By Adam, member of the KW May Day Collective
It seems necessary to respond to some of things outlined in Socialist Fightback’s statement about KW May Day. As a member of the KW May Day collective I can certainly speak to some of our feelings, thoughts and rationales around this. My perspective is informed in part by various interactions with Fightback generally over the last 10 years of social movement work in Southern Ontario, by the organizing around May Day and even more recently by some conversations with members of Fightback at the counter rally against Frances Widdowson at WLU on May 9th, 2018.
As can be seen from the email conversation that was reproduced in Fightback’s statement, we did indeed suggest that we were “not interested in socialist fightback tabling at our event or showing up with visible fightback materials.” As the person who manages the KW May Day email account I thought that this was relatively clear in expressing our desire not to have Fightback there. Of course I didn’t say anything more in terms of a rationale, but it is also the case that we heard no more from Fightback. They did not seek any clarification, follow up or reasons. It also safe to say that we did expect Fightback to show up anyway, in part because the organization has a history of doing so and not respecting other groups events and actions.
Now on to the actual things occurring in the park. For those who don’t know KW May Day was billed as a family –friendly gathering in the park with speakers, music, performances and food, and was open to everyone who wanted to come and check it out. We sought proposals from folks in the broader community to participate in an event that was “grounded in mutual aid, voluntary participation, and personal/collective autonomy without authority.” This brought out a range of people with different political perspectives but all willing to connect to our core framing. We also had explicitly decided against getting city permits for the event, and committed to having no police, politicians or things for sale. We had some great weather (despite some frustrating wind) and around 120 people attended, making this one of the larger radical events to happen in Kitchener in recent years. After the in-park program folks departed on a festive street dance party/march to reclaim just a little bit of public space, followed by a dance party. We see this event as a greater success for a first time around, and are excited to make future years even larger. It wasn’t a perfect event and we hope to reach out and invite wider communities to participate in the future. It also illustrates, to me anyway, that there is a willingness for people to participate in radical movements and that they can also be fun and festive.
Fightback did show up early on in the event and immediately set up a table with a range of materials and their magazine/paper for sale. They made no attempt to engage with any of the organizers of the May Day around the reason for our previous decision or if we had changed our minds. They simply set up anyway. At this point a couple of folks went to engage them to kindly ask them not to set up, and express our interest in not having them at the event. We also, as per above, had decided explicitly that there would be no items for sale at May Day, in keeping with the anti-capitalist spirit of the day.
In part, the ongoing issues with Fightback at York University on the CUPE 3903 picket lines were highlighted as a key set of concerns regarding the groups participation and their way of doing politics in general. Part of our position on this is they need to take responsibility as an organization with regard to the issues that have been raised at York – around behaviour that is oppressive and sexually abusive (for more in this you can see the following posts by a range of different folks at York: Students for CUPE 3903; Silence is Violence York U; and this post that provides some further detail as well.
I won’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of what is happening there, though I am a Unit 1 member of CUPE 3903, but I do know that rather than engage directly with the issues ongoing at York Fightback has instead opted for more statement writing, dismissals, deflection and cries of so-called ‘Stalinist censorship’ and ‘sectarian witch-hunts’. Not only is this directly dismissive of the serious issues of sexual assault and the necessary support of survivors, it stoops to a level of further inciting divisiveness using polemic rather than engaging the issues directly. If this is Fightback’s response to serious issues that are raised it should come as no surprise that others will continually seek to limit engagement with the group and their participation at events. It is incumbent on Fightback, as a broader organization, to step back and attend to the concerns expressed within the York context about their behaviour as an organization. If they feel as though the allegations are unsubstantiated engage with that – immediately running to the defensive and rushing forward statements indicates the polar opposite. These sorts of patterns are precisely why Fightback was asked not to have a visible presence at KW May Day.
Further, members of the May Day organizing collective repeatedly suggested that Fightback showing up at the event unannounced and proceeding to argue about our wishes was further disrespectful, although it was indicated that we might be open to discussing with them in the future. When you are running an event that has a bunch of people present and involves a host of organizational tasks for a small collective this is not the best time for a detailed discussion.
More broadly, in my own experience and in that of many others, Fightback (as a larger organization) routinely shows up at events and actions with the expressed purpose to sell their newspaper and recruit others to their organization. No doubt many groups sometimes do things like this, and this is something that could help to build movements and expose others to ones ideas and group existence. Where many take issue with Fightback (and this is highlighted again in the York U links above) is they show up to others events, parade with their materials for sale outside, but then do not support such events themselves. Often the aim seems to be to draw people to Fightback without seeking to actually contribute to the broader event/movement. These sorts of patterns make me question Fightback’s intent to build a broader left movement and opposition to alt-right/fascist forms of organizing. Building movements requires solidarity and support, as well as active forms of collaboration. Gate crashing others events and projects, and refusing to respect their tone and tenor means that there should be no surprise when others are hesitant to be involved with Fightback directly. Does this mean that Fightback always does this at every event, or that every member does this? Surely not, but there are some repeat patterns that many folks are aware of. (To their credit as the Frances Widdowson event indicates, they do have the ability to organize their membership to come out to and support different things).
A core framing that Fightback has used with regard to May Day (and York) revolves around the notion of democracy and democratic rights. To be clear the decision to ask Fightback not to show up was one that was made democratically, via consensus, within the May Day collective. We certainly have our own processes and this was not a decision that I made unilaterally, as an individual, in any way. As the people investing a great deal of time to create this event since March we certainly do feel a certain sense of commitment to it, and do want some autonomy over how our events are organized and what their content is. Hence why we made a particular callout to solicit proposals, and why we didn’t accept everything that was proposed. We did have a certain tone that we wanted to cultivate and did not feel as though Fightback would fit well within this.
This event was in a public park, and was unpermitted, in keeping with some of our core anarchist values around autonomy, voluntary association and reclaiming space. Had they wanted to, Fightback could have set up elsewhere in the park. We don’t own the park and have no desire to control everything that goes on there. The language of democratic rights appeals, in part, to the discourses of the state and what is allowable forms of expression. Asking people to leave an event that has been organized in a particular way in no way limits Fightback’s ability to exist in public and spread their ideas in a general sense. Likening a request from some other organizers to things like censorship and mobilizing the language of democratic rights creates a strawperson argument of authoritarianism which was completely counter to our event as well as our practice. It seems foolish to suggest that by having democratic principles (which by the way our version is based in community, autonomy and direct practice, not the framings of the state or the charter or top down structures) this means everything is wide open and anything goes. Having a left perspective does not mean that we need to cater your group and ways of organizing that we find objectionable. I believe strongly in voluntary association, which means I don’t need to invite whoever claims to be on the left to the things I organize. Further, no one said Fightback couldn’t invest organizing efforts to do their own May Day events, even their own event in Victoria Park at the same time, or table/sell papers literally anywhere else in the park. Your democratic rights aren’t suppressed when you can literally go anywhere else to exercise them.
I understand that Fightback conceives of democratic rights in the sense of worker’s struggle and the broader exchange of ideas within the left. Very well. This has been going on for hundreds of years at this point and certainly socialists of all stripes will continue to debate the finer points of organization, revolution, strategy and tactics. And we certainly should. But taking the position that one organization has an absolute right to come to other events that have been organized in whatever way they see fit, with no pretext of being accountable to significant issues that have been raised about the organization, indicates very strongly that they are not interested in their purported claims of ‘left unity’, building a stronger left movement, or respectful and meaningful dialogue/polemic on left politics. As was indicated to me by one of their core organizers at the Widdowson rally, Fightback is intent to defend their democratic rights absolutely, til they are ‘6 feet under’ if need be. Absurd hyperbole aside, this sort of attitude says more ‘we don’t care what others think about us, we will continue to act in ways that other find objectionable/abusive, we will refuse accountability and continue on as we have before’ than ‘we want to build a stronger, healthier, more engaged movement.’ Further, it starts to creep eerily close to the ways that free speech is being talked about these days, and seems like a pretty important thing to be avoided.
Further, Fightback issuing their statement on May Day (which reads like an ideological communique), and subsequent conversations I have had with members of Fightback at the aforementioned rally against Widdowson, makes me sure that we made the correct decision in not inviting them into the park space to begin with. At the Widdowson event (which is a whole other thing I’m not going to get into here) Fightback was also handing out copies of their statement on May Day to those assembled. Never mind that the event has nothing to do with May Day, and many of the Fightback members who were present were not from KW at all, it still further illustrates that they are more about spreading their own positions than direct forms of engagement and discussion. I did speak with a few of their organizers/point people, but it’s hard to take their claims of wanting to move forward and engage in dialogue seriously when they are spreading that particular statement.
So, while they speak about the need for some sort of left unity (which probably does make sense very generally on some projects that those on the left might agree with) they are wholly unwilling to actually participate in the work of doing so. And in fact by issuing their statement, which includes naming some key organizers in other groups, reproducing emails and facebook chats, and talking about groups processes of organizing, they are actively undermining this. These sorts of actions potentially put others at risk, and at the very minimum provide greater insight into radical left social movements to the forces of the state and police. It shows a willingness for Fightback to smear and undermine other organizers and organizing projects if they don’t get their way, and when others don’t like how they do politics. Rather than seeking a follow up conversation or further trying to understand our issues with their organization and way of organizing they elected to broadcast this statement that makes plain how they really want to do politics: not through movement building or coordinated action, solidarity, or exchange and discussion of radical perspectives, but by seeking to capitalize on events and undermine the organizing work of other groups and movements. A group that leads with this as their main way of engagement and doing politics shouldn’t be surprised when others aren’t down with it.
And finally, we are anarchists, and we have ideas, and our movements are often quite small, there is no doubt here. But I’ve been an anarchist for 10 years and feel pretty sure in my own politics, but not so sure and narrow that they can’t adapt and change. Part of my anarchism is learning and growing my politics and the ways they are informed by particular contexts. I don’t find Fightback’s tactics or presence to strike inferiority into my own beliefs. In fact in makes me more certain that there are better ways of organizing. Suggesting that I, someone with anarchist beliefs, is somehow jealous or intimidated by Fightback’s politics and organizing does little more than suggest that Fightback has some of their own issues with their own politics to work out. We did, after all, organize a public, family friendly event that drew more than 120 attendees (and no doubt we can and will seek to make this event bigger and better in years to come). And clearly it resonated with a bunch of people who aren’t just anarchists or affiliated with particular radical organizations. Like it or not, I think we have started building something that carries some potential for the future. And we look forward to seeing what this revolutionary energy might bring in the days to come.