On Sept 18, 2021, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) AntiFascist Working Group (AFWG) collaborated with other organizations, including the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), to mobilize approximately 140 antifascists against the Proud Boys (PBs). After we stalled and penned them into Millennium Park for about two-and-a-half hours, the PBs marched to Trump Tower via the park’s back entrance before dispersing.
We hope that this case study inspires all antifascists to contribute toward a mass antifascist movement, and provides advice to that effect. We also hope this will encourage antifascists to make our lessons public so we can learn from and support each other.
Timeline of Events
Building a Plan
On Sept 7th, the AFWG heard that Chicago’s far-right was mobilizing for Saturday, Sept 18th. We were aware of Telegram chats from PBs president Edgar “Remy” Delatorre promoting it as an anti-mask and anti-vax event at Millenium Park. The event was intended to attract a wide variety of conservatives in order to act as a space in which the PBs could normalize their extreme politics. The AFWG took this seriously and decided to have a phone call that same evening.
By the time of this phone call, a comrade had uncovered that the Chicago protest was part of the fascists’ efforts to locally mobilize, instead of nationally mobilizing for solidarity with prisoners from January 6th in Washington, DC, due to the increased scrutiny from law enforcement. This shift reflects the trend of groups espousing fascism, like the PBs, refocusing on local activity.
During this initial meeting, the AFWG concluded that we wanted to build a public counter-action that prioritized safety, rather than building secretively and prioritizing street brawls.
With these goals in mind, we decided to plan our action collaboratively. Some groups try to plan an entire event on their own, then ask for endorsements; in contrast, we decided to schedule a meeting for Sunday with other organizations and to use the days in-between to invite organizations to participate. Our hope was that this would increase buy-in from the organizations by increasing trust in our security plan and therefore the desire to mobilize members of these groups.
Unfortunately, most organizations either did not respond to our invitations or were skeptical since we did not offer a premade safety plan. By Sunday afternoon, the only organizations that committed to joining our planning meeting were Socialist Alternative (SA), PSL, and CDSA. If SA and PSL had not committed to the planning meeting, we were prepared to pivot to a reconnaissance mission instead of a counter-demonstration.
At the planning meeting, we were joined by a few other groups that were interested in helping, which gave us the courage to move ahead. SA backed out after the planning meeting as they rightly felt that we did not have a solid outreach plan and were concerned that this put us in danger.
Immediately following the meeting, we created a flyer for our counter-action and began to share it on social media through our respective organizations, as well as creating a signal chat for everyone interested in organizing. With CDSA’s endorsement, we were able to cast a wide net to potential participants through their social media and obtain the support of the Red Rabbits marshaling team.
We agreed to have a rally a block away from the PBs rally. We would form a reconnaissance team that would arrive early and try to get a sense of how many folks would arrive for the PBs action.
Based on the recon team’s assessment, we would decide whether to actively march on the PBs or stay at our rally a block away. If the PBs outnumbered us by a considerable margin, the risk of a physical confrontation outweighed the potential benefits. If the recon team did give us the green light to march on the PBs, we agreed to keep a minimum of 50 feet from them, and we also assumed that police would set up barriers between us.
Regardless, we would print out literature to explain the politics of the PBs, our politics, and why we were protesting against them. We would hand out these materials while speeches were made and use our chant sheet to get our participants engaged. All the groups that helped organize the action were encouraged to bring their own literature, banners, and so forth. We also requested legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), and medical assistance from Chicago Action Medical.
During the protest, most of the recon team would hold their positions so they could warn us if the PBs participants outnumbered us, or if they observed any suspicious activity. As an additional defense, we decided to bring shields to the protest but to hide them unless we were attacked. We also agreed that in the event that we needed to make an organized retreat, we would regroup at our original rally point and then march together to the nearest train station.
Several comrades still felt anxious in anticipation of the counter-action. Therefore, we organized a de-escalation training. The training was primarily intended for our marshals but would be open to anyone who was interested.
Threat of Violence
On September 17th, we received word that, in the Telegram chats associated with the PBs’ event, a photo of a large stash of guns had been posted, captioned with something to the effect of “the counter-protesters are in for a big surprise”.
Naturally, we were all extremely concerned by this but were committed to seeing the counter-action through. Rather than canceling the event, which is what the right-wing hopes to do by posting threats, we decided to move ahead. We alerted all the organizations and individuals that we had invited, regardless of whether they had committed to attend, so they could make a fully informed decision about their attendance. We used this alert as a chance to rally our comrades’ courage, and to reiterate why we felt this counter-demonstration was important.
Several people who had not previously responded reached out to us as a result of this alert and committed to joining us!
We started off as planned: the recon team met and, beginning with eight members, patrolled Millennium Park looking for right-wing protesters. As PBs and supporters started to show up, the recon team worked together to continue monitoring them. Some brawlers had shown up, but to our surprise, the crowd was mostly made up of families.
At noon, half of the recon team joined the counter-rally that had assembled. In the heat of the moment, seeing that we slightly outnumbered them, we abruptly kicked off the march. This was not what we had planned, but it ended up working to our advantage.
Marching North on Michigan Avenue, from Monroe to Madison, we caught them off-guard and inadvertently penned them into the park. In response, police immediately brought out barricades at the entrance to the park and kept us in their sight at all times, indicating that they saw us as the threat.
The first few minutes were chaotic, with both sides hurling insults back and forth. Our side rallied as a comrade grabbed a megaphone and began an impromptu speech explaining our presence. Throughout their speech, this comrade made political points that then segued into chants from our chant sheet. Throughout the protest, members of CDSA, PSL, and unaffiliated anarchists alternated calls for “mic checks,” making speeches and leading chants to keep up our energy.
The right-wing rally was promoting “medical freedom” and opposition to refugees. So we used ‘positive’ chants (e.g., “medical freedom: is medicare for all,” “let them all in: from Haiti to Afghanistan”) to let the crowd and audience know how we were politically separated. Inevitably, there were lulls and in those moments we fell back on ‘negative’ chants (e.g., “No Proud Boys, no KKK, no racist USA (say what?),” “hey hey, ho ho: racists have got to go”) that were meant to energize participants in our action and make observers aware of the reality of the right-wing rally and the danger they posed.
After about two hours of being penned in, the PBs moved deeper into the park to escape our presence and figure out their next move. In the meantime, we held an impromptu speak-out to keep the crowd engaged, and our marshals got into position to help us march, if necessary.
Eventually, PBs started to march but they went deeper into the park, and the recon team let us know that the PBs were trying to exit the park at Columbus and Randolph. The recon team couldn’t tell if exiting the park signaled that the PBs were starting a march or dispersing.
We marched north on Michigan to Randolph and tried to catch up to the PBs but the police formed a line, protecting the PBs as they escaped. As we had prevented the PBs from getting any attention on Michigan Ave and stopped them from marching in the Loop, we decided to call it a day. No fights broke out, the PBs did not brandish any weapons, we blocked them from street view, they did not have any coordinated chants, and only a few ineffectual speakers.
We were made aware, by comrades monitoring police scanners, that the cops allowed the PBs to march along Columbus up to Trump Tower, at which point they held a small rally before dispersing. These comrades noted that the police were specifically broadcasting our location and, once the PBs got to Trump Tower, officers were directed to stop sharing the PBs’ location via scanner.
We closed out by marching back to our original rally point, made a few speeches, and organized participants into groups that would walk together to board various public transit routes.
Practical & Political Lessons
They are not Invincible
To our knowledge, the Chicago Left has not meaningfully tried to organize a large counter-demonstration against the far-right in years. Additionally, for many members of CDSA, even protests were a rare occurrence until the Uprising of 2020.
There is a strong sense of fear regarding protests against the far-right. When many people think about the far-right, the first thing that comes to mind is guns; this perceived arms gap between the far-right and their opponents has given them an aura of invincibility. Even many leftists assume that any confrontation with them has to be deadly. We think that this fear was a major part of why we had such difficulty getting groups to sign on and help organize our antifascist counter-action.
To be clear, we need to seriously consider the dangers of organizing against the far-right. But we can’t let ourselves be immobilized, because then we give them space to recruit, to normalize their far-right ideas, and to grow bolder. This counter-demo demonstrated that we can out-organize the far-right, and it was an important step in habituating ourselves to the fear weaponized by the far-right. Even if we hadn’t stymied their action, our counter-demonstration was essential to show folks we could confront the far-right and live to tell the tale.
AntiFascist Collaboration (United Front)
Many of us that helped organize this event were astounded at how well everyone worked together. PSL, the anarchists, and CDSA: we were all united on keeping this antifascist action peaceful while still confronting the far-right. Everyone freely passed around the megaphone and collaborated on messaging. This counter-demo ended up being an amazing example of what it’s like to build a united front based on trust.
The trust was built out of the open political discussion, initiated by PSL, at the Sunday planning meeting. This helped us all set the shared political perspectives for the action. With our political objectives stated and agreed on, we were free to focus on the antifascist action and leave any immaterial political disagreements aside.
People Want AntiFascism
Our action had approximately 140 participants; on short notice, we were able to mobilize enough people to outnumber the far-right. The social media post from CDSA had almost 600 likes, responses from passersby were solely positive, and the threat from the Telegram chat actually seemed to increase our mobilization.
While the widespread fear of the far-right is completely understandable, the contradictory reality is that many people are looking for leadership to take on the far-right. The turnout to our event was a small taste of what is possible if more groups find their courage and join the cause. This is part of what motivated us to write this article: we think it can serve as an inspiration for a much larger antifascist movement.
The Practical Stuff
There were also practical lessons. We needed a stronger outreach plan. We also should have made sure that our banners always faced the street, instead of facing the PBs. We should have delegated assignments for emceeing the event, handing out literature, promoting the sign-up sheet, giving a safety speech before marching, and so forth.
We still feel that collaboratively planning the event was the right choice, but we should have had a skeleton plan to work from and been more clear in communicating our collaborative intentions. Most organizations didn’t understand when we invited them to plan this with us, and in their responses essentially asked “but what is the safety plan,” not realizing that we wanted to create a safety plan together.
Socialists and fascists are both committed to one thing: winning over a majority of the population. If we let them, they will recruit harder and faster than we do, leaving us vulnerable. Our socialist campaigns – like Medicare for All and Defunding the police – won’t matter if the far-right is allowed to become large enough and bold enough to attack our meetings and actions. Our campaigns won’t matter if the far-right is able to legitimize its politics to the extent that in our efforts toward socialism we encounter more people that have internalized their politics than not.
Further, while antifascist organizing is therefore necessary to protect our “normal” work as leftists, but it’s also much more. Everyone enters politics through their own path: for some it’s electoral politics, for others it’s mutual aid. Others want to help build antifascism as the shield of the left, which we need to allow our other movements to spread. The pandemic remobilized the far-right in a way we hadn’t seen since in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The response of law enforcement to January 6th has scattered the far-right, but it hasn’t destroyed them. The pandemic has only exacerbated the widespread material uncertainty that led to the far-right’s re-emergence and hasn’t disappeared, either.
The urgency of antifascist organizing is greater than ever, and Chicago now has a contemporary example for us to build off. We must make antifascism a mass movement of the working class and spread it into workplaces, unions, community groups, and beyond. We won’t accomplish this overnight, but we hope you’ll join us for the fight ahead.