The True Meaning of “We Keep Us Safe”: A Case Study in Left-Wing Dis-Organization

By CORS Membership

It was the morning of November 20th – Trans Day of Remembrance and hours after news broke of the Club Q shooting – that we first became aware of the Proud Boys' plan to terrorize the “Holi-Drag Storytime.” This event and the far right’s response to it were slated to take place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, December 3rd at Columbus’s Red Oak Community School (“ROCS”; housed within the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus). Within a matter of days, knowledge of the Proud Boy’s (“PB’s”) announcement expanded from the purview of the most politically tuned-in locals to a national news headline, drawing expressions of both support and condemnation from prominent public figures, as well as local community members calling each other to action.

Some publications have reported that it was the far right’s intimidation that got the event canceled, but this isn’t the complete truth. After weeks of discouraging the local Left from rallying, the self-appointed leftist organizers of the venue’s defense ultimately caused its cancellation the night before, and left their remaining ~170 vetted volunteers directionless in the face of the open secret that the Proud Boys would be rallying anyway. The subsequent failure for the Left in Columbus to unite against the far right threat in nearly the numbers we were capable of on December 3rd, 2022 was the embarrassing yet inevitable result of exclusionary organizing practices that have dominated our city in recent years, and hopefully will be the catalyst to end them.

As we write this, news is just now coming out regarding an attack on electrical substations in North Carolina, which some suspect was targeted to shut down a drag event much like the one canceled in our city. As we enter into an era defined increasingly by far-right stochastic terror, open police fraternization with fascist cells, and omnipresent hostility to queer and other marginalized peoples, anti-fascist organizing and community defense must be a paramount concern. And yet, community organizers in Columbus seem largely at a loss regarding the necessary practices and tactics to meaningfully counter fascist power. Our only hope lies in building solidarity and a strong mass movement through transparent, accessible, and thoroughly democratic practices, aimed at advancing the liberation of all people through revolution.

"The Core"

Within days of becoming aware of the PB’s plan, a small group of well-known and well-connected local activists appointed themselves as the organizers of a mercenary “Community Defense Team” to defend against the PB’s. While their titles for themselves, their team leads, and close associates varied, we will refer to the entire group acting in an executive capacity as the “core” organizers here. The failings of these core organizers escalated as planning progressed, and we list them not to attack the character of individuals, but to caution organizers within and beyond Columbus to learn from their mistakes and the inevitability of these mistakes from the “safety” rhetoric they espouse.

These organizers correctly assessed PB tactics as being provocateurs, using physical and verbal harassment to bait leftists into swinging first so that they may retaliate. In the wake of the Club Q shooting and the way it had already emboldened PB's to organize this rally more publicly than usual, many of us shared these concerns that their propensity for (potentially lethal) violence could be increased. But founded or not, these fears led to the core’s intense focus on security theater and control. The unorganized leftist masses became another enemy, as their uncontrollable nature could theoretically provoke the Proud Boys.

In the planning preceding the first "community defense" meeting, it became clear that their top priority was keeping these activities restricted to their known and trusted networks of left wing organizers – you had to know someone to get added to the right group chats, and the initial invitees were strictly forbidden from inviting others to the first meeting. This meeting further established the hierarchy: the agenda had been set ahead of time by the core organizing clique without a possibility of discussion. Who was allowed to speak and when seemed mostly arbitrary – criticism of their priorities and tactics was not just ignored but made largely impossible to even voice. [And it’s worth reiterating that most of the "volunteers" they were speaking over were seasoned socialist and anarchist organizers in their own right, agreeing to fall in line for the sake of cohesion.] Over and above any concerns regarding anti-fascism or solidarity, they insisted their top priority was “no traumatized children.” The core defended this exclusive bureaucracy (with them at the top) and the confidentiality and expediency it would allow as being necessary for the children’s safety in a high-stakes situation. But the implication was that if you disagreed with key parts of their plans – especially underlying calculations of risk – you’d be a wrecker that’s endangering children.

By November 22nd, the core managed to secure an agreement with the school to act as the official defense for the event in lieu of the police. While the school claims that this is because they too recognize that police don’t keep us safe, this decision wasn’t finalized until after the police had rejected their security request. In any case, this relationship gave the impression of the school’s informed and unreluctant consent for any decisions the core organizers passed along.

The core immediately set out to discourage the attendance of anyone not under their command, messaging multiple influential accounts and orgs that were proposing involvement on the ground to take their posts down. The school posted a statement on November 25th that anyone looking to get involved should email the volunteer hotline (manned by the core), but the statement didn’t explain what tasks volunteering would entail or why those tasks would actually be better or safer than countering the Proud Boys outside. The hotline reportedly took multiple days to respond to inquiries, leading some of those waiting on its response to reach out to CORS and other orgs for advice as the date drew nearer. The liberal Columbus & Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable, which includes Stonewall Columbus, Equality Ohio, Kaleidoscope Youth Center, and Equitas Health, later took it a step further by telling “all LGBTQ+ community members and allies to NOT show up in counter-protest.”

A few of the core organizers posted the school’ statement once or twice on their personal Instagram stories in the preceding week, but there was no coordination in disseminating this statement to the majority of local activists (few follow ROCS on social media). And no part of this strategy changed even as public interest in the event surged. In short, the vague messaging of “join our ranks or don’t come” was spread to an unknown number of people with unknown persuasiveness, while the informal chatter of “look at this Proud Boy thing, we should protest them” spread amongst an unknown number of people with unknown persuasiveness. Instead of confidently squashing the looming specter of outside involvement, this underdeveloped PR campaign made the specter ever more difficult to predict.

It was later decided that volunteers would assemble weighted fencing to circumscribe the school property, along with sewn bed sheet banners dozens of feet long to obscure the children’s view of any crowds outside. It would be a physical manifestation of the wall solidifying between any ‘approved’ leftists inside and the ‘unapproved’ leftists outside. When asked if there were any plans for the organizers to establish communication channels (if not guidance) with the allied protesters that would be locked out on the street with the Proud Boys, the organizers replied that it was not their problem.

Volunteers had been tuned in to the chats and meetings for almost two weeks – making plans to patrol the grounds, to sew the banners, to take Stop the Bleed trainings, to buy and transport gear – when, a few days before the event, the core organizers suddenly announced that this involvement was no longer enough: any volunteers would now have to fill out a form listing their full legal name and the gender on their state ID by noon on Friday in order to be allowed on the school grounds. Only volunteers acting as “legal observers” through the National Lawyers Guild were exempt, since they maintain an internal registry. While it had been previously discussed that volunteers who planned to arrive armed may need to jump through additional hoops, the extrapolation to collecting personal data from all of their fellow organizers was a decision reached by the core organizers and not the school. They defended this action as being chiefly for volunteer safety – an “arrest sheet” to coordinate jail support in case things went south – but that didn’t make it any less mandatory. At least not until enough discontent mounted for them to walk the required line items back.

As a matter of internal organizing strategy, blindsiding the high proportion of trans comrades with an ultimatum to deadname themselves to a “trusted few” is offensive. As a matter of external organizing strategy, compiling registries of some of the city’s most active socialist/anarchist organizers (which can be subpoenaed from device data even if deleted) is dangerous.

In the final days before the planned event, the largest wave of new volunteers was shuttled directly past the “Safety Chat” that had facilitated what little group discussion there was into a new “On The Ground” groupchat where only admins could post. Any questions or concerns had to be texted directly to one of the core. They claimed that this was to filter out messages that could obscure important instructions on the day of the event, but these settings were in place for days beforehand as the final nail in the coffin for democratic discussion.

And on the very last day before the planned event, in a perfect demonstration of confused politics, the packet of instructions distributed to the community defense team contained a giant watermark of the “antifa” flag emblazoned across an emergency contact list featuring the phone number of the Columbus Police Department. It also, of course, included a cover page threatening (unenforceable) legal action to anyone who shared the contents. The message from the core organizers was increasingly clear at each of these stages: “We do not trust you, but you have to trust us.”

The Fallout

On the afternoon of Friday, December 2nd, a mysterious car parked at the school, and its two inhabitants introduced themselves as members of a private security firm contacted by the drag queens. This prompted a scramble for last-minute meetings, as the involvement of this security firm (with ties to CPD and ICE) had not been part of the defense team’s plan. But these meetings did not succeed in reaching an agreement. The three drag queens set to perform/read at the event precipitated its cancellation by pulling out, announcing on a Facebook livestream their dissatisfaction with the core organizers and their long-standing preference for a security detail of Columbus police instead. One of them stated quite clearly, “If you want someone to blame, go to [the org that half of the core belong to]’s safety team. They’re the reason everything got canceled.” After giving the impression for weeks that they had the full cooperation of both the school and the queens, it became clear that the core’s domineering methods had permeated all of their organizing, not just with the other leftist organizers they claimed authority over. They had failed to gain the confidence or consent of the very people they claimed to act on behalf of.

After the digitally assembled ~170 leftist organizers and volunteers were notified of the cancellation in a midnight memo, another core organizer reiterated to them at 9:01 a.m. as the Proud Boys gathered, “Do not show up today.” So more than 90% of them followed orders and never did. CORS and several other local communists – who had already been planning to show up and communicate with unorganized counter-protesters since the core group refused to – mobilized anyway.

The Proud Boys had arrived by 9:00 a.m., as expected, stomping along the sidewalks at the entrance to the school on W Weisheimer Rd. and on the busy High St. nearby. But when CORS and co. arrived, a brave handful of only 6 or 7 counter-protesters had planted themselves across the street from the 75 to 100 Proud Boys. We recognized at least two other leftist groups conducting reconnaissance of this scene alongside us beforehand, although they ultimately decided not to join the counter-protest with us.

Weeks of local organizers intentionally suppressing the crowd turnout (before announcing total event cancellation) had culminated in a tiny starting force whose growth was hindered by a vicious cycle – would-be protesters were hesitant to join such vastly outnumbered ranks, even though joining would solve that problem and help ensure the safety of everyone involved. Our numbers eventually started taking off as word spread, almost reaching the level of the opposing fascist crowd at one point, but it wasn’t until noon that the same core organizer backtracked and gave official notice/permission for the hundreds in the chat to join us on the ground. This was too little, too late. At this point, we had already been outnumbered out there for hours, and the Proud Boys (later joined by Patriot Front and other reactionary orgs) were set to pack up half an hour later.

During that time, in the absence of a comfortable majority, we were lucky that neither side instigated serious violence. An isolated shoving episode did break out, as anticipated, but disengaged quickly with no swinging fists and no injuries. The core’s internal trainings about the extreme dangers of even verbally engaging or flipping off PB’s (and our group’s original intentions to communicate some of those deescalation principles to other protesters) had fallen by the wayside, as the opposing crowds dictated the day’s itinerary of hurling a mix of recognizable protest chants and personalized taunts across High St. at each other for hours on end. Yet looking around, the mood was often more joyful than anxious; people bonded over brainstorming creative insults with each other and mocking the PB’s most ridiculous claims and signage. Their rhetoric largely centered around accusing drag queens and the rest of us as being “groomers,” – an intentional misuse of the term and performative concern currently trending among even the mainstream Right.

Groups of 5-10 PB’s in their signature black and yellow would occasionally cross the street to strut through the middle of our lines, pausing for heated arguments about the definition of nazism and such, but mass violence failed to erupt. A few people of color from our side decided to walk through their ranks (which we would have advised them against if we’d known in advance), and they were barraged with racial slurs but otherwise unscathed. Meanwhile, Patriot Front (obscured behind white masks and sunglasses) stayed in a disciplined set of two rows, chanting “Life, Liberty, Victory!” and “White Nation Now!” at random times in unison. While Bikers for Trump and the Freedom Convoy were rumored in advance to be attending, there was no visible vehicular display, and only the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and White Lives Matter Ohio are confirmed to have attended as organized groups at time of publication. Per their livestreams, some of them drove from as far as eleven hours away to protest this canceled story hour.

Much of the discourse about the (counter-)protest has understandably been about the role the police played. One blue-vested sergeant (Steven Dyer) high-fived a Proud Boy and defended this action to people on camera, prompting a flimsy statement from the Chief of Police (Elaine Bryant), while another flashed a known “white power” sign. Others gave verbal approval to and coordinated with Patriot Front on their movements, and still others were photographed standing around and chatting with groups of far right protesters in military gear. None of this was particularly surprising. As the Proud Boys were leaving around 12:30 p.m., they had to cross High St. and continue onto a side street on “our” side, prompting the leftist crowd to start trailing behind them with chants of “hey hey goodbye.” The crowd didn’t have a clear plan of when to stop and were perhaps on track to keep following PB’s to their cars, but some of the more experienced organizers among them had this realization simultaneously and began corralling people back. Seconds after we started policing ourselves, a group of around two dozen police (far more than were seen strolling around the protest) suddenly materialized to form a bike barricade between us and the retreating PB’s. Some have reported that this team of cops was called in later for PB departure security only, but our group had noticed them congregating in an alley a few blocks away when we’d initially parked. Their decision to wait there for hours suggests that they were also acting as an emergency reserve, and this is an important reminder that the number of cops you see at an action may not reflect the real number nearby.

What Democracy Looks Like

Community defense against fascism (or the state, for that matter) requires the self-organization of a community bound together in solidarity through action – this is to say, the community as such comes into existence through the actions it takes to organize and defend itself. Community is more than just the set of individuals who live somewhere or share a certain trait. Unfortunately, rhetoric espousing the importance of “community” is often appropriated by organizers to position themselves as a mouth-piece and institution through which the “community” speaks and acts, effectively preventing real community from being built. This is precisely what occurred with the organization around 12/3.

By laying claim (first unofficially and then officially) to the “community defense” organizing around the event, the core group effectively captured all the outrage and indignation at the fascists and funneled it into their operation. Without democratic processes through which the will of the would-be community could express itself, the character of the defense remained merely that of a volunteer mercenary outfit with few prospects for building towards a broader formation or movement (and none now that it has failed so utterly). They claimed to be organizing “community defense,” and yet were only interested in defending the children rather than any broader community formation (a hypocrisy which they doubled down on in a statement released after the event). In refusing to put out any public facing call for volunteers until they had already thoroughly established control over the event’s organization, and by putting obstacle after obstacle in the path of those looking to stand against the PB’s, they weakened our movement and actually put the lives of everyone involved in more danger by undermining the safety universally present in numbers.

Moreover, through interactions that the drag queens described as "bull-headed," the core group set the event up for its inevitable failure. While the drag queens are unambiguously in the wrong for demanding collaboration with the police, it is ultimately not the place of community organizers to determine what conditions the marginalized are expected to feel safe under, and to effectively say “you’re gonna follow this escape route and you’re gonna like it.” Even if the queens could not be sold on all of the principles of abolition in those few short weeks, perhaps they might’ve been more willing to comply with the plans set by the organizers if they had felt included in democratic decision-making from the beginning. In any case, if the queens’ insistence on police presence was utterly non-negotiable, the correct response by community organizers would simply be to pull out of official defense organizing and provide support in an unofficial counter-protest capacity that could still monitor and/or defend against both Proud Boy and police activity from outside. The correct path is through solidarity, not exclusion; openness, not secrecy; and democracy, not control.

Social Justice “Warriors”

Mao once said that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” and on this point we may well agree. However, that does not mean our primary concern as anti-fascists should be the organization of arms. By far the most open and thorough discussion held in the entire organizing process surrounding 12/3 was on the use of arms, but the plan the organizers finalized remained half-formed and with little consensus. This plan included allowing volunteers to arrive armed, encouraging concealed carry in particular, and organizing safety squadrons such that people with guns would be divided amongst them more or less evenly. The only criteria they confirmed to the full group for bringing a weapon was optimistic self-assessment about one’s competence with it – an assessment that we all know is more likely to be inflated than deflated. And for those concealed carrying, there was no requirement to disclose this to all of the other volunteers on the ground with them – only to the organizers.

It is no wonder that the drag queens didn’t feel safe complying with the orders of a group which insisted upon running the storytime event like a CIA black-site - controlling all entrances and exits, opaque walls, mandatory identification, concealed weapons - while lacking any of the experience or qualifications to perform such a task.

Reducing community defense to nothing more than the technical organization of volunteer mercenary operations is to replicate the tactics of the fascists we are supposed to be defending against, rather than relying on the working class’s strengths: solidarity and numbers. Armed defense is an advanced tactic to be used by a mass struggle in combating counter-revolutionary forces; it is not the tactic of movement in its infancy which lacks the internal organization to safely or cohesively discipline the use of violence.

Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to claim that leftists should refrain from defending marginalized people with the force of arms. Our movements require us to be ready and willing to defend ourselves – and even go on the offensive when the situation demands. This, however, can only be accomplished through democratic and disciplined means. Guns do not, in and of themselves, make us safer; rather, it is their principled organization and deployment. Armed community defense is best done within disciplined and formally trained organizations/structures (e.g. the John Brown Gun Club, who have successfully run defense at similar events in Texas). If we want people to put faith in our abilities to defend their lives, we must have the transparency and discipline to deserve it.

Legitimate Violence

What would have happened had not a single organizer or leftist lifted a finger in defense of this event? Based on the PB behavior we observed, although admittedly still speculation, the private security likely would’ve been organized as the drag queens apparently intended, the PB’s would’ve still gathered and harassed passing attendees while the police watched idly, and then everybody would’ve wrapped up and left. We may not have been needed to prevent a massacre, but this does not mean we were not needed at all and especially not that we should have allowed the cops to handle things. The police are a fascist institution – perhaps the fascist institution – but we are not yet at a stage where the state-appointed fascists will openly allow their civilian accomplices to execute their political enemies while under this much public scrutiny. It is up to us to make sure it stays that way.

The ultimate purpose of anti-fascist organizing in the here and now is simple then: to build the socialist movement which is able to defend our communities not only from the individual groups of fascists we're confronted with today, but also from the rising tide of fascism which aims to seize all power tomorrow. The current regime postures as our protectors for now, but we can still serve an important purpose in defending our communities; a purpose which does not require us to act as a mercenary police force. In the capacity of counter-protesters, we show solidarity with those who would brave the fascists to attend something as trivial as a drag event – warding off fascist and state violence with our superior, watchful numbers and creating space for a community to flourish. Anti-fascism is not simply defending the defenseless, but recognizing the necessity of building a future for the oppressed in the here and now.

Some of the core organizers and their affiliates have nevertheless expressed disdain for counter-protesting: they call it “reactionary,” claim that it doesn’t work to build community, and even that we should not expect the marginalized to come out in demonstration against fascists. On the contrary, we say that it's in this capacity that we best can put our advantages to work: bringing together the oppressed and their accomplices to demonstrate our solidarity and collective opposition to fascism. If we fail to build community at a protest, it is not because the protest is an inept mode of political expression, but because we have failed to politically engage those in attendance with our means of struggle and to impress upon them their necessity to the work of liberation. Any such failure is not unique to counter-protesting in any respect.

Final Thoughts

It was out of the fires of 2020, for which every single ideologically trained and disciplined organization in the city (including ours) was unprepared to meaningfully intervene, that many of those referred to here as the “core” rose to prominence within Columbus’s Left. When the dust settled after the initial weeks of rioting, this group began to form from the self-styled medics who had seen first-hand the brutality of the state directed at those who dared to stand against it.

Up until 12/3, whenever a new oppressive law, police shooting, or similar catastrophe would cause the local left to stir in unison, the core’s reluctance to relinquish power to the masses was not recognizable to most as outright sabotage of movement-building so much as harmless (even necessary) “safety” policing. Most often, they appoint themselves the authority of when taking a protest from the sidewalk to the streets would be dangerous, prophesying more often than not that doing so would unleash a fury of police brutality onto the crowd and especially the people of color therein. Just as if you question their risk assessments around story hour security, you are endangering the children; if you question their risk assessments around taking the streets, you are endangering people of color. They will tell you this quite explicitly.

Out of all of the times CORS has led protesters into the street (including the half-dozen times in knowing opposition to the core’s commands), we have never once been met with police interference or violence, yet the core’s confidence in their own judgment has never wavered. Group polarization has even emboldened some of them to lay hands on other local organizers to enforce this safety mission and protect the crowds from ‘certain doom.’

What makes their rhetoric pedestalizing a narrow assessment of “safety” at the expense of action, democracy, and all else so convincing to other organizers – in addition to the irreproachable positive regard of all “safety” buzzwords – is that they truly believe in it. These organizers believe their consolidation of power is for the greater good. After all, who among us doesn’t trust our own judgment or vision?

As good Marxists, we know it is struggle which creates consciousness – experience which conditions understanding. The many (and they are many) missteps of Columbus organizers in recent years ultimately stem from an understanding deformed by participation in a struggle lacking orientation, analysis, solidarity, and democracy – a struggle which has no doubt reinforced in the minds of its current leaders the need for autocratic, secretive, and insular organizing practices; the need to protect themselves by controlling everybody else, and excluding those they cannot. These leaders come to see themselves as wholly essential to the movement – perhaps interchangeable with the movement itself. Moreover, organizing in unaccountable and self-appointed cliques is not only harmful to the movement as a whole, but harmful to the people within them. The same mechanisms of control and exclusion that the clique exerts upon the larger organizing community are also directed inwards. Engaging with movements in this way will always fail to unite the unorganized in the struggle and proscribes the development of revolutionary consciousness.

As communists we must work at all times to eliminate from our spaces these kinds of dynamics, wherever they may crop up, and the organizing practices which enable and engender them. If our movement is to ever succeed in overcoming fascism, we must at all times be working to build solidarity with the broadest mass possible. We must counteract the will to nihilism, the will to quietism and abstention, the will to lay down and die. This means organizing openly and democratically: calling on the masses to not only engage in the fight against fascism but also in the work of liberation, for they are one and the same. In other words, the methods of a revolutionary working class self-consciously organizing towards the overthrow of capital. So long as we organize in secretive and unaccountable cliques, we can never hope to build true solidarity or create communities capable of standing outside of ourselves and training the leaders of tomorrow’s revolutions.

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This article was written by one or more members of CORS, and represents the organization as a whole.