by Bob Fitrakis
Every 30 years or so, the American Left recreates itself: the Communists and Socialists of the 1930s’ “Red Decade” later became the decentralized, radical Students for a Democratic Society and New Left of the 1960s. And it looks like it’s the multiculturalism and direct action of Anti-Racist Action (ARA) for the ’90s.
The program for the ARA’s Third Annual Conference, held last weekend, screamed: “Do Something!” It had a photo of an activist taking a swing at a bloated, pot-bellied, berobed, coneheaded Klansman. Entering the old North High School, where the ARA conference was held, I got the sense that something was indeed happening here. Grizzled veterans of ’60s and ’70s anti-war and anti-imperialist movements mingled freely with the next New Left. Before the weekend was over, I had attended workshops on racism and fascism, marched and been Maced at-and been cited as the leader of-a demonstration against police brutality. Welcome to activism ’90s style.
At the opening of the conference Friday night, the mostly “straight-edge” Generation X participants-wearing “Fuck Racism” T-shirts, the “Mean People Suck” slogan taken to its logical extreme-exuded an aura that made the Weathermen look like the Brady Brunch. But, how much was posing and posturing? This new generation of anti-racist militants has grown up knowing no movement victories. The Civil Rights movement-which brought the end of legalized apartheid in America in 1965-is ancient history. The anti-war struggle is like those war stories that the World War II GIs used to tell their kids and grandkids in the ’50s.
This new breed of activists has done battle in the cities, suburbs and small towns of North America against the rising tide of neo-fascists and neo-Nazis ushered in by the rhetoric of the Reagan and Bush eras and the infamous political “wedge issues” of immigrant and welfare-mother bashing, a tide not quelled by the hollow promises of President Clinton’s law-and-order-centrist policies.
And this is true not only for the Americans present, but for the large Canadian contingent as well. The dozens of ARA members from Toronto are hardened by their ongoing battle with white supremacists in the Great White North. Toronto is the home of Ernest Zundel, a key player in the international Nazi movement. From his fortress at 206 Carlton, Zundel runs Samisdat Publishing, one of the largest Nazi propaganda operations on the planet. His chief goal is to deny the Holocaust, producing such publications as: “Did Six Million Really Die?” and “The Hitler We Loved And Why.”
Canadian courts have dismissed Holocaust denial charges against Zundel, instead characterizing his work as concerning “ethnic conflict between Germans and Jews.” Yeah, and those death camp ovens were used for making bagels. Zundel’s racist skinhead (“bonehead”) followers revere him as a hero and chant, “Six million more!”
But like the conference cover photo depicts, when government action fails in Canada, this new breed of anti-fascist activist is willing to use other means: Zundel’s property was recently torched. Shedding light on the rise of the American Religious Right on the conference’s opening night was an old friend of mine from Detroit, Russ Bellant. His new book, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, is the first to investigate and document the origins and objectives of the popular group the Promise Keepers (PK). Many are familiar with former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney’s original 1990 vision: to fill a stadium with Christian men willing to “reclaim” authority from their wives, capitalizing on the male backlash against the women’s movement and the gender-bashing so prominent now on talk radio.
As Bellant explained, the vast majority of men of various denominations that attend these PK rallies come with good and sincere intentions. I know, my older brother Nick and my younger brother Dave, both plagued by marital problems, now call themselves Promise Keepers. Bellant pointed out how McCartney, while serving as assistant football coach at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, “encountered and was deeply influenced by the Word of God (WOG) Community.” WOG, according to Bellant, practices a “shepherding/discipleship” form of worship that requires total submission to a person called “the head.” He calls Promise Keepers’ views fundamentally “anti-democratic” and potentially “totalitarian” in nature.
“The use of sophisticated lighting and sound in a stadium setting, psychologically playing on people’s emotions, breaking down the denominational differences, and merging nationalism and religion really echoes the Nazi rallies of the Third Reich,” Bellant argued. Bellant demonstrated how virtually all top Christian Right leaders-Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministry, and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ-have signed on to the Promise Keepers. The “family values” rhetoric and homophobia are part of a larger “cultural revolution” the PKs hope to bring about. Robertson, Kennedy and Bright, along with James Dodson-the author of Promise Keepers Manifesto, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper-are all members of the super-secretive radical right Council for National Policy (CNP), according to Bellant.
“The Council for National Policy is not an organization most of you have heard of. Unlike the Christian Coalition, the Council wants to keep itself secret. The Council was created by business and political leaders who were also leaders in the John Birch Society. Its membership includes former Indiana Ku Klux Klan leader Richard Shoff, Jerry Falwell, TV censor Don Wildman, anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly, a handful of pro-apartheid activists and registered agents for the old South African regime, and leaders of the Unification (Moonies) Church,” detailed Bellant.
The CNP members represent the political elite of the radical right and essentially they plan and fund the major projects of the American Right, in Bellant’s analysis. The big bucks come from Jeff Coors and family members of Coors Brewing Company, Linda Bean of L.L. Bean, and Richard DeVos Jr. of Amway and Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt.
“While they appeal to black members, their real agenda is to destroy affirmative action, and they have links to white supremacist ideology,” Bellant concluded.
Surviving a radical demo
Activists attended Saturday sessions such as “Leonard Peltier/Political Prisoners”; “Black-Jewish Relations”; “Lesbian and Gay Oppression”; and the essential “Surviving Radical Demos” to name a few. Having attended, participated, organized and covered literally hundreds of protests and demonstrations in my life, I thought I knew how to survive a radical demo in the mid-’90s. To err is human…
I was asked to bring my portable PA system to the conference at 6 p.m. Saturday for the “Copwatch Rally & March.” No big deal, just another case of journalistic participant-observer in the alternative press. Soon I was wondering who was organizing the event. When I arrived at the kickoff point at Arcadia and High, security guru Chris “The Anarchist” handed me a mike and asked me to speak. “About what?” I queried. “You know, about why we’re marching.” Luckily I was saved by a Columbus Copwatch member who politely asked the gathering horde of Klan and Nazi fighters “to remember that your actions will have repercussions on us in this community.” Virtually all got the message: Give peace a chance tonight.
I briefly addressed the assembled. Having a Ph.D in political science, I knew to announce the intent of the march to the estimated 10 percent that were no doubt undercover cops: “We intend this march to be a lawful demonstration, to protest police brutality and walk the streets of America without fear of the police…” I said more about the Antioch students being beaten at the Federal Building, and the TV4 footage showing the brutalization of students on 12th Avenue, but my main mission had been accomplished: protecting myself from “inciting a riot” charges. Wise move.
A small contingent of anarchists from the “Love and Rage” group unfurled a red-and-black flag. Banners were held with slogans reading “No Police Brutality” and “No Nazis, No Killer Cops, No Fascist USA, Anti-Racist Action.” Appropriate slogans for the 20-something generation whose educational benefits have been cut while government prison spending has been quadrupled.
Other marchers lit torches-lawful, but virtually unheard of in Columbus-creating an eerie and disturbing mood. These weren’t drunken freshmen frat boys reveling in a football victory frenzy. We crossed High Street and more than a hundred people began marching south.
Police squad cars with lights flashing immediately began to “escort” the marchers. They persisted, despite our insistence that we knew our way to 12th Avenue. And as a police helicopter began to hover overhead, I heard an unfamiliar chant: “Aim high, pigs in the sky!”
Just before Blake, in front of the Radio Shack and 24-hour video store, shit happened. Stuck hauling the PA system, I heard a scuffle and turned to see a weird scene. My mind at first rejected it: there was a female police officer without riot gear, attempting to arrest a male marcher. He had his hands raised out to his sides and she was screaming and pulling on his arm. Someone was pulling on his other arm, a literal tug-of-war. Someone in the crowd was yelling “Fuck the pigs!” Seems one Jason Robert Maffettone, 27, of Hoboken, New Jersey had stepped off the curb in Columbus, “jaywalkers gulch.” Omigod.
Officer Julie Appenzeller, sworn to serve and protect the people of Columbus from all jaywalkers, foreign and domestic, was just doing her job. Startled and disbelieving male officers stood by their gal as the crowd and I shouted “No police brutality! Let him go!” The infamous “Have Mace-will spray you” Columbus cops drew their black cans. When you’re chanting into a mike, you can’t always pay attention when someone’s aiming at your big round head. Just my luck. I met up with Officer Generic Cop, 6’1″ with black hair and a mustache, who of course finished first at the police academy in Mace target shooting. I didn’t actually see the Mace; I felt it when it drenched my eyes. For 10 to 15 seconds I was really mad. This asshole clearly hadn’t read the U.S. Constitution, nor Columbus police procedure on Macing. He’d flunk my American Guv class. Moot point as my eyes began to burn, lungs sear, and nose clog up. Still, chanting into a mike on a sidewalk does not constitute menacing a police officer.
Let’s see, five minutes into an anti-police brutality march and I’ve been Maced. Go figure. I pride myself on never getting Maced. I hadn’t been Maced since the day after the Klan killed civil rights marchers in Greensboro, North Carolina. My mind raced. When was that? 1979? ’80? Anyway, it was probably tear gas. Or was it pepper gas at Kent State in ’78?
Deja vu all over again. I was on my knees choking and crawling, my Columbus tax dollars at work again. Being the brave journalist that I am, I thought I’d best crawl into the video store to wash out my eyes. Luckily my alternative press fame had preceded me. The clerk greeted me with a cheery: “Hi Bob!” The Earl Smith-Jim Karnes debate over porno shops aside, it seems the only restroom was in the Triple X adult section of the store. Half-blinded but still able to make out the images of assorted sex toys, I made my way to the counter. “Bathroom,” I pleaded. The clerk had seen it all before. “Honest, I’ve got Mace in my eyes. It’s not a Pee Wee Herman thing.” He advised, “Just ride it out. The water will only make it worse.” A voice of authority.
Outside, things had calmed down and I found myself at the end of the march. Fortunately, one young ARA activist was carrying a squirt tube of Bausch and Lomb sensitive eye contact lens cleaner. “It’ll work, dude. Like, I sprayed myself with some Mace and tested it.” It was like a miracle. No Columbus activist should leave home without it.
Freed of the speaker system, now safely stashed at an ARA safe house on High Street thanks to Chris “The Anarchist,” I moved to the front of the march. There I met 30 or so police in riot gear, and reporters from the Columbus Dispatch, TV4 and 10.
I had a new goal. Keep from getting Maced again. Tensions mounted as the marchers, now swelled to nearly 300, found themselves pinned against a construction fence in the middle of the campus. Would the police attack? Undoubtedly, they were wondering the same about us. Instead of confronting the police, we found an opening at the Wexner Center and snaked through the campus. Thank God for secular humanist bastions of liberalism. One lone campus police car escorted us several blocks back to High Street. We figured the campus cops were unlikely to Mace us, but they might order us to do a big group hug.
The moment of truth. Should we walk down 12th Avenue? What the hell, it’s still America, why not? The march ended almost without incident as we re-emerged at 15th and High and gathered in the open space in front of the Wexner Center.
Just before the end of the march, a lone police commander joined the marchers. The word went out that he was looking for Fitrakis. No doubt, I thought, to congratulate me for my fine work in averting a riot. Wrong again. The first tip off was when he wouldn’t shake my hand. And then his first words stung like the Mace: “I’m Commander Marcum. Why are you writing those lies about me?”
How the hell was I to know he’d been reassigned from supervisor of Police Intelligence to riot patrol at OSU? And anyway, those tips about his family’s links to gambling in last week’s Alive were from my most reliable law enforcement sources. I asked him what the real story was, but he wouldn’t tell me. “Your paper’s printing lies.” Later that night the police reported that no Mace was used on the demonstrators.
The next day’s Dispatch reported that I “led” the rally. I didn’t mean to, but as my old marching buddy Mark Stansbery explained it, “There really was no leadership. And after Bob got Maced, he was really pissed.”
The ARA doesn’t really have leaders. It’s a new movement of leaderless resistance to police brutality and the prison industrial complex.
The Dispatch also reported the post-Macing chant as: “Police brutality, we’re sick and…tired of it.” Insert “fuckin'” where the ellipse is. That’s the mood of these young ARA activists. America is incubating a whole new generation of hard-core fascist-fighters that are sick and tired. “And tired of being sick and tired.” They’re not the Promise Keepers, but they are the product of America’s broken promises and dreams.