Wednesday, February 12, 2020

On Patriot Front and Protesting in DC

When I went to my first protest in New York City, I was shocked and rather bewildered at the tactics of the NYPD. I had cut my teeth protesting in DC, and couldn't understand why the police aggressively pushed marchers to take the sidewalk, left crossing intersections up to the normal flow of traffic, and ended the march by fanning out for and conducting what were apparently routine arrests. Saturday's march by neo-Fascist men's organization Patriot Front showed the world what everyone who came up in DC protest culture, whether activist or law enforcement, knows which is that aggressively policing protest marches makes no sense.

Protesting in DC

I lived in DC from 2010 to 2013 when I was studying for my master's at Howard University. In 2011, a friend of mine from undergrad, who had moved to the city for coding work, convinced me to check out Occupy K St.–one of two DC branches of Occupy Wall Street. Watching on the news (I used to watch cable news!) while simultaneously studying the history of fascism (I had literal piles of library books on fascism in my living room), I was skeptical of the movement I saw brewing on TV which was presented as trying to build a cross-class movement against the financial industry.

When I got to McPherson Square a week after Occupy K. St. launched, I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the atmosphere. With skill shares, workshops, and trainings all around, it was just like the statewide convergences organized by the anarchists of Virginia for the New Students for a Democratic Society that I attended as an undergrad. The day ended with a general assembly which operated on the same principles of facilitated discussion as the anarchist meetings I was used to.

I had been to two protest marches at that point, both in DC. The first was a permitted anti-war march organized by the ANSWER "Coalition" where my anarchist friends and I were part of an unnecessary black bloc. The second was what I believe was an unpermitted march to the Department of Education to protest student debt. With Occupy K St., there were marches almost every week.

The marches always went the same. We would exit the park and soon be joined by a phalanx of cops, usually a dozen or so on bike with a cruiser in front to block upcoming intersections. We'd get to wherever we were going, shout at a building for around an hour, and then return to the park and do the electric slide.

Thanks to our legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild, we were well informed of our rights as protestors in DC. In DC, it is legal to wear a mask as long as you aren't engaged in a crime. Protest marches of 25 or more people are required to take the street, and cops usually give marches one lane of traffic. The MPD standard operating procedures prohibit mass arrests for what they call "first amendment activity," and are usually pretty reluctant to arrest protestors that aren't engaged in acts of destruction or assault. (This was violated to everyone's surprise during the protests of Trump's Presidential Inauguration.)

Although the procedures DC Metropolitan Police Department uses are in large part the result of being sued into oblivion by groups like the National Lawyers Guild (and with 2-3 protest marches a day, DC has plenty of opportunity to sue the cops for mishandling protests), the methods used by MPD make sense from a public order perspective. First, by putting protestors on the street rather than the sidewalk, police can position themselves between protestors and storefronts that they might destroy. Secondly, by temporarily closing intersections for the march to pass through, the police significantly reduce the amount of traffic in any given area, even when we would take the march in random directions during Occupy K St. to mess with the cops.

Without Resistance

That's not to say there's no reason to be concerned. That Patriot Front managed to pull off their march with minimal response from the DC community is cause for alarm. When the Aryan Nations took the streets in 2012, Smash Racism DC pulled out 200-300 people. When the National Policy Institute had their post-election conference, the DC Anti-Fascist Coalition drew on the support of around 400 people. The Patriot Front march last Saturday, by contrast, drew a handful of masked anti-fascists walking on the opposite side of the police escort taking video.

This is partially attributable to Patriot Front's organizing methods. Unlike the more militant siege set of Atomwaffen Division, The Base, and Feuerkrieg Division, or the more "family-friendly" American Identity Movement, Patriot Front vets potential recruits in person, making infiltration less frequent. Anti-fascist organizers in DC found out that there were plans for a weekend Patriot Front march about five days in advance with details so sparse they weren't even certain of which day it would be held.

With the strong anti-fascist networks in DC having withered due to burnout from the J20 prosecutions and the Unite the Right rally, the collapse of major socialist organizations in the city, and interpersonal struggles among leftists, there was no longer infrastructure in place for a rapid response, even if anti-fascists did have all the details for the march. This perfect storm allowed Patriot Front to be the first neo-fascist organization to take the streets of DC unopposed that I had ever heard of. I can only hope the DC left can get its shit together before the next one so it never happens again.