After surviving far right violence in Charlottesville, Emily Gorcenski has tracked the Proud Boys and other extremist groups
Emily Gorcenski is an American data scientist and anti-fascist researcher who now resides in Germany. Photograph: Marzena Skubatz/The Guardian
The far-right Proud Boys group, whom Donald Trump refused to denounce this week, have been linked to assaults on protesters, white supremacist organizing, the spread of Covid misinformation and other threats against Americans.
Emily Gorcenski has been tracking them every step of the way.
Since 2018, the 38-year-old data scientist has been exposing members of the far right and cataloguing white supremacist violence across the US through her site, First Vigil. The project grew out of the attack on her Charlottesville, Virginia, community the year prior – the deadly Unite the Right rally, which brought Gorcenski face to face with neo-Nazis bearing torches and swastikas, shouting racist and transphobic vitriol at her. One of her attackers was later revealed to be an active service US marine.
Using court files and other public records, the anti-fascist researcher has catalogued hundreds of criminal cases, connected the dots of dangerous neo-Nazi networks, and revealed links that journalists and authorities have missed. These days, it can be difficult to keep up. Far-right violence has escalated dramatically under Trump, who has ignored his own government’s domestic terrorism warnings and encouraged vigilante violence against leftists.
For her safety, Gorcenski has relocated to Berlin, where she has some distance from the US white supremacist threats and the groups she investigates.
In the latest installment of the Guardian’s series on trans activists at the forefront of protest movements, we talked to Gorcenski via Zoom about her predictions of increasing violence, the best 2020 tactics for fighting neo-Nazis, and the links between anti-trans movements and white supremacist groups.
Let’s start with Trump’s refusal at the debate to condemn the Proud Boys. What do you see as the potential consequences of his “stand by” remark?
This is explicit approval of violent white nationalism from the highest reaches of the government. What this says is the president does not care about the idea of an equitable legal foundation for our country. And these groups see this as tacit permission to not only keep doing what they’re doing, but to ramp it up. After Charlottesville, Trump was asked if he was going to tone down the rhetoric, and he said, no, I’m going to “tone it up”. And then in the 18 months after Unite the Right, we saw a stunning amount of white supremacist violence across the US, including mass shootings and terrorism. Now, I expect we will see an uptick in the coming weeks and months.
Can you tell me a bit about why you decided to start tracking neo-Nazis on First Vigil?
If we aren’t actively trying to maintain these histories, we’re not going to get the true and complete picture of what’s going on
If we aren’t actively trying to maintain these histories and stories, we’re not going to get the true and complete picture of what’s going on. That’s what First Vigil is about – making sure we don’t forget and lose the details between court appearances. Like others involved in the sort of counter-white-supremacy game, I was tweeting about these cases and making connections, and eventually decided we can do better than Twitter. So I started a spreadsheet, which turned into First Vigil. I pull court records, and now every weekend, I sit down and go through these cases. At this point, I have a six-month backlog of information to add. And I’ve given up with some protests, because I can’t keep up with every case of some fucking white supremacist who drives his car into a crowd or beats up a Black Lives Matter protester.
There are a number of activists and researchers who do this kind of tracking. What’s the impact of putting this information out there?
It’s led to the exposure of white supremacists in the military. It’s revealed networks and connections of people. It has also empowered people in communities to form coalitions and organize against white supremacists recruiting in their midst. My hope is that by combating these farthest fringe movements, we can build the momentum to start attacking more mainstream ones. If we can rally around kicking a Nazi out of the police as something that is necessary in civil society, maybe we can also say, it’s not just the Nazis in the police. It’s the way the police operate.
It’s clear that the police take a side. You see it in the protest dynamics for years and years. Specifically with Kenosha and some other recent events, the police were openly permissive of the far right, saying, “Why don’t you guys stand over there? Why don’t you do this?” I don’t necessarily believe they were trying to give tactical deployment orders. They were probably saying: “Here’s how to stay out of trouble.” Still, it shows this level of congeniality with these groups that is not afforded to the left. The police work with these groups or tacitly accept them, and then it snowballs and spreads and gets bigger and bigger until it eventually hits a boiling point, which is what happened in Kenosha [where the alleged rightwing vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with killing two protesters]. The facts are the police are deeply infiltrated by white supremacists. The FBI knows it. Police are part of this problem in both a participatory way and by permitting this to happen.
For many reasons, it’s become increasingly risky to go to some of these protests. Do you think people should continue to oppose these groups on the ground?
Protest is inherently a dangerous activity, and it is getting more and more dangerous. So my advice to people protesting is to spend a lot of time doing very active and intentional planning around safety and contingency plans: who looks after your pets if you’re arrested or worse? Who takes care of your kids? What is your fallback scenario if you have to leave town? It’s a lot of work. But we need to start looking at a post-democratic society in America and what that is going to look like. And your priority needs to be your safety and security.
But I do think protests are still extremely important. The protests have managed to put in front of the media in an undeniable way that Donald Trump is a racist white supremacist and a supporter, tacit or otherwise, of this violence. And people are dying and the white supremacists marching in the street set the tone of what’s acceptable. So if we can at least say “this is not acceptable”, then maybe we can make progress. If we ignore that and let that happen, then we’ve lost the game.
There’s a ton of misinformation about “antifa” and leftwing protest movements. How would you explain to folks what it means to be “anti-fascist” right now?
People who are comfortable with how things are need to be uncomfortable, and they need to start holding people accountable
There’s a diversity of strategies we can have on how to build a world that is resilient to fascism. Protest is part of that. So is community involvement. I think one of the most effective things that people can do is learn ways they can help their neighbors in the community – in direct ways that do not rely on governments and the state and other systems. I think the fundamental principle of anti-fascism is mutual aid. And we have to look at the long game. With Covid and the economy, hard times are still to come and we have to position ourselves to survive. Self-empowerment is to me the most anarchist principle out there, because it means you’re dependent on nobody but yourself, or you get to create those structures of support in your community. People ask, ‘How do you fight Nazis?’ I say, learn Spanish so you can translate for immigrants. Learn how to fix a tail light so you can keep somebody from getting pulled over on a bullshit charge. Find ways to lift each other up, to better help others.
There have been protests against police brutality all summer. I’m curious for your perspective on how direct actions can be most impactful?
Protest isn’t supposed to be fun or pleasant for those who are doing it, for those who it is targeting, but most importantly for the people in the surrounding communities. Change happens when people get fed up. The status quo must be disrupted. People who are comfortable with how things are need to be uncomfortable, and they need to start holding people accountable. People can blame protesters for blocking the road or being loud, but part of the frustration will be directed at the people who are in charge for failing to make the protest go away. And one way to make protests go away is to cede to the demands. Protests as parades don’t do anything. They don’t inconvenience anyone. They don’t do anything to threaten power and we need to threaten power.
I’ve seen you tweet about your attempts to figure out how law enforcement is monitoring you. What have you learned?
I know the FBI is monitoring my tweets. I’m somebody who is very publicly anti-fascist, and law enforcement does not understand anti-fascism or white supremacy movements. So I have to watch what I say. I push the envelope a lot. I might cross the line from time to time, I don’t know. I haven’t been arrested yet. I’ve been sued a couple times, but I’ve beaten those. It does make me conscious of how we effectively build a movement that is revolutionary while avoiding the things that will cause the state to come in and silence us.
Are there other ways this work affects you personally after surviving the Charlottesville attack, which was obviously a traumatic day?
I see the Nazi torches almost every day because they became a symbol of a cultural moment. So that’s my trauma that gets lived over and over. And it can be very derailing, but then there’s other times when I’m doing the work and gathering evidence, and I can just switch into that mode. White supremacists dehumanize you so successfully that in order to even begin to address the way that they work, the way that they talk, the way that they operate, what their beliefs are, you have to dehumanize a part of yourself to even engage.
You’ve talked previously about the connections between anti-trans movements and white supremacists. Can you explain the links?
White supremacy is not purely a racial concept. It’s fundamentally racist, but it’s also fundamentally antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-trans, anti-disability. It’s about purification through whiteness and through maleness and through the consolidation of power. When we look at communities that are exclusionary, whether it is the “Terf” movement [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] or the anti-vaxxer movement, we see these movements are an entry point into a broader white supremacist movement. If you read anti-trans forums, which talk about defending “womanhood” against trans people, you will also see anti-Islam sentiments, defending womanhood against Muslims. Then they start gatekeeping sexuality and cis women. You’ll see antisemitic posts about how the initial researchers on “transgenderism” in the early 20th century were Jewish, which is a fact. Then they say it’s the Jews funding medical studies on trans healthcare. You get sucked into this.
Finally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the media should be reporting on groups like the Proud Boys without making these problems worse?
We have to be upfront about what they are and what they stand for. They are a violent neo-fascist racist street gang. They’re allowed to go out and break laws, violate public safety and put people in danger at protest events. Most of them are traveling across the country to do this, entering communities that are not their own. Report the facts and what they do. Don’t give into their propaganda and how they present themselves. If you feel you have an obligation to represent what the Proud Boys call themselves, you can do that, but don’t lead with that. Lead with what is happening, and show it. And the media should talk to experts who are studying this. They understand the dynamics and nuances, and their phones should be blowing up. And address Trump’s lies as lies. Call him a white supremacist and a racist, because he is one.
- This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity