The mainstream U.S. media has finally accepted what every participant in street-level political action already knows: tacitly or explicitly, police enable right-wing protest, underestimate right-wing violence, and respond to the left with rapid escalation, chemical warfare and brutal suppression. Even skeptics can’t argue with the viral image of the Capitol steps in the first week of this past summer’s uprising compared with Wednesday’s fascist riot.
But one similarity has emerged in the fallout from the Capitol seizure: the speed with which law enforcement identified, arrested and charged suspected participants in the riot. (The fascists didn’t help themselves by flooding social media with mask-free selfies.) These rapid arrests are consistent with the swift crackdown on Black Lives Matter protestors accused of property destruction. On May 30, 2020, just one day after mass protests at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, police arrested Collinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman on charges of causing damage to an empty police vehicle by fire and explosives. The two are facing life in prison; Rahman’s lawyer reports that the Brooklyn DA responsible for their case “sought out the harshest provisions that he could.” Police at local and federal levels have traced, surveilled and arrested protestors suspected of, say, arson or property destruction. The FBI’s own numbers report that, of 13,000 people arrested during protests this summer, 300 people across 29 states are facing federal felony charges with potentially hefty prison sentences.
This similarity matters, and it matters as the left attempts to identify the threat from, and coordinate a response to, Wednesday’s spectacle of right-wing violence. The riot at the Capitol has united the U.S. political class, who are calling in ever shriller tones for the harshest possible prosecution and punishment of participants in the violence. These calls have increased in volume and severity since the deaths of two Capitol Police officers were reported over the weekend. Legislators have raised the possibility of charging participants with sedition, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
These calls for prosecution and punishment are being echoed among left-liberals: speaking on Democracy Now! on Jan. 7, Manisha Sinha, a Reconstruction scholar at the University of Connecticut, called for arresting and prosecuting protestors using the full extent of the law. Michael Colborne in The New Republic embraces a logic of deterrence—the same punitive logic that prosecutors use to justify gang databases and crackdowns on drug charges, for instance—when he writes: “if the perpetrators of Wednesday’s attempted insurrection aren’t punished and held accountable, their friends at home and abroad will think, Hey, maybe we can get away with this kind of shit.” Democratic legislators with progressive-leaning voting records are referring to the rioters in the language of sedition and domestic terrorism to justify their maneuvers against Trumpism.
Those of us who are actively organizing against fascism might find ourselves gratified in watching the state crack down against organized white supremacist violence. But there’s an extreme danger here for the left, and we need to take it very seriously: if our response to fascist violence takes the form of empowering the state to suppress protest and other political activity—and to treat trespassing and property destruction as the indicators of, say, domestic terrorism—these powers will be used against us, deliberately and with prejudice, with the goal of stopping movement momentum, dispersing organizations, and incapacitating politically activated people. The FBI and other organs of the state will draw on the same strategies they used to incapacitate the Black Panthers and other revolutionary organizations: COINTELPRO, counterinsurgency, lawfare, decades-long prison sentences and extrajudicial murder, justified in retrospect through the propaganda of protecting public safety.
This is not idle speculation: the intensification of charges against protestors is happening as I write. In December, police in Bergen County, NJ, detained Lizbeth Vazquez as she left a protest in solidarity with ICE hunger strikers; she’s now facing terrorism charges. Activists who tied themselves to the National Grid’s fracked gas pipeline under construction in North Brooklyn are all facing federal charges, and a comparison to the suppression against the Standing Rock occupation indicates how far the state will go to try to deter similar interruptions of pipeline construction. In November Florida Governor Ron DeSantis drafted legislation to make blocking traffic during a protest a felony charge, while offering immunity to drivers who kill or injure protestors in the road; DeSantis referred to this legislation as part of an “anti-mob” crackdown. The Intercept reported Tuesday that Florida has reintroduced that legislation, while Mississippi and Indiana have advanced similar bills. In California, protest organizers are facing felony charges for a similar highway blockade.
This is another way of saying that an abolitionist response to fascistic violence cannot take the form of empowering the state to expand the reach of its own organized violence. Without question, it cannot take the form of moralizing against, say, trespassing and occupying a building, property destruction, looting or arson. This is true because we understand that policing and incarceration are not solutions to violence, and that punishment incapacitates one person but in fact does not deter others. It is also true because, strategically, if we call for prosecution and punishment in the harshest possible terms at this juncture, we will have fostered a culture and a discourse in which it will be effectively impossible for us to mobilize against state suppression of political activity on the left. This week, we are certainly not in conditions of our own choosing; one obvious way for the left to intervene is to not make things worse for ourselves in the medium to long-term future, when the dust from this particular fascist riot has cleared.
This is all to say that the question “How should the state correctly detain and punish participants in fascist violence?” is not the right question. The real questions are: how do we demobilize fascists? How do we disaggregate their power blocs when they attempt to use organs of state power to push their political goals? How—as organizers did in NYC on Jan. 10—do we outpace them in street mobilization so as to scare them out of their planned escalations? And, most critically, how do we defuse and transform the conditions that foster the development of fascism in the first place? If, as is absolutely clear, the division at hand is between socialism or barbarism, if this is true in an ever more naked and intensified form, then we have to respond to this situation with the precise tools of antifascist organizing together with the work of building socialism that we are engaged with elsewhere at every point—work that has nothing to do with, and must be resolutely opposed to, policing and incarceration.