Recently, we’ve seen powerful Antifa actions on college campuses like Berkeley and the University of Virginia striking back against emboldened white supremacists and fascists. We’ve also seen how crucial Antifa is on college campuses after neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer proclaimed they are targeting colleges as recruiting-grounds.
But what if you’re on a conservative or even reactionary campus? This situation poses special challenges for Antifa. It may be difficult to find anything beyond a small group willing to mobilize against fascism and its roots in the white supremacy, misogyny, and imperialism central to capitalist society. And activists confront not only widespread apathy, but also the real possibility of backlash from both administrators and many other students and faculty. The threat to contingent faculty is especially great. The situation can seem hopeless.
Still, there is great value in cultivating a radical Antifa presence on conservative campuses. In this post, I point out that importance by drawing on my own experiences as part of a small Antifa group on a conservative campus. And I start to assemble a list of other, further radical possibilities beyond those we explored. I hope, then, this reflection could be helpful to people in similar situations.
1. Some background: Villanova and the Charles Murray Action
Villanova University is a notoriously conservative school. Many students in its overwhelmingly white and upper-class student body vocally support the Trump administration (with “Make America Great Again” signs and parties, for example; check out this endorsement of Trump in the college paper). It was in this context that white supremacist physical violence erupted on campus. Two of my own students of color mentioned to me the fear they felt for their safety on campus.
Villanova has also been openly hostile to progressive activism. For instance, one contingent faculty-person in our group–Nova Resistance–was explicitly threatened with being fired for another, very benign and non-disruptive, organizing project on campus. In recent years, Villanova administrators rescinded a speaking invitation to a queer activist.
We formed Nova Resistance to disrupt an invited talk by the white supremacist, anti-worker, and misogynist pseudo-intellectual Charles Murray in March 2017. In the lead-up to the event, two of us had tried to create a large faculty and student action; they were either ignored or met with anemic, sanctimonious arguments for “free speech” or “boycotting.”
In the days prior, one of us hung very simple posters across campus to call for resistance. We distributed it by slipping it secretly inside the student newspaper and taping it across many campus buildings. Nova Resistance officially met for the first time only hours before the event began. Members made signs, and made a plan for the action. Some of us were very new to more disruptive, small-group tactics.
By the day of the talk, we were only a handful of activists, with at least one person coming from off-campus. The event was heavily guarded many hours before. A police helicopter circled overhead; campus swarmed with armed police carrying many thousands of dollars of military-style equipment; there were numerous conspicuous undercover cops; and so on. The talk was to be held in a secure basement location on campus with very limited seating–obviously chosen because it is the building that houses campus security. Moreover, we discovered that, in addition to campus police, the university paid some $15,000 to hire the police force from Radnor township. Clearly, administrators were spooked by the ghost of Middlebury.
Four made it into the crowded event, while a few others remained outside to prepare for a protest and teach-in after our eventual ejection. As soon as Murray took the stage, two from Nova Resistance stormed the front of the event, blocking the projector screen with a banner. The plan was for the two to stage a silent action during the event while a banner and signs were held to under-cut the talk. Others were to create an increasing disruption of ridiculous noises, cheers, heckling, etc., all as a way of interrupting and hopefully halting the talk.
Almost immediately, the two of us who were standing at the front were accosted by belligerent audience-members. One person in the reserved seats in the front row–neither security nor a talk organizer–grabbed the shirt of one of us and seemed nearly on the verge of punching him. The talk’s faculty organizer, as well as an unaffiliated, liberal professor, approached the two Nova Resistance members at the front, trying to convince them to cease the disruption. Another member of our direct action team went to the front of the room with the other two.
Fairly quickly amid these confrontations, one of the three activists at the front began more disruptively yelling about Murray’s fascistic ideology, the school’s implication in it, and so on (departing from the group’s plan of silence). However, the activists refused to engage directly with the attempts at heckling or negotiation and instead resolutely stated that they refused to have their university provide a podium for a reactionary eugenicist, racist, misogynist hack. After around 15-20 minutes of this, campus security threatened to arrest the activists if they did not allow themselves to be escorted out of the event. They chose the latter option in order to re-consolidate outside. One member filmed the encounters and eventually posted them on our social media outlets.
Outside we rapidly escalated. One of us brought a megaphone. Using this, we organized an impromptu, direct-action “teach-in” immediately outside of the windows of the Murray talk. The crowd that formed around us was perhaps 40-50 strong and fairly receptive–unusual for Villanova’s campus–though the crowd was largely passive. We screamed and chanted (“No Murray! No KKK! No fascist USA!” etc.) into the open windows of the event with the megaphone, creating additional disruptions, although the windows were rather quickly closed. The police then confronted us, telling us we had to cut the megaphone (on threat, apparently, of arrest). We continued without amplification for a while, and then left. Members of Nova Resistance were approached by local news outlets for interviews and quotes.
We were not ready for the next steps. We had no statement prepared and hadn’t set up any social media outlets to post videos or analysis or to garner more support and visibility. Later that day we whipped up a Facebook page and began posting media, and within a few days we submitted an article for the school newspaper and created a manifesto-style statement, posting them as well. But our lag left us without a voice at a time when our actions were being interpreted and either supported or condemned without our own voice helping to shape the narrative.
(It should also be noted that the school newspaper, The Villanovan, warped the statement they ran without consulting us, toning down and pacifying our language.)
Nova Resistance then began to meet regularly, renaming itself the Radical Education Department (RED). We reframed our task beyond Villanova as the creation of a radical left think-tank developing Antifa practices across college campuses. We used the visibility and experience from the event to inform a number of articles in left popular media (for example, this, this, and this).
2. Some provisional lessons
We clearly missed our main, and admittedly very difficult, objective: to shut down Murray on a conservative college campus. But the event had some important successes. We were able to develop a small but significant “dual power” beside and against the Murray talk in our teach-in. While not in itself an enormous number, the 40-50 students and faculty who assembled for the teach-in represent an important rejection of the dominant, conservative culture on campus. Moreover, our disruption generated an outsized degree of visibility: we were featured on campus, local, and national news outlets. Most significantly, in my view, the anti-Murray action was the springboard to the larger and more ambitious organizing of the Radical Education Department.
With our limits and successes in mind, our action afforded some important insights into organizing on campuses like Villanova’s.
The importance of the affinity group: On a conservative campus, it’s crucial to gather around you a few like-minded, trustworthy comrades. It’s not at all hard to do–working with friends is the obvious place to start, but if you’re politically isolated, emails in a trusted listserv will do. (No matter what, you want to be sure you’re with people you can trust and vouch for, and avoid any specifics until trust is established).
- Here’s a great how-to guide on affinity groups.
The difficulty of shutting down events on a conservative campus: As our example shows, it can be extremely difficult for a group with only a few members to shut down a campus event that’s protected by a militarized police force. More militant tactics would have been required for Nova Resistance, though we avoided them. For instance: we might have achieved greater disruption using the kind of actions “Earth First!” and others have become famous for: chaining ourselves to entrances or to fixtures in the event space. But on a reactionary campus, largely unsupported activist students or contingent faculty can be highly vulnerable.
Addendum on clearing the room: While this didn’t work for us, it’s worth brainstorming ways to creatively, and perhaps ridiculously, clear a room. What a group decides on will depend on the architecture of the room itself; the resources available to a group for getting people up and out; the relative danger to group members for any particular tactic; and how comfortable members are in being exposed to that danger.
The value of limited disruptions: While it’s likely tough to completely shut down an event, this isn’t a reason to think radical activism is a hopeless cause on a conservative campus. Even limited disruptions can bring important victories:
Experience: Going through an action helps cement a group and prepare it for more. It also gives it the kind of working knowledge of Antifa activism in a particular place–its limits and possibilities–you simply can’t get from the armchair. And members experience a momentary freedom from the suffocating atmosphere of college bureaucracies, wrenching open a space of new possibilities. Opening that space is especially important at a conservative school, where radical left dissent can seem impossible .
Ideological breaches: Along these lines: interrupting Murray and creating an alternative, disruptive teach-in afterwards created a temporary ideological breach in the dominant ideology of the school. For a moment, a very different style of speaking, thinking, and acting emerged on campus. A number of students told me after the Murray event that they felt shocked and empowered. It is likely that many of them had never even been to a protest, seen a megaphone, or imagined such actions as a possibility. In this way, it’s at least possible that this kind of action can, even on a conservative campus, be a tool to shift some conversations and perspectives, and expand what is politically possible.
Disproportional visibility: As our experience shows, smaller groups on conservative campuses can find ways to maximize impact via visibility, and to do so with minimal effort. Targeting highly publicized, controversial events (like the Murray talk) can attract disproportional media coverage, even if you are unable to shut down the event. This tactic grants your group a great deal of exposure to potential sympathizers and members.
Basis for further organizing: Despite real limits, our action became a platform on which to generate the Radical Education Project. It’s crucial to keep a “long-game” in view when you’re on a hostile campus. The results we can achieve among a reactionary student body and apathetic or hostile faculty will be limited. But it can plant seeds of further radical projects that aren’t so limited.
The importance of media infrastructure: One of our most important weaknesses was the lack of ready social media outlets and statements in the wake of the event. Assuring a small, isolated group has its own voice is crucial to combat the narrative of “disruptive elements” that will inevitably arise. And it is essential for developing the next steps of radical organizing beyond the initial event.
The problem of liberal “allies”: There’s a temptation to think that liberals will stand up for you once you confront fascism, white supremacy, and so on. After all, they are the ones constantly excoriating Trump and longing for the lost paradise of a Hillary Clinton presidency. But some of the harshest reactions at Villanova to our action have been from liberals. Liberals just as much as reactionaries have something at stake in shutting down radical politics. In fact, the administrators who threatened to fire a RED member were “good” liberals. As Chris Hedges reveals, liberals are among the most obsessed with the fetish of abstract free speech by any means necessary.
3. Some unexplored possibilities for conservative campuses
But beyond our own narrow experience, there are plenty of other possibilities our group didn’t experiment with before, during, and just after the Murray talk that could be useful for others in a similar position.
Here is a provisional list of tactical options for activists on conservative campuses. This list has been assembled using the insights of other activists, direct action manuals, and beyond (of course, we’re not saying anyone should actually do any of these things).
a. Coordinate with other on-campus Antifa groups: Connecting with other like-minded activists from other schools can provide a support network for otherwise isolated and small Antifa efforts on conservative campuses, especially as you’re planning events. It can help get bodies out and generate broader perspectives on actions and the steps that come after. RED is now one such group; the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN) is another.
b. Coordinate with other potentially, or actually, radical groups on your campus: Villanova is deeply reactionary, but it still has potentially radical student groups. The same is likely true on other conservative campuses. It’s worthwhile to feel out how supportive such groups will be prior to an event, and it’s especially important to pitch in, lending support and solidarity to those groups (going to their events, helping them run the events, etc.). This is doesn’t only help build a radical base. Fascism grows out of the deep roots of social and political domination already existing in capitalist society. Attacking fascism means teaming up with other groups against the diffuse roots of fascism in racism, misogyny, imperialism, and beyond.
c. Recognize the many ways a small group can disrupt events on campus: As I noted already, a very small group can disrupt an event on campus with minimal effort, and potentially minimum risk–while also generating outside visibility for yourselves. But there are many tools for doing this beyond what we tried. Here are some tools for doing so:
- Stink bombs
- Fart guns
- Hidden wireless speakers to blast music or obscene sound-effects (be prepared to never see your speakers again)
- Putting dog shit where a reactionary group plans to gather; here is a recent story of success with this tactic
d. Make a fascist event well-publicized: If there’s a fascist event on campus that few people know or care about, a group can make it well-publicized–maximizing an action’s impact despite coming from a small group. Admins, faculty, and students are likely to notice if a group papers campus to call for resistance at a event. Leaking to campus and local news outlets can help, too. All of this lays the groundwork for maximizing impact. See (h) below on “Redecorating your campus.”
e. Publicly shame: When administrators host fascists and their ilk, there should be consequences. The same goes for anyone else on campus who thinks it’s a good idea to host fascist or white supremacist events of any kind. Even very small groups can create these consequences, and it’s often possible to do so anonymously.
- “Compulsory relocation”: a few (masked) activists entering into an offender’s place of business (elsewhere could work as well), taking the belongings there and moving them outside as loudly as possible–all while announcing the offender’s sympathies with authoritarianism. This tactic was spearheaded by BZ in Germany in the 1980s. More information on p. 122 of this book by Georgy Katsiaficas.
- Camping or chanting outside an offender’s residence, work, or classes
- Using the internet to expose offenders to wider campus discussion and critique
f. Follow, and reveal, the money: Discover who funds white supremacist, fascist, or other authoritarian speakers, how much police protection has or will cost the university or college, and so on. Publicizing this information can be embarrassing to a school and its administrators and mobilizing for potential Antifa sympathizers.
g. Make the right work for the left (courtesy of Yannik Thiem): Turn the right’s own actions against them. For instance, in a small town in Germany (Wunsiedel), the group Rechts gegen Rechts mobilized townspeople to donate to a radical cause for each meter marched by a gathering of neo-Nazis. Something similar could be organized without a great deal of infrastructure if there are events on campus by the emboldened right.
- More information here.
h. Redecorate your campus: Make your campus into a massive billboard for the radical left. Faculty, graduate students, and adjuncts often have unlimited printing funds to create hundreds or thousands of flyers or posters. Redecoration can be done anonymously, and can cultivate a sense of intrigue and interest in an Antifa group. It can also create more attention for an event a group is planning to disrupt.
- Wheatpasting is an easy, quick, and non-permanent means of hanging posters; here is a “Field Guide to Wheatpasting.”
- Banner drops can often generate a great degree of attention as well
i. Throw disruptive guerilla parties: Reminiscent of Reclaim the Streets, you can occupy official campus spaces–the president’s office, e.g.–with temporary guerilla festivals that call attention to an administrator’s reactionary politics. This can be framed as a people’s repossession of space due to an offender’s infractions. It is important that someone film the festival and then post the video on social media outlets.
j. Create guerilla media: Creating radical alternatives to often reactionary student newspapers can be a ready way to challenge and begin to redirect the dominant ideology of a reactionary campus, as well as to announce and publicize evets.
- For distribution, a radical newspaper, zine, or flyer can be slipped inside the official student paper, which provides a very easy means of mass distribution
k. Finally: Explore others’ direct action manuals for further tactics: The list of possibilities here hardly scratches the surface. While brainstorming, it’s inspiring and fascinating to dig into what others have done, though of course it’s crucial to think about one’s own context as well as to see all such lists as provisional.
- Earth First! Direct Action Manual
- Crimethinc, Recipe’s for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook
- L. A. Kauffmann, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism (2016)
- Georgy Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (2006) (link above)