Dartmouth and lecturer Mark Bray at center of Antifa violence dispute

by Alex Fredman | 9/11/17 2:30am

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History lecturer Mark Bray is a leading scholar on the far-left "Antifa" (anti-fascist) movement.

by Eli Burakian / The Dartmouth

When it comes to understanding the recent surge of radical political organizations in the U.S., Mark Bray, a visiting lecturer in history at the College, may know more than any scholar today on the far-left “Antifa” or anti-fascist movement.

But knowledge can be a burden, as the saying goes. Following a series of recent public comments regarding the use of violence to counter neo-fascism, Bray has landed in the middle of a dispute involving a statement of condemnation from the College, national media coverage and death threats.

Following the outbreak of violence on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bray published an analysis piece in The Washington Post on Aug. 16 describing a group of counter-protestors called “Antifa,” who were present in Charlottesville to challenge a rally organized by right-wing extremist groups to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. In the article, Bray described Antifa as a movement with “radical pan-leftist politics of social revolution applied to fighting the far right” whose members “reject turning to the police or the state to halt the advance of white supremacy.”

Having just completed his Ph.D. dissertation on modern political extremism last year, Bray authored a new book this year, “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which addresses the history of the Antifa movement as well as the ideologies and tactics behind it. This, along with his piece in The Washington Post, placed Bray in high demand for comments in the media following the violence in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a counter-protester.

“It’s been exciting to have my work relevant to contemporary politics,” Bray said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “At the same time, it’s been tragic that part of the reason why it is relevant is someone was murdered.”

On Aug. 20, Bray appeared on “Meet the Press” with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s President Richard Cohen to debate whether radical left-wing movements like Antifa may be justified in using violence to counter right-wing extremist groups. During the segment, Bray appeared to defend Antifa’s tactics, arguing that non-violent resistance to fascism in the past has not been effective.

“A lot of people are under attack, and sometimes they need to be able to defend themselves,” Bray said on the show. “It’s not, you know, it’s a privileged position to be able to say that you never have to defend yourself from these kinds of monsters.”

After his appearance on “Meet the Press,” Bray said he started receiving death threats via email and Twitter. Bray added that he has been in contact with police regarding these threats.

The next day, an article on the conservative website Campus Reform titled “Dartmouth scholar endorses Antifa violence” quoted Bray as arguing on “Meet the Press” that violence is a “legitimate response” to extremist groups, though Bray used that phrase referring to “self-defense.” Sandor Farkas ’17, the author of the Campus Reform article, attributed a passage in Bray’s Washington Post article which read “physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective” as Bray’s own opinion although in the article the quote is preceded by the phrase “Antifascists argue…” Farkas declined to comment for this story.

The College issued a statement on Aug. 21 saying that “recent statements made by Lecturer in History Mark Bray supporting violent protest do not represent the views of Dartmouth” and that “the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary to Dartmouth values.”

Bray said that he was not contacted by the College before the statement was issued, and that he first heard of the statement through an Internet search.

“Even Campus Reform reached out to me,” Bray said. “I did not respond for comment, but even they reached out to me. You’d think that [College President Phil Hanlon] – he would do the same thing.”

History professor Udi Greenberg said he was concerned with the College’s decision not to contact Bray.

“[The College] should not make a statement about one of its members — whether a student, faculty or staff — without the member of the community having a chance to articulate their ideas and to clarify their positions,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg is one of over 100 Dartmouth faculty members who signed a letter addressed to President Hanlon and dean of faculty Elizabeth Smith criticizing the College’s statement on Bray. The letter, dated Aug. 22, praised Bray’s recent scholarship and public appearances and claimed that his remarks have been misconstrued. The faculty also wrote that Dartmouth’s reputation has been damaged because of the statement, and they urged the College to remove the statement and apologize to Bray.

Art history professor Mary Coffey, another signee of the faculty letter, said she took issue with the fact that the College responded directly to Campus Reform, which she said created an illegitimate narrative regarding Bray’s comments.

“The longer [the statement] sits on our website, speaking to the world, the longer we are complicit in an alt-right campaign to discredit and mischaracterize Mark Bray’s scholarship,” Coffey said.

In a letter responding to the faculty letter on Aug. 31, Hanlon and Smith explained that following Bray’s appearance on “Meet the Press,” the College received a “tremendous surge” of phone calls, emails and social media inquiries from students, families, alumni and others questioning Bray’s viewpoints. However, Coffey said that the College should avoid responding unilaterally to partisan media narratives at the expense of its own faculty.

“The long-run perception is that Dartmouth as an institution does not support its faculty’s research and that it will disavow that research if it gets a write-in campaign,” Coffey said.

Bray began at the College as a visiting scholar at the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth and then became a lecturer in the history department last spring. He is listed as an "associated visiting scholar" on the GRID website.

A historian of human rights, terrorism and political radicalism, Bray has himself engaged in political activism, including the Occupy Wall Street movement and protests against President Donald Trump’s administration. Bray said his new book covers the history of antifascism from a “transnational” perspective, adding that he interviewed 61 antifascists from 17 different countries to write the book.

Bray said that while he does support the Antifa movement collectively, the group’s wide range of ideas and individuals make it impossible for him to endorse the actions of each of its members.

“My support for the movement as a whole should not be interpreted as necessarily support for everything that every individual in the group does,” Bray said.

Bray noted that he does believe self-defense in the face of antifascism can be justified, conceding that self-defense can sometimes involve violence. He added, however, that broadly characterizing his remarks as endorsing violence is an oversimplification.

“I think that there is evidence to support the claim that on a number of important occasions, [Antifa’s] organizing efforts have stopped the advance of fascist and white supremacist groups,” Bray said.

English professor Jeffrey Sharlet, another signee of the faculty letter, emphasized Bray’s academic freedom. He added that he is currently reading Bray’s new book.

“I don’t know if I agree with everything that Bray has said,” Sharlet said. “But I know I do believe that he has the right to say it.”

Sharlet added that he found Hanlon’s second statement more troubling than the first, because of its admission that the College’s rationale for the first statement was to respond to phone calls and emails. He said that this kind of action by the College may make its scholars in the future more reluctant to address controversial topics.

“Suddenly, we have a young scholar in the national spotlight who is doing the work of a public intellectual — he is putting forth history and ideas that allow us to debate, allow us to form our own views on these questions of Antifa and the proper response and so on,” Sharlet said. “This is to be applauded. This is work that we need as a nation right now.”

Bray told The Dartmouth that he has not been in direct contact with the College’s administration throughout the controversy, yet he said the last few weeks have provided some moments of comfort.

“It’s been disheartening to see how the administration has responded to my work, but it’s been heartening to see how so many of my Dartmouth colleagues have supported me,” Bray said. “And in that way I feel more a part of the Dartmouth community than before this.”

Representatives from the College declined further comment.