Anti-vaxx mob storms union HQ in Rome
Time to stop treating them as sad misfits and get organised...
First they were anti-lockdown, then they were anti-vaxx, now they're fighting Covid passports and - from Rome to London to the USA - they're getting violent and openly collaborating with fascists.
On Saturday a mob comprised of skinheads and anti-vaxxers invaded the national HQ of CGIL, Italy's biggest trade union federation, during a protest against Italy's Covid pass laws. Among them were Roberto Fiore, the figurehead of the "Third Position" wing of the Italian right, and Giuliano Castellino, leader of the far right Forza Italia group.
On Sunday a group of anti-vaxxers went to the home of BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine, to serve an anti-vaccine "writ". As they assembled on a street corner, contributors to the group's messaging channel warned "Wait til we come with the noose, Jeremy" and "Maybe...we should take the **** out".
In Cardiff, meanwhile, a wheelchair-bound young woman was mobbed by protesters outside a vaccination centre, who screamed that her mother was using her as a "lab rat". And across the United States protesters have been using violence, death threats and intimidation outside schools, school boards, ICUs and health centres throughout the autumn.
The violence in Italy has shocked the political establishment, coming in the centenary year of "squadrismo" - the turn to low-level violence by Mussolini's blackshirts, during which hundreds of trade union HQs, co-operatives and newspaper offices were trashed, and the socialist-led peasants union substantively destroyed by violence and intimidation.
In the research for my book, How To Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance, I studied the activities of the Ferrara squadristi in detail. How they operated through "truck and telephone" to unleash violence against small, defenceless villages, destroying all traces of self-organisation and public space among the left-wing peasantry in months.
Critical to the victory of squadrismo, I argue, was the unwillingess of either the left, the liberal establishment, or the police to treat squad violence as a systemic challenge:
"From May 1921 onwards, both the peasants and the workers became psychologically convinced of their defeat – even as the Marxist theories in their heads assured them of eventual victory. Scanning the archives of the left-wing press, which continued to churn out lists of future election candidates, it is clear that even as they saw their friends being humiliated, beaten, confined to their homes or run out of town, the core of labour movement activists sank into denial." (p107)
People reasoned: it's not happening to me, it's peripheral to offical politics, and the police will deal with it if it gets bigger. As a result, piece by piece, democracy and the rule of law were destroyed.
Though liberal democracy is nowhere near being defeated by today’s anti-vcxx and far right ghouls, unfortunately, I think we're making the same mistake of under-estimation.
Part of the reason is that, instead of the millenarian Marxism of 100 years ago, many people simply believe the socially-liberal society we've created is irreversible, and so they completely under-estimate the scale of the threat (see here for a texbook example).
In the British media, despite violent attacks on journalists, media HQs and the vaccination authority, anti-vaxx protests are still being reported as a random irritant, unconnected to far right radicalisation and largely perpetrated by misfits. Even where - as in Italy - they are clearly infiltrated and led by far-right and ex-service people, acting violently and aggressively, the link is treated as accidental.
In the book I explain why it’s not accidental: fascism today is structured around the rejection of science, rationality and democracy - and is designed to attract people who, as Hannah Arendt once observed among the Nazis, “refuse to believe their eyes and ears, believing only their imaginations”.
The left and labour movements, meanwhile, have done very little to mobilise against the anti-vaxx/far right alliance. The existence of a long-standing peaceful vaccine-hesitant or skeptical movement linked to alternative lifestyles, and the desire not to inflame public order situations where police resources are already stretched, are allowing anti-vaxx movements to use violence, hate speech, threats and intimidation with impunity.
This has to stop.
I have no desire to waste my Saturday afternoons organising counter-mobilisations against these nut-jobs, so - as I argue in the book - the primary responsibility must fall to the law enforcement. Demos outside media HQs, vaccination centres and schools are a clear infringement of our civil liberties, especially when backed up by anonymous online threats of violence.
The original fascism was met with new public order legislation and - in many places - a step change in policing. The German-American jurist Karl Loewenstein called this "Militant Democracy" - democracy asserting itself against the organised attacks on the rule of law. Today we need something similar.
If people want to hold peaceful demonstrations in favour of their right to die from the coronavirus, that is fine. If people want to target journalists, health workers and teachers, and their workplaces, that is not fine.
As with harassment demos against abortion clinics, both police and local authorities have powers under the Public Order Act 1986, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to restrict static demonstrations, move them and arrest people for intimidation. The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 also allows local councils to place physical restrictions on demonstrations. In 2018 Sajid Javid ruled out legislation to impose buffer zones around abortion clinics, while promising to keep the issue under review.
If the police will not, or are not resourced to, prevent roaming groups of anti-vaxxers and fascists from intimidating journalists, trade unionists, health workers and teachers from doing their jobs, then a national buffer zone scheme should be introduced. And local councils and Police Commissioners should create active task-forces to counter the threat from the anti-vaxxers.
Most of all we need to act politically - together and loudly: to identify, stigmatise and reject the minority of anti-vaxxers who are using threats, obstruction and intimidation - online and in in physical space. And if it comes to peaceful counter-mobilisations - as was needed with the most toxic of the anti-abortion pickets - we shouldn’t flinch from organising them.
The spread and radicalisation of anti-vaxx movements is an issue many politicians want to duck: no MP wants to say a minority of their voters are a bunch of deluded idiots getting exploited by the far right - but they have to bring themselves to do so, and proactively.
Pre-bunking - ie going out of your way to say: “vaccines work, they are safe, and it is your moral duty to get the jab” - is one of the most effective ways of isolating and stigmatising the nutters.
So any Labour CLP whose MP has not made clear, proactive statements of encouragement for people to get vaccinated needs to ask why not - particularly because, just across the Channel, we see the disgraceful spectacle of left-wing politicians claiming the anti-passport movement can be part of a social revolution.
If you're in a union, send a message of solidarity to CGIL in Rome; show practical solidarity with any clinic or workplace under harassment; and use the union's resources to actively debunk the lies and disinformation that are feeding this - an international movement amplified by the algorithms of the tech giants and the dollars of the far right.
Fascism starts small; it colonises the active discontents of irrational people who feel excluded and powerless; but it always turns to violence. That's what we saw in Rome at the weekend, and - once you look at it with open eyes - the seeds of it are there on the violent fringes of the anti-vaxx/far-right alliance here.
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