And Now We Know His Name
I didn’t know JD when he walked up to me and threatened me on camera. But I knew, immediately, that I would.
I know more about JD than I ever wanted to.
I know he worked construction. Lives in Vancouver, Washington. I know what his wife looks like angry and what she looks like crying. I know what his breath smells like and what his eyes look like when he decides you’re less than human. I know what his back looks like when you follow him out of a screaming mob.
I didn’t want to know these things, but I do.
On November 14th, I flew to Washington DC to cover the Million MAGA March as a freelance journalist. I spent the day amongst the tens of thousands of Trump supporters who took to the streets of Washington DC. I listened to speech after conspiratorial speech about alleged election theft by the Democrats, “globalist” forces, and a complicit media. I saw a lesbian Trump supporter get into a shouting match with a homophobic street preacher and filmed the Proud Boys strut menacingly outside their favorite DC bar.
Which is also a cop bar. Go figure.
I listened to Nick Fuentes address his Groypers and, through his barely-disguised white nationalist rhetoric, began to see how this strange and doomed Hail Mary pass of a coup attempt could become a powerful weapon for the far right over the next four years. As Fuentes threatened to tear the GOP apart if they failed to fight and secure Trump’s victory, I knew the kind of article I wanted to write. National in scope, a vision of the future.
That article sits, half-finished, in my drafts folder while I feverishly write this one instead.
The thing that’s occupied most of my time for the past week happened late that night. As my colleague John and I observed the various street parties and celebrations that closed out the long and sometimes-violent day, we came across the Groypers chasing off a lone protester. We stopped to film, as we had done at several similar locations earlier in the evening.
And then I heard my name called out behind me. A protester from my hometown of Portland, Oregon recognized me as someone whose coverage of the far right is often less than flattering. Someone who’s been known to infiltrate their events and make them look a bit silly on film.
What followed were fifteen of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life. We were surrounded and trapped by a furious and maskless mob that shrieked a seemingly-unending stream of obscenities and threats. “I’ve never been called a fag so many times in my life,” John remarked as we finally walked away. They challenged him to fight while they threatened and menaced me. Stepped on my feet and continuously jostled me, their constant unwanted touch a reminder of my precarious position in this frothing crowd.
There was nowhere to go — we were surrounded — and so we stood, back to back. I fought to keep my voice and hand steady as I continued to record. Our dual cameras provided an interlocking field of film against escalation into violence.
Maybe you’ve seen the video. Maybe you haven’t. You can see it here:
There’s a main character in this video. It’s the man in the American flag mask who threatens me and steps on my foot and calls me a stupid bitch about twenty-seven times. His name, for the purposes of this article, is JD.
I did not know his name when he approached me but I knew, as soon as he began to scream into my camera, that I would know it.
And surely, on some level, JD must have known this too. When the woman he was with pointed at me, a journalist visibly recording things with her camera, and identified me as “Antifa press,” he decided to move towards me without a mask. He then decided to say and do the assorted repugnant things he said and did.
When JD stepped towards me, we were both immediately cast in the three-act play of Internet justice served. In that instant, his exposure and loss of employment shifted from avoidable to preordained.
We’ve seen this show a thousand times in the theater of social media, both within the context of antifascism and outside it. In Act One, someone decides to be a raging asshole to a person with a camera. They clearly believe themselves untouchable in that moment, and they use their power to bully or threaten the person they perceive as helpless.
Act Two follows quickly. The victim publishes the footage and the Internet passes judgment. Community members decide to find the identity of this dangerous jerk and to ensure their actions have consequences. The sleuths get to work and suddenly, we have a name. A place of business. A phone number to call.
And after all these retweets and phone calls, we get Act Three: the sweet payoff, justice served, tables turned. Now it is the bully who feels helpless, the aggressor beaten down. After JD lost his job due to Act Two, his wife took to Facebook Live to express her anguish. Tearfully, she wonders how they will afford to live. She wonders what will become of them. Her despair is genuine, her fury very real.
We tell this story over and over again because it satisfies a real and human need for retributive justice that so often goes unfulfilled. All of us endure daily the petty cruelties of strangers, twisting little inequities that fill the heart with white-hot rage. They leave us with seething knowledge that there will never be a reckoning. No consequences. The bastards got away with it again.
And then you see someone on the Internet do the same thing, but this time there’s a camera and a viral audience and suddenly there’s an opportunity to crowdfund justice. And now the person who wielded their power so recklessly is crying on your computer screen and you think, good. There is justice in this world. Fuck you.
Like most people, I have participated in this story countless times, either as a nameless spectator or a faceless avenger. It feels very different, however, to be a main character. Friends and strangers alike sent me video of JD’s crying wife in a spirit of absolute delight, and I am having trouble connecting with that emotion.
Part of me feels good, of course. Real good, especially when I have occasion to re-watch my original video. Or when I recall that, according to sources I trust, JD bragged about the incident when he went into work on Monday. This guy didn’t have a bad moment or a regrettable lapse of judgement. He woke up the next day and thought yes, I did a good thing there. He threatened me and challenged me to do something about it, believing I could do nothing. He wouldn’t stop touching me. Fuck him.
It feels good to see his actions have consequences. It feels powerful that other people saw my footage and affirmed my conviction that in no way was what he did an OK thing to do. Even some Trump supporters at JD’s former place of work felt he went too far, I’m told. I feel validated. Seen. Protected.
And yet, inescapably, those are real tears on camera.
This woman’s emotions are genuine. We live in a dystopia in which our corporate overlords have a frightening amount of control over our thoughts and actions. In situations like these, we weaponize that dystopia against our enemies. So many of us are intimately acquainted with her fear. We know the twisting helplessness that overtakes us as we stare at a dwindling bank account and plot ways to further starve our anorexic lives. Yes, she believes awful things, but will this help her see the error of her ways? Or simply deepen the misery that led her to drink far-right poison in the first place?
Is this what justice looks like? Maybe, in late stage capitalism, it’s all we can hope for.
It could certainly be worse for JD. As copies of her video fill my inbox, I join an overwatch and protection group for another journalist declared an “Antifa videographer.” Her name appeared on a kill list the day after Proud Boys leaked her address and the address of her parents.
We aren’t worried about their jobs. We’re worried about their lives.
I worry about this for myself as well. It’s not just empathy that makes me uncomfortable as I watch the crying video. My mispronounced name in his wife’s mouth and the mouths of others. I sit and wonder what this very real pain will metastasize into. If I believed — really believed — that someone had destroyed my life without cause, would I let it go? Or would I pursue my own kind of justice?
Will they come for me? Will others?
Antifash Gordon, the person who first revealed JD’s place of work, assures me this won’t necessarily happen. In his extensive experience, doxxing (revealing someone’s personal information) often chills more than it radicalizes. “Once they know that if they act up, everyone’s going to know who they are, and that they’re going to experience consequences,” he tells me, “they tend to calm the rhetoric and shy away from actual physical confrontation.”
Time, of course, will tell. Either way, Antifash Gordon has hit on a dimension that extends beyond the personal drama of a handful of people on Twitter. Perhaps the next far-right asshole who gets the urge to threaten someone he perceives as vulnerable will remember this incident and have a moment of self-reflection. Maybe it will make other people think twice before menacing someone when they might be filmed.
In this way, revealing the identity of people like JD and relieving them of employment deters violence and keeps everyone safer. This is good. It should continue. Nothing I’m about to say negates the validity of such action.
But let us zoom out a little farther still and ask: who the hell is JD?
This blue-collar worker is no one. He does not occupy a key role in the movement and never has. He is a foot-soldier. Interchangeable. Cannon fodder.
What sort of victory is this, big-picture?
What does it mean that I’m writing this article and not the other one, the one about the national moment, the zeitgeist, the stab-in-the-back myth that’s going to haunt us for the next four years? What does it mean that for the last week, my life has been entirely consumed with this semi-viral moment of must-see Twitter TV?
There’s a path forward for me here — something a friend describes as “Kabuki politics.” I could keep this going forever. My face will increasingly provoke reaction at these events, whether I want it to or not. This could easily become the only thing I’m known for.
I could make a career of this.
I know how this kind of propaganda creation works. I’ve watched the far right do it for years. I wrote an entire thesis on it. It’s an effective way to show the enemy for who they are in an easily-digestible, highly-emotional way. There’s a place for it. It can be valuable.
But it’s small and stifling work, and I already feel the walls closing in.
Am I a journalist or the story? Gonzo style blurs the boundaries by default. I don’t mind being a character in my own work, but I don’t want to be mere spectacle either. Some sideshow act, a professional damsel in distress.
These exhibitions serve a purpose. Yet modern activism so often consists of only exhibition: petty drama by bit players while the forces that mobilize these small people build and crest unabated. JD loses his job, but far right xenophobia and rage continue to permeate the American consciousness. The Overton Window relentlessly shifts.
The same problem marred and perhaps doomed Portland’s protests this summer as well. A police station’s glass doors shatter during a direct action, but the police unions that protect cops from anything resembling accountability remain very much intact. “Windows can be repaired,” activists often say when taken to task for property damage, but isn’t that also an argument against the efficacy of breaking them? With your brick you demand justice, but the nature of that demand presupposes the existence of the very system that will continue to produce injustice long after the window is repaired.
The left is, at present, the master of small solutions to big problems.
The systemic dangers America faces have seldom been larger than they are now. A wave of exponential, uncontrolled COVID crashes down upon us. Hot on its heels comes the mental hazards of social isolation and the material catastrophe of widespread economic crisis. Evictions. Job loss. Hunger. Physical, mental, and emotional impoverishment. All the while, the effects of climate change slither, slow and enormous, onto the stage.
At present, only one ideology has a fleshed-out solution to the misery and desperation that define this epoch of American history. It is a monstrous solution, worse than the problem itself. But fascism is the only solution, at this point, that packages its promises of relief in a way capable of reaching and persuading the masses.
We chop down saplings while the forest spreads malignant because all we have are hand-axes. We chase the dopamine rush of perceived agency while the forces we cannot control mount ever stronger against us.
Doxxing JD was easy. It felt really good. It probably had positive effects. Creating a movement powerful enough to save us from late-stage capitalism and the fascism that follows is not merely hard, at times it feels impossible.
I blame no one for this impulse. I also do it; what else is this article but overindulgent wallowing in exactly the kind of minutia I’m currently railing against? Tweeting is the new fiddling, and everything’s on fire. There’s a little bit of Nero in all of us.
We have to find a way to fight the big fights too. Take comfort in these small moments of justice while maintaining perspective on the larger fight. We must talk seriously about creating a powerful movement capable of winning mass appeal and shaking the roots of power, something more than spectacle and symbolism. Something real. Something hard. A path we’ve never travelled.
I wish I had answers. If I find them, you’ll be the first to know. I don’t know how we do it, I don’t know where we go from here.
We’ll keep doing what we’re doing. It slows the spread, at least. But we can’t chop trees forever while the forest closes in.
One of these days, we’re going to have to find a path out of here.