About a month after the presidential election, when I was walking on Walnut Street by Rittenhouse Square, a man driving by in a white van shouted, "Sieg heil,” his arm jutting out of his open window in a Nazi salute.
Across the street, on the other side of his car, a woman in a niqab waited for the bus at 19th Street. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to see and hear this, when the night of the election, swastikas and our President-elect’s name were spray-painted on Broad Street a few blocks from my house. But I was rooted to the spot, silent, trying to suppress prickly tears of horror.
I did, and they responded, “Thanks for the report. Definitely get in touch if you see anything else and encourage your friends to do the same. These reports may help us to map hotbeds of racists and hopefully identify them so we can take action. Keep in touch!”
Philadelphians have been calling their congresspeople en masse since the election, and grassroots political efforts like Tuesdays with Toomey are blooming (even if the Senator’s staff locks the doors). But as white supremacist groups flourish in the greater Philadelphia area, some people would never be content with gathering outside a congressman’s closed doors. My contact with the Philly chapter of Antifa got me curious.
So on a sub-freezing day in early January, I headed up to LAVA Space in West Powelton for a meeting titled Confronting Fascism in the Age of Trump. An organizer asked that I not take photos.
The Lancaster Avenue venue was a long room with battered bookshelves along one side. Defiant gray clots of dust clung to the ceiling fans’ motionless blades. A projector screen showed a shaky silent video of people beating each other in the street with folding chairs. A small disco ball hung overhead, and everyone kept their coats on. There were coffee, pastries, and a table full of fliers.
“Philly Antifa is a group that is dedicated to disrupting racist, fascist and far-right nationalist organizing and recruiting,” a handout explained. “Philly Antifa works within a network of antifascist formations intent on destroying fascism.”
A list of Antifa enemies includes racism, sexism, rape culture, and homophobia, and extends to capitalism, “bosses,” “the rich and powerful,” and “their snitches, scabs, and cops.”
Antifa promotes the stuff any grief-stricken Hillary voter hopes to speak with Senator Toomey about, including reproductive freedom and anti-racism, but also insists on “strikes, riots, insurrections, revolutions, sabotage, [and] graffiti” — they’re “smashing fascism,” not simply opposing it.
As one Antifa leader said at the end of the meeting, “Don’t confuse talking to your racist uncle with anti-fascist action.”
What is fascism?
The crowd started out small but grew to around 50 people as the conversation progressed, standing latecomers pressing into the back of the room. All the speakers organizers invited failed to attend, but the three session leaders gave some rapid-fire context, and the group discussion afterward lasted about two hours.
Between readings of some lengthy quotes on fascism, from Mussolini to local writer Matthew Lyons, organizers noted the definition of “fascism” itself is a dicey topic.
“We should not get caught up on what fascism is, but work on opposing it,” one leader said. Later, an attendee noted “the pragmatic unity of being opposed to fascism without having a scientific understanding of our enemies.”
“Fascism is dynamic. It’s going to take different forms in different places,” one organizer added later.
But maybe we know it when we see it. One attendee came to the meeting in part because on November 9, 2016, a group of men wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats chased down the speaker's friend near Cecil B. Moore station, calling her “a Muslim piece of shit.”
“Not super popular”
Topics of discussion ranged from online to real-life threats. The “Men’s Rights Activism” movement increasingly dovetails with the racism and nationalism of the contemporary “alt-right.” The internet presence of neo-Nazi and “alt-right” groups can translate to violence in the real world. The group expressed their fears of the practical repercussions of racist and white nationalist leaders taking control of federal and local institutions under a Trump administration.
And Antifa opponents aren’t just our neighborhood white supremacists, though Antifa urges “outing” them with an “expose, oppose, confront” strategy, and taking it to the streets (power in numbers).
“We’re not super popular with liberals,” one organizer said. Many progressive people draw the line at violent protest and the more radical pieces of Antifa’s agenda. “We have to fight dirty,” she went on. “We’re not into the liberal idea, ‘if they go low, we go high.’”
“Liberals are some of the most dangerous people who are blocking Antifa actions,” she continued. Many see groups like Antifa as left-wing equivalents of violent white supremacist groups — discrediting the liberal agenda with their militancy, or perhaps even planted by the opposition.
Action on all sides
Meeting organizers noted that Trump’s election has had the same effect on all sides: a swell of solidarity and action for the white nationalists as well as groups like Antifa, previously relegated to the fringes of the political spectrum.
“The election has really legitimized us…. We’ve been warning people for years, and now they’re like, oh shit, this is what we need to do,” an Antifa Philly leader said.
Going forward, the local Antifa chapter hopes to become more of a community presence and resource, holding more meetings and events, and continuing to track reports of bigotry. A new phone-tip line is now active.
“Everyone always wants to say the Klan is gone, and then it bounces back quicker than anyone thinks,” an Antifa organizer said.
Put another way, prior to the 2016 election, “The Nazis underestimated how racist this country is.”
I never thought of myself as someone interested in or capable of radical political action. I also never expected to see a genuine Nazi salute in Center City Philadelphia. But now I need to ask myself: what am I going to do when it happens again?