Most reports on antifa assert that there is an absolute separation between violence and nonviolence, and that each of us must choose a side. But history shows that allegiances between violent and nonviolent actors on the same side of anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles have always existed. Indeed, most successful nonviolent movements always occur in the context of parallel “unsuccessful” violent ones.
This year is not the first time Virginia has been at the heart of this country’s soul-searching debate about the need to fight racist and fascist violence with anti-racist and anti-fascist violence, and whether those who oppose racism are bound to nonviolent means. In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the munitions depot in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, as part of a broader plan to start a slave insurrection in the South. Although they took the arsenal, Brown’s men were defeated by none other than Robert E. Lee, and all died in battle or were hanged. Still, historians generally agree that Brown’s raid helped fuel the demand for an end to slavery by any means.
Brown’s actions put Northern Abolitionists in an awkward spot, since for many of them, the critique of slavery was part of their broader hatred of all forms of violence. William Lloyd Garrison stated, for example: “I am a non-resistant — a believer in the inviolability of human life, under all circumstances; I, therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown, and every slave at the South.” But Garrison understood perfectly well that this position could not be …read more