Fascism on the Rise: Why the Proud Boys are Organizing in Philadelphia

On Saturday, 26 September 2020, a group of several dozen “Proud Boys” marched through Center City, carrying U.S. and “Trump 2020” flags and stopping to sing The Star Spangled Banner at Independence Hall. The “Proud Boys” then returned to their vehicles, heavily protected by police, in the parking lot of Wal-Mart in South Philadelphia. Historically speaking, as socialism gains momentum, fascism arrives with it to stifle and co-opt revolutionary consciousness. The ruling class sends out its troublemakers to create havoc and division in the movement with the hopes of grinding it to a halt. It is no surprise, given this, that the socialist and anti-racist movement today is faced with not just opposition from the ruling class’s figure heads—politicians, executives—but also dissatisfied, downwardly mobile antagonists ready to protect whatever values the capitalist state and its friends in the corporate world spread throughout society. George Jackson succinctly detailed the inner-workings of fascism in Blood in My Eye, a text every revolutionary socialist and every anti-racist organizer should study carefully. Jackson writes, 

We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a world simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform”. We can make our definition more precise by adding the word “economic.” “Economic reform” comes very close to a definition of fascist motive forces.

Therefore, we can understand fascism as a movement that protects capitalism and imperialism in the face of workers gaining power. Fascism is as much gently reforming the capitalist system to appease workers while maintaining hegemony, as it is crushing those same workers. At this current moment, we see both of these motors of fascism in action: on one side, there is an upcoming election with candidates only subtly different from each other, trying to suck the revolutionary energy from this summer’s uprisings out of the working class and poor of this country; on the other side, the police are in their full repressive form, kidnapping protestors from the streets and taking political prisoners. And of course, alongside this repression, of course, the American united front of corporations, the government, and the police keep the organization of the vast majority of workers impossible.

But, it isn’t just the ruling class repressing the workers—fascism is also the appearance of downwardly-mobile petit bourgeois and working class organizations that are funded and fueled by the ruling class and meant to crush and co-opt revolutionary consciousness. In Philadelphia, the “Proud Boys” and their friends stand as an example of fascism forming in the consciousness of the masses of people. While these groups have been unable to enact far-reaching violence on the anti-racist movement in the city, their appearance marks a further stage in the advancement of fascism in this country at this particular moment.

This Summer’s Uprising and Response by Nationalist Groups and the “Proud Boys”

The nationwide uprising gained momentum in Philly, starting on May 30th. A rally began at City Hall and then moved to a planned demonstration at the Art Museum. Thousands gathered to protest the brutal and terroristic killing of George Floyd on May 25th. This first rally on May 30th drew national attention as several police vehicles were burned, corporate emblems damaged (a Starbucks was burned and snacks from it used to throw at police officers), and stores that the working class of Philadelphia can’t usually afford were looted. It was clear from the beginning that the people sought an end to police brutality and the revolutionary character of the protests could not be overemphasized. On May 31st, another demonstration took place in West Philly. This time, police repression went into full force: armored vehicles roamed the residential streets of several neighborhoods and tear gassed everyone outside, including residents sitting on their porch. 

This act of terrorism by the police only fueled the peoples’ anger. The following day, thousands took to the streets yet again. This time, protestors marched onto I-676 where they were subsequently entrapped and brutally attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other projectiles by Philly police, the National Guard, and a SWAT team (just to name several of the repressive forces that day.) Again, this brutal act of terrorism only fueled the righteous anger of the people of Philadelphia. Protests continued through the week and culminated in a march of a hundred thousand people, organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation with a broad coalition of community organizations. 

The protests continued for the next month in full force. The tapering down of Center City demonstrations however, does not point to dwindling interest or vigilance. On the contrary, these uprisings spurred a massive growth in community involvement and organization by the working class of the city. Notably, one of the largest instances of direct action began in the city during this time: several homeless encampments were established on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and elsewhere as a protest to the city’s failing homeless services and housing crisis. For more information on the encampments and the organizing around evictions in Philly, check out this episode Philly Liberation Radio featuring an interview with Sterling Johnson.

As the working class and poor of the city have gotten increasingly organized over the course of the uprising and the summer, fascist reactionaries and groups have turned up. To begin with, in the first couple days of the uprising, white men brandishing weapons patrolled Fishtown and harassed protestors. Later in the month, groups similar in character—white men brandishing weapons—appeared at Marconi plaza to “defend” the Columbus statue there and critiqued Joseph Bologna’s reassignment (the police staff inspector who assaulted several protesters throughout the uprising). Up until that point, anti-racist working class protestors had not been protesting the statue beyond calls on the internet for its removal. By the nature of their presence there, promoting nationalism and white supremacy, counter protestors arrived at the scene and eventually pushed the city to board up the statue. In the midst of these confrontations there were several arrests and a reporter from Unicorn Riot was assaulted.

This was just the beginning of the white-supremacist response to the nationwide uprisings. Across the country, similar groups began to harass protestors and even collaborate with the police. On Tuesday August 25th, a 17-year-old white supremacist, Kyle Rittenhouse, shot and killed two anti-racist protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse was later found to be active in alt-right, fascist online groups and was even aided by the police in his murder.

The story of Kyle Rittenhouse fueled fascist and white supremacist energy all across the country and the corporate media, unsurprisingly, has resorted to forgetting the case. Within two weeks of this act of terrorism, the fascist, neo-Nazi group, the “Proud Boys,” active in Philadelphia announced it would stage a rally on September 19th in West Philadelphia at Clark Park. Although this area of the city has now been almost completely gentrified to accommodate the ultra-rich universities in its proximity, the neighborhood takes on a progressive attitude. For this reason, the “Proud Boys” event brought mass-outrage and mobilization without much organization. On the day of the rally, with the exception of several lone antagonists, Clark Park was filled only with community members who planned to counter-protest any rally the “Proud Boys” would bring. In the midst of the gathering, Councilperson Jaime Guathier, came to the park to give a speech in an attempt to divert the militant energy of the people into quiet reforms accomplished by voting—showing a desire of even the so-called progressive ruling class to derail any revolutionary consciousness. It is unclear if the “Proud Boys” ever intended to come to Clark Park or if it was a diversion. In either case, the community members of West Philadelphia who stood against fascism far outnumbered and overpowered the fascist group. 

The outpouring of community support for anti-fascist organizing likely indicated to the “Proud Boys” that a premeditated and publically advertised event would be near impossible. And so exactly one week later, on September 26th beginning at around 1 p.m., organizers around the city began to report “Proud Boys” marching from Old City to City Hall. There were only 50-75 of them, but they were accompanied by a hefty police presence. As anti-racist, anti-fascist organizers began to make their way downtown to counter-protest the “Proud Boys,” Philadelphia police began to obviously protect the neo-Nazi, fascist group. 

The police even explicitly said, on the police scanner for all to hear, that their aim was to protect the fascists from “antifa.” True to form, the police led the protesters out of Center City and across the Penn’s Landing bridge to safety. From here, they fled the scene in unmarked cars to the South Philly Walmart. A contingent of volunteers from the Philadelphia Liberation Center and members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation followed them there where we were able to record the police openly collaborating with these neo-Nazis. Large busses likely filled with riot cops, along with dozens of cop cars, sat in the open right next to the fascists, talking with them. It was clear these cops were not on the scene to arrest the fascists, but instead to arrest any anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters.

These events in Philadelphia show the way in which fascist groups are both alive and well and collaborating with the racist police force. The “Proud Boys,” brandishing weapons and buddying up with the police, resemble the fascist groups of pre-World War II Italy and Germany and the fascist groups funded by the CIA prior to the coup d’état of Chile in 1973, just to name a few historical–there are many more! As revolutionary consciousness is on the rise, the ruling class sees its own demise right in front of it — and we know it won’t go down without a fight. As revolutionaries, as organizers, as socialists, as communists, as anti-racist protestors, a call to action is clear: we must heed the warning George Jackson famously gave:

“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution. Pass on the torch. Join us, give up your life for the people.”

The “Proud Boys” of Philadelphia represent a growing trend in the United States and across the world that is all too familiar: as the ruling class begins to lose its credibility amongst the working class, it resorts to mild reforms accompanied by fascist violence carried out by friends of the repressive state, like the “Proud Boys,” and the police. As we look back on the past and into our present, we can see how the threat of fascist reaction and violence from the state, the police, and fascist, neo-Nazi groups, is on the rise. Now more than ever the organization, determination, and militancy of the working class and poor of this country is necessary. Through uniting the people—righteously indignant in the face of the rule of capitalism, racism, and imperialism—we will come to a revolutionary socialist outlook that can and will counter fascism in this country and inspire worldwide proletarian revolution.