I Want Peace On Earth, So I Left the Quakers and Became Antifa
Quakers are known for their commitment to nonviolence, and antifa are known for their acceptance of violence. Why seek peace by leaving pacifism?
My political and spiritual awakenings coincided with the 2016 election, when I went with Sanders supporters to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I was in turmoil. It was a very emotional moment as many of us watched terrified at the moment our country chose fascism over socialism, fear over hope. For many that moment came later in November, but for us that summer the signs were all around that a Clinton nomination meant a Trump presidency, and we were grieving. We felt in our bones that this election was a turning point in history, the moment to come together as a nation and really tackle climate change in a meaningful way, give my generation some relief from debt and poverty, to be given some sign that our country cares about us at all. It was all slipping through our fingers.
In Philadelphia there were a number of radical events that coincided with the DNC, including the People’s Convention and the Socialist Convergence which were both held in Quaker meeting houses. I’d never heard of Quakers. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in history class, because Quakers are actually very important to the American story, but to me any vague recollection I had of them was of some weird religious sect that had as much relevance to my atheist science-loving world as magic or fairy tales. I walked into these spaces and felt a sense of beauty and calm and gentleness that was a great relief and refuge from the upheaval outside as the streets raged with protests, anger, fear, and uncertainty.
The clean walls and simple pews exuded a patience and quietness that soothed me as years of silent worship resonated through the very air and soaked into my skin at the touch of the cold polished wood in the summer heat. Later in the week outside the convention center is the first time I ever masked up, as someone I assume was an anarchist handed me a bandana during a Black liberation protest that I joined. I liked it. I’d been very insulated in my previous life as a graduate student raised in a red state. It was the most Black people I had ever been around, and they exposed a story about America I hadn’t heard and of which was shamefully only dimly aware. There was obviously more to the American story than I had been led to believe in my sheltered white middle class life.
When I got back home I decided to learn more about Quakers and more about racial justice, and was impressed to find out there was overlap. Kismet! I read about how Quakers were abolitionists, and helped with the underground railroad, and were fighting for equality for women a hundred years before it was cool. I learned how they were jailed and persecuted for following their values that all people are equal in the eyes of God. Quakers have done so much good work towards peace and equality through the years led by spirit and love, and I was impressed. I decided to go to a Meeting For Worship, unsure what to expect. I definitely didn’t expect the intensity of the conversion experience that I had. An elderly member rose out of silence and spoke directly to my condition with such clarity and wisdom I was struck down in tears and shock, so full of divine light it felt like it emanated from my body when I walked out of the meeting house that day. I felt I had been held in a love and acceptance and understanding unlike any I had ever experienced.
I started attending MFW regularly while my activism morphed from Bernie into anarchy, my disillusionment with the system completed by my attempts to work within the toxic environment of the Democratic Party as a Sanders devotee (even though I voted for Hillary), and the deep annoyance I felt with the Hillary supporters surprise at the election results when we’d been screaming into the wind about it since April. I pulled out a book I’d been given a decade prior, the ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman, where he perfectly described in an uncanny prescience for 1929 the Sanders phenomenon of the lone socialist and how we will never win a liberated world through those means.
With the election of Trump I started researching how to fight fascism, and along with everyone else discovered “antifa”, a small movement that had been diligently cataloguing the rise in white nationalism for a decade or more. I was feeling pretty clever for knowing about Trump 6 months prior, but they’d foreseen it years ago? Why hadn’t anyone listened to them? I started researching them and found them to be nothing short of brilliant. I was enamored with their careful, diligent, thoughtful work, their multi-faceted, creative, and most importantly effective direct action at at time when everyone was running around with their hair on fire bemoaning what to do. This, this is what to do. I devoured everything I could find on antifa, and started attending their counter actions.
My concurrent love affair with Quakerism and antifascism was rough from the beginning. At first, I took a hard line stance against violence of any kind, including against property, a stance which put me at odds with the radicals. I stood in support of the radicals nonetheless, which put me at odds with many Quakers. Then Richard Spencer got punched in the face. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I knew it was a good thing. I looked around for insight on the disconnect between my stated values of nonviolence and my gut instinct that he definitely deserved to get clocked. A lot of people were talking about it, and it became clear that there was also a disconnect between white liberal interpretations and critiques of the event and the general widespread joyous reaction from BIPOC. This put another wedge in my framework, because shouldn’t we be listening to BIPOC about this? Why were so many more BIPOC than white people seemingly “pro-violence”?
I got “Non-Violence Ain’t What It Used To Be” by Shon Meckfessel, as it had been praised by Black Lives Matter organizers and learned more about the purpose and efficacy of property damage. And what’s this, MLK is more complicated than I thought? “Riot is the language of the unheard”, I hadn’t heard about that or about how his work later in life was moving towards more alignment with the militant wing of the Black liberation movement. I also started getting more involved with antifa but was met with resistance from them as unsurprisingly my self-righteousness was met with hostility, which left me feeling confused and depleted so I returned gratefully to MFW on Sundays to renew my spirit and re-center on compassion, love, and humility before God. This was all turning out more complicated than the easy nonviolence narrative I had been fed.
Despite media hype, there is a lot of room for nonviolent action in antifascist work. In fact, the vast majority of it has nothing to do with violence. Exposing white nationalists, calling in to get them fired, documenting their growth and variety, and even physically protesting is mostly confrontation without violent intervention. Antifascism is self-defense. There was plenty for me to do as a pacifist as I worked on art, clowning, research, education, and community empowerment. While this was all true, there was also something else that was attracting me to the work as well; an un-examined penchant for violence that I wasn’t expressing but pulled me like a moth to flame. Both of my grandfathers were in the military, meting out extreme violence in the name of patriotism and national honor and safety. They were both very good at it. They were also both Christians.
As a Quaker, I’ve searched Jesus’ teachings for help concerning my questions about violence and social change. His journey seems to mirror my own. The progressive and liberal Church leans heavily on early Jesus, who preaches nonviolence in the Beatitudes, but there’s another Jesus, an angry Jesus, a violent Jesus, who comes with a sword and whips bankers and is full of rage. A Jesus who tried nonviolence, who appealed to the best of human nature and was left forsaken, frustrated, impotent, and alone. As I’ve worked for change I have also felt the frustration He felt, the recalcitrance of the system, the dismissal, sidelining, and arrogance of power. I felt kinship with the Jesus who cursed the fig tree, a rich man’s possession, out of anger. I have felt forsaken by God in the face of capitalist domination and I too wondered if I was on the right path. There seemed to be clear biblical precedent for at least some looting and property damage. By gleaning the grain he broke rules to feed the hungry, and in his attack on the temple he destroyed property to bring attention to a problem. This isn’t the normal interpretation but it’s as valid as any, even more so once you strip away the imperialism and antisemitism that has been laid over his words across the centuries.
Throughout the years I have taken this question back to MFW and always found an ability to tie back down to the current running through all of existence of God’s love, and that still, small voice that tells me to view the world with openness and acceptance and patience. I cherished the time in worship to sink down into that which is pure, which wasn’t an answer as much as an approach to a question, but nonetheless has guided my life for which I am grateful to this day. Despite that, I began slowly pulling away the more I learned about riots and other obscured important mechanisms of social change, and as I witnessed and experienced state and non-state fascist violence first hand. Much lofty theory about social change is deeply divorced from the realities of on the ground struggle. Anarchism is decried as too utopian to be realistic, but I think liberalism is much more deluded about the realities of this world. It’s clear that hard-line pacifism is asking many people to quietly die.
The rampant liberalism of the Quakers was starting to get to me. The more I became immersed in social justice history and research the more Quakers began popping up in less flattering arenas than my original impression. There was an article about the early roots of capitalism… and then as one of the architects of the Palmer Raids … and then I found out that those beautiful meeting houses that had so inspired me were built with blood money gotten from Quakers indulging in the slave trade. As it turns out Penn wasn’t such a benevolent colonizer after all, as if there could ever have been such a thing. Many of these things seemed forgivable enough if you squinted and tried to weasel out of accountability by claiming “historical context”, but for me the nail in the coffin was solitary confinement, which is nothing short of legalized torture created by Quakers that continues to this day. That Quakers are not working to atone for that every day by fighting to stop the practice of it was too much for me. Most Quakers despite espousing against violence don’t even seem to be involved in the more visible fight against the death penalty. That I was in Quaker meetings for 4 years without hearing the names Troy Davis or Rodney Reed is shameful and a clear sign that the ideologies of peace only stretch as far as the edges of the racial caste system. The fight for abolition marches on while the Quakers seem to have mostly dropped off the map.
I started feeling uncomfortable in worship. I’d leave in a bad mood, or feeling sick and drained for no discernible reason. I became sullen, detached. I started being more aware of the tension caused by my presence as an open antifascist, an undercurrent of being unwelcome. Not from everyone, far from it, and there were many people that were glad to have me who would quietly give me support and encouragement. But there was also silence and acceptance when someone would speak well of cops the day after another brutal murder. I started speaking less frequently, then going less frequently. I was having a harder and harder time finding God in that space.
God is in the street. I’ve had the privilege of being on the front lines with other radical Quakers, and God is there. I’ve held hands and endured while fascists tried to intimidate and mock us while we stood in solidarity with immigrants and protected their event. We yelled at cops and blocked fascist’s paths with banners. We marched and sang. We provided protection, and food, and water. We treated injuries and got people home safe. God is there.
Part of being a Quaker is learning how to listen to silence and all the volumes spoken with in it, and I realized that in the same meeting the silence was serving vastly different functions for different people. For those really in the struggle, under direct threat and blown around by the tumult of the world, the silence is a salve and a place of refuge in the storm. This is true for everyone to some degree, but I learned slowly of another more insidious function; of being a space to re-assert a shared delusion of comfort and safety built out of privilege and abject denial of how deeply authoritarian the amerikan government already was, how far gone we already were. This was comfort not from accessing God’s love to gain strength for the fight, but of repressing reality, rejecting discomfort, creating a shared social contract that inaction is equal to action, that by petitioning and praying we can keep the demons at bay, that the situation isn’t as dire as it is, and that the constructed reality of middle class liberal whiteness is the same as peace. None of this is true. Life in the United States of Amerikkka is deeply, deeply violent.
It would be unfair to put the blame all on the Quakers for the violence present in those spaces meant for peace and worship. The truth is that the status quo is the problem. Being here in amerika, or really any colonial project, is to be enmeshed in a web of imperialism, police violence, eugenics, and genocide. Any space which claims neutrality without acknowledging that reality is implicitly violent. The only places free from this implicit violence are the spaces where those systems are challenged, which then become spaces of explicit violence as the system reasserts its dominance and crushes resistance. There is no space in amerika which is free from violence and there never has been. It is the fabric of which the white supremacist, imperialist, settler colonialist project is woven.
Throughout these last few years I’ve studied violence, not just theoretically, but also in my body. Knowing I would eventually be joining the black bloc I started training in self defense and martial arts. It felt good, but also dangerous. It felt deeply emotional and also very powerful, tapping into a well of strength and a part of my personality I was very disconnected from. It scared me a little bit even as it fascinated me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m white, or American, or from a military family, or simply human, but I have a capacity for violence that shocked me and had been up to that point entirely hidden or repressed. I’m an artist, a student, a low wage worker, and a teacher. Before my leading to fight fascism, violence was not part of my life.
Many antifascists have a personal history with intimate knowledge of violence; childhood abuse or bullying or gangs. Using that language and skill set to fight back makes sense as we all use the tools available to us to help as we can. At first glance it made no sense for me, and was in many ways deeply naive as I started confronting murderers with very limited real world experience. So what drew me to this form of resistance? The resistance needs artists and teachers and care givers, why did I feel so compelled to be on the front lines? It’s the same part of my soul that drew me to God. There was a void, a something that shifted whenever I tried to look at it, a truth about the world and myself and my place in it that was hiding from me and I needed to root it out, I needed to grab it and stop it from evading me, this power and desire to understand myself and the world I inhabit.
At first I was scared and ashamed of those feelings of enjoying learning strikes and kicks and of this new found side to myself. I didn’t want to unleash something terrible into myself and my life. But that is what holds us all back, the fear injected into good people that we can’t use our power. There was more to me than even I was aware of, a broader set of life paths that I could have been put on in different circumstances, other realities untested, and possibly a brilliance and strength suppressed. As it turns out, I’m entirely decent at martial arts. I trained in dance as a kid and that knowledge of my body and awareness of the space it occupies was extremely helpful. There’s also a brutality and rawness to my anger that I learned to channel. I feel comfortable in combat situations, at home under threat, and invigorated by the opportunity to protect and help in crisis. I never would have found my own strength if I hadn’t also learned defense. I would have made a great imperialist soldier like my grandfathers if I had chosen that path. In lieu of participating in state violence I am proud to be able to provide safety for the vulnerable in my own way. Being confident and well-trained provides a meaningful threat that is very effective at preventing violence, as any bouncer can tell you.
The more I learned about Quakers the more the facade began to slide. We all have complicated histories and no long standing institution has come away from the slings and arrows unscathed, but it feels like Quakerism in particular is deeply enmeshed with the forces of domination and narratives of pacification which have directly led to the horror of late stage capitalism devouring our beautiful world. This destruction is guided by the hand and work of the early reformers and American religious entrepreneurs that built the infrastructure and provided the theological justifications for the ideologies that poison us to the very day; individual responsibility, personal worth being tied to how productive and hard working you are, the nobility of suffering, whiteness...
At first glance, and what I saw originally, was a very anti-capitalist bent in Quakerism. One of the main testimonies is “simplicity”, which for the true believers is an anti-materialist sentiment, and yet there are many Quakers that have amassed a lot of wealth. As far as I can tell, for many the testimony has become nothing more than an aesthetic. It is understandable that early Quakers could miss the ties between capitalism and violence… or is it? Capitalism from the start was tied to the slave trade. But even if you were to make that argument, you have to be willfully blind to not see the ties between capitalism and violence now. If you are going to purport to be anti-violence you must also be anti-capitalist. Most proud capitalists do not claim to also be anti-violence and are openly imperialist and more than happy to cheer on the military violence of the state that ‘opens up new markets’. Quakers are supposedly anti-war, but many don’t seem to have made the connection between war, resource extraction, capitalism, and the state. Many have, but not enough for any coordinated, meaningful direct action against capital, even within their own congregations.
If you’re going to be against violence you must be against the state. The state is itself defined by a monopoly on violence, which it uses continuously to retain its perceived legitimacy. There is a type of “peace” within the heart of empire, but it is built on the threat of violence made potent by routine actual violence to those deemed expendable or a threat (Black people, disabled people, dissidents). By not contesting the dominance of the state do liberals quietly concede that they believe in the innate violence of humanity? Do they see the only options as state violence or chaos? How did people who believe that God is in us all fall into such a cynical belief in the lack of humanity’s capacity for true peace, one not brokered by a police gun? Quakers believe that the way to stop the cycle of violence is through personal eschewal of it, that if everyone was peaceful in spirit, then violence would stop. For me this means rejecting statecraft and the hold it has on our minds. Kill the cop in your head. Abolishing the police and the state are anti-violence struggles.
But as it turns out, I don’t entirely reject violence. Peace doesn’t come easy. MLK may have accidentally done a disservice by saying history bends towards justice, for by doing so he crafted a feeling of inevitability that many people have come to equate with neutrality and complacency in the face of harm. This erases all the immeasurable amount of work and struggle that occurs daily to maintain even the thin modicum of stability some enjoy. Until the acceptance of domination and hierarchy is gone, peace will remain an active struggle, not a passive baseline. As long as greed and power are incentivized the forces of evil must be diligently fought back all the time. Until authoritarian values are fully uprooted from humanity the natural stasis of the human condition will not be one of equity and justice, and when we abdicate the fight all that happens is we allow injustice to flourish unchecked.
I’ve learned that some of the violence hidden in me was the same violence that permeates the nation and the world, for I have also been indoctrinated by capitalism built on exploitation, destruction and anti-Blackness. As I have worked to root out that abusiveness in myself at the same time as I try and root it out of the world, I have found my personal calling to not be in physical confrontation but in mutual aid work and other forms of humanitarian aid. I still cherish the lessons of inner peace I learned as a Quaker and don’t want to be a violent person, which is a choice each of us makes every day. As a settler I am especially cognizant of the danger in wielding violence as a continuation of destructive systems, but some days the choices differ, and some days there are no good choices. Some days you have to fight to survive, and I stand with every victim of violence and oppression that has made the choice to use violence themselves as necessary, and I cannot possibly hold to any ideology that would abandon or condemn Bresha Meadows or CeCe McDonald. I believe in a peaceful god, but not a timid one. It is not peaceful to stand aside and let white nationalists murder the vulnerable. It is not righteous to trust in any broken system that is complicit in genocide and war.
During the US Civil War there was a rupture in the Quakers between who would pick up a weapon to fight for Black liberation and the end of slavery, and those who would hide behind a pacifist ideology that upheld their comfort. When that question is asked of me I will stand and fight to the best of my ability, side by side with the oppressed whom Jesus most loved. We must defend ourselves to survive, and together we will push though the horror of this fascist late capitalist moment to a better world. To be a peace-loving person is to be horrified with the amerikan project from its inception to the present day and every step along the way (Quakers included). My loyalty is to bringing peace to earth, not to any single church or nation. I truly believe that humanity can live in peace, but we’re going to have to fight for it.