector. It is crises of capitalism that create the conditions for fascism to grow and we are in such a period of crisis. The cops won’t protect us but will take the side of the fascists. Governments, even with liberals in charge, won’t stop the right today anymore than Hindenburg stopped Hitler. Governments of the discredited neoliberal centre won’t contain the social dislocation and discontent that feeds the growth of fascism. The threat will only be stopped by powerful working class action that drives the fascists off the streets and challenges the system that produces them.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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