This interview was originally published by Brighton Antifascists.
Like everyone else we’ve been in lockdown, spending a lot of time at home with our stockpile of beans in our Antifa™ bunker. But we’ve also stayed active playing our part in local organising initiatives in Brighton and further afield – food banks, food deliveries, mutual aid groups, projects manufacturing PPE etc. And we’ve also made time to chat to some comrades from Oregon about what’s going down in the USA, where they have also had to contend with a social situation that is in some ways more extreme and also with right-wing street movements protesting the lockdown. The following is an interview with Alexander and Thomas, two anarchists who are active in anti-fascist and left organizing in Portland, Oregon.
Can you tell us how the anti-authoritarian left and antifascist movement is responding to the current crisis ? Are there any mutual aid networks forming? We have seen for example images of Portland antifascists involved in production of hand sanitiser that was then distributed for free for those in need. Can you tell us more about those kind of initiatives?
There are a variety of mutual aid projects in Portland, surrounding housing, food, and pandemic preparedness goods like PPE and sanitation products. The two of us are actually essential workers, and are still working in our respective industries to keep parts of the city moving, such as it is. But from our networks and friends we can report some mutual aid projects of note: barter networks, trading, and free distribution of goods that are in high demand, including food; making and distributing PPE to people who cannot obtain them; resource lists, to inform people where scarce goods are available (like which stores have toilet tissue or sanitizer in stock); and organized community camps for the houseless who are at-risk or marginalized.
As our personal organizing work typically is anti-fascism, we should also note that there is still a great need for that in this current crisis as well. Like in many crises, the far-right is attempting to take advantage of the political moment in order to gain strength. We’ve seen groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front attending protests against the stay-at-home protocols. Racist and nationalistic conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease and cures are spreading. There have been attacks and other displays of bigotry against people of Asian ethnicity. White supremacists online are talking about spreading the disease deliberately, and fantasizing about this crisis creating a state of open war in society. While we all have to do our part to fight the pandemic, we cannot let up our guard against fascism and the far-right. So it is good that those netwo rks are continuing their work as well, even as we all are having to deal with the pandemic.
How much impact do you think grassroots mutual aid groups have in their communities?
They have a huge impact. Many people who are failing to receive care and support from other sources are finding it there. Projects that can’t be organized by the government such as food sharing, mask making and distribution, and other resource pooling are happening by that means. There’s always a frustration with this sort of organizing, that it can never really have the dedicated infrastructure or scope to become a true dual power framework. However, this is a crisis with an incredibly wide range of effect, doing a lot of damage. Mutual aid networks aren’t going to be able to replace the state apparatus for epidemiological tracking and testing. However, even providing small amounts of help to those who are suffering because of the economic and health effects of the crisis, can make the difference between someone dying and living. In that way, mutual aid groups are “first responders” in a different sort of order. They can help fix gaps in the structure, and save people who are ignored or otherwise fall through the structure. They make small, but nevertheless crucial movements, and can be the finger in the dike that prevents a wider disaster for individual communities and neighborhoods.
How are mutual aid groups accommodating for already marginalised groups- queer folk, people of colour, women, those with no fixed abode etc. ?
We’ve seen mutual aid groups that are already oriented for those marginalized groups adding pandemic preparedness to their repertoire. Also, here in Portland there have been a number of new projects getting off the ground quickly with those groups in mind… for example as we mentioned above, some folks with experience in providing services for the houseless have set up an organized community camp specifically for minority and queer youth. The were able to set this up and obtain the necessary permissions from the city in a record amount of time, because they already had the knowhow and experience with this population and type of mutual aid and services, and also because they knew what the need would be, and moved to provide that service to stem the crisis.
It seems like in the US the idea of a rent strike is very popular and we have been reading articles about many people refusing to pay rent. How widespread is it? Is there any level of organisation behind it or is it more of a spontaneous thing?
The US is such a big place, with so many different regions, it is always difficult to get a sense of how big a movement is, until it is already on the streets, as it were. Occupy was like that… it seemed like it might be just a small anti-capitalist protest in one city, until suddenly it took off in hundreds of cities all at once. With the rent strike, we are currently in that first phase, but even more distributed. There are definitely people who right now have not paid rent for at least one month, will not pay rent for a second month, and perhaps more. These people are all over the country, and no one knows how many of them there are. Some of them are organized, either online with wide, potentially national scope, or in their community, or their building. And larger actions are starting to emerge. It seems New York City has several thousand organized tenants that are striking for May Day, and there was a large solidarity action in Texas as well.
Some people are not paying simply because they do not have the money to do so, some are doing it out of a sense of political rejection of the rental industry and class dynamics. Some are doing it for both reasons. The most resilient instances of rent strike that we’ve heard of are those organized very thoroughly on the ground level. Neighbors talking to neighbors, organizing an entire building in order to have the solidarity and strength necessary to see it through. Right now, in many states emergency laws have been passed to prevent evictions or provide for legal grace periods on rent payments. This has been a great help to the rent strike, but it also makes it unclear exactly how resilient it will be. When those laws expire, those tenants not paying who are not part of a local solidarity network may be forced to continue paying rent, repay back rent, or be evicted if they cannot. In the US, even among the working class, personal finances are often considered a private matter and people often do not discuss their financial hardships with their neighbors. So many of these individuals may suffer or be forced to end their strike without any of their neighbors or community being aware of what is happening.
We’ll have to see if the rent strike grows in size, in visibility, and in organization enough so that neighbors have the solidarity they need to resist attempts by landlords and the state to break the strike. The fact remains, all economic signs indicate that a de-facto rent strike is already happening based on the numbers: 30 million people are newly unemployed and the social service programs such as unemployment insurance and food assistance (what we call “food stamps”) is completely overrun with applications so people aren’t receiving government aid and simply cannot pay rent.
How are people surviving with the general lack of a social safety net if they are made unemployed or have to self isolate?
Well, without a social safety net, we’ve got mutual aid, religious and NGO charities, and that’s pretty much it.
On the left people speak very emphatically about mutual aid and have a clear idea of its political implications. But most people in the US, especially in rural areas, are unfamiliar with the term. And yet, they know the spirit of mutual aid very implicitly, and adopt it wholeheartedly and without reservation. We’ve seen this in the past during hurricanes and other widespread weather disasters. People come together to help each other, and organize themselves without needing any model or pattern from a national organization. And they are doing that now, in communities all across the country.
However, people are still struggling! Despite the media’s insistence that the economy was “great” before March, many people were living precarious existences, on both sides of the houseless line, whether barely making it paycheck to paycheck, or failing to make it. Many who were just barely surviving have now been pushed over the edge. Whatever small savings people might have had, they are now burning through. As part of a congressional recovery program, every American is supposed to receive a $1200 stimulus check that some people were lucky enough to get, which is equivalent to one month of the median rent in our city. Many people in Portland worked in the food, restaurant, and service industry, which was a hard, low-paid industry to begin with that is now almost nonexistent because of this crisis, and will probably take years to recover. The unemployment insurance system in the US is managed through the state governments, and in Oregon like in most states it has been totally overwhelmed. We can’t fool ourselves: mutual aid networks are a fantastic, spontaneous organization of the community that does lots of good, but they are nowhere near enough. They are helping people cling to some sense of stability, but that grasp is tenuous. Like with the rent strike, there are some pockets of strong organization going on, but they are not linked together in a way that makes them a replacement for the state at this time.
Which puts us in a terrible position. With the long-term erosion of the social safety net in this country going on for 40 years now, and the current federal government still trying to purge people from the rolls of food stamps and unemployment insurance even as this crisis is happening, we can cling to mutual aid, and seek help with our friends and families. Often this can be the stick of wood that keeps the roof from falling in, so to speak. But it is continuously precarious.
In the recent Democratic primary elections which petered out at the same time as the pandemic was building, there seemed like there might be a growing movement that was for rebuilding a strong social safety net, for well-funded public health care, for institutions like unions that can help guarantee services are well-funded and long-lasting. But, that tide found its own high water mark and is receding. The best offer now from the political institutions is a return to the moderate policies of 2016 under a potential Joe Biden presidency.
It is difficult to not feel very pessimistic about this state of affairs. There is no framework for a real alternative to our current reality for us to rally behind. Taking part in basic mutual aid groups in our community is necessary, but exhausting in the face of witnessing all the places where that aid falls short. Defending our community against incursions by violent far-right groups can feel like a never-ending struggle. The idea of trying to organize a movement to fix this state of affairs in the long term seems overwhelming in the face of a crisis.
How is the US healthcare system coping and what about people without health insurance if they need hospitalisation due to covid 19?
Honestly, the system isn’t coping. People are dying. More and more research is determining that minorities are dying at a rate far higher than the average for our population. This is because they live in areas with higher rates of pollution, often have underlying conditions that make their experience of Covid worse, and are further from hospital and medical services, which are themselves even more overwhelmed than those in predominately white and wealthy areas. And people of minority ethnicities often do not seek medical treatment early because they don’t have health insurance or have a legal status that makes that process difficult or dangerous. Then of course there is the obvious class element. In the US the majority of people with healthcare coverage have it as a benefit given by an employer, so if you are one of the millions recently unemployed, not only are you out of work, but you’re now uninsured. And those who still have coverage, still pay heavy out of pocket costs for treatment to a complex array of different for-profit care providers. This whole catastrophe is the perfect defense for something like the British NHS model. As far as the uninsured go, part of the congressional aid package is meant to fund universal treatment for those with Covid-19, but that is the tip of the iceberg when looking into the US healthcare system and all the adverse health affects that this will cause beyond one singular diagnosis. Right now if you’re uninsured and on your way to the emergency room, a Covid-19 diagnosis is the only thing that’ll save you from years of medical debts.
We don’t really know what else to say about that. It’s terrible, it’s laying bare what we’ve all known for years about the travesty of our healthcare system, it was immensely predictable, and ordinary people have no tools to stop it besides maybe a total boycott of debt repayment.
That being said, some on the Left, mainly democratic socialists and progressives, are predicting that this could be the death of neoliberal capitalism and that similar to the Great Depression or the Post-Second World War eras, a new economic arrangement based around Keynesianism or Social Democracy might alleviate some of the extreme inequities in the United States. For now, we are not only dealing with the health crisis but also a reactionary push-back from the Right which is terrified of exactly those kinds of social changes.
Are there moves towards ending the lockdown and reopening business there ? Do people want to resist that?
In the US, all of that is managed by state government, so it differs depending on location. In Oregon there has been no announcement about the end of the lockdown yet, or what it might look like. Thus far we have largely been following the lead of California (to our south) and Washington (to our north), which have both had far more intense outbreaks than we have. It’s hard to say whether or not the end to the lockdown will be appropriate, until we know what it will look like. We have seen elsewhere in the country that people are both for and against ending lockdowns, depending on what the regional situation is. Some places seem to be doing far better than they had been, while other places are doing worse.
An interesting political development has been the formation of the “Western States Pact” which is comprised of Washington, Oregon, California, and now Nevada and Colorado. Similar pacts have formed in the Midwest and Northeast. Governors and political leaders have formed these new political unions as a pushback against the lack of material support from the federal government and specifically Trump. States spent the early days of the crisis appealing to Trump to provide financial and medical aid to their respective states, but Trump being the egomaniac that he is, sabotaged efforts to send shipments of PPE (protective gear) or much needed ventilators to the states if they did not ‘treat him well’, meaning praise him and his leadership. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was appointed to the federal response team and when asked about sending federal aid stockpiles to states like New York he said, “The notion of the federal stockpile is that it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” After massive pushback, federal aid did begin to trickle in to states, eventually, but disproportionately went to conservative and political “battle ground” states, sometimes to states that were not even seeking that aid. So while this political fight between governors and the white house played out, many local and state officials realized that they had no choice but to purchase medical equipment on their own. This lead to states and cities getting into bidding wars on the open market (buying from private companies and other countries) for medical supplies and other much needed goods; Where one state would offer a million dollars for masks, their neighbor would offer a million more, and Trump reveled in this divide-and-conquer powerplay.
As of now, the states have managed to form some alliances and support each other, but there is a clear lack of executive leadership around the looming question of how and when to “reopen” or re-integrate people back into normal, every day capitalist life. The Western States Pact (along with other regional pacts) are negotiating a coordinated policy of how to restructure economic life during the ongoing pandemic. Right now, it seems the general framework will be a multi-stage model where safer services will be offered first, like non essential medical treatment. Gradually other sectors will return to work, with things like music festivals and sports stadiums being the last to reopen.
Can you tell us about the Trump supporters who are protesting the lockdown? What are they actually objecting to? To us it looks like they are pretty much exclusively white, conservative/right wing crowd. We also heard some reports that those protests are astroturfed. Any truth in that?
Though the virus has no particular political ideology, the response to it, including trust in science and things as simple as believing your doctor, has been completely politicized. This is a reflection of the ongoing American political crisis brought on by Trumpism.
Where to begin…
So the current mainstream political divide in the US can basically be drawn between supporters of Trump and those who oppose him – and oppose him for a whole variety of reasons from political opportunists like the Democratic Party politicians posing as “the resistance”, to people experiencing firsthand the consequences of his racist, nationalistic, and capitalist policies. Trump supporters have exhibited a cult like following towards him, and recently Salon published a piece by a Yale university psychiatrist comparing Trump supporters to victims of abuse or child soldiers. Their allegiance to Trump is unwavering, and over the course of the last five years of political developments, we can cite dozens of examples of liberals, clutching their pearls and screaming, “THIS is definitely the end of Trump!” From the infamous “Grab ’em by the p****” tape, all the way to the “try injecting disinfectants” press briefings. If there is one thing we can be sure of by now, it is that Trump supporters will follow him to their grave.
But let’s step back a bit and look at the political landscape here. The Right has gone through three phases over the last two months, pivoting its core ideological position on Covid-19 from 1. denial, to 2. acceptance, finally 3. back to minimizing the severity. If an anthropologist wanted to study the political consensus of the Trump base, they would have to look no further than Trump’s favorite propaganda outlet, Fox News. In the early days of the coronavirus coverage Fox took a ‘discredit and deny’ approach to covering the virus. Several prominent talking heads flat-out called the virus a “democratic hoax” and presented the creeping health crisis as a conspiracy to attack Trump. One host in particular, Sean Hannity, who is close friends with Trump, was one of the strongest deniers of Covid-19. With the one exception of Tucker Carlson, Fox News did everything in their power to mock the severity of the virus until mid to late March, even as Italy was in full crisis management mode and Seattle streets were emptied of people. The University of Chicago released findings last week that revealed the correlation between viewers of the Sean Hannity show and spikes in infection rate; there is no doubt that the people consuming Fox News propaganda are far less likely to take health precautions and will inevitably catch and spread the virus.
At some point around the time that cities and states began enacting ‘stay at home’ guidelines, a switch happened on Fox News where they decided that this wasn’t going away. They couldn’t deny the reality of tens of thousands of infections affecting even rural parts of America (that make up the Trump base), so they began to pivot the narrative to blaming their political opponents and even Obama, for not preparing for the crisis. Of course, this also coincides with Trump’s complete turn around in his crisis management approach. For this brief period both Trump and Fox News seemed to take the virus seriously, and from personal experience we witnessed that shift in Right-wing consensus from our conservative coworkers who went from outright denial to saying things like “two weeks ago I thought this wasn’t a big deal but now I don’t know,” or “I’m really worried about this because I have pre-existing conditions.” Hardly surprising. Trump supporters make up only about 25% of the population, but they are probably the most ideologically cohesive group when it comes to political unity (even if the politics are completely incoherent from a traditional ideology perspective and flip-flop regularly).
From abroad, you might assume that Fox News parrots Trump and spreads the position of the White House, but several media critics and journalists have documented that most of the time, Trump is not feeding his views to Fox News, but vice versa, they are feeding Trump his positions. Trump will tweet some non-sensical message about Sweden at 2pm, and you only have to go back and check the Fox News coverage of ‘Sweden’s refugee crisis’ to see where he is getting the majority of his political ideas. So actually Trump is not really making policy decisions, Fox News is doing it for him because he is too intellectually lazy to come up with his own ideas.
About a month ago, Fox News pivoted again and decided to embrace a total free market approach to the crisis. They aired a segment where host Steve Hilton said something to the effect of ‘the cure can’t be worse than the virus’ in reference to public closures and the economic downfall. Within hours Trump was repeating that exact phrase on social media and in interviews, encouraging Americans to return back to normal economic life. This coincided with some Republican politicians campaigning for an immediate reopening of the economy, like the lieutenant governor of Texas who went on Fox News and declared, “There are more important things than living,” in reference to prioritizing the economy over people’s lives. And just like that, the Trump base fell in line and began parroting the same talking points. In reference to the coworker mentioned above, who went from denial to fear, she once again shifted with the narrative and proclaimed “we can’t stay locked down like this anymore, America needs to open up.” This political rollercoaster all happened within the span of about six weeks.
Meanwhile, Right-wing political organizations began organizing a Wall Street funded campaign to re-open the economy, specifically targeting states like Minnesota and Michigan that have Democratic governors who have had to manage the crisis through lockdowns in the absence of federal leadership. The protests are being funded by wealthy free-market groups that a decade ago were instrumental in the pseudo-libertarian “Tea Party” protests, with money coming from billionaires like the Koch family. These rallies have been a mix of various political groupings within the Trump base, from conspiracy theorists, some of whom deny the existence of the virus, to business owners who want to send their employees back to work, and bourgeois suburbanites who see this as government overreach because they aren’t allowed to go to the hair salon. These protests, like most of Trump’s populist rhetoric, play on the fear and fake victimhood of a white middle class losing control of their country. They are incredibly small in number, and generally rejected by the majority of society. Trump has encouraged these protests by tweeting out messages like, “Liberate Michigan”, possibly to gain support with his base by fomenting protest against Democratic leadership in particular states. Meanwhile, he also claims to support “stay at home” guidelines of his own administration. This utter hypocrisy was on full display last week when the Republican governor of Georgia heeded the call to “reopen” businesses in his state, and then Trump, when questioned by reporters, claimed he didn’t support the governor’s decision. This is the exact same pattern that we have seen from Trump over the years, it mirrors his response to the Neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally where he condemned white supremacy on camera, and the next day turned around and said there were “very fine people” there. He is completely inept at showing leadership and this is incredibly dangerous on any normal day, but is especially troubling in the middle of a health crisis.
The protests have continued in several states, with attendance numbers in the hundreds and looking incredibly similar to a Trump campaign rally. As Trump fires up his base by criticizing the Democratic leadership of particular states (even when Republican led states have done the exact same actions), the quarantine measures become one more partisan football that Trump can kick around to generate media attention. But even as one might wish to simply ignore the media circus, Trump’s most heinous supporters have been turning out for these rallies, including Neo-Nazis, fascists, and nationalists such as the Proud Boys. In Michigan the protests organized a sizeable caravan of vehicles that decided for some god-awful reason to block the entrance to a hospital where ambulances were prevented from getting through. Proud Boys, as well as other far-right groups played a role in this. Such acts cannot really be explained through a political lens, they simply speak for themselves.
Several friends from abroad have asked specifically about these confrontations happening outside hospitals and we cannot speak to the rationale behind these horrible acts, only that Trumpism has created and/or reinforced a culture of narcissism that lacks basic human decency or respect for the lives of others, and fuels itself on populist mob action rather than any specific political goal. The Trump base has come out in full support of re-opening the economy, even at the expense of 3% of the population, or 10 million lives, simply because Trump has suggested that they should. We are not exaggerating here, people are actually saying these things right now.
We could see some Republican politicians voicing their support for those protests and of course Trump has been in favour of them as well. Police seem to be completely unwilling to do anything about them as well. How much support do they actually have?
The police and the State have had, as usual, a hands-off approach to these right-wing protests, despite the fact that they are breaking the law by gathering in large groups. This can be juxtaposed to numerous examples of police violence against left-wing demonstrations that posed an infinitely smaller risk to public safety.
These protests have very little support, but enough to make them obnoxious and dangerous. Somewhere between 70 to 85% of Americans support the “stay at home” defensive measures. But this is the same as the support of Trump’s political base… it is not a majority, but it is loud and dangerous.
The political pressure from a handful of protestors and their billionaire backers seems to be having a disproportionate effect on the discourse in the media. With millions of people stuck at home, anything novel that the mainstream media can point their cameras at is exciting news. So in normal circumstances these protests might not have gained the same attention, but right now the news is giving them exaggerated air time. This is horribly irresponsible since we know these gatherings are attracting fascists and racist conspiracy theorists, and if they are going to be the ones leading the conversation, we’re in for real trouble.
As mentioned earlier, Right-wing politicians like the governor of Georgia jumped on board these protests straight away, probably because the pressure he and all politicians are under from the so-called “business community.” These are the people that buy off politicians through our legalized bribery system of “campaign contributions”, and right now they are losing billions in profits due to the shutdowns. In the coming weeks we will see how well the Georgia experiment goes, but things in different parts of the US are developing very differently right now like here in Oregon we have very low numbers of cases compared to cities like New Orleans or NYC.
Finally, a huge factor that isn’t getting enough attention in American media is this: If states lift their stay-at-home orders, working class people will be made to return to work in very dangerous working conditions and lose any public benefits they might be receiving. The government has spent trillions of dollars over the past weeks to create a patchwork social safety system so people don’t starve, like extra funding for the unemployed. If and when states re-open, millions will be forced back into work and will no longer qualify for the government benefits. This is the real reason the Republicans want to re-open the economy, because they want to make sure the social programs are as short and minimal as possible and we can get back to working for shit wages while Amazon makes more record profits and Trump can point to his one “achievement” as President: rising stock prices.
Do you have any ideas how the situation is going to progress? Is the broad anti-authoritarian left in any way prepared for what’s coming?
We can’t predict the future, but it seems as if very few people are prepared for it, if anyone is at all. Grassroots mobilization may be our only shot at surviving as the state has revealed itself completely unable to cope with this crisis.
As mentioned earlier, some people see a silver lining in this, in that the whole American experiment of free-market capitalism may be reaching it’s breaking point and we might end up with some decent social democratic reforms that making working class life slightly less miserable but we have to push for more. But as we well know, the deadly secret within any accelerationist tendency is that the speedy collapse of the system comes with the deaths and suffering of countless numbers of the working class.
A positive aspect of this entire crisis is the rebirth of that spontaneous solidarity shown between workers across various industries. Thousands, if not millions of workers across the US have engaged in some form of unsanctioned labor action over the past two months, from walk outs, to strikes, to demands for hazard pay, as well as calls for the rent strike. Class conflict is creeping out from the shadows and this crisis is instilling a consciousness in American working people that will last for years to come. And as we mentioned above, many people are recalling their own natural capacities for mutual aid, although they may not have the current political understanding to call it what it is.
It will be our job as socialists and anarchists to help create that understanding, and build for a whole new economic and political reality based on solidarity, equality, and freedom.