7 min read

An Intermediate Lesson in Community Defense

We're going to be discussing violent situations and firearms today. If that's not your bag, duck out now. If you can deal, it's not all we'll be discussing, and the lessons are broadly applicable and fold in with others.

We've talked a little bit about the idea of community defense before, but I think it warrants a much larger, more nuanced discussion. When we start talking about the physical defense of ourselves and our community, suddenly the idea of what and who community is and what defense constitutes becomes important. A community, for us, can be something as obvious as a neighborhood but is more likely to be something a little more subtle, like a group of neighbors within a neighborhood, or the people that attend a particular establishment, place of worship, etc. So, put as simply as possible–which won't sound all that simple, but bear with me–community defense is the environment of safety and security fostered independent of an outside authority which allows for a community to achieve other goals. And you thought I was gonna link you to a riot shield, didn't you?

The common ideas you might think of when thinking of community defense: people in black bloc shouldering AR-15s, should not be the tip of your mutual aid spear. Community defense should begin and end in an ecosystem of broader mutual aid efforts, because a community which requires defense almost certainly requires all manner of support–the efforts which you will be defending. Therefore, unless you are stepping into an extant ecosystem, your first thought as a member of this soon-to-be-defended community is whether that community is being fed, receiving medical care, and is adequately sheltered. With that established, you can then contemplate the actual defense of said community.

Passive Defense

Starting from a place of having something to defend–that is, some other aspect of mutual aid or a well-established community–we can then think about community defense itself. There is, again, a lot more to this idea than simply toting a gun around. In the same way that there are passive deterrents for home and personal security, a community can provide passive protection without any show of active force.

The community itself is its first defense. Being part of a group is a more secure situation than being alone, and being in a group that is engaging in mutual aid is even moreso. Then there is awareness, which is simply a method of being in the world that won't cost you a penny but will act as a deterrent for both the individual and the community. Being visibly alert rather than having your head down, eyes to your phone, is a good way to keep people moving on. Having a few members of a meeting at the door, or a few people on security detail at a protest, means that the odds of an attack of opportunity are slimmer, because the opportunity itself is slimmer, and a premeditated attack has a lower chance of success.

Before we move on to maintaining a phalanx formation, there's one last form of passive defense: having already punched a fascist (or whomever). If a city or community has responded to an antagonistic presence vocally, and yes, physically? That presence has been noted to diminish. That is, it's true, especially the case when a fascist gets his teeth knocked out or when said community shows up with an armed presence. I'm not trying to get you on the side of firearms and physical intervention because I like 'em–they work. They work sometimes without ever having to be used.

The Part You Expected to Hear From the Start

Now we've come to the guns. While it is a tremendous responsibility and an escalation in tactics, having an armed and trained contingent of your group or community is a proven method of defense against right-wing hate and state-sponsored aggression.

Before you just walk up to a Food Not Bombs or a Pride parade with an AR and plate carrier, first, well, don't. No one should go anywhere just swinging their gun around–especially uninvited. You should be a member of the community you intend to protect, or have an established relationship with that community. No one is going to be relaxed with some unknown white guy strutting about looking like all of our worst nightmares. Don't do that.

What you should do as armed members of a community defense group is come together and train, and not just with weapons. Before you ever pick up any weapon, de-escalation is a valuable tool that can save yourselves a beating, if not a life. Having done it for years without getting punched in the face, I can tell you that the most valuable tactic of de-escalation is to simply engage the aggressor, separate them from the larger context if possible, and actively listen to them–despite how baseless and vile their views may be. Being heard is inherently, metaphorically, disarming–I have walked people out of establishments, told them they were no longer welcome, and been thanked for my time because I genuinely listened. This will not work in every context, because ultimately there are situations beyond reasoning, but it is important to remember de-escalation as a tool.

After working on your verbal chops, you need to be certain you're trained up in a more active fashion. Go to the range, do dry-fire drills, do some basic group work. Training as a group is important here, as it will make you more mindful of the safety of others, and that's crucial to operating in the real world. It doesn't have to be anything wild, and it doesn't have to be something you do every week, but if the only time you intend to carry your weapon is when you are entering a real-world situation, you probably should not carry that weapon.

Being that you're trained, that you're a known entity to the community, and that the situation calls for an open presence–armed or unarmed–your duty at that point is solely community defense as that pertains to the situation at hand. You are not, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the police. That defeats the entire purpose of literally everything we've talked about. You are not there to govern people, to impose on others, or to arrest anyone in any fashion. If someone is an active threat, you put yourself between your community and that threat. That's it. Now, that role, applied, may look very different depending on your circumstances:

-At a protest, being on defense may look like taking the front or rear of a march, keeping an eye out for violent counterprotestors or watching the movements of the cops. You aren't there to keep the pace, to control traffic (in most situations), or to police what protestors do. All you should be worried about is the safety of your people. There are more than enough moving parts in a protest for that to be your only concern.

-Community defense can look like posting up at the home of someone who's been doxxed, or someone under particular harassment. Whether inside or outside, your job is just to sit there and keep your person safe–not to yell at dog-walkers or draw so much attention that you get SWATted. On approach of someone suspicious or of outright attack, you make yourself known.

-Contrariwise to all this restraint, community defense can, at times, be active. It can mean turning out at a KKK march to let a bunch of racist nerds know they're not welcome in your town. It can mean banding together with a people who are houseless to stop a sweep, or to buy time for that group to relocate without interference. It can mean an active, visible presence in the community when that community has come under constant threat.

Historical Examples of Community Defense

I feel like it's worthwhile to provide a robust defense of the idea of robust defense, so here are some examples of successful community defense:

-The most obvious example of community defense–particularly in an ecosystem of broader mutual aid and organization–is the Black Panther Party. The Panthers openly carried firearms as a form of defense against violent law enforcement, and engaged the community in many beneficial ways while espousing revolutionary ideals.

-The EZLN–the Zapatistas, known for wearing balaclavas and carrying rifles–in a gross oversimplification, organized in response to inequality in their region. Communities across the Mexican state of Chiapas rose up in 1994, and seized control of several towns and cities before backtracking into the forest to avoid a military engagement. Since their formation, they have maintained autonomous control of a large portion of the state to this day.

-Complications aside, the defense of the CHAZ in Seattle and the Red House in Portland involved armed leftists and protestors defending against and deterring fascist and law enforcement attacks.

-Anarchists and activists in New Orleans, after Katrina, organized community defense in response to white vigilantes' harassment of Black residents in the Algiers neighborhood.

-As previously mentioned, in Dallas, the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club successfully stopped the sweep of a houseless encampment by their presence alone.

-Very recently, the Elm Fork and other John Brown Gun Clubs stepped up at two events and provided armed protection.

As mutual aid efforts become larger and more pervasive, we'll see more obvious attempts to quash them. Resisting those attacks and recovering from them is how we ensure that members of our communities see there is a way forward that's better than what we're stuck with now. And though I've stressed that defense should be attached to extant communities and aid efforts, I think we should also be prepared to imagine an evolving idea of community defense; not a discrete group within a community that takes the role, but rather a technique or tool to be used. Ideally all members of the community can take part in the defense of said community at some point. An ever-armed contingent of our neighborhood, organization, or community practically begs for corruption, and to avoid that we should, as soon as possible, do away with defense as a specialization and instead commit ourselves–all of us–to use of the tool of community defense.