Black Antifascism and Fighting Today’s Far Right
"Your petitioners will prove that the crime of which we complain is in fact genocide within the terms and meaning of the United Nations Convention providing for the prevention and punishment of this crime. We shall submit evidence, tragically voluminous, of ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or racial or religious group as such,’–in this case the 15,000,000 Negro people of the United States."
–We Charge Genocide
Donald Trump’s defeat may have quieted temporarily talk about the continued rise of an authoritarian right in the U.S. Trump’s election in 2016 was bolstered by support of white nationalists, white supremacists, and a motley range of far-right associations which included armed militia and vigilante groups. Trump fanned the flames of their aspirations consistently enough that by the end of his term the far-right antigovernment group Wolverine Watchmen were planning a kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as a means to prompt a Civil War, a sustaining fantasy of U.S. white supremacists.
The annihilative racism on display in today’s far-right should draw our attention in another direction, however, namely to the tradition of Black Antifascism. By Black Antifascism, we mean movements against authoritarianism, white supremacy, white nationalism and fascism by name organized, theorized and staffed by people of African descent in the U.S. In the discussion below, we enumerate that tradition, with explicit attention to how and why recovering and mobilizing it is essential to strategic confrontation with today’s far-right. Our argument in brief is that the contemporary far-right remains primarily, if not wholly, obsessed with the control, discipline, removal or elimination of Black life and Black protests from U.S. civil society. Naming and understanding this helps us understand antecedents and motives for the historic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., as well as why that movement needs to be central to any conception of what a revived antifascist movement in the U.S. might look like.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, a coalition of radical Black and white activists headed by Communist Party member and attorney William Patterson, submitted to the United Nations a public petition titled “We Charge Genocide.” Subtitled "The Crime of Government Against the Negro People," the petition deployed Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide, adopted only three years prior. The U.N. Convention defined genocide broadly as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The Civil Rights Congress used this definition to assert that a continuous history of lynching and extralegal violence, police murder, and diminished life expectancy of Black people in the United States constituted an attempt to racially exterminate African Americans, “in whole or in part.” They further argued a point only recently elaborated by historians: that the Nazis openly credited the U.S. legal system with supplying models for their own racist legislation in Germany, including penalties against miscegenation in southern states and the spatial segregation of “proscribed minorities.” We Charge Genocide closed with the argument that only by reversing Black genocide could fascism in the U.S. be avoided, and “popular democracy” restored.
The United States had refused to sign on to the Convention in 1948 because it feared that doing so would allow the UN to prosecute southern lynchers who had been acquitted in US courts. This is precisely what the Civil Rights Congress was now trying to do.
We Charge Genocide is the ur-text of Black antifascism. It is the most comprehensive and detailed evidence we have of how African-American radicals have systematically challenged and defined the threat of a native fascism in the United States. In our recently published U.S. Antifascism Reader, we define Fascism as "a largely middle-class movement animated by a highly symbolic, populist, and mythic drive for national renewal, grounded in militarism or male violence, anti-Marxism, racism, and authoritarianism. In addition, it actively mobilizes the population in a culture war against national minorities and/or the political left.”
It was the latter part of this definition especially that motivated the We Charge Genocide petitioners. The foundations of the United States, and especially U.S. law, they argued, were premised on physical, economic, social and ideological terror against its African-American population. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, the KKK, policing, vigilante violence, rape, gender violence, gangs, militias were all state-sanctioned coordinates of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or racial or religious group as such.”
We Charge Genocide was also a direct interpretation not just of U.S. history writ large, but Black encounters with the U.S. state during World War II. Black soldiers fought in segregated armies during the war. They were lynched in southern states where they were sent for military training. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s first wholesale surveillance program against African-Americans, FBI RACON (Racial Conditions in the United States) began during the war; agents were sent into Black churches, political associations, and social groups to make sure African-Americans did not use wartime to foment resistance. The end of the war also saw a huge spike in attacks against Black soldiers returning home. To make the point that fascism was a potential domestic problem, Black newspapers during the conflict promoted the "Double Victory" campaign: defeat fascism abroad, defeat racism at home.
Fast forward now a short time to the 1960s, a mere decade later. African-American militants are updating arguments in We Charge Genocide to fit the times, with We Charge Genocide architect William Patterson a key tactical and theoretical influence; Patterson served as head (with his wife Louise Thompson Patterson) of the Free Angela Davis Committee after her frame-up and arrest in Marin County in 1970. During and after her incarceration, Davis began to retheorize racial conditions in the United States as what German Marxist Herbert Marcuse (Davis’s mentor) described as incipient and preventive fascism. In a recent Boston Review article, Alberto Toscano described this moment as follows:
Davis was drawn to Marcuse’s contention that “fascism is the preventive counter-revolution to the socialist transformation of society” because of how it resonated with racialized communities and activists. In the experience of many Black radicals, the aspect of their revolutionary politics that most threatened the state was not the endorsement of armed struggle, but rather the “survival programs,” those enclaves of autonomous social reproduction facilitated by the Panthers and more broadly practiced by Black movements. While nominally mobilized against the threat of armed insurrection, the ultimate target of counterinsurgency were these experiments with social life outside and against the racial state—especially when they edged toward what Huey P. Newton named “revolutionary intercommunalism.”
From 1968 to 1972, this notion of an ‘imminent and preventive fascism’ became the focus of much Black radical political work. In 1968, Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver published the article “Fascism, Racism and Political Murder” in the Black Panther, the party newspaper. In the wake of the arrests of numerous BPP comrades, the assassinations of Megdar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., police repression and violence against Black protests in Los Angeles, Watts, Detroit and Newark and FBI infiltration of the Black Power Movement, “Fascism, Racism and Political Murder” named fascism as counterrevolution. It read in part:
The advent of fascism in the United States is most clearly visible in the suppression of the black liberation struggle in the nationwide political imprisonment and assassination of black leaders, coupled with the concentration of massive police power in the ghettos of the black community across the country. The police departments nation-wide are preparing for armed struggle with the black community and are being directed and coordinated nationally with the US Army and the underground vigilante racist groups for a massive onslaught against black people.
One year later, the Black Panther Party published “Call for a United Front Against Fascism” promoting a four-day conference on the theme in Oakland. The Conference drew upon the Communist International’s "United Front" strategy against fascism in the 1930s–a spur to the We Charge Genocide authors–tailored to fit new racial conditions in the U.S. Responding directly to Richard Nixon’s call for “law and order” in his speech attacking the Black Power movement, the BPP enumerated “a blatant history of murder and violence inflicted upon us by the oppressor class in this society–the brutality of slavery, the lynching of the twenties and thirties, and the constant day-to-day brutality inflicted upon our people by the racist police force."
It is instructive to think on We Charge Genocide and Panther manifestos in debates on the U.S. left now about the rise of the far-right and Trumpism. Both clearly show that the rise of the new far right, and its resistance, are embedded primarily in U.S. racial conditions, and especially in the repression of a potential new wave of Black Liberation struggle.
While there are many well-documented factors contributing to the rise of the new far right–U.S. militarism, the financial crash of 2007-2008, the rise of the Tea Party Movement, 9/11–there is little doubt that the primary factor is the state of Black struggle in the U.S. and reaction against it. Indeed, if we date the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement to the hashtag launched by Patrice Collors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after the shooting of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman in February 2012, we see a nearly perfect symmetry between the rise of the new far-right and that pivotal moment.
Consider the following examples:
The Center for Strategic and International Studies has reported that between 2007 and 2011, the number of far-right terrorist attacks was five or less per year. They then rose to 14 in 2012, continued at a similar level between 2012 and 2016, "with a mean of 11 and attacks and a median of 13, attacks" then jumped to 31 in 2017.
These attacks included both single murders of African-Americans by white supremacists, like Kenneth James Gleason’s shooting of Donald Smart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and more spectacular fits of racial genocide, like the Dylann Roof massacre of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina.
More recently, Adam Turl has documented the numerous singular murders of African-Americans (and white people) engaging in Black Lives Matter protests. These range from Kyle Rittenhouse’s public execution of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum in Kenosha, to James Scurlock’s murder by a white bar owner in Omaha, Nebraska.
Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have been repeated targets for white supremacist and police attacks; more than 100 have been sites of car rammings by both civilians and police. Other attacks without vehicles have also been routine.
The most public-facing and aggressive far-right group, the Proud Boys, has made a regular past-time of attacking Black Lives Matter protests.
Donald Trump has publicly referred to Black Lives Matter protestors as "terrorists” and refused to condemn white supremacists who attack them (including the Proud Boys).
The rise of new militia movements and citizen patrols across the U.S. owes directly to reaction against Black Lives Matter protests.
The growing white supremacist militia group Boogaloo Movement premises its work on a coming “Race War” in reaction to Black political protest.
Police departments across the U.S. not only continue to shoot and kill African-Americans but work in tandem to protect white supremacists who seek to challenge Black Lives Matter protests.
Fascists and neo-Nazis continue to try to infiltrate police departments as officers.
This partial chronicle might be seen as a contemporary equivalent of the We Charge Genocide arguments made nearly 70 years ago. For contemporary antifascist activists, they mean one thing in particular: that maintaining the survival and advancement of the Black Lives Matter Movement should be a leading edge of antifascist organizing in the United States today. Put another way, a primary work of antifascists or those committed to it is to join, protect and advance the work of Black Lives Matter.
To this end it is important to recall some of the broader demands of the Movement that have not been enough discussed or acknowledged. For example, the 2016 Movement for Black Lives Platform, released and received at the time with insufficient fanfare and attention, built outward from a demand for “demilititarization of law enforcement” to more comprehensive and totalizing demands on the state: an end to the war on drugs, end to the death penalty, end to pretrial detention and money bail, and “end to all jails, prisons and immigration detention."
Many of these demands have resurfaced in the post-George Floyd era. What could buttress resistance to this moment of resurgent far-right power is an even more explicit statement and focus within Black Lives Matter against the threat of fascism. To achieve that aim, the movement might emulate its ancestral movements and examine more explicitly the role of capitalism. This task the Panthers themselves took up in their 1969 United Front. Resurrecting the Popular Front definition of fascism from 1935, "they wrote that fascism is the power of finance capital itself:
Finance capital manifests itself not only as banks, trusts and monopolies, but also as the human property of finance capital–the avaricious businessman, the demagogic politician, and the racist-pig cop. Fascism is the organization of terrorist vengeance against the working-class and the revolutionary section and intelligentsia.
While this statement on fascism hued closely to Georgi Dimitrov’s famous definition from 1935, it differed in one key respect: it positioned racism and police violence as central components of fascist terror. As such, it acknowledged that under U.S. conditions, given the country’s historical fusion of policing, military action, and “race making” (to cite Nikhil Singh’s formulation), police violence would be a vanguard of fascist militarism.
Not despite but because of its anti-capitalist politics, the Panthers United Front Against Fascism did indeed produce a temporary United Front. As historian Robyn Spencer recounts it, “close to 5,000 activists from organizations like the Black Students Union, Communist Party USA, Los Siete de la Raza, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society, Third World Liberation Front, Young Lords, Young Patriots, Youth Against War and Fascism, and the Progressive Labor Party" attended the four-day meeting. The meeting successfully launched the BPP campaign for National Committees to Combat Fascism. “After the conference” writes Spencer, “inquiries about starting NCCF chapters flooded into Oakland from Salt Lake City, Utah; Albany, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toledo, Ohio; Sunflower, Mississippi; Keatchie, Louisiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri and Austin, Texas.
The NCCFs offered a multiracial group of local activists around the country a new avenue of involvement in Black Power politics at time when the Panthers had launched purges and membership freezes to combat infiltration from COINTELPRO. By April 1970, the FBI recorded 18 to 22 NCCFs around the country.
In practice, the NCCF chapters around the country effectively became local branches of the Black Panther Party rather than multi-racial organizations. Nonetheless, it is significant–and often forgotten–that the Panthers organized under the rubric of antifascism for several years. It signaled the coalition-building appeal of antifascism at a moment of danger, and also offers a template for antifascist coalition building for later generations.
Since the demise of NCCF, the nearest thing to a conscious revival of the history we are describing was the formation in 2014 of We Charge Genocide, a Chicago youth movement formed to chronicle acts of racist police violence by that city’s notorious police department. Taking its name and inspiration from the document with which we began this piece, over a course of several weeks, We Charge Genocide wrote and released a shadow report to the United Nations on Chicago violence against Black and Brown communities. It then raised $20,000 to send a delegation of eight people to give testimony before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.N. Commission in turn released a report condemning Chicago police racism.
We Charge Genocide formally ended its work in 2016. Yet it is not too much, or too little, to understand from the history sketched here that the history of Black Antifascism in the U.S. constitutes building blocks for a renewed broad anti-fascist movement. It is also not too much to understand that the time is right for a rejuvenation of the BPP’s “United Front” campaign, and for people of anti-fascist conscience everywhere to join it. Like Chicago’s We Charge Genocide activists, we can begin by recognizing in the lower frequencies of Black Lives Matter a history of U.S. anti-fascism that has always confronted structures of state power and the means of abolishing and transforming it.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (forthcoming, Pluto Press); UnAmerican: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution and Afro-Orientalism. He is co-editor, with Ashley Dawson, of Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities. His articles have appeared in Social Text, African-American Review and American Quarterly. He is a member of the organizing collective of USACBI (U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and a founding member of the Campus Antifascist Network.
Chris Vials is a Professor of English and Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. He is the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (2014) as well as numerous pieces on fascism and antifascism in the United States. He has appeared on CBC radio, PBS, and NPR to discuss the history of American fascist and antifascist movements. He is also co-founder of the Neighbor Fund, a non-profit devoted to legal defense for undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.