Over the weekend, actor James Woods – famous for, among other things, his killer cameos in eight delicious episodes of Family Guy – tweeted a picture of some anti-fascist protesters. The protesters are all ballied up, linking arms, and one of them is holding a lump of wood with a nail through it.
The tweet was part of a longer thread of picture tweets attempting to show that "antifa" are violent thugs. The tweet went pretty viral. However, having reported on the demo the photograph was taken at, I was surprised to see it used this way.
The picture shows anti-fascists opposing a far-right demonstration against refugees, in Dover, on the south coast of England, in 2015. A reverse image search shows that the image has been used in, among other things, an article calling an anti-Trump protest in November "terrorism"; an article comparing anti-fascists to the KKK, saying they're "affiliated with the Democrats"; a conspiracy website's write-up of a story about a different anti-fascist in Pennsylvania who actually did get arrested for attacking a police horse; an "open letter" to anti-fascists from a "patriot" threatening them with violence; an Infowars story about MSNBC and CNN purportedly "promoting" anti-fascist violence; a blog post about a petition for the White House to recognise Antifa as a terrorist group; and "Texas: Antifa Faggots SHUT DOWN by Brave Nazi Warriors" on a website called Jew World Order.
The photo also seems to pop up a hell of a lot on social media. Along with a few other pictures, it has become a shorthand argument that anti-fascists are not defending their communities against violent racists, but are themselves a mob of thugs. When Senator Tim Kaine tweeted that the violence at Charlottesville "was fueled [sic] by one side: white supremacists spreading racism, intolerance and intimidation", someone asked if his son was one of those pictured. Tim Kaine's son was arrested for disrupting a pro-Trump rally back in March. So that's a picture from Dover, taken in 2015, being used to cast aspersions about a Senator's son being in Charlottesville in August of 2017, when he was actually arrested in Minnesota in March.
So what really happened the day the photo was taken? Dover that day was the scene of a big kick-off as anti-fascists attempted to block the Nazi march through the town. One of the first people I encountered that day was an anti-fascist who had taken a glass to the face after a brawl outside the pub the far-right were gathering at. The two sides exchanged blows and missiles. Oscar Webb, who took the photo, remembers, "Obviously it was quite adversarial, but the side that was more violent was the fascist side. They were throwing bottles and rocks."
The fascists managed to march, and on Nazi forums afterwards appeared to be buoyed by how the day had gone, boasting of the violence they meted out. For a bit more context, take a look at these pictures taken at the same Dover demo:
Yep, that's a man holding a flag with an SS Totenkopf on it, venerating Combat 18 – a neo-Nazi murder squad.
Or how about these guys, holding a banner using the Mein Kampf-inspired 14 words, an overtly neo-Nazi slogan? Woods recently tweeted "everyone hates Nazis. That's a no brainer." Obviously everyone hates Nazis, but just FYI: unfortunately not everyone hates Nazis. Certainly not everyone in Dover on that day, and certainly not those taking part in the recent demonstrations that American anti-fascists have mobilised against.
Here's the police struggling to contain a crowd of fascists.
The far-right giving it large. You get the idea.
Following the death of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, the Twitter-right engaged in a lot of disgusting apologetics for James Field, a white-nationalist who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. They slowed down videos and gave a twisted interpretation where the panic of being surrounded by anti-fascists had forced Fields to "hit the gas". The suggestion was that the exact, specific context absolves Fields. Neatly, the victims could be blamed for being attacked.
James Woods' tweet – and the use of this photo – does the same, but in reverse. It denies people defending themselves against fascists any context or rationale, and suggests they're weirdos who go around poking strangers with sticks for no reason, even if they're actually facing up to people who venerate death squads.
Oscar Webb said, "I've been on other demos like this where I've been pushed over or grabbed by the fascist side and threatened, so it's kind of ironic... Not in a funny way, but in a terrifying way... If our reporting and my image has been used to prove some crap, incorrect point out of context, it's interesting that's what's come out of this."
WATCH: On the Front Lines of the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi Rally
If we do want to get into specifics of the anti-fascist photo, the guy looks like he's using the stick defensively to help form a barrier. I can't say for sure, but he's just as likely to have picked it up from a skip or ripped it off a pallet rather than arriving tooled up, because walking around a heavily policed area with an offensive weapon is not something people tend to do at protests in the UK. There were no police horses to poke with a spike there that day. But that detail doesn't put the picture in its true context.
The perceived fascist victory on that day emboldened the far-right to return to the town in greater numbers the following January, when another Nazi demo and counter-demo resulted in the most intense political violence I've ever witnessed in the UK. That time, the far-right propaganda had called refugees "the dregs of humanity" and an "army of Orcs!" ready to "invade".
The year that photo was taken, there was an explosion of Islamophobic abuse and attacks in the UK, rising 326 percent. Less than a year after this photo the right are circulating was taken, Jo Cox MP lay dead in the street, murdered by a man who gave his name as "death the traitors, freedom to Britain" in court. Attacks on migrants are rising. Far-right doctrine dictates that this conflict is inevitable. The VICE News documentary from Charlottesville left no doubt as to how the far-right glories in violence.
When people are slugging it out on the street, we need to ask: who's the aggressor here? Is it the people who loudly boast about wanting to use violence as a means to start a new ethno-state? The guys who chant slogans and wave placards explicitly referencing Hitler's Third Reich? Or is it the people who believe it's necessary to defend against that? Jeez, I just don't know. A real moral conundrum. James Woods, if you're reading this, can you please take some more photos completely out of context to help me make my mind up?