| Harrison Neuhaus |
Racist violence with minimal intervention from a sympathetic police force is a recurring theme throughout American history. The Left has long recognized affinity between the state and white supremacy as a key obstacle to social liberation. But as today’s Left grapples with a rising far-right and historic crises of legitimacy and reproduction, it’s especially critical that we learn from the lessons of our antecedents. Particularly in this moment of growing multiracial movements and a renewed labor militancy, and as we see echoes of this dark history in events like the now-infamous Charlottesville Unite The Right Rally and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, it is especially important to re-evaluate the legacy of the often overlooked Communist Workers Party (CWP).
In 1979, the CWP organized an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, NC, which was ambushed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis under the watch of a sympathetic police. Ku Klux Klan members and members of the American Nazi Party drove up to the peaceful picket, promptly unloaded several rifles from their cars, and massacred 5 demonstrators. The attack was led by an FBI/police informant, as well as an undercover ATF agent, yet police presence was minimal and attending officers did not intervene. The attackers escaped easily.
This pattern has gone largely unchanged in the intervening years. Police have been caught coordinating with Proud Boys, posing with the Capitol Hill rioters, parroting far-right lies and turning a blind eye to their preparations for violence — all while forcefully dispersing even the most moderate protests by the left against police brutality. So it comes as no surprise that far-right organizations have long focused on infiltrating law enforcement roles, and that police are three times more likely to use violence against left-wing protestors, despite the consensus that far-right violence poses by far the greatest threat to the public.
Yet what is especially critical about the CWP story is not the massacre itself, but rather what preceded it — and what made it such a target in the first place. The CWP had established a strong presence for several years in Greensboro, focusing on organizing predominantly Black textile workers throughout the area. Greensboro had long been a major textile producer, home to major national mills like the Cone Mills White Oak plant. Immersing themselves in the union, the CWP quickly developed a strong multiracial cadre that was successfully pushing strong organization and militancy among the workers.
In many ways, their approach prefigured the way today’s nascent Left is developing: from the intersectional focus on multiracial solidarity to the emphasis on developing existing working class institutions. And this is precisely what made them a threat to local power structures. What ultimately unfolded was a converging of interests between the state, the local mill owners, and white supremacist institutions that have long used terror to maintain a system of racial capitalism — these forces could not avoid responding in some way to the diverse working class strength that the CWP was building among a particularly strategic set of workers who could bring the backbone of the local economy to a standstill.
What today’s Left must recognize is that this model of multiracial rank-and-file organizing works, that it represents a genuine possibility for social liberation, and that therefore it will inevitably come into conflict with the state or its right-wing proxies. And as surveillance regimes only expand and become more sophisticated, it is especially critical that we remain vigilant about our security as we organize. Fortunately, many are taking these imperatives seriously. Some are even going further, which is why we are seeing the growth of organizations like the Socialist Rifle Association, which aim to coordinate community self-defense efforts.
Ultimately, if the CWP’s history teaches us anything, it is that we must remain committed to organizing multiracial coalitions, informed by our diversity, while centering a common program that speaks directly to shared needs. The severity of the efforts to prevent this kind of organizing are evidence of its efficacy. But we must remember that this makes us the target of a number of powerful and loosely-aligned antagonists. Any meaningful challenge to hegemony will generate a response. If the Left is going to build lasting change, we need to be prepared for these obstacles.