By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Months of racist strife, touched off by police killings of unarmed Black people and exacerbated by the violent tactics of far-right “militias,” has now culminated in the death of Michael Forest Reinoehl by police and federal agents. Reinoehl, an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, was a suspect in the shooting of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the far-right militia group Patriot Prayer, in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 30.
According to police, they shot Reinoehl on Sept. 3 at his home in Lacey, Wash., as they tried to arrest him. However, the initial reports of Reinoehl’s killing are contradictory. Officers said that Reinoehl had “produced a firearm” and was “trying to flee” when they opened fire. But as stated in the media, the police report also indicates that Reinoehl had left his apartment and got into his truck—suggesting that perhaps he was unaware that he was under police surveillance at the time. The officers then began shooting, the report states, and he tried to escape the hail of bullets by running away on foot before collapsing on the ground. Witnesses, several of whom had to duck for cover, said that they heard 40 to 50 shots, but it is not yet clear whether Reinoehl fired a gun.
Attorney General William Barr praised the agents and said that their action in dealing with Reinoehl was “a significant accomplishment in the ongoing effort to restore law and order to Portland and other cities.”
Reinoehl was a well-known participant in BLM protests in Portland, where he often helped provide security. Protests have taken place virtually every day in Portland since the police murder of George Floyd in May. They became even stronger after Trump sent federal agents to the city in June. A week before Danielson was killed, Reinoehl was shot in the arm when he tried to break up a scuffle.
In an interview with freelance journalist Donovan Farley, which was broadcast online by Vice, Reinoehl said that he had shot Danielson in self-defense, thinking that he and a friend would be stabbed. “I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to do that.” Video taken at the time appears to show Danielson producing a can of mace, with which he sprays two men only seconds before shots ring out.
Reinoehl said that he had been asked to come into Portland on Aug. 30 to help calm the situation after members of a huge right-wing and pro-Trump car caravan had come into the city. Video shows a number of pick-up trucks driving through downtown Portland streets on that day, as the passengers shoot BLM protesters with paint-ball guns and mace. Some members of the caravan have been identified as supporters of Patriot Prayer. For at least three years, Patriot Prayer—often working together with the neo-fascist Proud Boys—has acted to disrupt protests through violence. The havoc continued into the evening.
Moments after Reinoehl’s Vice interview went online, President Trump, apparently in response to the interview, tweeted, “Why aren’t the Portland police ARRESTING the cold-blooded killer of Aaron “Jay” Danielson. Do your job and do it fast. Everybody knows who this thug is. No wonder Portland is going to hell!” Days earlier, Trump had tweeted “Rest In Peace, Jay,” an act that reinforced efforts by the far right to convert Danielson into a martyr for their cause.
In regard to motivating the ultra-right, Trump is acting true to form, just as when he stated there were “fine people” among the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in 2017. The results? In May 2020, ABC News found 41 court cases involving threats or actual acts of violence, in which the defendants—mostly white men— cited Trump’s utterances as one of the favorable factors in inspiring their crimes.
Killings in Kenosha
Along with Portland, the country’s anti-racist protest movement during the last few weeks has largely focused on events in Kenosha, Wis. Protests in Kenosha were sparked by the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake, who still lies in a hospital bed, partly paralyzed with a shattered spine. The protests were met by cops with tear gas and pepper spray, and soon several thousand National Guard troops were sent in.
Within days, armed white vigilantes also made their appearance, including members of a group called the Kenosha Guard, which had been cited for provoking violence on several earlier occasions. The Guard claimed that they had come to “protect businesses” from the protesters. Several reports state that police were seen to be cooperating with the armed vigilantes. “You know what the cops told us today?” an armed man is heard saying on video. “They were, like, ‘we’re gonna push ’em [the BLM protesters] down by you, ’cause you can deal with them, and then we’re gonna leave.” Some protesters told USA Today that the cops did exactly what they had promised.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenage police cadet and avid Trump supporter from Illinois, was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle while helping the Kenosha Guard. Ryan Balch, a neo-Nazi and self-described “boogaloo boi” (a term used by some far-right people who say they are aiming to spark a civil war), has told the Chicago Sun Times that he was with Rittenhouse for most of the day on Aug. 25. Balch said that about 32 of his boogaloo comrades were in Kenosha that day. He said that Rittenhouse had no real connection with the group, despite the fact that Rittenhouse claimed that he was with them.
In a video from CBS Chicago, taken on the evening of Aug. 25, a police officer in an armored vehicle thanks Kyle Rittenhouse and his cohorts and asks if they need water. Rittenhouse responds, “We need water,” and the officer tosses a bottle to the group.
Video shot about 25 minutes later shows Rittenhouse running down a street pursued by crowd of people who accuse him of having just shot a man in a nearby parking lot. He stumbles and falls, and then turns on his pursuers and shoots two of them. Rittenhouse then gets up and calmly walks toward several cop cars with his hands in the air, but the officers ignore him and drive off. In total, Rittenhouse killed two people, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and seriously wounded Gaige Grosskreutz.
Trump has made very little of Rittenhouse’s murders, only stating that the video footage appears to indicate that he was shooting in self-defense. In the meantime, Rittenhouse has become a hero of the far right, and “Free Kyle Rittenhouse” is their rallying cry.
On Sept. 1, President Trump charged even further into the controversy over racist policing when he traveled to Kenosha, Wis. Trump gave little attention to the shooting of Jacob Blake by cops a week earlier, offered no sympathy to Blake’s family, and never considered a meeting with leaders of the Black community. Instead, he met with a handful of law enforcement authorities and Republican officials.
The president’s visit to Kenosha was designed primarily as an opportunity to energize his right-wing base in the final months of his campaign. Once again, he focused on the need to crack down on “leftist” crime and violence, knowing that such rhetoric would elicit an enthusiastic response from his own supporters, while at the same time, hopefully serving to demoralize antiracist activists.
The attack on “antifa”
Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, as the protest movement exploded in size, Trump steadily escalated his calls for “law and order.” His administration sought to explain the anger at the protests as being the result of conspiratorial action by anarchists and “antifa” (a shortened form of “anti-fascist”).
“The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters and anarchists.” Trump declared in a May 30 speech. “The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings.” Trump’s diatribes on this theme, which he has repeated many dozens of times, ignore the fact that no hard evidence has ever been brought to light of left-wing groups promoting violence or looting, whereas violence at demonstrations is often initiated by cops and right-wing provocateurs.
In fact, a report published on Sept. 3 by the U.S. Crisis Monitor, a collaboration between the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, found that “in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity.”
Protests that did become violent, according to the researchers, either involved violent intervention from police or federal authorities, or counter-protesters from “extremist” (i.e., white supremacist) groups. The police or military “disproportionately used force while intervening in demonstrations associated with the BLM movement, relative to other types of demonstrations,” the researchers found. According to their data, in nearly 10% of BLM protests recorded this summer, police violently intervened by deploying tear gas, rubber bullets, or pepper spray, as well as assaulting protesters with batons.
Nevertheless, thanks to Trump’s incessant tweets on the subject, the term “antifa” quickly went viral, even surpassing mentions of “Black Lives Matter” on social media. On June 1, there were nearly 1.5 million mentions of “antifa” on Twitter, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs.
As Trump and his cothinkers no doubt expected, right-wing groups boosted the message that left-wingers, and more specifically, “antifa,” were perpetrators of violence at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The white-supremacist group Identity Evropa even launched a fake Twitter account that called for violence at the protests, which they falsely linked to “antifa.” The group also sent out a tweet, which was shared hundreds of times, promising that “antifa” would move its operations into white residential neighborhoods. Some small towns and suburban districts saw armed mobilizations by right-wing militias, together with groups of gullible residents, in response to rumors that “antifa” was marching on their communities.
Trump indicated his approval of such actions by retweeting a video of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who supposedly “protected” their home and their lives by pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who were passing by. “I was afraid we’d be murdered in seconds!” Mark McCloskey exclaimed, when trying to explain his provocative actions to reporters, although video showed that the protesters had been walking peacefully. Last month, the McCloskeys were given a place of honor at the Republican National Convention.
Ruling class alarmed by the new radicalization
The murder of George Floyd by police set off a political upsurge unlike anything seen in the United States in generations. Millions participated in the anti-racist protests in the streets and joined the chants of “Black lives matter!” Those efforts were redoubled after cops shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha last month.
Through their experiences, many of the activists, especially young people, have begun to reevaluate the standard teachings about U.S. society, and especially about the role of the police. Many now see more clearly that the police, as an armed instrument of the capitalist state, have the primary job of maintaining the rule of the capitalist class through force and violence, while systematically using racism as one of their tools of repression.
The new radicalization, and especially the anti-police sentiment, has naturally alarmed the ruling class. The leaderships of the two major capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats, would both like to get protesters out of the streets and back into the voting booths, but they differ over how to do it. The sector of the capitalist class lining up behind President Trump seems to have settled on a super-tough pro-police message. They believe that Trump’s shrill “law and order” stance will speak to and amplify the fears of voters, especially in the lower middle class and in small towns and rural areas, who already feel distressed by the economic and social insecurities of our time.
Trump’s associates have made clear that they see increased social violence as being helpful to his re-election campaign, showing off the benefits of the president’s hard-as-nails discourse as compared to the limp efforts of his Democratic Party opponent. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing White House counselor, said last week.
But a strong wing of the capitalist class and their political puppets don’t see things that way at all. Those who are gravitating toward supporting the Democratic Party in the current election (including key former Republicans) appear to be increasingly unhappy with Trump’s wild “tough-guy” rhetoric and his tactics such as sending federal agents to Portland. They feel that he is “pouring gasoline on the fire,” in Biden’s words, and potentially increasing the radicalization—of both left and right—rather than quelling it.
These sectors of the capitalist class are generally uneasy about the surge of far-right groups who have been energized by Trump’s program, and who have gained a following among some sections of Trump’s lower-middle-class base. They might, of course, feel “compelled” to support an outright fascist solution if this were a period of intense class struggle, when capitalist rule itself appears threatened. But now, they ask, why rock the boat prematurely, when there is still an opportunity to lull the protest movement back into the voting booths?
And so, the Democrats must walk a delicate tightrope. While giving lip service to racial justice and offering a few reforms, they must also show that their candidate, Joe Biden, will not venture “too far” in such reforms—and that he will likewise not be a slouch on law and order. Thus, in an Aug. 31 appearance, Biden answered Trump’s attacks on him by saying: “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” In a speech in Pittsburgh, Biden again tried to appear as a strong no-nonsense figure who is able to deal with a situation filled with mayhem. He said, “I want to make it absolutely clear, rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
Those hard-line phrases are repeated in a new TV spot for the Biden campaign, although a moment later, Biden shifts gears to castigate Trump for “his failure to stop his supporters from acting as an armed militia in this country.” Meanwhile, in the background, images flash of burnt-out buildings, vigilantes in pick-up trucks shooting mace at protesters, and police with guns drawn. In reality, both candidates have opportunistically inflated the incidences of violence in Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
How to fight back?
How can we wage an effective struggle for racial justice and against systematic police brutality? How can we defeat the reactionary vigilante and neo-fascist bands that are trying to make things far worse?
Support to Biden and the Democrats is no answer. They promise no basic structural changes to the system. A Democratic administration, if it believes there is a need, would utilize the repressive power of the police and other armed state agencies just as much as the Republicans would. The Democrats promise a few mild reforms that will do next to nothing to do away with racism and poverty, prevent climate change from spiraling into catastrophe, and dissipate the threat of imperialist war that constantly hangs over the world.
Nor does arming ourselves at protest demonstrations, or acts of sabotage or violence, provide an effective solution. History has shown that such endeavors, and even organized “urban guerrilla” actions (as were tried in South America in the 1970s), merely serve to demobilize masses of people who desire change, rather than inspire them to act. Working people tend to see themselves merely as spectators to such actions, rather than confident movement-builders and activists on their own behalf.
Moreover, “picking up the gun” can more easily provide an opening for infiltration by the police and federal authorities as provocateurs. The process can quickly lead to frame-ups and prison—and on occasion the destruction of entire movements.
The subject of political violence is a crucial one that people who consider themselves revolutionaries must address clearly. If what we say and do is mishandled, it can provide opportunities for the ruling class to victimize people. The dangers are especially perilous now, when the feds, the police, and their far-right supporters are gunning (both rhetorically and literally!) for people they identify as “antifa,” as well as for anarchists, socialists, and Black Lives Matter activists.
We must make clear that we do not accept the vile labels that both Trump and Biden apply to our movement. Anarchists are not inherent “rioters.” Black Lives Matter activists are not “looters.” Anti-fascists and those who call for the abolition of the police are not “mobs.” Whether or not we disagree with the tactics of some activists in the movement, we defend all those who are under attack by the ruling class and its agencies.
At the same time, of course, we support the right of workers and oppressed people to defend themselves when under attack. For example, when a workers’ picket line is rushed by scabs, cops, or hired goons, it sometimes becomes necessary for the strikers to physically defend themselves.
Likewise, in Black communities in the South in the 1950s and ’60s—groups like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Georgia (the first “Black Panthers”), the Deacons for Defense in Alabama, and the rifle club set up by Robert Williams in North Carolina—sometimes saw the need to arm themselves to defend local people and civil rights workers against the violence of white supremacists and racist cops. But such self-defense activities were carried out under conditions of absolute necessity by organized mass organizations of the Black community, with the understanding that a strong defense can often serve to avoid violence rather than foment it.
In general, the most effective defense against the fascists and white supremacists is to massively counter-mobilize against them. Tens of thousands of workers and their allies in the streets, including the organized ranks of labor—as well as Black groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ groups, and all who support civil liberties—can send a strong message to the fascists that they are not welcomed.
In the long term, however, the only antidote against fascism is to build a huge mass movement to achieve fundamental change in society. The movement must grow to encompass many millions of working people and their organizations and remain independent of the Republicans and Democrats. It must strive to replace this rotten society with a new one that will be constructed in the interests of working people. For that task, we will have to build a mass revolutionary party of workers and their allies that can lead the way to socialist revolution.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics