(A commentary piece by Walter Reeves also appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Public Eye magazine.)
In 1990, when I was a teenager, I met and began working with Walter Reeves and other members of Neighbors Network—an anti-Klan, anti-Nazi group based in Atlanta, GA. Reeves was its co-chair of education and outreach from 1989 until the group’s dissolution in 1996.
Against the background of the Reagan administration’s coded, racist language, the late-1980s and early 1990s were marked by a surge in Far Right organizing in the United States. Across the South, and especially in Georgia, the traditional distinctions between Nazis and various independent Klans were eroding. In Forsyth County, which long had a reputation as a “sundown county” where no African-Americans had lived since 1912, a stone-throwing mob disrupted and ended a march organized by civil-rights activists in 1987. The following week, 10,000 civil rights marchers were confronted by thousands of counter-protestors in the same place. This counter-protest is considered the largest pro-segregation rally in the country since the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
Emboldened by the weak response from local governments, Klan groups held frequent public events in Georgia. These ranged from handing out flyers at shopping malls to holding rallies with hundreds of Nazi skinheads. These groups committed numerous assaults on queer folks, people of color, immigrants, the homeless, and antiracist activists. While these actions were generally condemned, they nevertheless helped fuel more mainstream and “legitimate” right-wing activism, such as the Cobb County Commission’s 1993 resolution that condemned “lifestyles advocated by the gay community.”
Neighbors Network was formed to counter the activism and spreading influence of the Far Right in Georgia. I learned of the organization through its anti-Nazi flyers in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood. I and other teenage punk rockers formed a small, antiracist youth group focused on making antifascist propaganda in the metro Atlanta punk scene. While we were formally independent of Neighbors Network, we worked closely with Reeves and other members.
After Neighbors Network folded in 1996, Reeves remained active in antiwar politics and racial and economic justice issues. He was the Georgia Green Party’s press secretary during Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, and he was a founding member of the first Atlanta Indymedia Collective. He participated in the anti-Iraq War movement and the continuing attempts to close the School of the Americas, as well as the 2004 antiglobalization actions at the Group of Seven meeting at Sea Island, Georgia. Today, he is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a militant unionist. He continues to write and cartoon from a radical perspective, and he is working on a memoir about the Neighbors Network.
A glossary is supplied below. Links are also provided for Reeves’s publications, including “Hatred in Georgia” and some of his recent writings.
—Spencer Sunshine, PRA associate fellow
I remember vividly the big books of pictures that Neighbors Network took at Klan and Nazi rallies. When someone was assaulted or threatened, you would show them the books and attempt to identify the person. If the person who was attacked wanted to press charges, you would help them navigate the judicial system. If people were threatened at their homes, the armed members of the group would stay with them at night. There was an annual report that you released, “Hatred in Georgia,” detailing racist organizing and violence in Georgia. What else did Neighbors Network do?
Our yearly report “Hatred in Georgia,” which tracked hate crime and hate-group activity in the state, was extremely useful in raising public awareness. It also served to deprive the Klan and Nazis of one of their main strengths: their anonymity. The more names that we attached to faces, the fewer unknown faces were available. We found that this sort of exposure had a dampening effect on the violence and intimidation practiced by these groups.
We also worked with a host of civic and community groups along with local and state organizations. These included the NAACP, churches, synagogues, the Governor’s Human Relations Commission, the Mexican Consulate, the [Georgia] State Legislative Black Caucus, and the MLK Day March Committee, among others. This work took us all over the state as well as parts of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. I even had the occasion to address Kiwanis and Optimist Club meetings, if you can imagine that!
The goal of this work was to promote the development of local centers of resistance to white supremacist and Nazi activity in communities that had been targeted by such groups. Usually the first step was to help determine just who and what a particular community was up against. Whenever we got word of Klan activity in a community, we would contact local organizations to determine what their level of awareness was and to share whatever information we had with them.
This [outreach] was useful because people seldom had more than a superficial knowledge of the specific group or individuals they were confronting. Naturally, they tended to view their problem as a purely local one. In fact, the agitation in their communities was part of an overall pattern of activity with larger goals. Once they understood the Klan’s larger strategy, as well as being able to identify the individuals and organizations involved, it enabled them to recognize the need for active counter-organizing and to develop an effective strategy.
Further, our involvement as an organization from outside the community insured that the situation faced by local residents would receive wider public attention. This strengthened resistance by reducing the community’s isolation and increased public pressure on officials and business and community leaders to take action, whereas without such public scrutiny they might have preferred to look the other way. When we began our work, the general attitude among such folk was along the lines of “Ignore them and they will go away.” Our role was, in part, to make the case that this attitude was utterly mistaken.
The forms such resistance took varied according to local circumstances. We took it as a given that only those living in a particular community could determine what was appropriate and effective in their locality. This took a good deal of close cooperation and coordination on our part and required a significant investment of time and energy. The most important long term tactic was educating people to the presence and activity of hate groups and the threat they posed. When people in a community decided on a course of action, our role was to share expertise and resources to support their efforts.
This approach contrasted sharply with that of other outside groups who might roll into a town on the day of a Klan rally, engage in a raucous confrontation before the media cameras, and then leave the local residents to deal with the aftermath on their own.
We also engaged in what we described as recovering people from hate groups. That is, supporting and defending people who had decided to break from such groups. This took a number of different forms. Sometimes we were contacted by parents who had discovered their children’s involvement and were looking for information and resources. On other occasions, we were approached directly by people who were trying to find a way out on their own.
It’s important to note that the research and monitoring work that we did was crucial in supporting our community work. Very often it was left to us to identify to the locals, the organizations, and individuals that had targeted their communities. It wasn’t readily apparent to many of them that their local problems were part of a larger, statewide and interstate pattern of agitation and organization.
In retrospect, I encountered you during a significant revival of the KKK/neo-Nazi movement in the United States, in one of its strongholds. Of course, I didn’t realize that I was stuck in this fulcrum at an unfortunate time. What was your opinion of what was going on, and how did you all see what you were engaged in? Some activists thought that antifascism was in opposition to a growing national fascism, and that these groups were the Republican Party’s “brownshirts” in a rather literal way.
I don’t doubt that in specific instances there may have been tacit alliances between particular Republicans and certain fascist elements, in fact I have direct knowledge of one local case, but the notion that these amounted to any sort of organizational command and control shows a lack of comprehension for the character of the white supremacist and Nazi movements. I think that such an analysis has more to do with pre-existing political fixations than reality. The political advantages of this position are plain, in that it allowed one to lump all elements of the Right together under the label of fascist and tie that tin can to the GOP’s tail. Unfortunately this distorts the unique character of fascism as a social and political phenomenon.
This, in my opinion, was a fundamental and tragic error. Two key elements of fascism are its mass base and its disregard for standards of bourgeois legality. Any political entity possessing these two attributes possesses all it needs to pursue an autonomous, radical, and even revolutionary course.
The failure of the left to appreciate this reality led to fatal miscalculations when it confronted the development of National Socialism. It treated the radical and revolutionary pretensions of the Nazis as play acting designed to confuse the working class and saw Hitler as nothing more than a paid stooge. Consequently, they failed to understand the actual threat posed by Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, imagining that he would be used up and easily deposed of as so many bourgeois politicians before him. Hence the grotesque slogan of “After Hitler, Thälmann!”
Of course this excludes other arguably fascist but distinct forces, such as those under the heading of the Religious Right or the “patriot” movement. These clearly developed into a reserve constituency for the Republicans, and the GOP has acted to shield them in moments of crisis, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. They are distinct from avowedly white supremacist and Nazi elements but tap into the same social forces that have historically fed such groups. This means that while they are distinct politically and organizationally, they possess an organic linkage by virtue of drawing on the same social base. This organic relationship produces a far more complex and contradictory reality than is allowed for by mechanistic theoretical conceptions.
As a practical matter, this means that while there are many opportunities for convergence among fascists and quasi-fascist elements, there are also many opportunities for conflict and therefore many opportunities for leveraging such conflicts, if one has the wit to see them.
More broadly, our work was always informed by the danger of convergence between the larger “conservative” movement and overt fascism and the necessity of frustrating any such trend where it was detected, particularly since it was apparent that white supremacists were constantly on the hunt for opportunities of recasting themselves as movement conservatives. This is worth noting as we attempt to analyze and understand contemporary phenomenon on the right such as the Tea Party.
What did you think when you met our group of mostly punk teenagers, who were 14 to 18? I remember you saying that you, and one of the other group members, understood punks in a way that was not understandable to others—even though they must have been familiar with hippy counterculture. In my own political work over the last 20 years, I rarely work with younger teenagers; usually folks are at least 19 or 20. What did you think about this intergenerational work?
The 1960s counterculture was a largely utopian phenomenon. Although it became somewhat politicized as events progressed, it was at heart an anti-political impulse. Rather than organizing collectively to directly challenge the established order, the counterculture placed its emphasis on cultural transformation via personal transcendence. To understand how this idea could take hold, you have to appreciate the state of U.S. culture coming out of the 1950s, something not easily done if you didn’t experience it directly. Latter day propaganda (Happy Days, Grease, etc.) has obscured the reality behind a haze of nostalgia for “a simpler time.” While it was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, it was also a period of social and political regimentation previously unknown in peace time—what is euphemistically referred to as “conformism” or, as in a popular characterization, “the silent generation.” When it came to suppressing personal, cultural, or political dissent domestically, the Cold War was a hot war.
The longer and more assiduously the free impulses of a society are suppressed, the more intense and chaotic the eventual explosion is likely to be. However, the countercultural rebellion was unique in that it had no real economic component. There was a notion abroad that the problem of material scarcity had finally been solved and that all that remained to be accomplished was the full liberation of individual and collective consciousness. This produced what might be described as a politics of transcendence. The belief that ecstatic experience, shattering all existing repressive social standards and institutions, would usher in a new age.
The punk rebellion was something very different. It developed when the failure of the politics of transcendence and the falsity of the assumption of the end of material scarcity had become apparent. While it was an expression of youth culture, it was far less naive, far more confrontational and overtly political than the counterculture had ever been. Both myself and David saw this as a positive development.
I was both impressed and encouraged when we hooked up with you guys. Having grown up in the late Jim Crow South, I know something about being a young dissenter in a hostile environment. At one point in high school I was known as “Walter the Anarchist.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment.
Regrettably, your experience in terms of your political work is typical. One of the great failures, in my opinion, of the U.S. Left is its near total disconnect with youth. Odd that folks supposedly all about a better future would so neglect the coming generation.
What was your own political background, and that of the other members? You told me you were a Yippie and involved in the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), and that you always identified as a Marxist—why? And why were the punks closer to you (versus the anarcho-syndicalist in the group), but later became closer to anarchism?
Over the entire span of its activity, the Neighbors Network had members whose political views ranged from anarcho-syndicalist to card-carrying Republicans. The politics among the founding five members were naturally less diverse, ranging from Left-liberal to radical.
For myself, I grew up during the heyday of the Civil Rights revolution, SDS, and countercultural radicalism. I was twelve in 1968 but had been a confirmed anti-racist since the age of eight. The murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had a profound effect on me, as had my earlier realization that the majority of my classmates and friends had lost most or all of their European relatives during the Nazi genocide. For a boy raised in a sprawling extended family populated with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, such knowledge cut close to the bone.
By age seven it was being increasingly borne in on me that I was living in a society whose racism rivaled that of the Nazis, with a tolerance for violence, murder, and terror to match. I can actually recall the moment when this realization crystallized for me.
We were living in a small town at the time and my parents had taken us to the Dairy Queen. While they were ordering at the front window I slipped around the side and there it was. A small window with a cramped counter and a sign above bearing the single word “Colored.” But that wasn’t all. Flies buzzed above the remains of a spilled drink on the counter top and above the trash can immediately next to it which was overflowing with wrappers, cups, and related refuse. It looked as though it hadn’t been emptied in a week. The contrast with the tidiness of the window where my parents were being served made the intended message clear. I think that’s when I first began to understand that history isn’t the past but something that you are living through.
When I entered my teens I began to seek out ways to connect with the youth radicalization that was rattling the United States at the time. I was an avid reader of the Great Speckled Bird as well as other underground papers from around the country. I also read Jerry Rubin’s Do It! and Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It! and Steal This Book.
Such stuff was pretty intoxicating for an adolescent given the temper of the times. Coming on the heels of the civil-rights revolution, the Chicago Riots in 1968 and the ensuing trial of the Chicago Seven for conspiracy, the mass mobilizations against the Vietnam War, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, Woodstock, the Urban rebellions, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and Kent State created an atmosphere wherein anything seemed possible. In my second year at Grady High School, months of agitation by the Challenge Corps climaxed in a mass sit-in against the Vietnam War and ROTC on campus. The cops were called in to break it up and a crack-down on political activists ensued.
In the following three years, I participated in a lot of demonstrations. I kept reading the radical press and at one point attempted to supply the basis for a city-wide high school underground press syndicate via my access to the print shop at the school I was then attending. Around this time an “organizer” for Zippie, the grouping that succeeded Yippie, came to town and I functioned for a while as the printer and graphic designer/artist for their leaflets, posters, and news sheet. It was this work that made me a peripheral person of interest in an FBI investigation into Zippie during Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign.
It was beginning to become apparent that the radical impulses of the counterculture were petering out. Like many others, I was trying to figure out what would come next. None of the existing Leninist-style organizations that had absorbed what was left of the 1960s radicalization struck me as anything more than dinosaurs. In the end I volunteered for the staff of the Great Speckled Bird for what amounted to my apprenticeship in radical journalism. At this time I formed one of those relationships that profoundly affect one’s personal development. I became close friends with a local Marxist playwright and poet who introduced me to a broader appreciation and vision of Marx than that contained by the arid formulas of Leninism. I began reading books that he suggested and educating myself in a way I had not done before. The experience re-energized and re-focused me. I began to take up organizational and cultural work in a big way.
I enrolled at Georgia State University and joined the staff of the school paper, where I openly espoused radical perspectives on cultural, social, and political matters. I participated in the mass mobilization in the wake of the Greensboro Massacre where we marched under a declaration of martial law to protest the killing of members and supporters of the Communist Workers Party by the Klan and Nazis. I became heavily involved in the Atlanta Committee Against Registration for the Draft, a coalition encompassing right libertarians, liberals, Quakers, Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others. I fell in with the anarchist caucus. I also helped organize a regional gathering of university students in an attempt to form a Southern student activist network.
All of this was interrupted when it became necessary for me to move to South Florida to help my father with his ailing business. It proved to be another turning point. In South Florida I was confronted by the realization that Atlanta, by comparison, was a progressive oasis. There, both the Klan and groups such as Omega 7 and Alpha 66 operated with impunity. The public discourse was ruled by reactionaries and structural racism was blatant and unapologetic. I realized that things were going to get harder, not easier. The left was going to have to be tougher, shrewder, and more creative in order to resist right-wing reaction.
What did Neighbors Network achieve? How did it fail? What would you have done differently? Why did the group fold?
You and the other younger folks around us may not have been aware of it but at the time when we were working with the GLBT community around the antigay resolution in Cobb County, attacks on gay and lesbian folks were not automatically included under the heading of hate crimes. Early hate crimes legislation simply ignored gays and lesbians. To my knowledge we were one of the first, if not the first, organization of our kind to take the position that gay-bashing was a hate crime. The report we produced for the Cobb Citizens Coalition, “The Shadow of Hatred: Hate Group Activity in Cobb County, Georgia,” made explicit the connection between hate group activity and violence against the GLBT community. It also clarified how actions such as the Cobb Commission’s “community values,” anti-gay and lesbian resolution, created a climate in which the propaganda of such groups could flourish.
I don’t want to exaggerate the impact of our work in Cobb County but it’s my opinion that our intervention there helped change the national conversation about hate-crimes from one that excluded gays and lesbians to what it is today. I consider this to have been one of the Neighbors Network’s major contributions.
In general, I think that the Neighbors Network was a potent factor in making Georgia an inhospitable environment for open white supremacist organizing. When we began, the climate in Georgia was such that supremacists were able to organize large public rallies with impunity. On January 17, 1987, a Klan-organized mob of hundreds violently attacked civil rights marchers in Cumming, Georgia, driving off both the marchers and their GBI escort. The event drew international press attention and a week later, on January 24, when 10,000 civil rights marchers descended on Cumming to protest the attack, the Klan and its supporters mobilized thousands to counter protest. This fact went largely unreported at the time. I’m aware of it because I spent that day undercover in the Klan crowd.
I witnessed numerous instances of provocation by the pro-Klan crowd, including rock throwing, and I was nearly clubbed when the cops responded. I saw David Duke being led away in handcuffs after having whipped up the crowd with an impromptu speech that completely blocked one of the streets adjacent to the town square. I witnessed former Governor and segregationist hero Lester Maddox glad-handing the crowds in a show of support—another fact that received no attention in the press at the time. Additionally, Nazi skinheads were making regular forays into the Atlanta youth scene, attacking and intimidating at will targeted events and individuals. In short, the supremacists were on a high.
By the time Neighbors Network closed up shop, Klan groups in Georgia had been reduced to rare events on private property, coaxing participants by assuring that they could wear their hoods legally and keep their identities hidden from prying eyes. The major figures among the Nazi skins were either lying low, had left the state, or were serving time.
I’m not suggesting that the Neighbors Network alone was responsible for this turn of fortune. We entered the field at a time when the strategic situation was highly favorable. The Klan’s violence had exposed the state to scrutiny and criticism both nationally and internationally. In so doing they had incited the opposition of powerful business and political interests. The emergence of a younger, Nazified faction that glorified the example of the Brüder Schweigen (The Order) garnered the enmity of federal, state, and local police. Our work opened up another front against them. We attacked them at their base by providing a resource for those in the community who would otherwise have been intimidated or terrorized into silence. This, in turn, enabled us to strip away the veil of anonymity that allowed them to operate without fear of consequences.
I don’t really see the Neighbors Network as having failed. There are two essential reasons for why we folded. First, we were starved for resources. That wasn’t so much a failure on our part as it was the result of hostility by interests that saw us as competition. The second was exhaustion and grew naturally out of the first. Towards the end we lost several key people due to attrition who couldn’t be easily replaced.
Further, the success in defeating the overtly fascist surge in the state had fundamentally changed the terrain of the struggle. The fascist impulse was seeking out new channels and new forms for which our previous tactics were ill-suited. For the Neighbors Network to have continued as an effective force it would have required a complete revamping and reorientation. I would have preferred that outcome but the material and human resources simply weren’t there.
Today anarchists, or at least a prominent faction of them, would denounce your actions up and down: the practice of sharing information on the far right with the police, encouraging folks to go to them if they were threatened or assaulted, and working with the Southern Poverty Law Center; was this a tension then?
Purists could and did denounce us at the time. Frankly, I wasn’t too concerned about such criticism. Would the critics refuse to call the fire department if their house were on fire? How about if it were their neighbor’s house? Do they disdain the use of flush toilets? After all, the sewers are operated by the State. Or is it only collaboration when a police agency is involved? Is the individual who calls the police to report a mugging, a theft, an assault or a rape guilty of collaboration?
To be blunt, my own view was that we were engaged in low-intensity warfare with fascism in its most virulent, Nazified form. In such circumstances my only consideration in the choice of weapons was their efficacy. That I was combating Nazis politically rather than shooting them on sight was simply a concession to civilized behavior. I was far more interested in effectively gutting the enemy than in winning any plaudits for political correctness. This was the perspective I argued for within Neighbors Network and it informed the policies we eventually pursued.
I don’t mean to dismiss legitimate concerns about dealing with police agencies out of hand. There are very real dangers involved in this, not least of which being attempts by the cops to co-opt you for their own purposes. Such attempts were made but they were resisted.
Neighbors Network archive, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
The collection was donated with the proviso that it be made available for research to any interested individual: http://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/neighborsnetwork1009/series3/subseries3.1/
Neighbors Network online reports, including “Hatred in Georgia”
Walter Reeves’s selected writings
Walter Reeves’s blog
Alpha 66: A Florida-based paramilitary group of anticommunist Cuban exiles that conducted bombings and assassinations of other Miami-based Cuban exiles and, with the CIA’s support, launched armed raids on Cuba.
Brüder Schweigen (The Order): Mid-1980s armed Far Right group that sought to establish a White state in the Pacific Northwest, engaged in a series of robberies and bombings, and assassinated Jewish talk-show host Alan Berg.
Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR): National Left-liberal group that was active in the 1980s and early 1990s in monitoring and organizing against the Far Right.
Christian Reconstructionism: Protestant right-wing movement that seeks to make the United States a theocracy.
Cobb County antigay resolution: Cobb County is a predominately white, right-wing county in the Atlanta suburbs. On Aug. 10, 1993, the Cobb County Commission approved—by a 3-1 vote, with one commissioner absent—a resolution condemning the “gay lifestyle.” The handiwork of Commissioner Gordon Wysong, the resolution stated that “lifestyles advocated by the gay community” are incompatible with community standards, and that Cobb County would not fund “activities which seek to contravene these existing community standards.”
Duke, David: Media-savvy founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives as a Republican in 1990. He subsequently lost his bid for U.S. Congress.
Forsyth County, Georgia: Following the lynching of a black man accused of rape and the subsequent public hanging of two Black men convicted of the same crime in 1912, nearly the entire Black community in Forsyth County was driven out by a campaign of threats and intimidation. At the time of the 1987 Brotherhood marches, the county sheriff said he did not know of any Black residents in the county.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI): Georgia’s version of the FBI, responsible for monitoring Far Left and Far Right groups and enforcing civil-rights laws.
Goodman, Schwerner. and Chaney: Three Northern civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi by Klansmen while taking part in the Freedom Summer in 1964. The movie Mississippi Burning is based on their story.
Great Speckled Bird: Left-wing, Atlanta-based, countercultural underground newspaper published from 1968 to 1974.
Greensboro Massacre: In 1979, a “Death to the Klan” march in Greensboro, NC, was organized by the Communist Workers Party. Klansmen and Nazis attacked it, killing five people. No one was convicted of the killings, though they were recorded by television crews and the attackers’ group was infiltrated by the FBI.
Jim Crow: The name given for the South’s legal system of racial segregation, instituted after Reconstruction in the 1870s and dismantled in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): A central, national Klan organization has not existed since 1947. Instead, the idea of the KKK exists as a style and type of politics that Far Right organizers can use in forming their own groups.
Oklahoma City bombing: The April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people. The bombers had ties to the militia movement and the Far Right.
Omega 7: A clandestine, armed group of anti-Communist Cuban exiles that has been accused of bombings, assassinations, and plane highjackings.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS): The largest antiwar student group in the 1960s, with a membership in the hundreds of thousands. It splintered into many groups, including the Weather Underground, after 1969.
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC): This Alabama-based group founded in the early 1970s monitors the Far Right but also has an “anti-extremist” stance and collects information on the Far Left. It has close ties to federal authorities and law enforcement and is best known for a series of civil suits that bankrupted various Klan and Nazi organizations in the 1980s.
Thälmann, Ernst: Chairman of the German Communist Party (KPD) when Hitler rose to power in 1933. Beforehand the KPD had refused to ally with the Social Democrats (who were condemned as “social fascists”)—allowing the Nazis to take power.
Yippie: The Youth International Party was a left-wing, countercultural grouping started by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the late 1960s. They were different from other Left groups because of their commitment to the hippie counterculture, political pranks, and openly pro-drug stance.
Zippie: The Zeitgeist International Party was a younger offshoot of the Yippies and a play on the name.