El Diablo Coffee in Queen Anne is the kind of café that feels like you left your house only to walk into another living room. The tight corridors give way to open space with small tables and a communal bar where people sat with their laptops at noon on a cold, drizzly Monday.
It wasn’t the ambiance that drew in Alycia Ramirez, nor the delicate art drawn with practiced hands on the foam of her Mexican chocolate mocha; in fact, she’d never been there before.
It was solidarity. Just weeks before, the owner of El Diablo Coffee posted a screenshot of a message threatening to spread bad reviews of her establishment and encourage customers to boycott the place, supposedly because she referred to a Fox News program on which he had appeared as “White supremacy power hour” in an online comment.
The result: A number of very online leftists publicly committing to get their caffeine fixes from El Diablo or its sister establishment Cloud City in the north end of the city.
Ramirez — who has found herself a target of online vitriol and hate for her work as an immigration advocate — suggesting the place for our discussion of community defense was part and parcel of her worldview. Standing up to threats as ephemeral as an online call to boycott a coffee shop or as tangible as armed militia groups protesting outside a Drag Queen Story local library event is necessary, and confronting hate at a time where it has become impossible to ignore — even for the privileged who are shielded from its worse effects — is too.
“If ignoring hate and extremist groups was effective, we wouldn’t have them,” Ramirez said.
The past year was marked by deadly attack after deadly attack, such as the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California that killed three and the gunman, the murderous rampage at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that took the lives of 22 individuals and most recently a spate of attacks against the Jewish community in New York resulting in at least two fatalities.
Closer to home, Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane) was explicitly accused of domestic terrorism for his alleged part in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and does not deny authoring the “Biblical Basis for War,” a treatise outlining the violent imposition of a Christian theocratic state. And yet, reports suggest he has only gotten more popular within his base and receives explicit support from armed groups.
Hate — in many cases stoked by explicit xenophobia and racism, emboldened by the rhetoric and actions of the president of the United States — permeates the national discourse, percolating in online spaces masked with irreverent language, insider memes and plausible deniability until it bubbles up into the real world, manifesting in instances of stochastic violence fed by fear mongering.
Those who would defend against it are not unified in theory or tactics outside of a common belief that to protect their communities, hate must not go unmet.
On the steps of City Hall
The weather report threatened rain Jan. 5, but the clouds held back, even allowing rays of sunshine to pierce through.
Those gathered at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cherry Street were relieved — marching in protest of an armed militia group at City Hall is one thing. Marching in the cold rain is simply unpleasant.
Community and Labor Against Fascism (CLAF), the coalition that had organized the counter protest, were there to demonstrate against the 3% of Washington, an anti-government militia group that had taken out a special events permit for the plaza in front of the Seattle City Hall to rally against the liberal city’s “intolerance” to rightwing ideas.
The goal was to expose the ideology of the Three Percenters who stand in support of people like Shea and whose allies align themselves with darker elements of the radical right, said Emma Allen, spokesperson for CLAF. But protesters also wanted to show the rallygoers that they would not be intimidated by the rhetoric espoused or the guns the Three Percenters carried with them.
That’s what community defense is, Allen said.
“It means you respond to bullies.”
For some at the protest, that meant shouting into megaphones and marching in tight circles on the sidewalk. For others, it meant being prepared to meet fire with fire.
To the west of the marchers stood members of the John Brown Gun Club (JBGC), a group of figures in fatigues, protective vests and spiral earpieces to keep in touch with their compatriots. The group is named after John Brown, an abolitionist who led an armed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and was martyred for his efforts.
Woodrow stood holding an AR-15, an extra magazine of ammunition strapped to her chest. CLAF had asked the group to be there, and they took the responsibility seriously, standing ready as rallygoers marched by with Trump 2020 and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
Their form of community defense is very literal.
“We teach people how to defend themselves against those who want to hurt other people,” Woodrow said.
She hoped that the presence of the JBGC and other protesters would give assurance to other, like-minded Seattleites that the presence of the rightwing militia was not an indication of Seattle’s politics or beliefs. Instead, Woodrow said, it would send a message that there are likeminded people out there, ready to stand for those who can’t.
A block away, adjacent to the King County Superior Court, was a large group of people dressed in black, their faces covered. Grouped together as “black bloc” or “antifa,” they yelled at rallygoers and police alike, blowing into vuvuzelas and knocking over metal fence barricades. After noon, they marched west around the pit, one of them dragging a speaker and leading the chant “A! Anti! Anti-fascista! Anti-capitalista!”
Historically, antifa — a truncated version of “anti-fascist” — emerged as a counter to the fascist governments of Benito Mussolini of Italy and Francisco Franco of Spain in the 20th century. Modern groups that have sprung up throughout the United States make it their mission to out suspected Nazis and members of alt-right groups.
Sometimes, however, their opposition to the alt-right turns physical.
Sunday remained mostly calm. Four protesters were arrested, and two police cars were vandalized, a tame outcome compared to previous years in which protesters clashed in the streets with conservatives.
While “punching Nazis” remains a strategy among some groups, it can be more dangerous for Black protesters and protesters of color, said Cliff Cawthon, a longtime organizer in Seattle.
“As a Black man, I am not safe in my own country. On a daily basis, I am not safe in my own country,” Cawthon said. “Small confrontations can mean my freedom being taken away, or worse.”
He wants to see counter-organizing as something more sustainable and less reactionary than showing up to confront rightwing provocation. While showing up to protests is good and necessary, there needs to be deeper community organizing and education that gets at the heart of the problem — White supremacy.
In Cawthon’s eyes, community defense is more broad than defending against people who are openly hostile. It also means defending a community’s ability to live and thrive in a city like Seattle, rather than be pushed to the outskirts by rising housing prices and the incursion of gentrifiers.
Cawthon was driving through Capitol Hill while speaking to Real Change on Bluetooth.
“I’ve had so many conversations with queer friends of mine who have talked about how they’re concerned with how the LGBTQ community has not only been bought out from under them, but now with light rail how many of these places are being invaded by [cisgendered, heterosexual] men and people seeking to do them wrong,” Cawthon said.
They’ve responded by organizing phone trees and working with people in their area to raise awareness about potential threats of violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Cawthon said.
“They’re creating infrastructure so there is a kind of incident response,” he said.
Support from the community
Like at the rally on Sunday, people of all backgrounds come together to support communities under threat.
Ramirez was in the streets with crowds of others to defend Drag Queen Story Hour — events where performers in drag read books to children in local libraries — against conservative protesters who say leftists are forcing their ideas of gender on young, impressionable children.
Supporters acted as a wall against the protesters, attempting to block them from harassing the readers and bringing anti-hate messaging. Ramirez prefers this type of action to one with guns involved, although she doesn’t look askance at groups like the JBGC. There is no one way to protest fascism.
But that also means that there isn’t really a unified playbook for the opposition either.
Some people choose to meet groups head on while the more privileged hold that starving them of attention will cause them to fade into the background.
Ramirez hopes that there will eventually be government support for quashing groups that espouse the kind of White nationalism and extremism that has been present in some of the most violent attacks.
The federal government produced a report in 2009 detailing the rise of “rightwing extremism,” but it faced such extreme backlash that it was effectively shelved. Years later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came out with a “Black Identity Extremist” designation, which didn’t elicit the same level of affront. They have since abandoned the phrase.
“Governments at the federal and state level need to track these groups and keep communities safe,” Ramirez said.
She herself has been on the receiving end of their hate because of her work online highlighting extremism and the “know your rights” workshops that she runs to equip immigrants with the tools they need to protect themselves.
For her troubles, Ramirez has been targeted online with violent messages, and extremists posted her address on Facebook and Twitter. The companies took those posts down after they were flagged, but nothing on the internet ever truly disappears, Ramirez said. One anonymous messenger told her that her address was spreading “like wildfire” across the internet.
So far, no one has shown up at her door, but she has a video camera outside of her home — “If anyone comes, I’ll have a nice picture of them.”
Despite the threats, Ramirez isn’t deterred.
“People said, ‘Maybe stop tweeting for a little while,’” Ramirez said. “But going underground is not something I’m willing to do.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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