In the days after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, youth-led protests in the city helped spark rebellions around the globe. The police, military, and white supremacist groups all responded. President Trump blamed the protests on “antifa” and called for participants to be labeled terrorists.
Anti-Racist Action (ARA) started in Minneapolis and is a predecessor to the crews often now called antifa. ARA started in 1987 with a multiracial group of teenage skinheads who fought the rising white power movement. It grew into a network of groups in at least 120 towns and cities across the U.S. and Canada. ARA’s first principle was: “We go where they go. Never let the Nazis have the streets.” They eventually applied that not only to white power organizing, but to homophobic and anti-abortion organizing, and to police violence, which they saw as all connected.
Told through vivid first-person accounts, archival audio, and music from the era, “Fighting Back: The Rise of Anti-Racist Action in Minneapolis.” It starts under the railroad tracks in Uptown, Minneapolis and traces a movement that continues to shape the U.S. to this day.
(Photo Courtesy of Kara La Lomia)
“Fighting Back: The Rise of Anti-Racist Action in Minneapolis” is a production of KFAI’s MinneCulture. Funding for MinneCulture made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It was produced by Anna Stitt. Alexis “Lex Amor” Adimora composed the original score.
Anna Stitt is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
ANNA STITT (REPORTER/PRODUCER): In 2016, the U.S. saw the most reported hate crimes in five years.
ARCHIVAL NEWS BROADCAST: Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and cabinet appointments have heightened fears of violence, discrimination, and deportation in the Muslim American community.
ANNA: The next year was worse.
ARCHIVAL NEWS BROADCAST: 2017 saw seventeen percent more hate crimes than 2016. Eighty percent of victims were targeted because of their race, ethnicity, or their religion.
ANNA: That same year, a resurging white power movement pushed into public consciousness. This is a rally called “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia.
AUDIO FROM CHARLOTTESVILLE: Blood and soil! Blood and soil! (chanting)
ANNA: The Southern Poverty Law Center called it the largest gathering of white supremacists in a decade. Anti-racist demonstrators gathered in response. Groups of clergy, churchgoers, and academics came ready to sing. Others came ready to confront the white nationalists directly. The weekend ended when a man who’d been rallying with a neo-Nazi group drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators.
AUDIO FROM CHARLOTTESVILLE: A car just plowed through hundreds of people.
ANNA: He killed one demonstrator and injured dozens of others. President Trump waited two days to denounce the white supremacist groups at the rally. He also said:
PRES. TRUMP: I think there’s blame on both sides. You can call them the left – you just called them the left – that came violently attacking the other group. You see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats.
ANNA: The protesters that President Trump referred to as troublemakers with baseball bats had just recently started getting attention from the news media at the time. As hate crimes and far right rallies were on the rise, so were the actions of this crew. They were often called antifa. That’s short for anti-fascist – a set of commitments and, often, tactics.
Every time a white supremacist movement erupts into national consciousness, it seems to come as a shock. It’s reported like it’s new, out of nowhere. And often, its challengers are talked about that way, too.
CNN ANCHOR: CNN’s Sarah Gannon now takes us inside antifa and shows us this group like you’ve never seen it before.
TREVOR NOAH: So another peaceful protest interrupted by violence. The question is, who are these black clad mystery fighters coming for the alt right?
ANNA: But none of it is new. Right after the civil war, Confederate soldiers used their guns from the war to form the paramilitary Ku Klux Klan. Multiracial militias fought back – but white pro-Confederates ultimately regained state power. Fights against white supremacist movements have taken many forms ever since. One of the most influential for how antifa often looks today – was a group called Anti-Racist Action.
Some in the 1980s and 90s advocated ignoring the rising white power and associated movements, or just holding signs. Anti-Racist Action aimed to directly intervene – sometimes at a high price.
This is a story of their rise. It’s told through the eyes of seven members of the Minneapolis chapter, where Anti-Racist Action got its start.
One of the surprising facts about the story of Anti-Racist Action is that it started with a subculture of teenagers in 1960s London who liked to shave their heads. These were not the white neo-Nazi skinheads we’d see later. Some were Jamaican immigrants who’d moved to Britain and brought ska music with them. They lived in neighborhoods with white youth. A multiracial culture emerged that was sharp and proudly working class. It included beats of the Jamaican diaspora, and work boots, and buzzed hair.
And so, skinheads were born. The scene revitalized in Britain in the late 70s with the rise of punk rock, birthing the working-class subgenre Oi!
The second wave of skinheads was whiter than the first. Its members were often economically frustrated and ready to fight. The neo-Nazi National Front party saw a chance to revitalize by recruiting from the scene. The party even formed a record label called White Noise Records. Among its first releases in 1983: “White Power” by the band Skrewdriver.
So skinheads sported the same look. But a scene rooted in the Black diaspora now held a white power contingent. And these opposing soundtracks – would echo across the Atlantic.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1986, a sixteen-year-old punk rock kid named Jay didn’t know about any of this yet. He was mixed heritage – Ojibwe, Black, and white. He’d grown up hearing about his mom getting harassed for her mixed family. He instinctively defended the underdog at school. But he says he wasn’t studying political movements. He just liked music.
JAY: A friend of mine, I went over to his house. And he had some Oi! compilations.
ANNA: Jay liked what he heard. But above all, he liked the look of the teens on the record case.
JAY: There are pictures on the back. And you see all these skinheads. And you’re like, holy cow… It looked impressive.
ANNA: Soon after that, Jay says he and some friends decided to adopt the look and form a skinhead crew. They all shaved their heads. They called themselves the Baldies. Mic was one of them. He says by summer 1987, their group of seven had grown to several dozen, including Kieran. Then Dave moved to town. He says as soon as he saw the Baldies, he knew he’d found his crew.
DAVE: I get introduced to Mic, Jason. Others. Kieran. Those dudes were sharp. They looked happy. And clean. I was like, man I want to hang out with those dudes. It was really attractive. Have you ever seen a bunch of skins standing around?
ANNA: Dave liked the music. And as a Black teen, he liked that the skinhead scene felt blacker than the rest of punk culture.
DAVE: We actually read fan zines about Black skins. Had photos of Black skins in southern London. Then you get to learn about the roots of being a skin and being working class, so it was easy to identify with.
ANNA: The Baldies would hang out, looking sharp on the corner in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. They’d drink under the railroad tracks and go to music shows. But they also saw a growing threat – the U.S. white power skinhead scene was on the news more and more. And they said:
MIC: If we see that happen in our community, we’re not going to allow it.
ANNA: That’s Mic. He says that summer, white power did start to grow in Minneapolis. It kicked off with Paul Hollis. Jay says Paul had been around the punk rock scene for a few years. He’d even lived with someone who would later become a Baldie. Then he says Paul went to Los Angeles to meet up with a skinhead crew called the Southside LA Death Squad.
JAY: He came back and was on this white power trip.
ANNA: He started a white power skinhead crew in Minneapolis – and named it the White Knights.
JAY: He started the White Knights, got the ball rolling, and then it became its own entity.
KIERAN: Paul Hollis had a political project in mind. He was building a crew of Nazis.
ANNA: This is Kieran. He’s white – Irish heritage – but had seen racism from the police in his mixed-race working-class neighborhood.
KIERAN: But some of the others were just looking to hang out. Maybe they liked Screwdriver but they also liked some Black bands. They were kind of all over the place.
ANNA: Up until the White Knights formed, its members shared a scene with the Baldies. They dressed the same. Went to the same shows. Hung out in the same neighborhood. Knew each other. So Kieran says it wasn’t clear right away how the scene would respond to this new white power formation.
KIERAN: There were people in the scene who were like, well, I don’t agree with them, but some of them are friends of mine. Stuff like this. We were dealing with this whole thing – we don’t want conflict in the scene. But that also worked to Paul’s advantage because that meant they had peace to build their project.
ANNA: Kieran says the project was helped by the fact that some of the White Knights’ parents were Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. And like the National Front party had done in Britain, long-time white supremacist leader Tom Metzger was working hard to bolster white supremacy in skinhead scenes across the country. He knew how to get media attention, knew how to organize. He saw white skins as a frontline army. And across the country, that’s what they were becoming. Before too long, the White Knights started beating people up in Uptown.
KIERAN: My memory is that they jumped a couple people. Might have been a Black kid that was a punk rocker. And also some Black homeless people, they beat up. And also I think they did some gay bashing.
ANNA: Tension was building. So one summer night in 1987, the Baldies and the White Knights were all crowded into First Avenue. They’re watching the popular hardcore punk band Cro-Mags perform. It was a packed house.
ANNA: The Baldies are wearing green flight jackets. The White Knights are wearing black. Here’s Kieran.
KIERAN: There was just tension in the air and you could feel it because it was kind of like the two big sides, and kind of both groups were kind of growing.
ANNA: And Kieran says Paul Hollis, the White Knights leader, pushed a Hmong-heritage Baldie to the ground in the pit where people were slam-dancing.
KIERAN: And my cousin Patrick–real charismatic dude, everybody knew him–I remember him poking his finger in Paul Hollis’s eye. I remember him saying, you’re done. This is over.
ANNA: After several tense moments like this – the Baldies had reached a breaking point. They decided not to let the White Knights hang out in Uptown or come to shows anymore.
JAY: You’re ruining the scene, man. You guys need to get out of here.
ANNA: Over the next few weeks, Jay made sure the White Knights knew they could opt out of the white power movement – and not get beat up. Here’s Kieran.
KIERAN: He confronted them and said, are you a White Knight? If they said yes, he said, the next time we see you, if you’re still a White Knight, you’re gonna get your ass whooped. So it gave people a chance to think about their decisions. You know, as a teenager. Okay, am I really willing to stand on this, or am I just really looking for a group of people to hang out with.
MIC: So we gave them a choice to denounce their ways or be held accountable through violence.
ANNA: Some people did choose to change sides. But not everyone. So the night of the next show, the Baldies were ready.
KIERAN: The White Knights rolled up in their cars. And we didn’t even really let them get out of their cars. As soon as they rolled up, we came at them and started smashing up their cars. And grabbed a couple of them that were out of their car and fucked them up real quick. They used to call it a boot party. It was skinhead parlance for, you know, getting somebody on the ground and everybody kicking the shit out of them.
MIC: And that was the beginning of a protracted violent struggle in the streets of the Twin Cities.
ANNA: Dave says Minneapolis was a fairly progressive city, but the White Knights had the benefit of the national political climate.
DAVE: Reagan at that time was so evil. This country was on its full swing to the right.
ANNA: By 1987, President Reagan had been elected twice. He’d been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan each time. The second time, he’d waited two weeks to denounce the endorsement.
DAVE: The system was much as it is today. They had a president who didn’t really acknowledge them as an issue. And politicians locally, like the police, who seemed to want to support them. Whether openly or indirectly, it always seemed like the cops loved the Nazis.
ANNA: Do you remember any specifics?
DAVE: We were about to have this interaction with a bunch of neo-Nazis and the police come and take all our baseball bats and then they drive off. And then, two minutes later, neo-Nazis show up with a bunch of bats.
ANNA: Jay says the police often singled out white members of the multiracial Baldies group – to try to scare them into leaving the Baldies.
JAY: We’re all on the corner. They rolled up. They always said, “no loitering.” There were like, ten of us, fifteen of us.
ANNA: Jay says the police grabbed one of the white Baldies and put him in the cop car.
JAY: And he got out and was just like, looked like he’d seen a ghost. He was super freaked out and he was saying they’d told him that they’re the biggest gang in the city and called us n*** lovers and Minneapolis PD can do whatever they want.
ANNA: The Baldies fought back hard against both the White Knights and the police. It may sound like a lot for a group of teens, but Jay says the Baldies’ lack of traditional power was actually part of their strength.
JAY: When you’re a teenager and you ain’t got a pot to piss in, that’s why we were such a threat. Because we had nothing to lose.
ANNA: But Dave says it also wore them down. He didn’t always have stable housing, and struggled with substance use, and felt the need to constantly look over his shoulder. He says coming into adulthood in constant fight mode was hard.
DAVE: Like, you’re figuring out how to be a teenager into an adult while there’s filthy police chasing after you all the time. And then these Nazis walking around. You know what I mean? How do you deal with all that? I felt like some of those times were the darkest times of my life. There was a lot of blood, a lot of hate, a lot of self-hate. We were planning to be martyred, or… and I don’t even think we knew what that meant at that time, you know?
KIERAN: My friend Mic Crenshaw, I remember he was the first person I heard talk about how we all had PTSD.
ANNA: That’s the Mic we’ve been hearing from.
KIERAN: I kind of laughed at that time because I thought about Vietnam veterans with PTSD and stuff, but I mean, it’s gotta be true.
ANNA: By the end of summer 1987, the White Knights had disbanded. The Baldies won that fight. So they started talking about what would be next.
KIERAN: We knew that there was neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. and the Klan was in the U.S. And we knew that racism was everywhere still.
ANNA: But some people wanted to focus on building something new in Minneapolis, like more spaces for youth to hang out.
KIERAN: I think other people including Jason had a view of, let’s do more community building here. Let’s organize gyms, etc. I wasn’t as into that stuff. I kind of regret that now.
ANNA: He says he didn’t see it as militant enough at the time. So there was a moment of exploring. The choice the group made next – right after this break. Stay with us.
ANNA: It was December 1987. Kieran says about fifteen Baldies and others in their crew met at a pizza place in Uptown. They’d decided to stay focused on directly confronting racism. They wanted to form a new group – to try to include people beyond the skinhead scene.
KIERAN: You know, we just kind of re-talked out why we needed the group like that that would be separate from the Baldies and people kind of talked about their ideas of it. Then we talked about names, what name to give it. Definitely I knew about Anti-Fascist Action from reading about stuff in Britain.
ANNA: Anti-Fascist Action had formed in the UK two years before as a militant response to white power organizing there.
KIERAN: At the time, fascism wasn’t something kids talked about as much. That term. So racism seemed more, something people understood.
ANNA: So the Minneapolis crew decided to call their new group Anti-Racist Action. Here’s Mic.
MIC: If you’re a kid on the street, you see a lot. We knew that the Nazi skinheads were one group of isolated people that had antisocial ideology. So we wanted to build first allegiance with skater kids that we hung out with; with punk rockers that we hung out with. We also were aware of the ethnic gangs that we shared space with in the metropolitan area. And some of the organizations that they had. So we wanted to reach out to them. Because we understood that ideologically, people who are Native American, Black, Latinx, Asian American – we knew that they would be at least objectively opposed to neo-Nazis and racism.
ANNA: So Anti-Racist Action was aiming to build – but so were the neo-Nazis. When the white power scene got pushed out of Minneapolis, it reorganized across the river in St. Paul. The next year, the Star Tribune quoted Paul Hollis calling for quote “a white separate state.” And Minnesota white power skins went to an “Aryan Fest” gathering that Tom Metzger, a national white power organizer, hosted in Oklahoma. The white power movement was growing across North America. And the stakes of the conflict – were getting higher.
ANNA: In late July 1988, Kieran was down in Atlanta with his family. His parents were supporting Jesse Jackson during the Democratic National Convention.
JESSE JACKSON: It gets dark sometimes, but the morning comes. Keep hope alive.
ANNA: Kieran went out to a protest and saw Paul Hollis – who’d founded the now-defunct White Knights back in Minneapolis the summer before. Kieran decided to throw a rock. It hit Paul right in the head. Dave already had a reputation in Atlanta too. It’s where he’d lived with his family before he’d turned eighteen and come to check out the scene in Minneapolis the year before.
DAVE: You know how word of mouth travels. Hey, that skin that came up from Atlanta is now up in Minneapolis.
ANNA: Now Kieran was known there too. Later in the summer of ‘88, their run-ins down south followed them home.
ANNA: The Old Glory Skins, a white power group from Atlanta, drove up to the Twin Cities. I asked Dave to show me where he and Kieran were the night the Atlanta crew was looking for them.
DAVE: Okay (whispers), so here’s the house right here.
ANNA: It’s dark and we’re driving down an alley in south Minneapolis. Dave is pointing at a two-story brick building.
DAVE: That’s where I lived when those neo-Nazis were here.
KIERAN: So the thing that we heard is that when they came up here, they were looking for the commie and the n-word.
ANNA: So they came up to look for you?
KIERAN: Well, I think they came to visit with Paul and others too. But the word we got is that that is one of the things they were on a mission to do.
ANNA: Do you remember what they looked like?
DAVE: White dudes in a pickup truck like every psychotic Klan story you ever heard of.
KIERAN: The image I have in my head is these two pickup trucks full of tattoos.
ANNA: Kieran and Dave say most of the rest of their crew was out of town. They were touring out east with a band, building relationships with skinheads and other youth at shows along the way. Kieran and Dave knew they were outnumbered that night. So they made molotov cocktails, homemade explosives. And they climbed up onto the roof of Dave’s apartment.
DAVE: You see how that wall is up that way? We scaled that wall and then we could look over the street down here.
ANNA: So you’re on the roof.
DAVE: And the Nazis were in pickup trucks on Lake Street, making right-handed turns. They obviously knew where we lived – like the area – but they didn’t know the address. They never made a left turn. Had they made a left turn, they could have come down the alley where I lived. Terrifying because it was just me and him. How could he and I fight thirty dudes. Had they made a left, they would have gotten firebombed. I’m pretty sure they would have gotten firebombed had they made a left.
ANNA: The Old Glory Skins never found Dave’s apartment, and there was no fire that night. But ARA was in deep.
DAVE: That summer was hot, man. The police were after us all the time. We were fighting with everybody, to be honest with you. If you weren’t in our crew, we were fighting with you all the time.
ANNA: It wasn’t just targeted against white supremacists is what you’re saying?
DAVE: They were a part of the war. Or whatever you want to call it.
ANNA: He says they got alienated from the rest of the punk scene.
DAVE: If you weren’t with us to get rid of them, then you were against us.
ANNA: Why weren’t they with you?
DAVE: Some of the feedback I got from friends, they didn’t feel like they wanted to be around all the violence. It was a really violent time. When I look back on it, from where I sit now, it’s embarrassing. But back then, I was pissed off because I feel like they didn’t do enough.
Now I see maybe they didn’t want to be involved in that way. And everybody has freedom of choice. But when you’re a 19-year-old kid and you’re going through what we’re going through, you want people who are like-minded to be there to help. Because in a lot of punk scenes, the Nazis are enabled to do what they do because they have those relationships with white punk rockers.
ANNA: He could see how white power skinheads were empowered by those he calls fence riders – white people who chose not to take a stand. And so, as exhausting as it had become, he couldn’t stop fighting. Especially since hate crimes kept happening. White power skinheads killed at least 28 people between 1987 and ‘93 – and harassed and attacked many more across the U.S., including in Minneapolis. Here’s one Minnesota Public Radio report from 1989.
MPR NEWS REPORTER: On May 3rd, a 13-year-old boy was beaten by a skinhead who is said to have yelled racial epithets as he attacked his victim. Group representative Kevin Whitely says the community is angry that there have been no arrests in the incident.
KEVIN WHITELY: We’ve received a number of conflicting reports from the police and a number of inappropriate remarks. They know where they live. They know where they live right now. They continue to live in the neighborhood.
MPR NEWS REPORTER: There have been a number of assaults lately that have been described as racially motivated attacks.
ANNA: Anti-Racist Action aimed to reach beyond the skinhead scene. But in 1989, they were still embedded in it. Skinheads in other midwestern cities were facing similar battles over racist violence. And a network of anti-racist youth was growing. So in January 1989, Minneapolis hosted a gathering. Here’s Mic.
MIC: We invited anti-racist skinhead crews from many different cities throughout the Midwest – from Lawrence, Kansas, from Milwaukee, from Indianapolis, from Chicago, from Madison, Wisconsin, and they came to the Twin Cities and there were close to a hundred skinheads.
ANNA: The skinheads spent Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend talking strategy. And they marched through Minneapolis, spray painting over swastikas and other racist graffiti. They let a local Channel 5 news reporter follow along.
KSTP NEWS REPORTER: You know the skinheads who were marching with the KKK yesterday in Tennessee? Well in the Twin Cities, the skinheads say they’re different. In fact, just the opposite. The few Blacks in the crowd, like Keith Ellison, say they think the skinheads uphold the values of Martin Luther King just fine.
ANNA: That’s the same Keith Ellison who would go on to be a Democratic Party heavyweight. He was in law school at the time at the University of Minnesota. Here he is talking to the reporter at the march:
KEITH ELLISON: There are whites out there who feel that racism is evil, and who are willing to fight, and even risk arrest to help. That means commitment to me, and it brings hope to this whole movement.
ANNA: The reporter notes that the march that day was mostly white. Dave says having white people in the group made the work easier.
DAVE: We could disappear into some of the other white worlds that we had because of our white friends. And, you know, go to their houses and their communities, and the police – they’re not even looking there.
ANNA: But the scene’s whiteness wore on Mic over time.
MIC: In the hardcore punk scene that gave birth to ARA, and the Baldies, and other formations, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was a white, predominantly white subculture. And that as I grew more into my racial identity, intentionally, I needed to be in spaces that weren’t predominantly white. To the extent that there were people of color in ARA and in the skinhead scene, the anti-racist skinheads scene, we were still enough of a minority that after awhile, it didn’t really feel like home anymore.
ANNA: Soon, Mic moved to Portland, Oregon. Dave and Jay had partners and babies and had to spend more time parenting and earning money. But the rise of the formation they helped start – was just beginning. Katrina is six years younger than her brother Kieran, so she grew up with the Baldies and Anti-Racist Action members around.
KATRINA: I really looked up to my big brother. He was a caretaker for me a lot, a teacher for me a lot as well.
ANNA: She says the violence scared her as a kid.
KATRINA: Just being scared for my brother, that he was gonna get beat up, hurt or arrested, hurt by the police…which, all of those things did happen, so they were valid fears.
ANNA: Katrina started organizing as a young teen. The summer after her junior year of high school in 1993, she went to Portland, Oregon to help with a campaign to stop an anti-LGBTQ ballot initiative.
KATRINA: There was a huge Nazi skinhead presence there.
ANNA: She says she got harassed for wearing her brother Kieran’s flight jacket with an Anti-Racist Action button on it.
KATRINA: A bunch of Nazis surrounded me, ripped the button off my jacket. And one of them pushed me down. And you know, they were calling me an ARA bitch and saying they were going to kill me. And it was, you know, broad daylight.
ANNA: That summer, she learned to pay attention to what she was wearing. To have a plan for getting home at night. To be ready to fight. Even in her 40s now, she still practices what she learned in Portland more than 25 years ago.
KATRINA: I actually almost always wear boots, never wear sandals. Because you can’t run in sandals. And you’re just really vulnerable.
ANNA: When Katrina got back to Minneapolis, she was ready to join Anti-Racist Action.
KATRINA: Spending a summer in a city where the Nazis did have this really strong street presence, and felt free to harass and intimidate and assault people, it radicalized me in a way that helped me see the need for really proactive community defense.
ANNA: And she brought a wave of younger people with her.
KATRINA: There was myself and my best friend Molly.
ANNA: Molly came from a white working-class family in Minneapolis. She says she grew up instinctively resisting authority from an early age. She’d built a political framework around her instincts through hanging out with Katrina and her family.
KATRINA: We both wrote graffiti and made connections. So graffiti writers started joining. They were mostly scrappy young men as well. But then more queer women and men started joining ARA around that time too.
ANNA: Some of them encountered Anti-Racist Action through District 202. District 202 was a popular LGBTQ youth center in 90s Minneapolis. The addition of a younger, more femme and queer generation wasn’t always smooth though. For one thing, there was the language people used when confronting white supremacists.
KATRINA: There’d be tension around some members of Anti-Racist Action calling Nazis pussies or faggots. Others in the group were like, that doesn’t make us feel safe, or why are you comparing Nazis to these things that we are. At least in our chapter, most of the people that were using that language were recognizing that it was problematic.
ANNA: But the new generation hung on, and Anti-Racist Action re-energized. They carried on ARA’s confrontational approach in response to the threats at hand. But the group decided the threats in Minneapolis were shifting. By the mid-1990s, the “tough on crime” era was in full swing. Between 1987 and 98, Twin Cities police killed at least twenty-one people, including an elderly couple. They made the news regularly for allegations of profiling and harassing people of color. So ARA decided to apply their direct action approach to the cops. Here’s Molly.
MOLLY: We would go downtown and confront the cops when they were doing ill shit. Get up in their face and say, why are you arresting this person? It was called Copwatch. At the very beginning, we had them so disoriented that they let the person go and dealt with us instead, which was the goal. But then they just started arresting everybody. They got wise to it.
One of the times, they brought me into an interrogation room, and there were 7 or 8 male cops, pushing me and asking me who started Anti-Racist Action, who’s the leader. They just kept asking me who the leader was. And threatening me with prison and jail. And threatening to, you know, physically assault us next time they found us downtown in an alley.
ANNA: ARA didn’t have one leader – whoever came to meetings had a vote. And through a vote, the group also decided to take on the rising Christian Right.
VHS RECORDING: I want to see you kiss your same sex sweetie! Let’s see it! (cheering)
ANNA: This is Minneapolis ARA doing a kiss-in outside a Human Life International convening in St. Paul in 1997. They spoke through a megaphone about reproductive justice and queer liberation. And on the count of three, the crowd kissed someone of their same gender.
VHS RECORDING: Check it out! This is Minneapolis! This is St. Paul!
ANNA: The Christian Right co-evolved with the white power movement through the 80s and 90s. Some groups were separate, others overlapped in goals and membership. Like the white power movement, the Christian Right used both elections and tactics like bombing abortion clinics. Beating up LGBTQ people. And convenings – for grassroots organizing. By this time, ARA was an international network – and Minneapolis wanted to add reproductive justice and fighting homophobia to the network’s list of shared principles.
KATRINA: There were definitely some tensions at the national conference. There were some chapters who felt like we just needed to keep focusing on Nazis. But Minneapolis ARA was dynamic, strong people in our group, generally respected nationally and internationally.
ANNA: The push for expansion won.
VHS RECORDING: We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it! (chant)
ANNA: They didn’t necessarily stop the Christian Right gatherings. But Katrina and Molly say they and others dressed up in turtlenecks to sneak into and disrupt several of them.
MOLLY: We would do cherry bombs in the toilet and crazy grade school stuff like that for some of these events. It’s just like a smoke bomb or a stink bomb. There are no innocent bystanders when it comes time for a stink bomb, which is why cherry bombs are generally better.
ANNA: While ARA was expanding its reach, there were still neo-Nazis to be dealt with. St. Paul was rapidly becoming a global headquarters for white power music. The white power band Bound for Glory formed there in 1989. Their lyrics often drew from Nazi slogans.
ANNA: Bound for Glory toured with one of the founding white power oi! bands, Screwdriver. The St. Paul band was soon among the leading white power music groups worldwide. In 1998, the St. Paul scene also birthed Panzerfaust Records – named after an anti-tank explosive used by Nazi Germany in World War II. Here’s Minnesota Public Radio.
MPR NEWS REPORTER: As it grew, Panzerfaust literally helped put Minnesota on the map. The map of national hate groups, put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Panzerfaust makes no secret – kids ages 13 to 19 are the target market.
ANNA: ARA didn’t stop the local white power music scene’s global reach. But they did their best to stop Bound for Glory from performing in the Twin Cities. Katrina remembers knocking on doors in St. Paul for weeks leading up to one show.
KATRINA: Saying hey, there’s a Nazi band gonna play a show in your neighborhood. How do you feel about that?
ANNA: She says on the day of the show, her doorknocking paid off. People came out to support the protest against Bound for Glory. For the people who still wanted to go to the show – ARA had a plan for that too.
KATRINA: The show was set up kind of like a rave. So you had to go to this park to get tickets first. So we had some people playing baseball there.
ANNA: So when Bound for Glory fans showed up to get tickets –
KATRINA: They got scared off by a bunch of people with baseball bats.
ANNA: A local paper reported 300 people helped shut down the show before it started. But white power wasn’t just in cities. ARA’s push to challenge small town Ku Klux Klan recruitment – right after this. Stay with us.
ANNA: As Anti-Racist Action and the movements it challenged both grew – more people in small towns started reaching out. An ARA member, Sean, kept two letters the Minneapolis chapter got in 1997 – from Duluth and Faribault.
ACTOR (LETTER EXCERPT): I was in Minneapolis and saw “Queers Fight Back,” the big and small stickers. Right now we’re in a big mess with a minister coming to the city to preach homophobia and hate and I was wondering if you could send me a bunch of them.
ACTOR (LETTER EXCERPT): Recently my daughter’s boyfriend got involved with the Aryan Nations. The racist attitude of his is rubbing off on my daughter. He talks about buying her a wedding dress, white with a hood. I feel I need to do something to stop this injustice. I’d like to get information that I can use to defend my beliefs. I’d like papers, stickers, anything else you have.
ANNA: ARA went on the road to smaller towns, too, following a series of Ku Klux Klan rallies across Wisconsin. The chapters tried to out-organize by beating the Klan to town and building local relationships. Then they’d do their best to disrupt the rally.
Katrina and Rocky both remember one trip to a town in Wisconsin. Rocky and his best friend Sean got into ARA through friends at District 202, the LGBTQ youth center I mentioned earlier. Rocky grew up in suburban Twin Cities group homes where he says he was often the only Black person around. He says he quickly learned that the system didn’t have his back. When he encountered ARA in the mid-1990s, it resonated.
ANNA: On the day of this action, Rocky says they’d planned to meet a couple other Anti-Racist Action chapters at McDonald’s ahead of time. But the action had already started. Rocky’s in prison now for reasons unrelated to ARA – so you may have to lean in to listen to his voice through the scratchy phone line.
ROCKY: I remember we walked into McDonald’s, and as soon as we walked in, we looked to our right and there were all these Klan members sitting there, then there was us.
KATRINA: Literally, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and probably his wife and whoever else were all eating.
ROCKY: We were like oh fuck, and they were like oh fuck, so we were like here we go. So with, like, our chapter and two other chapters, we just decided to take over McDonald’s.
KATRINA: We walked right up to them and I hit his hat so it flew off his head. Rocky got in his face and started saying really mean insults.
ROCKY: It culminated in the management of McDonald’s making them leave, allowing us to stay and making the Klan leave.
KATRINA: Later that day, we were in the midst of a scuffle. And a Nazi was actually about to hit me, and Rocky jumped in front of me.
ROCKY: I stepped in between them and as soon as he saw me, he just – whatever plan he had, he just stopped, decided it was not a good idea.
KATRINA: And then the Nazi or Klan supporter or whatever he was just kind of froze and got scared.
ANNA: Are you a big person?
ROCKY: No, I’m not at all. I’m only 5’10 and I was like 160 then. I don’t know what it was that made him stop. But he looked at me, I looked at him, and he just turned around and hauled ass.
KATRINA: Rocky just started laughing at him and said, what a good Nazi you are. You were gonna hit a white woman but you’re scared to hit a black faggot.
ANNA: By that time, Rocky was one of the only people of color in Minneapolis ARA.
MOLLY: We created a lot of literature that targeted white kids. And we went to areas where white kids hung out to flyer and stuff about ARA.
KATRINA: I fully believe the statement that white folks should really be the ones fighting racism – especially in the most dangerous ways, confronting cops or the Klan. But I don’t – ARA was never an exclusively white organization. That was never the intention.
MOLLY: There’s something to be said for the fact that we did go to Klan demos and it is more dangerous for black people. That was a personal choice for black people in ARA – do you want to go to these demos or dontcha. We’ve got your back if you do, but totally understand if you don’t.
ANNA: Rocky chose to go every time. He says he knew it was riskier for him – but he found a sense of power in the fight.
ROCKY: I can say within myself, I did feel like oh God, like here I am. I’m black and I’m going to confront the Klan. I did feel a certain sense of like, hey like might actually kill me. Not only am I black. I’m flamboyantly gay with bleached blond hair. So I can pretty easily get beat the fuck up. Just because of me being black and gay and being in their face. And being very vocally in their face. No matter the trepidation I had in my head, I didn’t let it affect what I wanted to do.
ANNA: It just felt worth it to take those risks?
ROCKY: I felt like I was standing up for something. I definitely know for Molly and Andy and Sean and Katrina, and all those people around me – I felt safe.
ANNA: He says it was worth it to him to stand up for something – and he felt like the ARA crew had his back.
The white power movement was expanding through rallies and electoral campaigns. But it had a deep and growing militarized side as well. In 1995, that side blasted into mainstream public consciousness when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.
ARCHIVAL BROADCAST: The chaos in downtown Oklahoma City did indeed resemble Beirut after what police believed to be a 1200-pound car bomb ripped through the nine-story federal building.
ANNA: Katrina says ARA was not prepared for armed conflict.
KATRINA: I remember following some Nazis back to their truck after a Klan rally.
ANNA: This was another small Wisconsin town.
KATRINA: Feeling like we had a big crew, feeling tough, like we were going to chase these Nazis out of town. And then we got back to their truck and they did have a bunch of guns in their truck. One of them picked up a gun and threatened to shoot us. I think we retreat. We weren’t like, shoot us! I think we ran away. And it’s something I think about now. In terms of just where we’re at in the world, who has guns and who doesn’t.
ANNA: At its height, the Minneapolis ARA chapter drew 50 or more people to meetings. By 1998, the ARA network had grown to around 120 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. It stretched from Portland to Baton Rouge to Toronto. ARA’s newsletter went out to around 25,000. As the network’s membership grew, so did the target on their backs.
That year on the fourth of July, two Las Vegas Anti-Racist Action members were killed. They were best friends – a Black singer working at a body piercing shop, and a white member of the Air Force. Both skinheads. They’d met some people at the piercing shop who invited them out to a party in the desert that night. When they got there, a neo-Nazi skinhead group assassinated them.
Their deaths rocked the Anti-Racist Action Network. People marched, and bands in California and Ontario put out a 7-inch ska-core record in their honor. This song is called “Las Vegas, July 4th, 1998.” The singer’s saying “If you thought this was a game, I suggest you think again. Never again.”
MOLLY: I never felt like the stakes were too high. I was more interested in being in the streets than I was worried about getting hurt or getting arrested. For most of the 90s. That’s what I wanted to be doing. Somewhere in my mind, I was thinking, I am training for what life is really gonna look like when it’s time to have this revolution. I was pretty invested in Anti-Racist Action. I was pretty much thinking that we were gonna be part of this army that ushered in this era of racial equality and gender equality and rights for all people.
ANNA: Back in Minnesota that year, Anti-Racist Action helped shut down a neo-Nazi press conference in downtown St. Paul. News footage shows the uniformed neo-Nazi group marching in military formation with swastika flags flying – until they collided with protesters.
PROTESTER: This is the reality. You can be in any neighborhood you want. But we’re gonna keep outing you and exposing you and letting you know, you will not keep operating freely in our town.
ANNA: Protesters brought bats and broke the back windshield of one of the neo-Nazis’ cars, chasing them away. Throughout ARA’s life, the group’s actions were peppered with editorials condemning them. In response to this day in 1998, a Star Tribune newspaper columnist wrote:
ACTOR (COLUMN EXCERPT): They enabled the Nazis to go to bed feeling like victims.
ANNA: The columnist says ARA should learn from what she tells her children when they get hit:
ACTOR (COLUMN EXCERPT): You have the power to stop this argument. You can be better than they are.
ANNA: People say this often. That confrontation motivates white supremacists more. It plays into their victim complex. Instead, it makes sense to ignore them. To hold a picnic across town while they rally. They call it the higher ground. And sometimes, they also say, everyone is allowed free speech.
ARA took the opposite approach. They’d seen hate speech leading to hate action too many times throughout history. So they aimed to stop the argument differently. Their first principle was: “We go where they go. Never let the Nazis have the street!” They eventually applied that not only to white power organizing, but to homophobic and anti-abortion organizing, and to police violence, which they saw as all connected.
ARA didn’t eliminate the white power movement, the Christian Right, or the police. It’s hard to know what would have happened if ARA hadn’t been in the streets. It’s hard to prove the connections between music, speeches, and tweets – and vandalism, stabbings, and mass shootings. It’s hard to calculate wins and losses. But for a decade and a half, ARA did its best to “go where they go” – to intervene physically and culturally.
By 2003, it earned Anti-Racist Action a place on the Hennepin County Sheriff’s watch list. A Sheriff’s official said in a seminar on terrorism – the department was tracking the group.
But also by the mid-2000s, the Minneapolis chapter was getting tired. ARA was entirely volunteer, so they were all working at the same time.
KATRINA: I did a variety of things. I was a barista. I was a waitress. I was a dancer in a club. I worked in retail for awhile. That was the worst.
ANNA: And they often faced arrest.
MOLLY: As you get older, doing social justice work where you don’t get arrested or punched becomes a lot more attractive. Particularly when if you do get arrested one more time, you go away for a long time.
ANNA: Molly says in the 1990s, a few skilled attorneys always volunteered to represent ARA members in court.
MOLLY: But those people moved on. And the last time that I was before a judge, it probably wasn’t looking real great for me. So I’d prefer… we all sell out in some way. So that’s my way. I don’t want to go to prison.
ANNA: Rocky says he also got tired of being tear gassed so much. And ARA circles in several cities went through messy processes dealing with incidents of sexual assault.
MOLLY: You realize that stuff in here looks just like it does on the outside. Why’d we spend all this time when shit looks just like it does on the outside, people are still getting raped in here. ARA always was a youth movement. That’s who built it, that’s who carried it as far as it went. That’s who ended up wrecking it. (laughs) But it did some awesome things.
ANNA: By the late 2000s, most ARA chapters weren’t active anymore. But Molly says ARA had made its mark.
MOLLY: There were white nationalist orgs and white supremacist orgs that didn’t feel comfortable organizing here in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It wasn’t legal means that stopped white supremacists from organizing in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was the Baldies. And it wasn’t legal means that made organizing racist rallies or anti-choice rallies here unfavorable for the people who would want to do it. It was us, it was ARA that made it uncomfortable for them to be here. I won’t discount the value of policy measures in access to reproductive rights. But it’s a multi-pronged approach. You need direction action and ARA provided that.
ANNA: And Katrina believes ARA had some influence on younger generations too.
KATRINA: The graffiti, the hip hop, the punk rock scene in Minneapolis. I think we did make it, the idea of being anti-oppression and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and anti-racist became what most people wanted to claim. Minneapolis is a really progressive city and a lot of our music that comes out of here definitely has a political edge. ARA contributed to that but it’s a bigger part of Minneapolis as well.
ANNA: Across the U.S. and Canada, many former ARA members stayed engaged, forming a network of people with experience. Younger crews also adopted the street tactics.
PRES. TRUMP: You see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats.
ANNA: Back in Charlottesville in 2017, something rare happened. Nonviolent clergy, academics, and others often critical of antifa’s approach, came forward to say the police did not intervene that day. They said the people who came ready to fight saved their lives. Here’s Dr. Cornel West on Democracy Now!:
DR. CORNEL WEST: They saved our lives. We would have been completely crushed. And I’ll never forget that.
ANNA: The early ARA members are mostly all in their 40s and early 50s now. You can find them working at a call center, in sanitation, in construction. Where Rocky’s in prison, he says a lot of the guys think they’re tough – but he secretly knows he’s taken so much more risk than they ever will. Katrina paints community murals. Mic writes about climate crisis in the lyrics of the hip hop he now performs around the world.
ANNA: Mic says he doesn’t regret his time in Anti-Racist Action.
MIC: The bottomline is that growin’ up in this country, if your skin is black, you’re not safe. So I’ve always been scared. And I think the transformation that became available through being a young adult and being part of organized anti-racist activity, it gave me the opportunity to work through the fear in a way that felt constructive and responsible.
ANNA: But he says his role has shifted as he’s gotten older, had kids. And he questions some of the tactics now. He doesn’t think the conflict should always happen on the Nazis’ terms.
MIC: I’m ready, I have to stay ready, but part of me being ready is, if the neo-Nazi that gets away with murder says, I’m going to be here at 3 o’clock, am I going to sprint to meet him knowing that he intends to kill me and that the police are going to protect him as he does it? No, it’s not smart.
ANNA: Kieran points out that wearing black to protests is outdated – regular street clothes often make blending in so much easier. Dave has criticisms of current antifa tactics, too. For one, he doesn’t recommend daylight street battles. But he does stay hopeful.
DAVE: We’re gonna have a different world. So watch. We may not be here to see it, but it’s gonna happen.
ANNA: You believe that?
DAVE: No doubt. We’re gonna win. Right? Otherwise, why fight?
ANNA: “Fighting Back: the Rise of Anti-Racist Action in Minneapolis” was produced by me, Anna Stitt. Original music was composed by Alexis “Lex Amor” Adimora. Thank you to Jay, Mic, Kieran, Dave, Katrina, Molly, Sean, and Rocky for entrusting me with memories and materials – and taking time to share them. I referenced interviewees by first name only in this documentary at several people’s request – for their safety. Thank you to my editors at KFAI, Melissa Olson and Ryan Dawes. Thank you also to Rob McGinley-Myers, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefanie B, Acadia Roher, Elizabeth Bryant, Bonny Stitt, Fernando Garcia, Jane Stitt, Anne Meyers-Welsch, Miguel Palacios, Sophia Hansen-Day, Natalie Goodwin, Sam Wagner, Cory Choy, and Jeff Towne. And thank you so much for listening. “Fighting Back” is a production of MinneCulture and is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
MELISSA OLSON (EDITOR): Anna Stitt is a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.