The resurgence of the radical left raises questions 

Left turn

click to enlarge Anti-fascists see a need for forceful resistance. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Anti-fascists see a need for forceful resistance.

'Stop escalating, you're just making things worse!" one protester implored another outside the Upper Lodge on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"[The police] aren't here to protect you!" the other shouted back. "You need to radicalize!"

Ostensibly, the two were on the same side — they both showed up on the snowy evening of Jan. 26 to denounce visiting speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, the bombastic Breitbart editor known for his flip delivery of hate speech. But in practice, their tactics for doing so diverged sharply.

The group of protesters to which Juliet Murray, a 22-year-old UCCS student, belonged held handmade signs, followed authorities' directions for the most part and had no intent of actually disrupting the scheduled programming. The protester she had tried talking down, on the other hand, wore all black, covered his face and wore a red armband, signifying his Communist party affiliation.

The group to which he belonged comprised about 20 anti-fascists, socialists and anarchists who absolutely did intend to disrupt the evening's proceedings. They took a black bloc formation, meaning they stuck together, anonymous and ominous, in their militant-looking get-up. The tactic is designed to obscure individual identities, both as a means to hinder criminal prosecution and promote solidarity.

They had planned to storm into the lecture hall to "shut down" the popular figure they see as fueling the rise of neofascism in America. But dozens of cops, many in full riot gear, made such a stunt all but impossible. So the black bloc settled for getting in officers' faces, shouting at people waiting to get into the speech and marching through campus.

The picketers hadn't exactly coordinated with the radicals, so some did their thing at a distance and some left. "I wish they wouldn't be so aggressive like that," Juliet said of the black bloc. "They're kind of shooting us in the foot."

That rub, between supporters of nonviolent protest and those who take a more extreme approach, has always existed on the left. But it's rising to renewed prominence as a mass movement resisting the new administration quickly begins to take shape. Masked radicals took to the streets of Washington, D.C., the day of the inauguration, for example, to tip trash cans, smash corporate windows and set fire to a limousine. The optics of chaos offended moderate commentators who bemoaned such "violence" as counterproductive to the expressly peaceful Women's March the following day.

This kind of strong reaction to a presidential election isn't unique — though some see it that way.

"What we're seeing on the left right now is hooliganism," Daniel Cole, spokesperson for El Paso County Republicans, says. He adds that the rise of the tea party wing of the conservative movement following Barack Obama's first election, while radical in a sense, "was always more focused on electoral politics and getting a different stripe of Republican into office."

History, however, shows that some conservatives — tea party or otherwise — reacted appallingly to Barack Obama's presidential win. For instance, conservative radicals beat up a black campaign volunteer while yelling, "N***** President!"; lynched and torched effigies of Obama; and damaged property, including the arson of a predominantly black church in Massachusetts.

Still, Sam, a member of Colorado Springs Anti-fascists who didn't want to self-incriminate by using his full name, says he recognizes that radical tactics, even if they fall short of violence, can lead to some negative PR.

"It's off-putting to people, I guess," he says. "But windows don't have feelings! It's meant to be symbolic."

Sam says he finds it ironic that mainstream culture condemns destruction of property but condones actual, physical violence.

"Even my mom thinks it's OK to punch Richard Spencer in the face!" he remarks, referring to the now ubiquitous meme of the white supremacist being struck in the face by a masked protester.

Sam explains his preference for more radical tactics as befitting the times. He sees Yiannopoulos; Spencer, who writes earnestly about genocide of non-whites; and President Donald Trump, who's obsessed with banning Middle Easterners and deporting Mexicans, as part of the current proliferation and normalization of dangerous right-wing nationalism.

click to enlarge Many favor a peaceful approach. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Many favor a peaceful approach.

"Milo comes off as this edgy frat boy," Sam says of the speaker, who over 200 locals flocked to hear. "But more than almost any other 'alt-right' figure, he's a gateway into more hideous thinking. Young guys will come to his talks, hear him making fun of trans people, making fun of their professors and are inspired to go research these views more seriously. Even if it's just one person from his talk that reaches the stage of, like, genocide, that's one too many."

In sum, he says, "fascism can't be debated, it must be smashed."

Of course, there are those who see Sam's reasoning as a bit melodramatic.

"You can't just shout down everyone you disagree with; it looks juvenile," Josh Dunn, UCCS professor of political science, tells the Indy, adding that courts have ruled many times over that the "heckler's veto" (government suppression of speech due to a fear of a violent reaction) is unconstitutional. "Also, the more radical kind of protest is ineffective — it just makes people more conservative."

Dunn points to a 2016 study by Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, which found a causal relationship between violent uprisings and declining Democratic votes.

Dunn's colleague at UCCS, sociology professor Jeffrey Montez de Oca, teaches a "Critical Analysis of Capitalism" class that has about twice as many students enrolled now compared to past years. He sees young people radicalizing not as a tantrum, but as a natural culmination of growing up in these economic conditions.

"Many of the students that I talk to are paying higher tuition and incurring greater debt so that they can enter an unpromising job market with stagnant wages," he wrote by email to the Indy. "Not only that, they see their parents' struggles to maintain (or attain) a middle-class lifestyle and keep the roof over their heads. [They're] turning their anger and anxiety about the state of politics, economics, and society into positive energy that can improve the world they live in. Which is exactly what it means to be radical."

Further, Montez de Oca sees ample opportunity for radicals and liberals to work together right now, just as they have in every progressive social movement of the past. "Many see an attack on the media, the environment, science, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, racialized minorities, workers, homeowners, etc. etc. as a general threat to the whole of society," he says.

Defending against that threat, he adds, is a common interest that makes it easier for the often-fractured left to unite. But how to strategically mobilize a united left is, of course, a question for the ages.

Olivia Romero, a UCCS student and organizer of the local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), isn't sure yet whether an alliance between those who applaud window smashing and those who abhor it could ever hold.

"Especially if we're trying to create safe spaces for people of color, we're not going to go out and just agitate police officers," Romero says. "Because our ultimate goal is to call more people into this movement."

Fundamentally, SURJ intends to act nonviolently, Romero says, as was manifest in the local Women's March they organized and facilitated on Jan. 21. Since then, SURJ has seen a lot more interest from people without prior experience in activism — a success, by her measure.

Members of Springs Anti-fascists may have had their misgivings about certain aspects of the Women's March, but went, sans uniforms, to participate, not cause trouble.

"Black bloc might look scary, but out of uniform we're very nice," Sam says. "... If we, as radicals, show up to more liberal marches with big, red flags, then people will come ask, 'Hey, what's that?'"

Upon reflection, he adds, "face-to-face conversations, I think, can be quite effective."

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