The First Year of Workers Defense Guard: Working Class Militancy on a Terrain of Opportunism
By: Charna Fon
My comrade Avery and I were on our way back from New York City when we were contacted by our comrade Liz, then president of UE Local 203 (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America). She informed us that Ku Klux Klan flyers had been posted at the homes of two well-known Black political organizers in Burlington. She told us that UE was forming a “workers defense guard” in anticipation of escalating fascist activity around town. I had a vague idea of what was meant by this phrase “workers defense guard” but I had doubts about its application. The Left in Burlington was not known to me as being particularly militant.
Tuesday November 3rd, 2015. Avery and I walked into the Vermont Workers Center (VWC) at around 7pm. The room was full of UE members dressed in all black and wearing serious expressions. UE shop stewards had rallied their co-workers from Local 203 as well as comrades from Local 267 and Local 221. There were no chairs left so I took a seat on a desk. I looked around at the sea of mostly unfamiliar faces. The air in this room, which I had been in countless times before, was suddenly crisp with earnestness.
The room quieted down as a man welcomed everyone to the meeting. He introduced himself as a union rep for the UE. “There is only one way to deal with fascists”, he said, “with the threat of violence.” The severity of the situation echoed in his voice. Immediately it was apparent to me what was meant by this phrase “workers defense guard.” As the meeting went on, most of the other voices reverberated with the same sentiment. We decided that we would hold a march and rally downtown in two days to make our intentions toward the Klan known–to make a definite and public threat to any and all fascists in the city. After the meeting, Avery introduced me to the union rep who had spoken. “You wanna go get a drink or something?” he asked. “Sure, but I don’t drink”, I replied. “I’ll drink. We’ve got some shit to talk about”, he said smiling. This is how I met Chad McGinnis. That night at a nearby bar, Liz, Chad, Avery and myself, created the blueprint for a specialized anti-fascist regiment capable of conducting decisive maneuvers.
Thursday November 5th, 2015. Just before 7pm. Avery and I walked to Church St, the bustling retail hub which runs through downtown Burlington. We carried with us two bags of red bandanas. We passed them out to our comrades who donned them as armbands or tied them around their necks. Black pants, a black UE shirt, with a red bandana is the uniform of the UE Young Activists. That night it also became the uniform of the UE Workers Defense Guard. Liz and Chad arrived with several picket signs emblazoned with the UE logo and slogans such as “Union Workers Against the Klan”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Smash the Klan”, “Smash Fascism” and so on.
“Good evening UE brothers and sisters!”, Chad shouted into a megaphone. “We’re all gonna march in formation so everyone form up! We’re gonna help ya do it!” We positioned our fifty Guards into five tight columns and gave everyone a picket sign. Liz, at the lead of the procession, took the megaphone and shouted, “What’s the plan?”, the Guards responded in unison, “Smash the Klan!” We marched. We took a brisk pace. Behind us trailed a larger protest march. Our chant sounded up and down Church St. I ran alongside the march passing out flyers to passersby: “NO KLAN IN VT. UE WORKERS DEFENSE GUARD.” We stopped in front of city hall at the end of the street. A rally was held there with speakers from different anti-racist groups. A member Local 203, read our statement. She proclaimed our purpose loud and clear over the PA system by addressing the fascists directly: “If you start something, the union will finish it. Get out of town as fast as you can. You are on our turf now.”
Workers Defense Guard (WDG) was born. We spent the next twelve months knocking on doors, distributing our political program, holding political education events, hosting a monthly “free community and neighborhood breakfast”, providing security to street demonstrations, queer dance parties, Black Lives Matter meetings etc, all while developing a lengthy and detailed constitution, painstakingly hammering out our political positions both as individuals and as an organization, and having bi-weekly combat trainings. We quickly became a dues funded organization with autonomy from UE. WDG sought to lead by militant example but also to organize our community, creating spaces for workers in our neighborhood–the Old North End of Burlington–to socialize, learn together, and agitate together. The following journal entries have been compiled in order to provide an overview account of WDG’s first year of existence. It would not be possible to give an account of every event, every protest, every confrontation, every internal debate in the space of these excerpts. I will share a few entries which highlight the overall nature of our group. My hope is that the lessons we in the Guard have gleaned from the struggle in Vermont can be of use to revolutionists and anti-fascists elsewhere in the struggles to come.
Tuesday November, 17th 2015. Anti-fascism is not activism, it’s a turf war. Sometimes it’s a cold war. An Antifa group is not a “social justice” organization, it’s a gang. We must move past liberal deviations while keeping with the principles of the United Front–rejecting sectarian distinctions in favor of strategic ones. Workers Defense Guard is the first of its kind in Vermont. Already a simmering controversy surrounds us. Pacifism and the NGO Left predominate here like nowhere else I’ve ever been. We have our work cut out for us in the task of pushing for greater militancy and leading people further to the Left.
Wednesday November 24th, 2015. Montpelier, Vermont. A far-Right group called Vermonters First received a city permit to demonstrate at the capitol building to protest the admission of Syrian refugees into Vermont. WDG attended in support a counter-protest which had been organized by our comrade Valentine. We began recruiting Valentine thereafter and she soon became a member of the Guard. As the counter-protest of several hundred marched to the capitol, we found that only three of the Rightists had shown up. They were interviewed by a couple local news stations. Counter-protesters surrounded them and began chanting “Refugees are welcome here!”. A few of the Guards intervened in the media’s attempt to interview the Rightists. A news story surfaced later that day about WDG members supposedly using intimidation tactics.
Wednesday December 2nd, 2015. Today WDG went to St. Albans to support a protest organized by Black Lives Matter VT. The protest was called for in response to discipline policies at the local high school which disproportionately targeted students of color. The protest took place on a street corner across from the high school right as classes were getting out for the day. Every so often a car would pass by and the driver would yell “white power!” out the window. A pickup truck drove by flying a confederate flag from the truck bed. It stopped at a red light near the protest. A protester said to one of the high school kids who was standing with us, “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you can get me that flag.” The kid got his twenty bucks.
Tuesday December 15th, 2015. The Guards spend most of our time doing turnout for our monthly community breakfast, canvassing with literature, and networking with other groups with whom we seek alliances. This requires almost daily door-knocking blitzes, phone banking, and meetings on top of planning meetings, wrapped in more meetings. Coordinating all of our members and seeing to it that tasks are completed as assigned is its own set of internal work on top of everything else.
In addition to weekly membership meetings, we also conduct combat trainings for our members twice a week. The trainings start at 8:30pm and can go quite late. Twice a week is already not enough as it is, so we take advantage of the time we do have. The only space large enough to which we have secure access is a dimly lit garage. A small kerosene heater in the corner provides us with little relief from the harshness of the Vermont winter.
Wednesday December 23th, 2015. Yesterday the pigs raided the home of man named Kenny Stephens who lived in the Old North End. They murdered him immediately upon entering the house. They also shot up the entire street in the process. A next door neighbor showed me the metal hinge from his closet which had been inches from his head when it was hit by a police bullet. Tonight members of WDG, Rising Tide, Vermont Workers Center (VWC) and others organized a march in response. I was also able to recruit some Anarchist comrades. About thirty of us gathered on the sidewalk across the street from Kenny’s house in front of the cemetery on North St. We marched at around 10pm. It was raining. And cold. The Anarchists headed up the march with a banner that read: “REMEMBER THE DEAD. FIGHT FOR THE LIVING. BLACK DECEMBER.” Pigs in unmarked cars drove aggressively around us, attempting to contain the march to only one lane of the street. WDG comrades were able keep both lanes. Our Anarchist comrades in the lead snaked us back and forth between residential side streets and the downtown business district in order to throw off our escorts. We ended at the police station. Most people left at that point.
Monday December 29th, 2015. Last night WDG accompanied a demonstration in downtown Burlington called for by Black Lives Matter activists in response to the news that no charges would be filed against the pig who murdered twelve year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. About twenty-five people were gathered at city hall when the Guards arrived. It was bitingly cold, and the wind picked up. “I wanna do something that’s gonna make people stop, and fuckin pay attention!” said one of the BLM activists. The group walked into the adjacent intersection–Main St–and stood across it, blocking traffic, chanting “No justice, no peace!”.
The Guards blocked traffic and redirected cars to make a U-turn back up Main St. Many drivers were willing, some were not so willing. A few cars got passed us. I was sideswiped multiple times. One car sped up and stopped just short of hitting a protester. We dealt with the driver. He decided that he ought to turn around after all. Another driver ran his car into a group of protesters. One person jumped onto the hood, others tried to open the passenger and driver side doors, while others were pounding on the roof and yelling for him to turn around. Several pigs showed up with rubber bullet guns and forced protesters out of the street. WDG did our best to stay between the pigs and the people. The protesters retreated and marched up Church St chanting “Black lives matter!” before dispersing back at city hall.
Thursday January 8th, 2016. Donald Trump held a rally in Burlington last night. It took place at the Flynn Theatre on Main St. Representatives from various organizations with widely differing political orientations met in the days prior to plan a counter-demonstration. WDG’s initial plan was to organize our comrades to block the entrance of the Flynn with a large picket, manned and defended by the Guard. However a hole in this plan emerged after a meeting which took place the night before. The Flynn workers are part of UE Local 203. Because of WDG’s affiliation with UE, and close affiliation with Local 203 in particular, our blocking the Flynn’s entrance would be grounds for management there to file an Unfair Labor Practice suit, claiming that Local 203 was staging an illegal strike. While we are not at all opposed to illegal strikes or the appearance thereof, the fact remains that the Flynn workers had no part in organizing the counter-demonstration and were not interested in striking. It was a point of contention whether or not we should picket anyway. My position was that we should. Liz disagreed and we debated on what was to be done for several hours. I lost the argument. Liz correctly upheld the UE line on rank-n-file unionism: the workers must decide and act on their behalf–the workers can and must do it themselves.
The counter-demo was a march of about a-hundred-fifty from the top of Church St into the Main St intersection in front of the Flynn. The lead banner was again made and carried by some of our Anarchist comrades: “NATIONALISM IS FASCISM”. As we reached the Main St intersection, we found that the pigs had set up interlocking metal barricades all along the street, blocking our way. We were relegated to one half of the street. On the other side of the barricades were thousands of Trump supporters. Shouts, chants and taunts were exchanged back and forth. A few people were able to get inside and heckle during Trump’s speech. They were promptly removed by the pigs. A few Rightists came over to the counter-demo, apparently to harass some Socialists who were selling their group’s newspaper. The Guards confronted them and forced them to stop.
Monday February 18th, 2016. WDG is what has been missing from the Left in Vermont. We are not only vocally revolutionary but also explicit about exactly what that means as outlined in our ideological and political programs: “Therefore, we workers, union and community members, join together into the Workers Defense Guard. The purpose of this organization is to fight racism, white supremacy, fascism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and the organized forces of the employers including the police and the state. We hold that armed self-defense and direct action are necessary to defend and advance the interests of the working class.” (From the preamble to the WDG constitution) We are prepared, trained and not squeamish about confrontation. Most notably what sets us apart from other Leftist groups in the area is that we are a completely member funded, member run organization made up of rank-n-file workers. I am surprised and disappointed by many Burlington Leftists in their response to us. They applaud the Black Panthers and the YPJ/YPG, they are inspired by the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, yet they are extremely hesitant about WDG in their own city, on their own streets.
It’s always easier to be a hypothetical militant, a rhetorical revolutionary. It’s easy to tout the slogan “From Baltimore to Burlington” when you think you never have to worry about it getting “to Burlington”. But being a revolutionist is not easy. It is an unceasing effort that requires unceasing dedication. The Guards must be thusly dedicated. Being a member of WDG means following through on your words, linking theory to practice every day. WDG is a chance for Leftists in Burlington to uphold their slogans materially. Having created this chance, we can now clearly see who is a revolutionary and who is an opportunist. We regret the absence of many whom we once called comrade. We remember the hollow timbre of their voices upraised in songs of proletarian revolt. I guess they just liked the melody. In any case, bold talk should lead to bold action, otherwise it’s only boisterous complacency.
Wednesday March 9th, 2016. WDG has high standards and expectations for our members. There is good reason for this; without discipline we cannot operate efficiently or decisively. However we must remain clear that our non-member supporters are valued and necessary. Many of our supporters assist us with canvassing, putting on the community breakfast, and sometimes even with security work. We’ve considered forming an official Guards Auxiliary for active supporters but some of the Guards believe that this would make recruiting actual members more difficult. The concern is that since a lower ask alternative would be available and far easier to join, prospective Guards would be dissuaded from seeking formal membership. Membership is reserved only for politically advanced workers–no petty bourgeois, no reactionaries, no management or supervisors. This trade unionist praxis, among other strict requirements for joining, has forced us to reject the appeals for membership of many anti-fascists who would otherwise sign up. It will probably become necessary to create another group out of WDG which has access to our best organizers but isn’t bound by our detailed codes of conduct, ideological program etc.
Thursday March 24th, 2016. Last night after WDG had finished conducting a self-defense briefing at the Vermont Workers Center office for an upcoming event, a brick was thrown through the office’s large glass storefront. On two dumpsters in the building’s parking lot was spray painted the words “Blacks” and “Latinos”. We had already left the office when the incident occurred and we didn’t hear about it until the next day. Some of the Guards including myself were away from Burlington on other organizing business. We immediately headed back and convened an emergency meeting. VWC, Migrant Justice, and UE held a joint press conference on the sidewalk in front of the shattered storefront at which the Guards provided security. Liz spoke on behalf of WDG and Local 203.
Contained in the Workers Center space is an office rented by UE Local 203 and Local 221. We therefore considered the incident to be an attack on the union. We conducted an investigation as to whom was responsible for the attack and convened a subgroup to formulate a response. Our public response was a poster which we put up around town calling for neighbors to defend themselves against fascist aggression. This poster brought much of the simmering controversy surrounding WDG to a boil in a display of cynical cowardice from the Left-opportunist nonprofit types in Burlington.
Saturday April 23rd, 2015. Yesterday the Guards provided security and support to a rally at the University of Vermont (UVM) held by a Trans and Queer student group. The rally was called because of inadequate access to bathroom facilities on campus for transgender and non-binary persons. Students spoke out with a megaphone on the steps of the campus library. The Guard’s own Valentine delivered a fiery speech about her experience as a Transwoman, calling on listeners to “start the next stonewall.” The glitter-clad Queer youth bolstered by the black-clad union thugs was apparently quite a spectacle for many UVM students passing by. After the speaking portion, the Guards accompanied the rally into the library where the event organizers handed a petition to the administrative manager with a brief statement demanding gender neutral bathrooms across campus.
Thursday May 26th, 2016. Forty-thousand Verizon Wireless workers are on strike across the country. WDG and other groups in Burlington have volunteered to do solidarity pickets at Verizon store locations while the strike lasts. The Guards have been doing weekly pickets at the South Burlington location. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) which represents the striking Verizon workers, sent out requirements for solidarity picketing–they are strictly informational pickets and we are not to block the entrance. We just stand, passing out flyers on either side of the entrance, holding CWA strike signs and telling people to take their business elsewhere.
After a couple hours of this, the pigs show up and tell us to leave. We can usually stall them for half an hour or so. Then we relocate to the sidewalk at the busy Williston Rd intersection and walk between lines of cars stopped at the red light, passing out flyers to drivers. Today at our picket, the the pigs came quickly–the same two as the week before. One of them recognized us and acted as though he was personally offended that we had ignored his warning not to return. All of us were issued notices of no trespass which prohibited us from setting foot on the property for the next six months under threat of arrest. We refused to sign the notices or answer any questions.
Monday June 6th, 2016. Chad and I have been discussing the idea of starting up a WDG chapter in New York City where he spends a lot of his time. A New York City chapter would have national visibility and would be able to grow more quickly in membership as well as scope of work. Chapters in major cities across the country, each coordinated with the others, could be the basis of a mass working-class revolutionary organization. Workers across the country could learn to fight, defend themselves, organize, and prepare for the ultimate struggle against the bourgeois state and its pigs. Workers Defense Guard could serve not only a military purpose but a political one. It could be the vehicle through which the oppressed of this country wage the decisive battles for their liberation. Our vision is both optimistic and historically evident; above all it is absolutely necessary. Capitalism is killing us. Revolution is a matter of life and death.
It is imperative that we grow the organization, recruit more members, and expand geographically. If we are unable accomplish this we will not be able to sustain our rising volume of organizing and defense work. The immediate recruitment pool for working-class revolutionists in Burlington is very small. The nonprofit-opportunist-complex has done a thorough job of pacifying the Left and narrowly restricting discourse on what is possible. A different sort of organizational form might be better suited to the conditions we face in Vermont; one which utilizes the Guard’s key members but is less formalized in membership and structure.
**Around this time the Guard dissolved its formal organizational structure–constitution, points of discipline, membership requirements and all other documents of internal governance. WDG folded back into the UE and began the project of organizing a broader base for a new anti-fascist initiative. We became again the “UE Workers Defense Guard”, part of the union’s political wing known as the UE Young Activists. We put our best organizers to the task of forming other groups and probing for potential campaigns, which could use the experience and resources of WDG. We continued doing security work and holding political education events.**
Friday July 30th, 2016. Those members of WDG experienced with precarious political activity, logistics, and good follow through were able to demonstrate effectiveness in those areas. These members are needed now as organizers, to apply this experience on a new front. We must develop the peoples’ fighting and organizational capacity in Burlington generally. Workers must be able to gain experience in a less regimented context than that of the Guard. For this we need an organization with an informal structure, with less structure generally, ie: decentralized. We need contacts who have access to social milieus previously untapped for recruitment either by the Guard or by the Left-opportunists and nonprofits.
Monday November 14th, 2016. Immediately following the election of Donald Trump, some of our old enemies and a few new ones began making themselves more visible in Burlington. The fascists have been emboldened. But human history is the history of struggle, and increasingly ordinary people are becoming anti-fascists. WDG comrades have been contacted numerous times since election day inquiring about how to get involved, how to join us, with a few even asking for assistance in starting their own groups. We have now begun creating the foundation of our new form; not a formal membership based organization, but a kind of network, a decentralized mechanism for mobilizing and organizing the workers of Burlington against the growing fascist threat. Different crews, different social circles, united by a common purpose.
Tuesday November 15th, 2016. Yesterday WDG comrades did security for a Black Lives Matter VT meeting at the Oak 45 bar on Main St in Winooski. I stood at the door with three Guards while the others were posted inside. Outside, we spoke with several anti-fascists who asked how they could join the Guard. After the meeting, everyone gathered in a nearby park and marched up Main St–about three-hundred in total. No drivers showed any aggression or attempted to block our way this time. The pigs didn’t show up until halfway through and the few who did were completely ignored by the crowd. WDG comrades were posted on all sides of the march, as is our protocol for street demonstrations. We got several contacts for our new broad based antifa initiative which we’ve begun organizing in the wake of Trump’s election–Green Mountain Anti-Fascist Action. We are getting organized, we are getting prepared.
See also: Points of Discipline, Constitution Preamble, 6 Point Program, and 5 Theses of Workers Defense Guard– https://ranknfilereview.wordpress.com/2016/12/26/points-of-discipline-constitution-preamble-6-point-program-and-5-theses-of-workers-defense-guard/