February 18, 2018

Challenges involved in standing up to Patriot Prayer

By Helen Gilbert

The far-right Patriot Prayer group has obliged Radical Women (RW) and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), along with others, to stand up against them on multiple occasions and in multiple places recently.

Patriot Prayer (PP) promotes itself as a moderate alternative to outright fascists. But it commonly attracts white supremacists and reactionary goons like the Proud Boys, as seen at their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rallies in downtown Seattle last summer — which also attracted thousands of counter-demonstrators.

PP’s misogyny has come to the fore in actions against Planned Parenthood and protests of the January 20 women’s marches in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Like Milo Yiannopoulis, whose attacks on feminism are described by Melbourne Radical Women Organizer Debbie Brennan in the current Freedom Socialist, Patriot Prayer and others on the right are outraged by the resurgence of women’s militancy and the exposés of powerful male sexual harassers. “Feminism is cancer,” says Yiannopoulis, who also blames feminism for the “collapsing birth rate” of the master white race.

As Brennan points out, the reactionaries are also especially nervous about the “crossover between feminism and Marxism,” as Yiannopoulis put it, and rightly so! Because it is socialist feminists who are the cutting edge of mobilizing opposition to the ultra-right.

The Nazis and near-Nazis are on the rise, inspiring mass shootings and other crimes of bigotry, and encouraged by the White House and social instability. But the influence of the Democratic Party and the middle caste (those protectors of the status quo at the head of most unions and liberal social justice movements) has kept a strong anti-fascist movement from coming together. Instead of building a united front, Democrat politicians and movement leaders like these typically just argue for gun control or “ignore them and they will fade away.”

Women’s March 2.0

Radical Women and FSP debated some of these issues with the initiators of the 2018 Seattle Women’s March. At the first meeting we went to, a comrade and I urged development of a plan for community defense against likely disruption by Patriot Prayer. One of the key organizers argued for ignoring them. This was an Iraqi man associated with the Truman National Security Project — a Democratic Party think tank with links to the State Department, military and corporations. The other march coordinators, predominantly women of color, followed his lead.

We raised the issues again at a meeting two days before the march. There we were told that the planners had hired 50 private security guards from Crowd Management Services (CMS) who would protect the marchers from Patriot Prayer. Our representatives explained the community self-defense approach we intended to take on January 20, to which there was no objection from CMS or the organizers.

In order to educate march participants and make them aware of what was going on, Radical Women wrote and distributed a leaflet that warned about the Truman National Security Project and explained why Patriot Prayer is a threat that has to be countered.

Given the situation, the joint FSP and RW contingent at the Seattle Women’s March assigned a large number of people to act as our own security. At the rally that preceded the march, RW, FSP, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and other demonstrators formed a line between the feminist crowd and Patriot Prayer right-wingers who were harassing it. Our security line rallied people in chants and this disciplined line was very effective in sidelining the PP thugs and preventing one-on-one fights. However, CMS security guards tried to tell us we could not use our bullhorn, even though Patriot Prayer was using two bullhorns. Later CMS guards tried pushing our group out of the park and into Patriot Prayer.

CMS allowed the far-rightists to disperse into the crowd and continue their anti-feminist vitriol while the security guards did nothing. Our marshals followed Patriot Prayer, and, with the help of people in the crowd, surrounded them and out-chanted them until the police tactical squad formed a bicycle barrier around PP and eased them off to the side.

Radical Women has sent the march organizers a letter protesting their approach to dealing with far-right misogynist disrupters and the behavior of Crowd Management Services. The letter calls on the organizers to release a public statement apologizing for hiring private security that treated anti-fascist protesters, and also the Native American women’s contingent, with hostility and disrespect. It calls on them not to privatize security at future events.

Confronting Patriot Prayer at the University of Washington

Our next go-round with Patriot Prayer was on February 10, when we participated in a counter-demo at a rally PP held at Red Square at the UW. This is the same location where, on Inauguration Day, pro-Trump protesters shot a member of the General Defense Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World at a Milo Yiannopoulis rally sponsored by Campus Republicans.

The UW action presented a different set of challenges from the women’s march. It was initiated by International Socialist Organization (ISO), which has quite a checkered record of organizing against the right. ISO was part of the We Stand with Our Muslim Neighbors anti-fascist rally that happened in downtown Seattle in June last year, but sided with the liberals who wanted to keep the message as moderate as possible.

ISO was also part of the planning committee for the PP protest at Westlake in August 2017, but sent an email the night before announcing that they were pulling out because there weren’t enough people involved. It really emphasized their cowardice when huge numbers joined the protest after learning that white supremacists had attacked civil rights defenders in Charlottesville, Va., killing Heather Heyer.

In another incident, reported in the October-November 2017 Freedom Socialist, the ISO and Democratic Socialists of America followed the liberals’ lead in refusing to directly confront white supremacists in Berkeley, Cal., in August. Instead they organized a gathering several blocks away to “speak peacefully to each other about the world.”

So it was a bit of a surprise when we found out that ISO had called a counter-protest of the UW Patriot Prayer gathering and said it was being sponsored by a number of campus groups. We learned of this indirectly because ISO had invited the entire email list of everyone involved with organizing the summer 2017 protests — except for anyone associated with Radical Women, Freedom Socialist Party, or Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL)!

Because we had little information about the counter-protest, little time to organize, and little confidence in the organizers, RW and FSP decided to send a small contingent to participate. Half of us started out at the location of the Patriot Prayer rally at Red Square, in case police tried to keep the protesters from getting close — as they did at the August protest. We correctly assumed that a large number of students would just show up there on their own.

The others of our group went to the rally that ISO had called outside the HUB (the student union building). The plan was to rally for an hour and then march over to Red Square. There were about 60 people. ISO chaired the rally and allowed anyone to speak who wanted. So RW and FSP each spoke, in addition to a couple students and representatives of ISO, Socialist Alternative, PSL and Revolutionary Communist Party. The ISO speakers denounced capitalism and said we need to unite, but gave no direction for what we should do concretely to stop the fascists — not even what the plan was for the day.

The very disturbing thing was that this rally had absolutely no security. Organizers did not respond when three flag-waving Patriot Prayer members marched straight through the crowd! I saw them coming and tried to start people chanting against them and called for security to come over — but it appeared no one was on security! When the provocateurs reached the center of the crowd, people realized what was going on and followed them out, chanting. But Patriot Prayer could have done anything it wanted. In addition, a man with a sign opposing abortion, homosexuality, and bestiality and calling us all sinners was allowed to be right in the middle of the crowd and to march with us to Red Square. The FSP speaker called him out, but otherwise he was ignored.

It seems evident that ISO never expected protesters to get to Red Square, and had no plan about what to do. At first ISO led marchers to the opposite end of Red Square from the Patriot Prayer, but of course people surged over once they saw where Patriot Prayer was located. Protesters were separated from Patriot Prayer by a long string of metal barricades with tons of police in riot gear. At its height, there were about 200-300 of us. There were students, a lot of the left, Veterans for Peace, a small group of IWW, and a moderate number of masked anarchists. There were quite a few students of color there and a significant contingent of Native American activists. All seemed to work together pretty well despite the lack of clear leadership.

Although only 20-30 Patriot Prayer people were visible, many of them were blocked from our view. A crowd of maybe 100 rallied out of sight, but some in that crowd were media.

Protesters chanted for quite a while. RW and FSP had a bullhorn and helped lead the chants. Several Patriot Prayer people, Proud Boys and various white supremacists tried to infiltrate the crowd and start altercations. As the confrontation went on, there were several scuffles, which drew out hordes of bicycle cops who pepper-sprayed indiscriminately, hitting two in our contingent in the face. We stuck together and stayed on our toes in order to not get injured by surges of people trying to get out of the way of the cops or scuffles. The street medics were very busy attending to people who had been pepper-sprayed.

At the point where it got fairly intense, ISO started telling people to retreat to the HUB. No one followed them. A little later they tried again, using their bullhorn to announce, “Things are getting out of control. We have to go back to the HUB. We can’t beat the Patriot Prayer today. We’re not strong enough. We’re too dispersed. We have to go back to the HUB.” They marched off and perhaps some people followed them. Many ignored them and others didn’t hear the call, because there was a large cluster at the other end of Red Square where some scuffles were happening. Ironically, about 10 minutes after ISO retreated the Patriot Prayer disbanded.

Five people were arrested. We were unable to find out if they had support systems or legal help. Later we learned from National Lawyers Guild friends that they had never been contacted to come as legal observers, which is a regular practice at Seattle protests.

How to fight the far right

Another issue that came to the fore around the UW Patriot Prayer rally was the issue of free speech, which Muffy Sunde addresses so well in her column in the current Freedom Socialist.

For those of us who protested, the idea of “use civil liberties or lose them” was key. But for liberals, including the University of Washington administration, the strategy was to attempt to stifle the free speech of the Campus Republicans who sponsored the rally by requiring them to pay $17,000 in security costs.

RW and FSP have fought this kind of financial barrier to free speech in the past. It is clear that if it is used against the far right, it will also be used against the left. So we opposed it. The issue got a lot of media attention, and a judge ultimately ruled that it undermined free speech rights. The controversy is sure to have attracted people to the Patriot Prayer rally.

The UW president added to the fear by issuing a notice urging people to stay safe and stay away because up to a thousand outsiders might come to promote violence. It’s not clear if she was referring to the right, the left, or both. The libraries were shut down for the day, and some student groups cancelled their activities.

Our viewpoint as socialist feminists is that the way to counter the right is to mobilize the community under a broad working-class united front of everyone under attack. As Muffy Sunde says in her column, “Ground zero in the battle over civil liberties is the fight to stop growing fascist shock troops. Their ultimate goal is to smash organized labor and the social justice movement. It’s not a crime to confront Nazis and run them out of town — it’s actually our constitutional right, not to mention our human duty. It’s also quite thrilling to stop fascists in their tracks. When the working class and the ruling class face off against each other our class vastly outnumbers the bad guys in numbers, skill and courage.” Right on!