The Obsession with 'Both Sides' — Maine's 'Rally to Denounce Political Violence' and the right-wing imagination

There's a rally at the State House in Augusta on Saturday. Its organizers say it is an opportunity for all to come together to "denounce political violence."

But over the last week, a cluster of activists and organizations have identified it as the latest in a series of "alt-right" rallies connected to — if not directly, then conceptually — Charlottesville's "Unite the Right" rally this summer, where white supremacists openly marched and chanted while holding torches, and Boston's two "Free Speech" rallies in May and August. 

What organizers believe, or would desperately like for us media-types to believe, is that Saturday’s rally is an earnest and sincere attempt to stop political violence "on both sides" — meaning it takes as a first principle an equivalency between what they identify as "hate groups" — meaning the KKK, the organized opposition movement known as Antifa (short for antifascist), and Black Lives Matter.

POLITICS AIN'T SIMPLE

One of Saturday's organizers actually did help assemble the first Boston "Free Speech" Rally, described at the time as "a group of veterans, ex-police, Tea Party Republicans and young people affiliated with the self-described 'alt-right' — a conservative faction that mixes racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism." That organizer is John Rasmussen, a 32-year-old former Occupy Wall Street participant and Portland Occupy-er, who now lives in northern Maine. Rasmussen told me he had no affiliation with the "Unite the Right" rally, but it's worth noting that the free speech rally he did organize shared some of the same speakers as Charlottesville.

A statement released last week ("titled "Identifying the Alt-Right in Maine") by an anonymous member of the southern Maine chapter of the labor group IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) stated that a coalition of activist groups are planning organized opposition to Saturday's rally. The statement lauded the principles of opposing political violence and protecting free speech, but believed the rally was advancing different motives, that it was "purporting to be celebrations of the right to free speech, but is actually featuring violent right-wing activists."

Seen through one lens, the panel of 10 speakers can look like run-of-the-mill Libertarian Party politicians from Maine and Massachusetts. And to Jarody, the other of the event's two organizers, a standard-issue Libertarian rally is exactly what it is.

On Monday, I met with Jarody at a restaurant in Augusta. 

In our conversation, he tells me that he has no idea where organizers have affixed any notion of white supremacy to his event. By his account, progressives have deduced that he himself is a white supremacist because they've seen him post photos of "a stupid little frog" on his Facebook page. He scoffs at liberals informed by mainstream media who want to police how he communicates with memes, and have come to hysterically link any appearance of that frog (known as Pepe) with Nazism. He denounces the “fuckin’ idiot Proud Boys,” a far-right men’s rights organization that showed up at the Boston Free Speech Rally, and disagreed with some of the speakers at that same rally last month, which was met with a reported 40,000 counter-protesters.

The IWW statement originally misstated that Jarody was a pseudonym or avatar of Rasmussen. This is inaccurate. They are separate men. Jarody has no surname (he showed me his driver's license — it’s literally just Jarody). He explains that his ideal version of Saturday's event would be for his invited speakers "to get the chance to speak without fear of being shouted down or blocked or blockaded, or, god forbid, violence happening." Jarody says a "regular, boring rally" is what he's hoping for, but he doesn’t seem hopeful that’ll happen.

"We've got groups like Antifa and the John Brown Gun Club [Maine's chapter of the national anti-racist organization Redneck Revolt] coming to oppose us," he explains to me. "I'd like to see the organizers of the counter-rally make sure to rein in those on their side who might show up to incite violence," he says, adding that he's been in touch with some opposition groups about how Saturday will go. He anticipates disproportion. "It's a number of groups coming to do their side, while it's primarily a dozen or so people getting the work done on my side."

Jarody doesn't identify as alt-right or white supremacist. Or, in fact, even right-wing. He points out what he sees as an irony that it's being opposed by the left, while most of the organizers and speakers at this event have "huge amounts of Occupy cred."

"The way I look at myself, it's always been a situation where I've been trying to slow down the next trouble. Whether it's wearing a suit at the legislature testifying on bad bills or through Occupy Augusta." He says the Tea Party started off as a grassroots movement before it was "moneyed into" by mainstream politics and became a tool of the GOP. The Occupy Wall Street movement seemed a logical step. "Occupy came by and I was like, alright, true counter-politics."

In practical terms, Jarody is a registered Libertarian. When I met him with his girlfriend (and fellow rally organizer) Katt Jones and their three-week-old daughter, he couldn't tell me where he identified on the spectrum of left or right. That seemed like sound rhetorical strategy while talking to a reporter you suspect might disagree with you, but Jarody's politics are legitimately harder to parse than I expected.

Before he was organizing rallies like these, he hosted concerts benefitting #NoDAPL pipeline activists at Standing Rock. He says "the immigration thing" is a problem, but recognizes that an enormous reason why is because of America's sustained military aggression abroad, and doesn't blame refugees for wanting to find safety and stability. His definition of "political violence" that the rally purports to denounce should include those who "have escaped countries of political violence, who have managed to make their way to the state and become a fresh round of Mainers." (Both Jarody and, later, John Rasmussen tell me they're "in contact" with anywhere from one to three immigrant speakers to join the rally, though no names have been added at press time.)

But this is the most I'm willing to concede.

A COMMON THREAD

In an article published last week in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled "Free Speech Year," Joshua Clover writes about the unfortunate recent trend of journalists covering each subsequent right-wing rally as if it were unrelated to the last. “Repeatedly over the last year, people — people in positions of significant power — have treated each rally, gathering, or other event as if it had arisen from nowhere, or from some subterranean roil.”

The organizers of this right-wing rally, like those before them, want desperately for people to ignore the political context we're in. It's seldom clear while talking to its adherents that this is concerted right-wing strategy, but the constant shifting of framework is telling. Two months ago, it was about uniting the right. Then it was about defending free speech. Now it's to denounce political violence — each framing a sort of threat from the left and expanding the territory of those who might identify with their political agenda.

Meanwhile, each rally drives a stake in the ground for sustained right-wing political organization while seeming to lure its opposition — whether it's the liberal Democrats or Antifa — into betraying its own supposed ideals. In doing so, the right-wing then set to tarnish the message of their opposition via its various media channels — including the White House — allowing them to move that stake even further. There's a reason that Maine First Media, the largely anonymous, hysterical right-wing website (that basically functions as a Maine-version of Breitbart) proposed to sponsor the event. (Jarody told me he refused, and that he wasn't allowing sponsors of any kind.)

“Such gatherings have been a longtime feature of US politics,” Clover writes, “rising from the nation’s unbroken history of white supremacy and the ineradicable lure of European fascism. It is no easy task to hold these complex and enduring histories in mind while still accounting for what seems like the emergence of a new and volatile political phenomenon, and all too easy to get tangled in invidious debates about whether it’s really new, really fascism, and so on.”

I lobbed a softball of a question about the KKK to Jarody. He fouled it off. Yes, there were Klan pamphlets dropped in Augusta, but they were the work of "just some kids," he believed.

Then I asked him, given what he knows about the person who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, whether he'd consider that political violence. He couldn't. Referring to it as a "car crash," Jarody was noncommittal.

"Nobody knows what's going on inside that guy's head," he told me, explaining that James Alex Fields might have driven his Dodge Challenger into 19 people as a form of self-defense. "Nobody knows what his intentions were. Even though we have footage of it, that's basically the work of lawyers. I'd have to listen to what he says up on the stand."

(Edit: Since the publication of this article, more information on Jarody's politics, legal history, and proclivities contained in his online presence has surfaced.) 

THE POLITICS OF ONLINE

Since it's in question, here's a reminder of what white supremacy means. Wikipedia has it as a "political ideology that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical, or institutional domination by white people." It shouldn't be contentious or partisan to say that Donald Trump, his cabinet, and a sizable chunk of his followers are willfully complicit with this definition — if you need any proof, just look at the president's tweets about football this past weekend.

If you've got a few minutes, there's a fascinating YouTube video titled "What is Kekistan?" that's useful here, if only to understand the exact tone with which this demographic of heavily online white guys handles the political terms of the day. In it, a snarky but somewhat guy-next-door-ish type white dude, around 30 years old, explains the "brilliance" behind Kekistan, a fictional online country that functions as a "beautiful joke" lampooning identity politics. For the online self-declared “refugees” of Kekistan (for whom Pepe the frog is an official mascot), you’re guilty of "oppressing them" on identitarian grounds if you don't take them at face value, thus betraying your own liberal ideals. If you do believe them, the joke’s still on you.  

Saturday's rally deploys nearly exactly the same rhetorical trap.

If the Kekistani flag doesn't harken to a racially pure world (it’s virtually the same structure, different coloration, as the Nazi flag), it imagines a fantasy world not far off, one where (predominately) white men exclusively set the rules and discourse about what constitutes oppression, while brushing off the experiences and voices of anyone else making the same claim in the real world. 

I also talked with Rasmussen, the event’s other organizer, whose political affiliations are less online than Jarody's and run deeper into the right-wing organizational structure. Rasmussen met Jarody through Occupy, and iis now a resident of Perham, Maine, a Washington county hamlet counting fewer than 400 people. Asked what he wanted from Saturday’s event, Rasmussen said that he wanted “the press to come away denouncing political violence. That includes people stopping taking sides of the two groups of extremists wreaking havoc on each other through threats of physical violence.”

It's not clear what he's talking about. Antifa has its roots in opposing fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1920s, and, in various incarnations, have been rejuvenated in the decades since whenever extreme right-wing have coalesced around power. The Trump election has certainly galvanized their movement, with many iterations of the group pointing out the ineffectiveness of liberalism to combat and confront real political threat. 

Rasmussen believes he’s been made into an “alt-right bogeyman” in order to “legitimize violence” from those who disagree with his politics. Speaking over the phone, he’s considerably harder to talk to than the mild-mannered Jarody. He interrupted frequently, and accused me “of playing into the hands of these violent people” when I asked him how he finds an equivalency between white supremacist coalitions and their organized opposition.

In fact, over the course of our conversation, Rasmussen must have said the phrase "on both sides" close to twenty times. I recognized with him that yes, there have been a handful of recorded incidents where Antifa, or regular people, have punched or shoved someone at a rally, knocked out someone wearing a swastika, or knocked off a MAGA hat. But Rasmussen insists that this threat is equivalent to a violent far-right political coalition which, in the last year alone, has activated KKK factions across the country (and in Maine); that beat 20-year-old DeAndre Harris with pipes at Charlottesville; who drove a car into 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer, killing her; that stabbed nine antifascists at a rally in Sacramento led by the Golden State Skins; that shot a protester outside of a Milo Yiannopoulos speech in Seattle in January; that led to teens attempting to lynch an 8-year-old biracial boy in New Hampshire; that chant “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while marching the streets of Charlottesville; or that have averaged more than 300 politically motivated violent attacks on U.S. soil since 2001 (per a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point).   

Free speech is indispensable. And, of course, political violence is to be denounced. But Saturday's rally has intentions beyond that. It functions the same way that the right-wing imagination helped formulate Kekistan — damned if you confront it; damned if you leave it alone. 

It is, in a sense, a standard-issue, right-wing libertarian rally. It’s also very possibly a strategic trap set for the left, so that they can be lured into a type of opposition that can be used to make white conservatives appear to the public as victims. And whether its organizers acknowledge it or not, it’s another step in a long arc of far-right political mobilization that advances white supremacy. Jarody, Rasmuseen, or the speakers may not identify that way, but in an era where agents promoting white nationalism and white supremacy are in power and spreading their message, it's not unreasonable to hold those accountable who help build the scaffolding that supports them.

“(T)he first and simplest way to describe the last year has been an experiment in the naturalization of this project,” writes Clover. “To what extent can we walk the streets freely? How much nativist fascism can we get away with? In so doing, the complementary goals are to unify in practice groups conjoined already in their political orientation.” In other words, Saturday’s rally is a container for which genuinely apolitical dudes who hang out on 4chan might feel most comfortable fraternizing with white supremacists under the common bond of defending free speech. “Because it is an experiment, each positive result will be followed by a test that pushes the limits further; each failure requires a retreat, recognizing that for the moment the limit has been exceeded.”

 * * * * * 

White supremacist sentiment can be discreet. Several times, Jarody and Katt James explained they had no idea where the idea came from that white supremacists were behind this. The evening after I spoke with them, Jarody messaged me to tell me that speaker Pete Harring dropped out. Harring issued a Facebook post declaring his reasons why. citing that “something does not smell right,” and that he had been contacted by several friends “from all sides” with concerns about the event. 

One commenter, whose avatar depicted a white middle-aged male, was livid: "Today's Hitler is a mulatto madman named Barack Hussein Obama," he posted. "His henchmen are Sharpton, Jackson, Van Jones and the ‘liberal democrats’ (aka: Commies), the money is George Soros and their propaganda ministry are CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, the NY Times, and Washington Post."

Signing off the thread, the commenter wrote: “Lock and load, patriots, lock and load.”

The Internet is full of trash like this, and its sentiment is certainly not worth the ink it's printed on here. But this community of people online also live in the real world. And it’s telling that the very organizers who told me they had no idea where allegations of white supremacy came from had no problem clicking the “love” button on this post.


"The Rally to Denounce Political Violence" | Saturday, Sep 30 11 am-3 pm | Maine State House, Augusta 

FullSizeRender (22)Nick Schroeder can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | This article has been edited from its printed version for clarity.

 

 

 

Last modified onWednesday, 11 October 2017 23:12