Robert Gordt joined the Kurdish YPG militia in March of 2017 and was martyred near Raqqa on July 5th. Robert (or Rob or Bobby as some knew him) had a long history of political activism stretching back to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. While the first wave of foreign volunteers who traveled to Syria in 2014 and 2015 were mostly military veterans, many of the current fighters are members of various anarcho-communist movements back home. Rob was one of them.
Yesterday, a memorial service was held in Manhattan for Rob with members of the Kurdish diaspora, local political activists, and Rob’s family members. Usually it would be bad form to use a memorial service as a jumping off point to discuss politics, but in this case the service itself was so inherently political that it seems like an unavoidable subject. Further, based on what was said about Rob and who he was, it seems unlikely that he would have objected to his death being used as a platform to discuss his closely-held beliefs.
By all accounts Rob was a doer rather than a talker. A speaker named Chris knew Rob from the Occupy movement and said that Rob traveled from California to New York raising money for the cause all along the way. Without his contribution, Chris suspects he would not have been able to open the “people’s kitchen” at Zuccatti Park. Chris went on to say that dark forces are conspiring at home and abroad to take our, “rights, liberty, and even our lives” explaining that Rob was one of those who fought back.
Amongst the Zucatti park protestors, Rob worked as a medic. A fellow anarchist said that Rob was the go-to guy to get involved in the “most rad actions” like jumping barricades and such. After singing a song about fighting the man, he threw up his fist and yelled: “Anarchy!”
What was particularly interesting about the memorial was the use of the term “anti-fascism.” The proprietor of the theater where the memorial was held was the first to speak and was quick to tote his family background of anti-fascism . His mother had apparently been an organizer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who were international volunteers who traveled to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Ron Kuby got up on stage and spoke about anti-fascism and read a poem written by a communist about the veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Behind the speakers were the familiar flags and symbols of the Kurdish YPG militia. Less familiar was the flag of the antifa movement.
Antifa has been a “thing” in Europe for a long time, which is not surprising considering their history. However, antifa never really existed in the United States until recently. Sure, we had anti-globalization protesters, we had anarchists, and all sorts of others. Only recently have anarchists in America begun rebranding themselves as “anti-fascist.” But who are the fascists? Whatever one’s political persuasion, America does not have a fascist government. America doesn’t even have a sizable neo-Nazi movement. According to the SPLC there are something like 6,000 neo-Nazis out of a population of 323 million Americans, making them a microscopic fringe.
In Europe the antifa movement is primarily anarchists but also consists of socialists and other ideologies. In America, antifa is nearly exclusively made up of anarchists. At the memorial were several individuals associated with “the base” which is New York City’s anarchist collective. The anarchist who sang a song for Rob at the memorial confirmed that they were both part of “the bloc” meaning Black Bloc anarchists. Some of these anarcho-communists are traveling to Syria, picking up guns, and directly participating in revolutionary activities.
The linkage between antifa and the Kurdish YPG is as interesting as it is complicated. Both groups have complex histories that are difficult to unpack. It appears that antifa is trying to link itself to the YPG rather than the other way around. Many members of the Kurdish diaspora attended the memorial out of respect for Rob’s sacrifice, but how many of them are anarchists? Probably not a single one. This is again what makes the linkage interesting. The Kurdish struggle in Syria is not about the fight against fascism. If we are concerned with facts, it simply isn’t. The Kurds are fighting hard-line Islamists, Jihadists, and religious zealots. In some ways, the Kurds are also fighting the against the Assad regime for their rights after living as second-class citizens in Syria for generations. Assad belongs to the Baath Party, which came out of communism, and while authoritarian in nature the Syrian government is also not fascist.
In my travels to Northern Syria to spend time with the YPG and YPJ, my trip to Qadil to meet with the PKK, or my meetings with the Assad regime in Damascus, I have never once heard the word fascist or anti-fascist used to describe the nature of the Syrian conflict. This represents a rebranding on the part of American foreign volunteers who are apparently having some success in driving the narrative structure of the Syrian Civil War. Even the YPG press office announced that Rob died, “fighting daesh (ISIS) fascism.”
American anarchists are attracted to the Kurdish struggle because of the PKK, YPG, and YPJ ideology of democratic confederalism, communalism, environmentalism, social justice, and gender equality. In this sense, they have something in common. But the YPG/YPJ fight in Syria is profoundly not a fight against fascism, but Islamism. The Kurdish struggle in Syria is at the end of the day a struggle for power, Kurdish rights, and Kurdish independence, not a worldwide internationalist struggle of lefty anarchists against fascists. At some point the rhetoric starts to sound like that coming out of the Soviet Union who branded the Berlin Wall as the, “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.”
The linking in tandem of ISIS with fascism immediately forces us to recall the term “Islamo-fascism” which is a rebranding effort on the part of the American far right. They attempt to link Islam with Nazis, making arguments that go beyond critiques of the regressive aspects of Islam or Arab culture and move into territory that is profoundly racist and xenophobic. To be clear, the term Islamo-fascism was never spoken at Rob’s memorial. I have also never heard the Kurds use this term. That the far left is so afraid to criticize Islam but is really making the same argument about the conflict as people like Pamela Geller is both uncanny and surreal.
Does this mean that the U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Syria are now anti-fascists? Does this mean the U.S. military was taking anti-fascist actions by invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban government? Who are the fascists and who are the anti-fascists? Marxist tactics include muddying the waters to the point that words and labels have no meaning anymore, and that certainly seems to be the case here. The nature of American anarchism is changing, the participants are seemingly ready to directly take part in an armed struggle. Several of the speakers at the memorial stopped just short of saying it. The sub-text could be heard in the rhetoric although they would certainly deny it.
Rob believed in something and died for it. He made his choice and felt that he was fighting for a better world. Without a doubt he fought against an unbelievably evil force in Syria and stood with the Kurdish people who genuinely are trying to create an enclave of democracy in the Middle East. On that point, Rob chose well.
Sitting behind me at the memorial service was a little girl playing with a stuffed animal. When the lights dimmed and the projector ran a slide show of Rob on the screen I heard her saying, “that’s daddy!” Rob made a choice, and I respect that, but last night I found myself wishing that he had just stayed home.
Lead image courtesy of the YPG media office