1.5 Anti-racist Action in Toronto - ARA
1.5 Anti-racist Action in Toronto
By Ida Fink
1992 was a year of increasingly public fascist activity in Toronto. The Heritage Front (HF), which was formed in 1989, had begun to focus on recruiting in high schools. Racist flyers were distributed targeting Black History Month programs and black youth in general, at a time of resurgent pride in fighters like Malcolm X. In May of 1992, members of the HF appeared at a demonstration against the acquittal of the six cops charged with beating Rodney King, carrying provocative banners and attempting to intimidate protesters.
Billing itself as a "white separatist" group, the Front's aim was to soft-pedal its blatant white supremacist message and recruit a core of disaffected white youths, as exemplified by David Duke and Tom Metzger. Its primary organizing tool was a telephone hate line. By September, a complaint about the hate line had been brought to the Ontario Human Rights Commission by the Native Canadian Centre, and the Heritage Front announced their plan to march on the Provincial Courthouse to "defend" the hate line.
At this point, a group of young activists, many of whom were personally familiar with the high school recruits, decided that this public show of Nazi ideology should not be tolerated. One hundred and fifty strong, and with only a few days' notice through word of mouth, the nameless group unexpectedly showed up at the Courthouse to confront the Heritage Front members parading with confederate and swastika flags, sending them running for cover.
Out of this, Toronto's Anti-Racist Action was born. Since then, ARA has developed and maintained a consistent anti-racist and anti-fascist presence in the city.
Through demonstrations, propaganda, campaigns against fascist recruitment in high schools, parties and other creative means, the group has confronted Nazis on the streets, at their events, and even at their homes and organizing centers. More generally, the group has tried to popularize an anti-racist and anti-fascist cultural politics, especially among young people.
Those drawn to the regular meetings following that initial courthouse confrontation agreed that if the Heritage Front was mostly mobilizing young people, anti-racist youth had better organize some sort of presence to counter them!
As our contribution to this manual on fighting white supremacist groups in our communities, we will describe some of the strategies and tactics we've developed over the past two and a half years.
* * * *
From the beginning, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) encompassed people from different backgrounds and political perspectives. Everyone agreed that a street level response to fascist organizing was crucial, not because fascist groups pose an immediate political threat, but because of their potential to recruit young people and to terrorize the broader community on the street.
There was a lot of discussion about whether ARA should also actively organize against institutional and systemic racism, especially racist police brutality. In the end, the group agreed to focus on the far right, hoping to make an effective contribution in that one area to the overall anti-racist movement. To take these perspectives into account, the group adopted a basis of unity "to expose, oppose and confront racists and the far right agenda in Toronto through education and mass action, and to support broader anti-racist struggles."
As we began to pierce through the apathy and indifference that Nazis enjoy in this "liberal and democratic society", the basic organizing principle of the group came to be "Zero Tolerance for Nazis Everywhere!"
As a group committed to preventing Nazi groups from growing and becoming a serious threat to the broader community, ARA supports and promotes self defence against racist and fascist attacks. It is not enough to wait until attacks occur, or to allow public shows of Nazi ideology which embolden the racists. Rather, only an active commitment to challenge anything they try to do will succeed in driving them back under their rocks. This political approach is reflected in our demonstrations and other public work. Nazis are not tolerated in meetings or parties we participate in, and we will not debate with Nazis in the media or in public forums. Demonstrations are carefully planned to be as direct and as empowering as possible, because nobody wants to spend their afternoon chanting outside a faceless building.
One of the challenges for ARA as a youth-oriented group has been to develop an autonomous strategy. This has often been viewed with condescension or suspicion by older activists whose primary frame of reference is the classic symbolic protest at an institutional site, with police cooperation. The notable exception to this is the Black Action Defense Committee, formed in response to police shootings and brutality. Never having enjoyed police "protection" in demonstrations, BADC understood ARA's street strategy to a far greater degree.
The group also organizes demonstrations to be as safe as possible -- using the power of numbers and encouraging expression of the natural outrage we feel seeing white supremacists trying to organize. At the same time, ARA supports other initiatives and strategies used by more institutional groups to confront white supremacist groups. We work with school boards where possible to introduce youth oriented anti-racist material into classrooms. Information tables at various fairs and community events give us an opportunity to present the group's strategy and activist materials alongside other, more traditional groups.
When more mainstream groups bring fascists to court, we take the opportunity to get more information on Nazi individuals and tactics, as confront them when they use these challenges as opportunities for a public presence. The use of stickers, graffiti, public art, posters, T-shirts and the like has been most effective in creating a vibrant anti-racist presence in the streets and public spaces. It's easy, fun and creative, and doesn't have to cost a lot.
Anti-racist musicians, artists and performers generate support and awareness of the issues in fresh and non-rhetorical ways that reach people on a different level than demonstrations, forums and meetings. Toronto anti-racists created a series of "UNWANTED" posters exposing the faces of Toronto's Nazi leadership and some of the more prominent Heritage Front supporters, with captions that included both humour and "sensitive" information. These posters alone caused major grief among the Nazis! ARA's public activity, in the form of demonstrations and pickets, is generally what brings new people to the group.
Internally, it's important to prevent burnout in this area of organizing which often demands quick response time and considerable commitment. At the same time, setting up solid outreach, and acknowledging past mistakes to ourselves and our allies, is what will make the group sustainable.
Every demonstration (about 20 in just over two years) has been a learning experience. The fact that we do not back away from confrontation with Nazis carries with it two consequences: one, the Nazis take us seriously. In this regard, we believe that recruitment into racist groups has been slowed by the existence of a counter force on a physical as well as a political level. Two, the police consider ARA demonstrations an opportunity for overtime, and there have been arrests of anti-racists at ARA demonstrations.
In order to justify heavy police presence at ARA events, the group itself must be characterized as "criminal" by police and pro-police media. Ultimately, all charges laid during or as a direct result of ARA demonstrations have been dropped. However, fighting any charge takes time and money, and some members of the group may be more vulnerable than others.
Following the first courthouse confrontation, ARA's next two major demonstrations were formative. The first, at the Roma Cafe in the downtown West End, took place in November, 1992. The Heritage Front had called a secret meeting to "celebrate" Holocaust-denier David Irving's visit to Toronto. Irving, however, was deported earlier in the day.
But the worst was yet to come for the "master race" celebrants: the already rattled crowd was besieged by 250 angry anti-racists. Surrounding the Roma Restaurant, whose windows were covered in eggs by the end of the night, the demonstrators chanted for hours in freezing weather circled by (relatively sympathetic) cops who were more representative of the city's diversity than at any future ARA demo. A little over half the boneheads left, in small groups and disarray, before the "concert" shut down, and the remaining Nazis stayed to watch local bands Negative Response (now reformed as White Riot) and the Church of the Creator band RaHoWa (short for Racial Holy War) rant and scream from a makeshift stage.
Even though the gig was not entirely shut down, the general feeling was that our counter-organizing had been successful. The second major demonstration was again at the University Avenue Courthouse in January 1993. Once again, the Front had announced that they would be marching on the Courthouse in protest of the inquiry into their hate line. This time close to 500 antifascists met early in the morning to prevent the Nazi march.
We marched down University Avenue and into City Hall Square, stopping when we neared the entrance to the Courthouse. But this time the police were prepared with a mounted unit between us and the Nazis.
As the Nazis advanced across City Hall Square, the mounted unit charged the front lines of the anti-racists, injuring quite a few people. The Nazis were able to pass by our ranks only under cover of this mounted police attack on the anti-racists. In retrospect, had we simply continued marching towards the Nazis and denying them the public space to march, the effects would have been no worse.
By the summer of 1993, after a series of increasingly bold and vicious Heritage Front led attacks including arson, sexual assault and a near fatal beating of a Tamil refugee following a RaHoWa concert, ARA took a demonstration right to the door of the "voice" of the Heritage Front hate line.
Again exposing a "secret" location, the demonstration at Gary Schipper's house was the most militant of our demonstrations. We kept the final destination secret even from our demonstration until we got close to the actual house, thus ensuring that neither Nazis nor police had forewarning.
We did not invite the media or ask for endorsements from other groups. During the demonstration, a masked group rushed the house, smashing windows, white paint, shit and eggs were thrown. The location of Schipper's residence had been determined by surveillance, which sent a message that "we know where you live".
Second, because the property damage was confined to Schipper's house, and local residents were informed as the demonstration entered the neighbourhood, the media had to focus on the actual reasons for the demonstration.
We have at times been characterized as a street gang, "no better than the Nazis" and sometimes accused of not organizing against the broader problem of racism in society -- as if Nazis were the only thing that mattered.
We have tried to answer these criticisms by joining in coalition with other anti-racist groups where they set the agenda, where we support and organize along and limit confrontation. One third of ARA's demonstrations have been organized in this way.
Solidarity with First Nations, Black, Jewish, Latino and Queer groups is in fact a priority among members of ARA, many of whom are active in other groups as well. Anti-fascist activity should indeed be informed by the broader struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia, as well as all forms of discrimination. At the same time, other anti-racist groups need to understand the particular menace of organized neo-Nazi particularly in terms of young people, and support us in our specific and targeted approach to the problem.