Together, they raised their arms in a salute of "Sieg heil." On Sunday, September 24, about 25 men in masks and balaclavas descended on an anarchist book fair in Houston. The group call itself Patriot Front and is loosely affiliated with Vanguard Front, a fascist organization that includes Heather Heyer's murderer, James Alex Fields, as one of its members. They rushed the door of a multicultural community center, igniting a pair of smoke bombs. Witnesses say the assault was led by construction worker and area neo-Nazi, William Fears.
Fears, 30, has made a name for himself in recent weeks. After returning from the Charlottesville demonstration, he began camping out at the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas before its eventual removal. Activists allege Fears also pulled a knife on unarmed protesters with the local migrant justice group, Indivisible Houston, at a rally at George Bush Intercontinental Airport earlier this year.
“[The Patriot Front] were being really irresponsible,” a member of the San Antonio chapter of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation who witnessed the altercation told AlterNet. “There were children inside of that building, and they were outside with smoke bombs.”
Volunteer security saw the fascist group approaching and rushed to lock down the building's entrances, while organizers looked after the book fair's attendees.
“They were personally calling me out, which was pretty unpleasant. I don’t like my name on Nazis’ lips,” Austin-based organizer Kit O’Connell told AlterNet. After helping to shut down an ACT for America “March Against Sharia” rally in Austin on June 10, O’Connell has been targeted on social media by fascists calling him an “antifascist terrorist."
“My educational collective, Oh Shit, What Now?, make ourselves available to almost anyone because we want it to be easy to get involved with activism,” O’Connell said. “We teach public classes. We don’t hide who we are in general, so I recognize that this is a risk, but it’s still unpleasant.”
Robert Warren Ray, who blogs for the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, helped lead the fascist chants. A micro-celebrity in Texas’ white supremacist movement whose lengthy rap sheet dates back to 1993, Ray has led other Vanguard America rallies in Texas that resulted in harassment of leftists. He was featured in the Vice documentary Charlottesville: Race and Terror, boasting that "the so-called alt-right greatly outnumber the anti-white, anti-American filth."
After shouting “blood and soil” and other vulgar slogans for 15 minutes, the fascists stole a handmade sign from the fair and fled the scene. They later posted photos of themselves defiantly clutching the cloth banner on social media.
Police, who organizers claimed had appeared earlier in the day to intimidate the book fair's participants, did not intervene.
"We were prepared for this as organizers, not because of an explicit threat, but because we were real about what it's like organizing in the South and how dangerous it is for queer people, black people, Latinos, Asian people, and anarchists. We are aware of these people wanting to kill us just for existing," Marina G, one of the organizers of the book fair, told AlterNet.
Houston anarchists are no strangers to far-right attacks. In 2007, a local radical anarchist bookstore was set ablaze, though police declined to investigate.
"We organized the anarchist book fair so we could make radical leftist ideas available in the South as an alternative to the violent ideology of capitalism that sends people to the right, and we were successful in attracting a lot of people to our cause," Marina G said. "We need each other now more than ever. They were trying to intimidate us, and they failed. They were trying to make themselves look big so that they can attract more followers."
The Alt-Right Goes Underground
This latest incident in Houston is part of a larger pattern of fascist activity across the country. In June, members of the far-right fighting league, the Proud Boys, disrupted a production of "Julius Caesar" in New York City's Central Park. One month later, the group crashed an indigenous demonstration in Nova Scotia, protested a San Diego impeachment rally and launched a show of force with other far-right groups outside of a Muslim community in upstate New York.
That same month, the Red Elephants, an alt-right media group, disrupted an anti-racist workshop in Santa Monica, while agitators attempted to derail an anti-fascist book talk in Washington, D.C. July also saw a large-scale social media campaign force author and Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to cancel her speaking tour.
Since Charlottesville, these groups have scaled back their operations considerably. Sixty-seven "America First" rallies across the country were called off by anti-immigrant group ACT for America, as was a public book burning in Orange County. Meanwhile the alt -right's flagship website has encouraged its adherents to go underground.
“The call for leaderless resistance from any sector of the right could encourage someone to commit racial or religious violence, with Muslims being a key target,” Chip Berlet, an expert on far-right movements, told AlterNet. "But predicting who, where and when isn't possible.”
Vanguard America’s official Twitter account halted its activity on September 12, and Patriot Front began tweeting two days later. Its posts include photos of offensive banner drops and other hate campaigns on college campuses across Texas. Some Vanguard America organizations have stuck with the moniker, while others have mobilized under the name National Bloc. Vanguard America itself is a splinter cell of American Vanguard, a former fascist group undone by charges of pedophilia among its leadership. Often this factionalism is born of public disgrace, leaving white nationalists humiliated and seeking violent retribution against their perceived enemies.
'You Can't Reason With Them'
According to one member, Black Rose/Rosa Negra has received threats in San Antonio for its successful efforts to remove a Robert E. Lee statue: “They are scared of change. Because anarchism is radical, they oppose it. Trump also gives a platform to their views, so they feel more comfortable out in the open, rather than behind closed doors.”
“You can’t reason with them, can’t come to an agreement,” they continued.
Many feared the Houston Anarchist Book Fair might not be held at all this year. Organizers were preoccupied with coordinating and developing mutual aid networks to help survivors of Hurricane Harvey and raise awareness about imperiled prisoners in Beaumont, among other issues. Ultimately they decided the show must go on, hosting authors and publishers from around the country, along with an estimated 300 attendees.
“The hurricane sort of helped and hurt our efforts in two ways. It threw off our promotion efforts. We just didn’t have the hours to put out promotion material because we were dealing with the hurricane,” one organizer told AlterNet. “On the other hand, I think we got more people to come from San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, who were already there for the relief efforts.”
“It’s important because issues of solidarity, mutual aid and anarchism are on people’s minds,” the organizer continued. “They’re the things people had been talking about after the hurricane, because that’s how so much of the organization of relief efforts had been happening. Giving an overtly political space for people to have those discussions was really special.”