A year after Heather Heyer’s brutal murder, white nationalist rally in Portland and DC, but they are outnumbered by anti-racist opponents. We speak to Eugene Puryear.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner.
In the last week we saw right-wing groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Oregon against immigrants and for Trump, saying they were neither racist nor fascist. And all of this coming on the anniversary of a Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville that led to the murder of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, who was intentionally killed by a white nationalist who slammed his car into a throng of protesters. Then this just past weekend, there was a white nationalist rally that fizzled in Washington, D.C. in the face of rain and thousands of counterprotesters.
So who are these groups? Are they fascists, are they racists, white nationalists? Something Trump has unleashed on earth that was lurking beneath the surface of our society all these years? How do we, how should progressives, the left, anti-racists, and activists respond to all of this? Joining us today in what we hope will be the first of many, many interviews and conversations about this particular subject, how people should respond, is activist and radio host Eugene Puryear, who’s on the steering committee for the Washington, D.C. movement for Black Lives Matter. And Eugene, welcome. Good to have you with us right here on The Real News Network.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Thank you so much for having me.
Please help us make real news!
MARC STEINER: So this started because we, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, we’ve gotten a number of emails from people around the country, who were saying that we incorrectly used- or I incorrectly used- the word fascists and racists when it came to talking about Proud Boys and the other groups like that that rallied in in Portland, that were supposed- different than the ones who rallied in D.C. And I started doing some research and reading about who these groups were, and unearthing some of this stuff. There clearly is a split among them, and the groups in Portland claim they’re not racist, say they’re not racist, because the leader’s half-Japanese, and there are Samoans and black folks and some Latinos in the group. And so they’re sowing confusion, in many ways. I’m curious, let me just begin there. How do you see that? How do you see that reality?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I think a number of these groups are trying to essentially cover their bases here, and certainly the Patriot Prayer groups and some of the others try to not traffic in as much sort of Nazi and Confederate imagery, which certainly brings up the ideas of fascism, slavery, and the like. But just by the virtue of saying that they are against immigration, in favor of Trump, and all these different things, when Trump’s entire approach, for instance to immigration, is completely racialized and completely designed to demonize certain subsets of nationalities, I mean, there are undocumented people here from Italy, too. I mean, you’re never hearing him talk about that. You never hear him counterbalance his comments about Latinos by saying, well, some people who are here are undocumented, but some are great people. You only see him demonize this, you have the s-hole country remark. I mean, you have the issue of attacking those who are protesting during NFL games around the police brutality, around black people.
I mean the entire imagery- and on top of all of that, I mean, some of the shirts that these people were wearing, a number of people, as was pointed out, in the context of that rally important, were shirts that were actually praising former Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, especially his practice of throwing leftist dissidents out of helicopters alive, to their death. So it’s pretty difficult for me to really fully understand that, but there is certainly a spectrum between those people and those like the Daily Stormer website, and other organizations that are part of this broader alt-right umbrella who do more openly embrace Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate style of imagery.
So it’s not to say that they’re all the same. But on the label of fascist, I think that the reality is this, is that fascism as a movement really prides itself on building up street militias and armies that can smash their opponents with violence, which was exactly the message that was being brought at the rally, where Joey Gibson was telling people to bring their guns, to be ready to brawl, to do all these different fighting. And you combine that with the love for people like Pinochet, it’s 100 percent obvious they want to build at least a fascistic style of movement that would use, sort of, street violence to crush the left, or any form of dissent, if they were able to directly affiliate themselves with power in many different ways. So I think it’s really just a smokescreen to hide who they truly are by claiming, oh, we’re not racist, we’re not fascists. The proof is really in the pudding. And you look, you know, anything beyond skin deep, and sometimes you don’t have to look that far, and you see exactly what’s going on.
MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how you think people should respond to this. I mean, I think that you’re right in many ways, what you just said. I mean, there’s never been a Nazi movement in America that has, that has brought masses into its movement. But the Klan clearly had masses behind them, and other right-wing groups in this country have had masses behind them at different points in American history. So just what do you- and in many ways some of this was semi-dormant up until the eight years of Barack Obama, and the beginning of Trump’s presidency. So I wonder what your analysis is about where we are. What does this mean at the moment that this is happening? And how do you think the responses should take hold?
MARC STEINER: Yeah, great question. And quickly, parenthetically, I think a lot of the issue over are they Nazis are not is maybe slightly irrelevant, because we know that Nazis got a lot of their racial ideologies, plans, and practices by studying the United States.
MARC STEINER: Eugenics and more, right.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Eugenics and racist movements here. But really how we respond is twofold. I mean, I think on the one hand, I think it’s critically important for there to be large numbers of people who come out when these people come out to show that their messages are not going to go without some sort of counterpoint on the day in and of itself. I think in and of itself there are a lot of tactical issues that are nested within that. But I do think that it’s completely legitimate that when you’re dealing with movements, who they’re backing is at best to be extraordinarily devastating the policies they’re advocating towards many communities in this country, if not in some cases supporting outright genocidal leaders in the past, that people defending themselves is extraordinarily justified and extraordinarily relevant. But I think that really the key has to be put on having as large a manifestation of possible of people, as close to them, I think, as you can to make sure that there’s no conversation that they’re able to have that you can’t talk about what the counterpoint is.
But I think beyond that we have to build a stronger political movement in this country that recognizes that the ability to to create the kind of division that these groups create a lot of times is actually based on real issues that exist in our society. And we have to start talking about what the impact has been of, quote-unquote, free trade, climate change, military policies abroad, in creating things like mass migration, in creating situations like what we’ve seen with the de-industrialization of the Rust Belt, with the hollowing out of inner cities economically. And we have to come up with real solutions to those kinds of problems, which certainly aren’t what these people are selling. It’s certainly not what Trump is selling. But it’s not that these are fake things that don’t exist.
And I think the reality of so much of this division is that there are real, actual issues that do divide people. And we have to find ways to redirect people. I mean, you took just the issue of immigration, which motivates a lot of these politics in this current moment right now, I mean, it’s really nonsensical that the broad blame for immigration issues from those who were upset falls on immigrants themselves and not the business owners and the politicians who wanted these people to come into this country so they can be exploited as low-wage labor, and have tried to facilitate that, even though they knew that it would devastate certain communities who would certainly be out of work, and so on and so forth. And certainly somehow that these people never get any of the blame, despite being the ones who create the policies that pit people against each other.
So I think we have to counter the politics of demonization with a real analysis of the social system we live in, understanding the sort of framework a lot of these grievances are within. And while giving no ground to people who are pulling out racist and bigoted views, point out to them, well, look. If you’re really upset about a number of the things you claim to be upset about, then the actual solutions don’t lie in these sorts of right wing politics, but in I think an insurgent socialist politics that will challenge the capitalist ground from which much of this grows from.
MARC STEINER: Eugene, everything you just said now, I could probably spend the next two hours parsing out every other sentence and getting into it, which is a good thing. So I think the immigration thing is very real, and people don’t really realize the role that the United States has played in why people are emigrating from their homes, whether it’s killing the agricultural sector in Mexico, or what we did in Guatemala and El Salvador that really fueled this mass emigration from Latin America. And people don’t get that either. I think that’s- there’s a lot of discussion that has to be had for people to get that. The question is, before we get- I want to come back to that point to you.
But let me ask you, so when you, when we have, when people have demonstrations against these groups, whether they’re ones that fizzle out in D.C., or what happened in Charlottesville, or what happened in Portland, or what’s been happening around the country, what form should they take? That’s been a huge debate. I saw a piece in the Nation saying we shouldn’t have any rules about what happens, who does what at which demonstration; that whether it is the antifascist groups who want to come in in all black, or whether it’s people standing at a rally demonstrating, that all parts are equal and everyone should have a right to do what they want to do in these demonstrations. The question is, from your perspective, as someone living there in this movement every day, what should be the response?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, from my perspective I think that, you know, I don’t think demonstrations should be needlessly provocative. I think just sort of going out and looking for brawls isn’t necessarily the best way to oppose this. But I do think in the context of a lot of these groups that often you don’t come seeking violence. In the sense of, say, the Patriot Prayer, I mean, when they’re saying bring guns and be ready to brawl, then I think in that case I don’t think it’s unacceptable for people on the other side to also come and say, well, look, we’re not going to be provocative, but we are going to be willing to defend ourselves if you are there, if you are going to come and try to hurt us.
I mean, I think certainly these people have the right, in the abstract legality, to free speech. But that doesn’t mean they have the right to not be countered. I think that mass demonstrations, the larger the better, I think a lot of times that does mean that the level of, of how you do it, the level of militancy, perhaps, is going to be varied based on what people are ready for. But I think in general, a lot of these groups, they’re so violent, they’re so aggressive, that quite frankly I think a lot of what is deemed as violence against them is really self-defence. I mean, they’re saying that what they want to do as their ultimate goal would be so violent and so harmful towards huge numbers of communities, millions of people, it’s difficult for me to see a type of politics that’s going to allow those people to have free rein. And sometimes, and the reality the situation is, you know, it’s kinetic. There are going to be clashes. I don’t really have an issue with that. I think the real problem is when people are needlessly provocative and endangering other people who are, you know, aren’t prepared for certain types of actions or events.
But at the end of the day, these people are often- and you saw it in Portland. You know, you have these small groups that would go into, you know, go over close to the counterprotesters with the most abusive, racist, sexist, patriarchical kind of language directly designed to provoke people. And in situations like that I don’t think it is inappropriate for people to do what it takes to either remove that person from their side of the demonstration, or perhaps to let them know that like, hey, OK, this is what you are all about. Well, look, when you try to come for us we’re going to be willing to defend ourselves.
And I think there’s too much- there’s never been a fascist movement that’s ever been stopped completely by nonviolent protest. I’m sorry. That’s just the name of the game, because these people don’t want to be nonviolent. It’s not a case of bearing witness against something. It’s actually a case of defending yourself against a street movement that’s designed to be physically disruptive against progressive forces.
MARC STEINER: So I’m curious where you, what you think all this represents, really, in our society, and where it might be going. I’m thinking about two people who just passed away here. One here. Samir Amin, who just passed away, who was a brilliant theoretician and an activist. And Arsene Tchakarian, who just also passed away, who was- and I mention his name because he was an Armenian who fled to France after World War One, and was a communist. And he was actually one of the great leaders of the resistance movement against the Nazis coming in. And I was thinking about, reflecting on his life today, and thinking about how a lot of people I know who lived through that part of Europe during those wars, during the war, World War II I mean to say, say that we need to be very careful of what we might be facing here in this country. And not to be- and you know, I wonder what that means to you. I mean, what do you think this unleashing means in America now, why it’s happening in this moment, and what a real response should be?
EUGENE PURYEAR: I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s happening in this moment-. I mean, I think the number one proximate issue is the Trump administration and its rise. And I don’t think it’s because Trump is directly responsible for this type of ideology. But I do think that his, his willingness to say things that are, quote-unquote, not supposed to be said, to just completely eliminate the dogwhistle style of racial politics and move straight to the foghorn, has convinced many of these people that are further right than him, more openly racist than him, that like, hey, this might be our moment, because Trump has shown there’s a mass constituency for the politics of racial grievance. And if he can exploit it, maybe we can also exploit it. And we also have the benefit of being able to sort of glide off of him being the president and having a high profile, and sort of nest within that sort of space and use that as a mass mobilizing tactic.
I think, in a more broader sense, I think it really is growing from the collapse of the post-World War II social contract in this country that has created fertile ground amongst millions of white people for a politics of racial grievance. I mean, the Federal Reserve in Kansas City had a report that came out recently about the, really the effects of deindustrialization, and the millions of people, of men in the prime age, that had been forced out of the workforce and the growth of structural unemployment. I mean, this is a real serious issue, but because so much of that relative privilege, if you will, for these workers was also built on racial hierarchies, its collapse, I think, has created an extraordinarily potent mixture of grievance politics that can be mobilized by these people.
And I do think we should be concerned and [it’s] very dangerous. I mean, it’s worth noting that really right up until the time he assumed power, Hitler and his Nazi party were not in the majority. And in fact-.
MARC STEINER: Thirty-two percent.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Thirty-two percent. They were wildly outnumbered by the left wing parties that, obviously I think in retrospect, should have united to try to crush him. But be that as it may, you don’t really- I mean, for Christ’s sake, most presidents are actually elected with a minority of the voting population. So I think we can see right now that 28, 29, 30 percent of the population can bring in very dangerous policies. And if you find a way to legitimize it, like somehow by trying to actually using the phrase alt-right to try to strip it of the negative connotations around the Klan, around the Nazi party, around Jim Crow racism, and try to put it in a more acceptable package by focusing on immigration and austerity and these sorts of politics, it can be mobilized in a really potent, dangerous way. And I think we are in a situation in this country where we do have to be careful, and we do, I think, have to mobilize and really name things for people, and not allow these people to become more mainstream by hiding who they really are; at least, who their close relations are.
MARC STEINER: So I know that in a piece that I read about you that you had major critiques of the Bernie Sanders campaign. But measures and reasons, as well, I would add. So the question- I’m saying that because I’m curious what you think is happening in America in terms of the progressive movement when we see these kind of right-wing racist rallies take place around America, and you see the rise of people who self-identify as democratic socialist, the rise of people who see themselves as progressive winning who don’t identify that way, and what seems to be bubbling up from the bottom here? People are kind of yearning for something to put their hands around.
EUGENE PURYEAR: I agree with you, totally. I think it’s fair to say it’s sort of a natural polarization that’s resulting from the fact that, I mean, sort of the center right and the center left, the neoliberal center, just don’t really have problems that seem to meet- solutions, rather, that meet the scale of the problem, whether it be climate change, whether it be the growth of structural unemployment and the interplay of technology, whether it be issues with policing, whatever it may be. I think on the left that the Sanders campaign, I think was a great start. I think it just speaks to the fact that there are so many people who recognize these sort of half measures pushed by Obama, pushed by Hillary Clinton, just aren’t getting the job done, and in some cases can create more problems than they solve. I mean, the Affordable Care Act, which has many laudable features to it, also created so many negative aspects that it gave the Republicans quite a bit of ammunition to fight back against the very idea that all people should have healthcare by making it appear to be unworkable and overly bureaucratic. Which of course you wouldn’t have with a single-payer system, but you know, it’s harder to make that case now that you’ve had the Affordable Care Act pitched as universal healthcare by the Democrats for so long.
And I think there’s a growth of people who want to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, and say, why are we thinking of all these, you know, complicated, potential half-solutions when we could just do the right thing, which is put things like healthcare, education in the public sphere where they belong? Which is not only more manageable, but certainly more just. And I think that ultimately on both the right and the left, what we’re seeing is people are saying, hey, these problems are serious. They’re huge. The, quote-unquote, elites that run this country, they’re addressing the problems, but they’re not really, they’re not really proposing solutions to the problems, which are going to have to be more thoroughgoing and more deeply systemic.
And I think that that’s a good thing on the one hand, because I think it is leading to a growth of progressive left-wing forces that are becoming more bold in proposing real solutions. But it’s dangerous on the other in a very conservative country where the far right is doing the exact same, and unfortunately has more purchase hold in our society both historically and I think contemporarily, which gives them a higher platform to fight from. So it’s still an uphill battle, but I do think it’s just, it really is just maybe the creation of more reality in the political conversation is I think what we’re seeing.
MARC STEINER: So I’m curious, going back to this weekend for a moment. Were you surprised at the numbers of people who did not show up for the white nationalist rally?
EUGENE PURYEAR: You know, I’m actually not surprised at all, because so many of these other white nationalists don’t, didn’t support the rally from the beginning and were sort of shading Jason Kessler. I really think that what happened in Charlottesville put these forces on the back foot, and really since then any time there’s tried to be a big rally, very few people have come. Many more counterprotesters have come. I think that a lot of these people have realized that diminishing returns are setting in by doing these public events. And I think Jason Kessler thought that he was going to be able to pull together a similar sort of event with a few hundred people. But several of the groups that were there who mobilized a lot of people have actually completely disintegrated, and many people who support the overall cause, I think they know that this area, the Washington, D.C. area, is very progressive, and that there was no chance they wouldn’t be massively outnumbered. And I think they saw right away that there was no way they were going to get a PR or a propaganda victory out of this one and stayed away.
So I’m not that surprised, quite frankly. But I was still very heartened to see that my initial feeling that they would not rally many people turned out to be correct.
MARC STEINER: Eugene Puryear, it’s really a pleasure to talk with you. I Look forward to many more conversations in the coming weeks and months to develop these ideas together with others. And thank you for your work, and I appreciate your time today.
EUGENE PURYEAR: Thank you so much, Mark. I really appreciate it.
MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for watching and joining us today. We’ll be back, of course. Take care.