Red Guards and the Modern Face of Protest
Agitators, disrupters, or “anarchists,” these masked protesters represent a new resistance
It was the C3 and C4 vertebrae – right up top, behind the jaw – that fractured in Jared Roark's neck during an arrest near the Capitol a few days after Donald Trump got elected. That Sunday (Nov. 13, 2016), a couple hundred people had marched up Congress Avenue to protest the incoming president. As they made their way toward the Capitol's gates, a man wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat held a sign that read "Fuck Your Feelings" in his hands and shouted toward the marchers as they moved northbound. Most of the marchers continued to the Capitol, but a small group – many of whom had marched in masks – stayed behind to confront him.
Josh Pineda, a longtime member of the Peaceful Streets Project, the local copwatching collective, was on Congress with the marchers. He saw the small group converge. He said the "Make America Great Again" man was "intentionally there to disrupt."
"Somebody knocked [his] hat off," said Pineda. "Some people took his sign and ripped it up." But "absolutely nobody," he said, waged any bodily assault on the man.
Pineda said he witnessed other demonstrators rush over to a team of state troopers and ask that they intervene. Other witnesses said 12 troopers rushed the group and started pinning protesters and making arrests. It was clear to them that the troopers were going after those in masks.
One witness, who asked to not be named, recalled at one point seeing a masked protester trying to flee the rumble. "He got caught up on one of the fences," he said, "and got tackled by the cop … chasing him." The trooper allegedly pinned the protester to the curb in what looked like an uncomfortable position. "I remember thinking he could get hurt," said the witness. Carlo Engel Nasisse, a UT student who was Downtown photographing the protest, ran over when he heard commotion. "I didn't see anything specific happen," he told the Chronicle. "But I remember one of the protesters complaining about pain in his neck, and one of them was asking for medical help."
Roark, who was wearing a mask, was arrested that night, along with five other protesters. He didn't receive treatment for his neck injury until after his release from Travis County Jail the following evening. Roark has declined to comment, on the advice of his attorney. In an email, DPS press secretary Tom Vinger said Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services was called the night of Nov. 13 and offered to provide Roark with treatment, which Roark refused. "Protests are common at the State Capitol and participants usually refrain from violent or antagonistic behavior," wrote Vinger. "When violence or issues do take place, it is typically caused by the small number of agitators."
Shortly after that protest, organizers turned to a since-deleted Facebook account called "Protest Trump Austin Tx" to "remind everyone that this page only wishes to elicit peaceful protests. … We don't associate with masked extremists. We are not enemies of the state. We are the state."
The group's distancing from masked protesters carried extra weight that week. A few days before the march, former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo appeared on KEYE-TV to admonish those who chose to protest under the cover of any mask. "If you want to make your message heard and exercise your First Amendment right, take those masks off," he said. "Because historically, the only people who cover their faces are people who are agitators." Asst. Chief Frank Dixon later amended APD's official perspective, telling the Chronicle: "There could be some peaceful protesters who want to cover their faces. There could be some people who do not want to have their views known publicly." Dixon did, however, cite a mounting sense of erratic activity and vague fluidity in recent protests, lobbing blame on a small group of masked activists.
"They call themselves the Red Guards," he said. "They're anarchists."
The Red Guards promote themselves as a "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist collective of community organizers and mass workers" who believe Dixon's label of "anarchist" is inaccurate. "Anarchists have absolutely no plan to take state power," a spokesperson with the group stated in response to the chief's assessment. "As communists, we intend to build a party that will seize power and form a new state."
Fight For Your Right
The Red Guards operate in anonymity. Their lone spokesperson wouldn't go on the record, and declined to say how many people in Austin belonged to the activist group, or the range of ages of its membership – though naked-eye indications suggest the group is younger than middle-aged. They have a Facebook page: Red Guards Austin; it's public, with 5,200 likes and just as many followers. Organizers post notes and invitations for marches and other efforts, often in coordination with affiliated groups in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. They wear masks to "remove the individual face from the equation," said the spokesperson. "We're acting as a unit.
"We don't seek to come to power through elections. We believe in armed struggle with mass participation." The group organized its first protest after the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, and has been active locally ever since.
The Red Guards' emergence coincides with a marked shift in the personality of today's public protests. Occupy Wall Street, the global movement that exposed the enormous wealth disparity in the United States and abroad, started with a small group taking over Zuccotti Park in New York City in September 2011. Kalle Lasn and Micah White from the Canadian publication Adbusters made a call for direct action earlier that year, in an online post titled "A Million Man March on Wall Street." Inspired by the "Arab Spring," uprisings in the Middle East that materialized in late 2010, Adbusters emailed its subscribers in June 2011 to declare that "America need[ed] its own Tahrir" (a reference to the Egyptian mass occupation of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo). The Zuccotti occupation soon inspired hundreds of other occupations across the country and around the world.
Black Lives Matter, the largest mass movement to immediately follow Occupy, took off in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, and grew rapidly after Brown was shot and killed by a police officer the next year. Unlike the stationary encampments that characterized Occupy protests, demonstrators in Ferguson took to the streets with energy. After a St. Louis County grand jury announced that the state would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for causing Brown's death, a crowd stormed through the St. Louis suburb, hurling projectiles at police officers and smashing the windows of local businesses. In a now famous video, Brown's stepfather Louis Head can be heard yelling to the protesters: "Burn this motherfucker down!"
Comparable outrage followed in April 2015 after a "rough ride" with the Baltimore police ended the life of Freddie Gray. In the months that followed, protesters destroyed property, injured police officers, and damaged police vehicles. Protests in solidarity with the three deaths materialized in other parts of the country, emulating the rebellious spirit in Ferguson and Baltimore. Instead of occupying buildings or parks, demonstrations filled city streets and blocked highways.
Dixon said he has observed this transformation take hold locally. "There's a shift in dynamic," he said. "People show up at the Capitol wanting to march through the streets." The assistant chief said that lately the Red Guards have repeatedly commandeered these marches and led them outside the corridors created by police escort. The unpredictable direction forces law enforcement to rely on bike and motorcycle units that can quickly adapt to sudden turnabouts. These defiant tactics by the Red Guards slight the safety of most protesters and undermine APD's efforts to coordinate "a secure platform for Austinites to express their constitutional rights," said Dixon. "APD is one of the few large police departments to reach out to organizers beforehand to see how we can work together in order to ensure that everyone stays safe." The Red Guards' disruptive leadership, he said, makes that more difficult.
The Red Guards' spokesperson said that the group's intentional disobedience is rooted in anti-police politics. "Our goal is to outflank them and force them to move all over the city and disrupt life as usual by shutting down streets," they said. "In Austin, [law enforcement] likes to provide permits and give organizers a police escort so that they can look good and pretend they're protecting the demonstrators' rights, but that's because they first seek to rule by consent. When that doesn't work, they rule by coercion."
That allegation manifested locally on Feb. 3, 2012, when APD forced Occupy protesters to abandon the encampment outside of City Hall that they had held for four months. "It was a surprise," said Ronnie Garza, one of the occupiers. "They came around 11pm after the majority of people had left, and told the camp to clear out." Officers formed a line and gradually pushed occupants off of City Hall. One protester was hospitalized. Chronicle photographer John Anderson, who photographed the Occupy movement, said he witnessed the woman being pushed. Within an hour, the protest that had persevered since the previous October was broken down and over.
For the majority of that occupation, however, Garza remembers interactions with police as being "fairly cordial." In the beginning, APD was generally seen by the group as supportive, at least compared to the law enforcement agencies who had come down harder on other practicing occupants, like NYPD. "It was a minority of people who saw policing as the primary issue," Garza said. "Most of the people saw democracy or the economy as the primary issue."
Another occupier, who wished to remain anonymous, disagreed with that assessment, alleging that Occupy Austin was very anti-cop. "A lot of the time at various demonstrations [during the occupation], people would yell 'Fuck the police!'" they said. "Especially if people were getting arrested or had been arrested." On Oct. 30, 2011, one day after 38 occupiers were arrested for refusing to comply with newly instituted camping restrictions, Chief Acevedo hosted a press conference in which he lauded those apprehended for engaging in civil disobedience without resorting to violence, evoking the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "I'm proud of the fact that no force was used, no tear gas, no pepper spray, no batons," he said. "And that we were able to take the folks that chose to engage in civil disobedience into custody without injury to any officer or to any of the protesters."
Acevedo's stated respect for the Occupy protesters helped disguise APD's undercover infiltration of the camp, suggested Garza. APD seemed to be "fairly hands-off, but it was only after the fact that we learned how they really were involved," he said.
At least three undercover officers participated in surveillance of the camp, according to the testimony of one detective, Shannon G. Dowell, during a court hearing (see "APD Infiltrates Occupy," Sept. 7, 2012). "They were there from the beginning," Garza said. "They weren't causing trouble or anything. They were just doing their thing; being undercovers, just waiting for the right moment when they could screw us all over."
That came on Dec. 12, 2011, when Garza participated in a national solidarity action with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union by blockading entrances to various American ports. Garza and six others used lockboxes to create a human barrier to the port of Houston, which resulted in each of them being arrested and charged with felonies. Detective Dowell, known around Occupy only as "Butch," had procured, constructed, and delivered the lockboxes to the protesters.
APD has yet to disclose any other details concerning the case outside of Dowell's testimony, which was subpoenaed by Garza's lawyer. "It felt like a pretty deep secret they were trying to keep," Garza said. "I'm not quite sure what their endgame was, but it seemed like they wanted to make an example of us."
To date, the Red Guards have not discovered APD infiltration of their own organization, but members did have a run-in with "alternative media outlet" InfoWars in 2015, which threatened some members' safety. That May, Alex Jones led a protest of Planned Parenthood under the banner #BlackLivesMatter. An InfoWars article published the following day said, "This issue has been completely overlooked by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which apparently thinks little of the hundreds of thousands of black babies every year that never get a chance at life."
The Red Guards participated in a counterprotest of that event, which attempted to obscure the rally's "pro-life" message. Tensions between the two groups quickly escalated to the point where police at the scene asked the counterprotesters to leave the area or face arrest. Although the Red Guards escaped without injury, they had not been wearing masks during the encounter (such precautions wouldn't be taken until later), and in the following days their personal information was shared on right-wing forums. The group received threatening messages on their Facebook page. Some members ended up moving away from Austin to avoid retaliation.
On Feb. 17, 2016, several months after the incident, the Red Guards posted a message on the group's blog. "The right is well armed, well funded, has discipline and sometimes combat experience," it read. "In conditions such as these, the left simply cannot afford to ignore the question of armed self-defense."
On Nov. 19, 11 days after Trump's election, a White Lives Matter rally of roughly 20 protesters met a few hundred counterprotesters at the state Capitol. Standing a short distance away were four individuals in masks adorned with the red hammer and sickle, armed with semiautomatic rifles.
The surveillance methods APD employed during Occupy Austin have not impeded the department's coordination efforts with most protests. Chris Harris, a freelance data analyst who works with for-profit-prison abolitionists Grassroots Leadership, said organizers behind the One Resistance protest on Inauguration Day began communicating with police one month before and negotiated the parameters of the march. In a press conference the week before Trump's inauguration, City Council Member Greg Casar, who helped convene One Resistance's coalition of 40-plus organizations, expressed pride in the city's policies protecting civil liberties. "This coalition has been working closely with various city departments, including the police department, to ensure that this is a safe and family-friendly event for everyone," he said.
Paula Rojas, an organizer from Communities of Color United, said the Inauguration Day march was not intended to be a disruption. "The point was to create a space for different directly impacted communities to speak, cross-pollinate, and connect," she said.
The Red Guards were critical of the One Resistance march, accusing organizers of sabotaging any meaningful resistance by collaborating with APD. "It's not resisting to ask permission and then only do what you were given permission to do," one member said. The group joined a larger group of masked protesters that night – a group that identified as an "anti-fascist bloc." Together, they gathered outside the rally and yelled slogans like, "Love doesn't trump hate! Punch a nazi in the face!" before merging with the larger march.
A Red Guards spokesperson said after inauguration weekend that the group participated in order to provide an alternative radical politics to the "liberal rhetoric" of One Resistance speakers.
While Rojas agreed that now marks a time for confrontational actions like never before, she did not think the One Resistance march was the best space for such demonstrations. "It didn't make sense for [the masked protesters] to be disruptive next to a group of people who can't run," she said. "That compromises folks who are walking with walkers and strollers." (Incidentally, some of the masked protesters were in wheelchairs or used other mobility aids.)
"Personally, I would like to see more solidarity amongst the left," added Harris. "[The Red Guards] wanted to do their own thing and have their own message, which is fine. I think you see that at a lot of protests where groups come out for different reasons, but in support of the same cause."
A Greater Risk
In the weeks following the inauguration, protests have continued in response to Trump's actions. After he signed an order banning entry from seven majority-Muslim countries, demonstrators gathered at airports, where people had been detained in compliance with the order, to demand their release. Although no one was detained at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a solidarity protest was held there on Jan. 29. Harris believes those protests, in conjunction with several lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations, resulted in the federal government backpedaling on the order. "That's huge, because it gives us momentum going forward," he said.
Following a late January executive order that cracks down on immigration enforcement in so-called "sanctuary cities," Rojas said she believes direct action tactics must be more creative. She referenced the "Sanctuary in the Streets" project currently being put together by ICE out of Austin and Austin Sanctuary Network ("Matters More Than the Law," Feb. 10). "It's a rapid response network," she said, "where the goal is to buy time for others to get away or for the media to arrive, with the risk of arrest, of course."
Malcolm Greenstein, a partner at the law firm Greenstein & Kolker, which specializes in civil rights litigation, told the Chronicle he "expect[s] to be a lot busier" these next four years. "I think there's going to be more protests as well as the government coming down on the defenseless," he said. "It's going to require a lot of people, including lawyers, to stand up and help those folks."
Pineda predicted an increased militarization of police, and protesters facing more serious charges for acts of civil disobedience. Pineda, who spends much of his free time documenting police activity, fears that the current administration may seek ways to make filming police illegal. "I'm anticipating the worst," he said.
Garza shared Pineda's concerns of a coming crackdown against direct action. "During Occupy, we got very lucky in that we were able to find out about the [undercover] detectives without them telling us," he said. "Under Trump, I feel like [protesters] will be taking even greater risks. The president and Washington [D.C.] have an ability to reach into our neighborhoods in a much more profound way these days."
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, told the Chronicle that he doesn't expect any big changes to APD's day-to-day response to public protest. "No matter who's [president], no matter if it was Hillary or Mr. Trump, we would still do the same job we do today," he said. He and the union's executive staff worry about the effect that protesting has on APD's rank and file; marches and demonstrations require a substantial reallocation of police resources, with patrol officers often pulled away from their usual beats to manage crowds and direct traffic. "If our City Council and county government want to continue encouraging protesting, they should reimburse the APD budget," he said, a not-so-thinly veiled jab at the calls for resistance from members of local government.
Vinger said that DPS's goal concerning protests moving forward remains to provide security and ensure the safety of the public – both those participating and those in the vicinity. "We will take the necessary precautions, including deploying additional personnel and resources, in order to protect life, property, and to encourage voluntary compliance with the law," he said.
To that, Asst. Chief Dixon said APD has a long history of protecting civil liberties, and that the department intends to continue in that tradition. "On a national stage, our Special Response Team is recognized as being one of the most professional and best prepared," he said. Members of the SRT were in D.C. for Trump's inauguration. "The last thing we want to do is antagonize."
The Red Guards' spokesperson said their group will continue to challenge the image of law enforcement as protectors of the First Amendment and to keep alive their militant style of protest, pointing to the turbulent demonstrations against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California-Berkeley on Feb. 1. The group's goal remains to implement a sustainable communist movement in the United States. "The defeat of Hillary Clinton in the last election has spurred massive interest in communism," said the spokesperson. "The Democratic Party is dead in the water. So, what are you going to do if the right is antithetical to your existence and liberalism cannot serve you?"
The group believes that moving forward, law enforcement agencies will try to quash their organizing efforts as a part of a larger "repressive state apparatus."
"That's what they are," the spokesperson maintained. "And it's demonstrated clearly by how if we don't protest according to what they deem as acceptable, they try to break our necks. And in one case they succeeded."
This story has been updated to accurately reflect John Anderson’s level of involvement with Occupy Austin.