Much of what has been discussed about the growth of “Antifa” organizations comes from their European inspirations, Antifa groups in Germany and Anti-Fascist Action who took on the British National Party in the U.K. These groups have a long history of strategies that informed the activist-orientation of Antifa as it evolved in the late 2000s, but there is a lineage of antifascist groups in the U.S. that contemporary groups emerged from as well. Anti-Racist Action is how people understand this trend in the 1990s, but even they inherited the role from an earlier project.
The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was a project from revolutionary organizers from the New Left, most specifically from anti-imperialist militants known for the controversial militancy of the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, and, later, the May 19th Communist Organization. When doing prison support work for incarcerated friends from the Black Panthers and projects like the New Afrika People’s Organization, they heard that the KKK was organizing among prison guards through their union. This was a part of a wave of Klan activity, not just in the South, which expanded in the early 1980s and led to the creation of the Anti-Klan network. John Brown was a more militant spin on this, using direct confrontation and hedging into the concepts of white privilege and accountability in a way that continues to echo today.
No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today's Movements is an incredible new book by Hilary Moore and James Tracey (and published by City Lights) that digs into the history of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, focusing on the voices of the people who were there amidst the fight to build something that could take on the violence of the Klan.
I spoke with Hilary Moore about how the organization spoke to her, what their experience has to say about social movements, and what lessons we can take from their successes and failures.
1. What interested you about John Brown specifically? How does it stand out from other organizations in the anti-Klan movement at the time, and from antifascist organizations today?
If I’m honest, the name of the organization first caught my attention. It’s snazzy, but it also pointed directly to their politics, rather than, say, a region or a tactic. In it, they married two distinct legacies of anti-racist movements in the U.S.: John Brown (abolition) and anti-Klan (a US version of antifascism). I appreciated this.
Beyond the name, it felt important to study how an organization gets built around support for movements for fighting for self-determination. Their anti-Klan work was just one way, albeit a significant way, they enacted this core strategy. This was somewhat unique then, as well as today. Their structure, messaging, and where they chose to work was informed by this political priority.
John Brown members held close relationships with people in the Black Liberation Army, Republic of New Afrika, and the Puerto Rican Independence movement, so the organization was deeply shaped by the politics of those movements. The onslaught of state repression through COINTELPRO during the 1960s and 1970s against these movements, then informed JBAKC’s understanding of the state’s role in consolidating white supremacy. So, for example, the organization was not interested in appealing to the state or police departments asking support against the Klan, which was more of a common practice in the broader Anti-Klan movement during the 1980s.
2. In what ways do you think John Brown used popular mobilization strategies? Why did they prioritize using a cadre at the center of the organization rather than just a super broad-based mass organization?
By the late 70’s, the role of white people in anti-racist movements had gone through a number of disappointing iterations — from making and breaking promises to being the link that crumbled under the pressure of state repression. This was an area of contradiction for John Brown - they knew they needed many more masses of white people to sign onto this thing called anti-racism AND, in some ways, they didn’t want to work with masses of white people. This tension is still live within white anti-racist organizing today.
One reason the JBAKC began small was to build slowly, bringing in new organizers through a kind of mentorship process that included a lot of study and time. In some respects the old Lenin adage of “better fewer, but better” rang true for them. They wanted to work with white people who wouldn’t freak out when considering what would need to change to win real political power for Black and Brown people. During the time that they were in motion, the 1970s and 1980s, white supremacy as a system was not so commonly held as a framework.
Of course, the organization went through some growing pains around mobilization strategies. Eventually, they saw the benefits of organizing more broad-based mobilizations. For instance, their their anti-racist graffiti campaign in Chicago, their anti-Klan coalition work in Austin with the Black Citizens Task Force and Brown Berets, and the campaign against the Klan-like group called the “Cowboys” within the Richmond Police Department in California.
In different ways, each of these examples showed members that you don’t have to water down your politics to be in coalition with groups who take different approaches to the work. At times, the JBAKC got quite creative, from cultural tactics, like collaborating with anti-racist punk bands or community-sponsored marathons against the Klan, to stoking broad discussion through their newspaper or regular public events. It wasn’t always cake, but the organization held a much stronger popular mobilization orientation by its end in the 90s.
3. How did members think about the use of violence? Were they hesitant about violence, or did the experience of violence through the organizing shift their perspectives?
John Brown formed as a response to state and vigilante violence against liberation movements, so in some ways the role of violence was always on the table. They took a very defensive position. For instance, a number of members talked about their intended role to act as a kind of buffer to the harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and physical attacks that came down disproportionately on Black and Brown revolutionaries. This was before the concept of white privilege, as we know it today, caught fire, but they attempted to use their social location and their bodies to get in the way of backlash. John Brown never held an organizational line about their own use of violence. Instead, they erred toward a militant spirit for community defense. What that looked like changed depending on location and region.
4. How did researching John Brown actually change your own feelings about tactics and strategies in antifascism?
When we first started to write this book, I felt pretty fed up. I was frustrated by the ways militancy gets collapsed with masculinity and how confrontational tactics seemed divorced from community organizing campaigns. That’s another reason the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee interested me. The organization was, for the most part, made up of white lesbians, many of whom are anti-Zionist Jews, and although their personal identity was rarely talked about, this disrupted my understanding of who chooses militancy and what that could look like.
Before this research, I couldn’t get the European-style of antifascism, and its ripple within the U.S., out of my head. But in charting John Brown’s path, I got to grow alongside the organization. Antifascism wasn’t just what I had seen at a few demos. The 13 year arc of the organization showed me that there are so many other moving parts. The JBAKC felt like a trustworthy organization to study because they changed over time based on what was most relevant - they never dropped militancy but they eventually chose tactics that were more inviting. They found ways for many more people to participate. And they made these changes based on a long term connections to the strategies of liberation movements.
5. What is the lasting legacy of John Brown now? What do you think has continued through the subsequent generations of organizing that originated with them?
The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee is a relatively under-explored part of antifascist and antiracist history. Not too many people know about them, so it’s hard to point to a lasting legacy with their name clearly attached. But when you do a little digging, one place of lasting impact was youth and cultural organizing. John Brown was one of the first organizations in the anti-Klan movement in the 1980s to see how far right groups were using punk rock music to attract and mobilize youth, through variations on skinhead and neo-Nazi collaborations. They carved out a lot of space in their later years for anti-racist youth-based cultural organizing — especially through their newspaper, No Fascist USA!, toolkits, and hotlines — that built a foundation for networks like Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in the 90s.
Another, lesser known but super important legacy, is how the organization, in all their anti-Klan work, never dropped their anti-imperialist position. They knew that the atrocities US militarism was having abroad was related to our own homegrown terror. This is one legacy I hope comes through No Fascist USA! — how the JBAKC struggled around international solidarity and how necessary that position is for antiracist/antifascist organizations today, just as it was then.
6. What parts of their organizing were you more critical of?
Many of the former JBAKC members we interviewed were self-critical of the organization’s self-righteousness. I share this criticism. In the early years, they had an organizational culture that more or less believed that they held the most radical, the most important political line and were somewhat hostile to organizations, even those working on the same topic, who held different positions. They eventually shed this naive skin, realizing it was in their interest to build lasting relationships with people who take on different roles than they took on.
This self-righteousness, I think, prevented the organization from seeing a really important aspect of how right wing populism constructs itself in the US, through accentuating the divide, especially along racialized lines, between urban and rural spaces. In the late 1970s, the Klan had a whole strategy to build a base throughout rural New England. Why was this? The JBAKC knew it was an important piece to the political landscape, but were largely ill-equipped to grasp its meaning. They were mostly focused on urban mobilizations. This made sense, of course, given that the organization emerged as a response to more urban-based struggles around race and incarceration based in metropolitan cities. But the times when John Brown would mobilize to small or rural towns, their approach was somewhat irrelevant. Sometimes they were more controversial than the actual Klan. There was a stark divide on messaging and tactics. The missteps here, I think are worth studying.
7. What can we learn most from the organization now?
The organization is an important example in recent history where anti-racist white people formed an organization based on their political values and adjusted their tactics and strategies over time in response to shifting political conditions, particularly in a moment of accelerated white supremacist organizing within the US and globally. The questions leaders from the Republic of New Afrika asked of John Brown and the questions John Brown members asked of themselves are still relevant today:
“Are there ways of confronting racists and fascists that do not provide them with new opportunities to spread their message? How are alliances and solidarity best strengthened given the shifting and complex relationships between primary white organization and organizations of color? How do activists prepare for possibilities of violence and self-defense against groups that always seem eager for bloody battles? To what degree are the state and commercial media complicit in spreading messages of the far right?”
They did not find perfect answers to these questions. And most importantly they didn’t stop trying to answer them. Many members continued taking action and continued organizing through the decades in movements against the spread of HIV/AIDS and mass incarceration. From the story of the JBAKC movement, we can learn about long-term struggle, organizational flexibility, and the through-line of their political objective: to end white supremacy.