Recently, we’ve seen powerful Antifa actions on college campuses like Berkeley and the University of Virginia striking back against emboldened white supremacists and fascists. We’ve also seen how crucial Antifa is on college campuses after neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer proclaimed they are targeting colleges as recruiting-grounds.
But what if you’re on a conservative or even reactionary campus? This situation poses special challenges for Antifa. It may be difficult to find anything beyond a small group willing to mobilize against fascism and its roots in the white supremacy, misogyny, and imperialism central to capitalist society. And activists confront not only widespread apathy, but also the real possibility of backlash from both administrators and many other students and faculty. The threat to contingent faculty is especially great. The situation can seem hopeless.
Still, there is great value in cultivating a radical Antifa presence on conservative campuses. In this post, I point out that importance by drawing on my own experiences as part of a small Antifa group on a conservative campus. And I start to assemble a list of other, further radical possibilities beyond those we explored. I hope, then, this reflection could be helpful to people in similar situations.
1. Some background: Villanova and the Charles Murray Action
Villanova University is a notoriously conservative school. Many students in its overwhelmingly white and upper-class student body vocally support the Trump administration (with “Make America Great Again” signs and parties, for example; check out this endorsement of Trump in the college paper). It was in this context that white supremacist physical violence erupted on campus. Two of my own students of color mentioned to me the fear they felt for their safety on campus.
Villanova has also been openly hostile to progressive activism. For instance, one contingent faculty-person in our group–Nova Resistance–was explicitly threatened with being fired for another, very benign and non-disruptive, organizing project on campus. In recent years, Villanova administrators rescinded a speaking invitation to a queer activist.
We formed Nova Resistance to disrupt an invited talk by the white supremacist, anti-worker, and misogynist pseudo-intellectual Charles Murray in March 2017. In the lead-up to the event, two of us had tried to create a large faculty and student action; they were either ignored or met with anemic, sanctimonious arguments for “free speech” or “boycotting.”
In the days prior, one of us hung very simple posters across campus to call for resistance. We distributed it by slipping it secretly inside the student newspaper and taping it across many campus buildings. Nova Resistance officially met for the first time only hours before the event began. Members made signs, and made a plan for the action. Some of us were very new to more disruptive, small-group tactics.
By the day of the talk, we were only a handful of activists, with at least one person coming from off-campus. The event was heavily guarded many hours before. A police helicopter circled overhead; campus swarmed with armed police carrying many thousands of dollars of military-style equipment; there were numerous conspicuous undercover cops; and so on. The talk was to be held in a secure basement location on campus with very limited seating–obviously chosen because it is the building that houses campus security. Moreover, we discovered that, in addition to campus police, the university paid some $15,000 to hire the police force from Radnor township. Clearly, administrators were spooked by the ghost of Middlebury.
Four made it into the crowded event, while a few others remained outside to prepare for a protest and teach-in after our eventual ejection. As soon as Murray took the stage, two from Nova Resistance stormed the front of the event, blocking the projector screen with a banner. The plan was for the two to stage a silent action during the event while a banner and signs were held to under-cut the talk. Others were to create an increasing disruption of ridiculous noises, cheers, heckling, etc., all as a way of interrupting and hopefully halting the talk.
Almost immediately, the two of us who were standing at the front were accosted by belligerent audience-members. One person in the reserved seats in the front row–neither security nor a talk organizer–grabbed the shirt of one of us and seemed nearly on the verge of punching him. The talk’s faculty organizer, as well as an unaffiliated, liberal professor, approached the two Nova Resistance members at the front, trying to convince them to cease the disruption. Another member of our direct action team went to the front of the room with the other two.
Fairly quickly amid these confrontations, one of the three activists at the front began more disruptively yelling about Murray’s fascistic ideology, the school’s implication in it, and so on (departing from the group’s plan of silence). However, the activists refused to engage directly with the attempts at heckling or negotiation and instead resolutely stated that they refused to have their university provide a podium for a reactionary eugenicist, racist, misogynist hack. After around 15-20 minutes of this, campus security threatened to arrest the activists if they did not allow themselves to be escorted out of the event. They chose the latter option in order to re-consolidate outside. One member filmed the encounters and eventually posted them on our social media outlets.
Outside we rapidly escalated. One of us brought a megaphone. Using this, we organized an impromptu, direct-action “teach-in” immediately outside of the windows of the Murray talk. The crowd that formed around us was perhaps 40-50 strong and fairly receptive–unusual for Villanova’s campus–though the crowd was largely passive. We screamed and chanted (“No Murray! No KKK! No fascist USA!” etc.) into the open windows of the event with the megaphone, creating additional disruptions, although the windows were rather quickly closed. The police then confronted us, telling us we had to cut the megaphone (on threat, apparently, of arrest). We continued without amplification for a while, and then left. Members of Nova Resistance were approached by local news outlets for interviews and quotes.
We were not ready for the next steps. We had no statement prepared and hadn’t set up any social media outlets to post videos or analysis or to garner more support and visibility. Later that day we whipped up a Facebook page and began posting media, and within a few days we submitted an article for the school newspaper and created a manifesto-style statement, posting them as well. But our lag left us without a voice at a time when our actions were being interpreted and either supported or condemned without our own voice helping to shape the narrative.
(It should also be noted that the school newspaper, The Villanovan, warped the statement they ran without consulting us, toning down and pacifying our language.)
Nova Resistance then began to meet regularly, renaming itself the Radical Education Department (RED). We reframed our task beyond Villanova as the creation of a radical left think-tank developing Antifa practices across college campuses. We used the visibility and experience from the event to inform a number of articles in left popular media (for example, this, this, and this).
Edited for mb3-org.com