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“We’re all here for the same reason”

Lessons from Community Defense in Ohio

Jonah ben Avraham and Amber Boardman are Ohio-based socialists working to defend queer communities from fascist violence. In this piece, they discuss the lessons of the past several months, and the new challenges facing anti-fascists around the country.

On December 3, 2022, a hundreds-strong, homophobic coalition of Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, Christian nationalists, and J6 rioters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio and successfully forced the cancellation of Red Oak’s Drag Queen Story Hour through intimidation and fear. Since then, the far right in Ohio has been emboldened, using threats of violence and armed demonstrations to try and terrorize LGBTQ+ Ohioans out of congregating in public and push the decades-old, homophobic narrative that queer people are perverts and pedophiles.

Jonah ben Avraham: Neither of us, nor most of Tempest’s readers, are newcomers to anti-fascist counter-demonstrations or organized community defense; yet both of us have been taken aback by the prominent role of the extreme far right in homophobic street demonstrations since December 3. Activists around the country were shocked by images of swastika flags and chants of “sieg heil” in Wadsworth, Ohio (a suburb of Akron and close to Cleveland) a few weeks ago, and these are only the most recognizable neo-Nazis to have played a role in the growing far-right coalition: White Lives Matter, Patriot Front, and various Christian nationalist militias have played central roles in the demonstrations alongside the so-called alt-light. Do you think this is a welcome development for the Proud Boys and J6ers? And why are these far-right demonstrations getting so militant?

Amber Boardman: As far as whether this union is a “welcome development” for them: yes and no. At Wadsworth, we saw that the majority of the far-right protesters on the ground voiced opposition to the more overt Nazism of the “Blood Tribe,” and shuffled away to form separate factions. In one concise video clip, a Proud Boy responded to “We’re all here for the same reason,” with “We are, but go over that way.” So the optics of aligning with Nazis are visibly distressing to many of these protesters, since American cultural knowledge has done a better job at equating the word “Nazi” with ultimate evil than it has at explaining Nazi politics and how to spot them in the wild.

Yet recently unearthed messages from their organizing forums on Telegram reveal that other far-right demonstrators had more agency than they’ve taken credit for. The Nazis were invited by White Lives Matter, and even group members that found them distasteful still embraced having their support on the ground and in the movement at large. “Just let the Nazis handle the pedos while we try to pass legislation” and “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” are direct quotes to that end. And we saw that whether or not all participants were thrilled about this development or had a say in it, they were still acting in a highly effective coalition—working together to surround the Story Hour and shout their own preferred obscenities. This network of far-right groups with political differences and entanglements was able to table them for this action, which is more than the Left could say.

And for those in their numbers who were even more reluctant to ally with Nazis, as well as conservatives watching from home, I’m doubtful that having done so will serve as a wake-up call for them to reconsider their own politics. People engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics, such as a now-deleted tweet that gained attention by saying, “You must realise how evil your ideology is when even Nazis come out to protest against you, right?” Most of them will continue to dismiss this alliance as unfortunate and circumstantial.

While the Wadsworth Story Hour was a “success” in the sense that we held the space from start to finish, we didn’t have the numbers to completely surround the venue, while the fascists did. Because of this, the Nazi faction was able to get right up to the fence and start practically screaming “sieg heil” fifteen or twenty feet away from the park shelter where the children were. I wasn’t in a position to see the attendees’ reactions to this, but I did watch as they were escorted to and from the event through the crowd of demonstrators, and the children looked terrified. So even though both the event organizers and the protesters claimed to be acting “for the children,” I’m not sure that goals related to their psychological well-being were met.

Paralleling trends in legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people (especially youth) and drag shows, far-right organizing capacity has grown exponentially over the past few years in both the number of demonstrators/members recruited and the frequency of their demonstrations. I see some level of militancy to their tactics and displays as an inevitability—these are hard Second Amendment people, and glorification of gun ownership, the military, and defense of the homestead has always been key to their political aesthetic. So of course these politics have come with them as they’ve started taking things to the sidewalks. And when you add in higher attendance on their side (ensuring safety if they pick fights) and the new rhetorical shield that they are “protecting children ” from “groomers,” these far-right demonstrators feel increasingly emboldened to start threatening or employing violence.

JbA: One of the things that the Wadsworth demonstration clarified for me was the impact that QAnon’s capture of right-wing COVID-19 denialism and vaccine skepticism has had on the far right. It was obvious from the overwhelming rhetorical focus on “pedophiles” as the demonstration’s targets: QAnon brought millions of people worldwide into the streets for “Save the Children” marches against phantom cabals of pedophile elites. As unhinged as it is, this modern-day blood libel has become enormously popular on the far right worldwide, and we know that many of the activists now outside of drag shows first cut their teeth organizing anti-mask and anti-vaccine demonstrations under the aegis of QAnon.

In addition to this explicit rhetorical inheritance, QAnon’s influence can also be seen in the detente between what was called in 2017 and 2018 the “alt-right” and “alt-light.” Historically, one of the central dividing lines between these two forces—or in less anachronistic terms, between the more popular elements of US-American Christofascism and the more fringe neo-Nazi and conspiracist far right—has been the question of antisemitism. Mainstream Christian nationalists have historically been unwilling to cross into openly bigoted antisemitism, instead embracing a philosemitic politics which works more covertly to uphold Christian hegemony and anti-Jewish domination, and this has generally stymied coalitions between them and the neo-Nazis. QAnon has changed that: Mainstream Republicans now routinely go to bat for antisemitic demagogues, Tucker Carlson preaches the “Great Replacement” theory on a near-nightly basis, and the entire right has ruled the antisemitic scapegoating of George Soros kosher for philosemitism. This has meant that while the so-called alt-light may still bristle at the PR problems raised by an alliance with Nazis, the building up of anti-Jewish resentment has made those coalitions thinkable in a new way and created openings for more and more genocidal politics among mainstream activist Republicans. We are rapidly moving toward a transcending of the alt-light/alt-right distinction, and demonstrations like those in Ohio, as well as the popularity of figures like Nick Fuentes and Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, are canaries in the coal mine.

AB: I agree, and I actually think that this shift toward antisemitism has been engineered to deflect the anger of a citizenry that’s being squeezed harder with every passing year. The anti-capitalist worldview is compelling because it’s true: If you ask a working-class American to tell you their woes, almost all of these woes can be easily traced to corporations extracting profits at their expense and the government or community care systems abandoning them. At some point, perhaps around the 2016 Bernie era, I think capitalists became more aware of the imminent, unifying threat of populism. So they’ve abandoned trying to convince people that there is no ruling elite in favor of redefining the ruling elite as a Jewish boogeyman. A New York or LA-based boogeyman who controls the media and wants to queerify your kids, no less.

And thus, we see the heat being brought to queer and Jewish folk who don’t actually have much power at all. As discussed above, something quantifiably shifted, and this radicalized far-right base started moving off Facebook and into queer nightclubs and Story Hours. We should consider that this may have been incidentally catalyzed by the wave of protests for Black lives in 2020 and the January 6 attack on the Capitol shortly afterward. Without going into the weeds about theories of political consciousness, I believe that there are at least two dimensions to protesting that previously inactive conservatives were able to pick up on even through the mainstream media coverage of these events: Protesting provides (a) the opportunity to be noticed, if not heard and (b) a sense of purpose and solidarity, if not community, between the protesters. So the working-class far-right has become increasingly empowered to seize their political goals through protest and methods that the working-class Left has historically favored, dipping their toes in anti-mask protests before finding a niche in harassing LGTBQ+ events.

And they have the added benefit of being unified in their goals. Beyond the self-gratification of yelling with their buddies at us “heathens,” they have the clear short-term goal of shutting queer-friendly events down and the long-term goal of intimidating the population into not hosting or attending them in the future. You’ll recall that at Red Oak, despite the Story Hour being publicly canceled, over a hundred of these members of fascist groups collectively decided to still travel across the midwest and parade outside of the empty church. There was no point to that besides making their queerphobia heard, and they were clearly willing to sacrifice a lot of time and money just to that end.
Meanwhile, there’s distrust and dysfunction between many of the leftist groups that could be coordinating against this threat. As most Tempest readers are probably all too familiar with, socialists and anarchists operate as dozens of fractionated groups within each city to begin with, largely because of disagreements about post-revolutionary avenues that we’re not even close to needing to decide on yet.

In the short-term planning for each event, there’s fierce debate as to whether community defense should be a vetted, private effort with reliance on operations security, or a public effort with reliance on crowd size. And my organization and I are in favor of the latter, because it is a more reliable safety net against the types of violence we are statistically most likely to meet and it feeds into the long-term goal of mobilizing the people. Narrow mercenary operations coordinated by the same cliques each time, even if they can maintain their level of activity for a few years, simply lack the capacity to build into a longer-term or broader movement.

A drag queen with big blond hair in a purple dress with matching fingerless opera gloves that go from the wrists to the elbow is reading a large colorful book to the kids. Some are sitting on a rug in the center of the room and two children are standing close to the drag queen. One is wearing a red and white horizontal striped shirt and is looking curiously at the book while the other child is in a green dress, smiling and pointing with their left hand at something in the book while their right hand is stuck inside a bag of chips. A number of adults are sitting off to the side and some of them are holding smaller children sitting in their laps.
Children having a good time at a Drag Queen Story Hour during a 2018 Pride Month event in West Hollywood, CA. Photo credit: Jonathan Moore.

And when defense organizers argue about the merits of specific tactics, such as getaway cars or rally points, it often reveals a subtextual argument as to whether we should be prioritizing the safety of ourselves, all of the defense crowd, the children, all event attendees, or the community at large. In an obvious example, the organizers of the initial Red Oak defense called themselves the “Community Defense Team,” but internally instructed that the goal was to protect the event, not the community. And thus when their heavy-handed security focus caused the drag queens to quit, they didn’t show up to counter the fascists that appeared on High St. anyway, and other organizations had to step in.

These tactical debates are further complicated when the organizers of these Drag Queen Story Hours have their own set of goals, which similarly vary from person to person. But common threads I have noticed in statements released by these organizers are (a) the desire to foster good will between children and the queer community, (b) the desire to provide this experience for their own children specifically, (c) intending the event as a political statement in solidarity with the queer community, (d) more trust in the police than in local socialists to provide security, and (e) surprise at the amount of backlash they received. These event organizers tend to be very classic, liberal Democrats, with little to no experience in grassroots organizing, so many of us socialists can’t help but feel frustrated when we have to go in and rescue them from a swarm of fascists because they essentially thought “it’ll be fun.” There is little to no long-term political strategy on display there.

JbA: Even though these tensions with event organizers have been substantial at every action thus far during this wave of far-right activity, the two actions at drag events in Geauga County on April 1 presented two very different ways that those tensions can be resolved. Last week, one venue—the Community Church of Chesterland—was the target of an attempted firebombing allegedly committed by White Lives Matter activist Aimenn Penny in an effort to prevent the show. The organizer, who had previously downplayed community concerns about the threat of far-right violence, was able to prevent any form of community support for or opposition to the event after the attack by working with a massive showing of police, SWAT, and bomb-sniffing dogs to turn everywhere within a half-mile radius into an occupation zone.

At a drag brunch in Chardon, on the other hand, dozens of militants clad in black bloc were joined by dozens more community members and sympathetic clergy in defending the event and sending a message that LGBTQ folks in Ohio would not be terrorized back into our closets. Both events went off without a hitch; but whereas the former event represented merely a successful counter-terrorism operation for the state, the latter represented a political victory for LGBTQ people under attack. Outside the targeted drag brunch, armed socialist and anarchist militants fraternized with local queers and allies, and received a frankly surprising amount of local support for their efforts to keep queer people safe. Activists were able to make a show of strength, holding strong through the rain and hail long after a bumbling Patriot Front contingent and a few dozen Christian nationalists had decided that yelling into a void from 100 feet away–kept at bay by the activists–wasn’t worth their time. Both responses kept attendees safe; but one contributed to the safety and freedom of LGBTQ people as a whole.

Still, activists at the brunch lucked out in a number of ways—both because there were turnout efforts initiated outside our coalition that we benefited from, and because the right’s turnout and fortitude were lacking compared to past actions. No doubt: Activists in our coalition spent significantly more time and energy organizing logistics and planning for worst-case scenarios than doing the mundane work of turning out people outside of their immediate activist networks. And had we been facing the numbers we had seen in Wadsworth or in Columbus, things would’ve gone significantly worse.

You raise this point about the self-selecting, more militant character of the activists involved in antifascist work, and it brings up a significant dilemma for the movement: antifascist street actions earnestly require a different kind of preparation to protect ourselves than other protests. Fascists come to these actions armed and ready to do violence, and the threat of doxxing and stochastic terrorism outside of the action is real. These factors, in my mind, make some exercise of security culture, some exercise of armed self-defense, and some measures to obscure activists’ identities absolute necessities–not only in the name of safety, but also in the name of movement sustainability, which requires that we not be responding to 24/7 threats of fascist vandalism and violence.

But even the most basic measures to prevent fascist infiltration create barriers to entry for sympathetic would-be comrades, by definition. And as we’ve seen organizing for all of these events, a thorough plan of action that can actually keep people safe from fascist violence requires a lot of preparation—which has the tendency to suck the oxygen out of the kinds of mass turnout efforts that built the foundation for our movement’s successes in 2017 and 2018.

Much of the Left has simply punted responsibility for answering this question, either abandoning safety concerns and accepting whatever consequences (including collective consequences) may come from that, or else leaving the turnout work to someone else and focusing exclusively on maintaining a well-prepared “crew” of a dozen or fewer committed antifascists. I used to land more or less on the former perspective; but after witnessing the violence that we faced in Wadsworth (relatively minor compared to what activists have seen in other places), and how efficiently comrades armed with mace and some training were able to protect not only themselves, but the people around them, I find it much more imperative that we find a method which genuinely addresses both of these sets of priorities. Socialists in every generation have had to find the balance between underground and above-ground organizing which maximizes our ability to reach broader forces while not exposing ourselves to powerlessness by repression, and the increasing violence of the right, as well as the right’s increasing alliance with certain wings of the state—and particularly the police—necessarily means that the balance that worked twenty years ago will not be optimal for today’s organizing environment.

AB: In theory, I believe that tactical preparation and event promotion / coalition-building aren’t mutually exclusive. But in practice, organizing labor hours are in fact zero-sum, and I’ve yet to see a defense team carry out both strategies to the best of their ability. Splitting these efforts into separate teams and communication channels risks respective plans being made that are seriously incompatible. But within a consolidated planning chat, the voices of the more spatially-minded tactical planners have drowned out the voices of the theory-minded recruitment planners in three of the three Story Hour defenses I’ve been involved in. There is a desire to reduce risk to zero, but after a point, we encounter an asymptote where each additional percentage point reduction in risk takes hours and hours more to secure. And such an effort, if left unchecked, will consume all of the bandwidth during planning, because the risk can never be zero. So on the ground, we’ve ended up with small teams decked out for worst-case scenarios, but who didn’t end up needing 90 percent of that gear/training/scouting intel, and instead faced safety concerns that all boiled down to simply being outnumbered. As predicted. Based on these experiences, I cannot stress enough my belief that two hundred allies with even minimal gear or direction create a safer action than twenty allies with battle maps and walkie-talkies.

However, individual safety precautions can still be taken that don’t distract from that recruitment imperative, and are perhaps more reliable than top-down tactical precautions anyway. Wearing body armor hurts no one, if you can afford it and if your local Democratic politicians haven’t yet banned it. Yet the far right is statistically much more likely to attempt to dox you at a protest than shoot you, so wearing masks (if not black bloc) is an easier precaution.

As is the decision to carry mace, as you said. I see having mace or a similar nonlethal deterrent and some running shoes as a sufficient get-out-of-danger-free card, and encouraging and equipping people for this “duty to retreat” on a larger scale as safer than rallying a crowd of allies with guns, although I will concede that this opinion does not reflect the views of most other people in my organization and local circles. Some would argue that any disciplined leftist gun owner knows to exercise the duty to de-escalate and retreat (as a matter of safety, legal cover, and/or ethics), and I argue that not everyone that we would be inviting is disciplined. Even if intentional provocation is more of the Proud Boys’ modus operandi, I’ve also seen socialists engage in the whole “fight me bro” routine, since toxic masculinity has not been eradicated from leftist spaces. So as I see it, the more guns there are (on either side), the more likely that someone untrained and trigger-happy is in the mix, and attempting to dispatch a fascist aggressor risks escalating the situation into an open battle.

But the more important question is why we are struggling to recruit community defenders (beyond not having time after all the infighting), and what we can do to change that. For one thing, that disparity in goals between event organizers and local socialist organizers can lead to confusion, if not active demobilization. At both Red Oak and Chardon, the organizers firmly demanded on social media that well-meaning leftists not attend and get in their way, and many of the more green, conflict-avoidant protesters we rely on are wary of being chased away with a broom and keeping an eye on the fascists at the same time. Luckily at Chardon, the event organizers still tolerated us when we did show up, and defense organizers should take the lead on day-of interfacing with the event organizers and/or guiding crowds to backup positions if this is not the case in the future. While difficult to convey to the masses that we have considered all these factors, it is still our duty to try to convince people of the need to rally around overconfident Story Hour organizers even if not with them.

There is also the fundamental, understandable fear of standing across from a huge assembly of armed and hostile fascists, more intimidating than the typical counter-protesters one might see waving bibles outside of a Statehouse protest. And this creates a catch-22, wherein larger crowds on our side ensure the safety of all, but people are hesitant to join the crowd until they think it’s large enough. The only solution is to simply swallow that fear and step up. There’s no getting around that, but if you stay with the group and refuse to take any bait from the far-right or the police, the statistics are on your side that everything will be fine.

And finally, we must consider that protesters are people, and we can’t always expect people to sacrifice their own comforts for the “greater good” over and over. For one, scheduling decisions impact the Left’s attendance. We’re all operating under the constraints of capitalism and its wear on our schedules and bodies, and those of us that attend actions regularly have to pick our battles to maintain a healthy protest-life balance. It’s become the norm (in Columbus, at least) for weekend protests to start at noon or later, but many of these Story Hour organizers never got that memo. So when local leftists are reviewing their options, Saturday call times at 8 a.m. are not making the cut. The same rationale is true of weather, and the organizer of the Wadsworth Story Time learned this lesson and indicated his intent to schedule any future events further into the summer. So even if they shouldn’t have to, everyone would win if organizers can make these events more accommodating for prospective community defenders.

JbA: The tensions between liberal event organizers and the socialists and anarchists often organizing defense efforts at these events definitely present a particular set of challenges. The frustrating dynamic for me has been how demobilizing these tensions have been for the radicals. All of these strategic and tactical debates—both between the defenders and the organizers, and among the defenders—are important and have the ability to impact our success or failure at keeping people safe and limiting the growth of the right; but they are secondary by a mile to the absolute obligation of the Left to show up and fight this fight. Our numbers weren’t sufficient either in Columbus or Wadsworth. Some of that is due to insufficient organizing of forces beyond the organized Left, but a lot of it also had to do with organized radicals sitting out: Given the demobilization stance of Red Oak’s Community Defense Team, the majority of the Columbus counter-demonstration was composed of passersby who found it worth their time to stick around and yell at Nazis.

We can hold our principled critiques of working with the police. We can have opinions about the efficacy of bringing children to events surrounded by Nazis. We can experience frustration and fear at all kinds of decisions made by people in our broad coalitions. But at the end of the day, being a socialist means that wherever Nazis are operating in broad daylight, you are one of the people—either on the ground, or through direct support work—actively disrupting that and forcing this threat to humanity back into its hole. If organized socialists aren’t carrying out this fight, no one will; So we absolutely have to win the debate with our comrades that rain or shine, with overwhelming numbers or with just us and our closest comrades, our presence in the streets is both worthwhile and a necessary part of the struggle for socialism.

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.small>

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Jonah ben Avraham and Amber Boardman View All

Jonah ben Avraham is a socialist and anti-fascist activist in Columbus, Ohio. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.

Amber Boardman is a socialist activist from Ohio, with expertise in grassroots organizing, restorative gender justice, and research ethics. She can be reached at