Chris Cotter has been busy lately. From patching drywall, replacing ceiling tiles, installing a fan and doing away with clutter and exposed wiring, to meticulously measuring six inches out from the entrance and exit doors of 1919 Hemphill -- a well-known DIY venue on the south side of Fort Worth, Texas -- to affix fire extinguishers in the exact, precise location that the city fire code requires.
Cotter, a collective member and co-caretaker of the venue, is applying a little elbow grease to a space founded in 2002 and long-beloved by punks, radicals and outcasts of all stripes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to get the space up to code after the city's fire department received several complaints regarding fire code violations and safety hazards at 1919.
Even though the venue passed its fire inspection "with flying colors" back in May, he is now under fire to obtain a proper certificate of occupancy that would allow the collective to legally host assemblies within 30 days of December 22. If the space remains open after that timeframe without the certificate, it will be fined $2,000 a day.
If 1919 closes its doors, the community would lose a hub for leftist organizing efforts, a refuge for misfits and services for the homeless, as well as a place for hundreds of different bands to make a little cash on the road in between Oklahoma City and Austin.
The complaints almost certainly have their origins in an anonymous message board online, called 4chan in which neo-Nazi and other white nationalist groups have discussed their plans to target DIY spaces like 1919 and shut them down. They are exploiting the recent warehouse fire tragedy in Oakland as a pretext to call code on dozens of spaces across the nation that may not pose the same risks that The Ghost Ship warehouse did, yet still are not strictly legal.
DIY venues began emerging across the country in the 1970s as a means for musicians primarily associated with the punk rock scene to circumvent the mainstream music industry. Musicians and fans began creating their own infrastructure of venues and clubs to meet the needs of the punk rock community and practice a larger DIY ethic that emphasizes independence from large record labels. But the spaces have also provided local hubs for artists and activists engaged in organizing activity on the left.
"It takes a lot to shut me down, and I'm definitely not going to get shut down by a bunch of fascists," Cotter told Truthout. "We were safe to begin with, it's not like we had extension cords wrapped around the rafters ... We were safe. We didn't get any safer, we just got more code compliance."
The fire at The Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale district earlier this month killed 36 people who had gathered for an underground electronic music show. The tragedy has put other less-than-code-compliant hubs for artists and musicians on the defensive. Bay Area punk venues and community centers like Burnt Ramen and Qilombo have since been shuttered following a broader crackdown by city officials in the region. Amid this regulatory ramp-up, one far-right anonymous poster seized the opportunity to rally neo-Nazi groups to jump in and report code violations at DIY, art and community spaces across the country to local fire marshals in 4chan's forum for political discussions, "Politically Incorrect," or "(/pol/)."
"These places are open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy and now YOU can stop them by reporting all such places you may be or may become aware of to the authorities, specifically the local fire marshel [sic]," the poster wrote. "Watch them and follow them to their hives. Infiltrate social circles, go to parties/events, record evidence and report it. We've got them on the run but now we must crush their nests before they can regroup!"
The threads are filled with racial slurs, Nazi-related memes, lists of DIY spaces across the country and advice from posters about just how to target them. One poster emphasized that, "Fate has presented us this opportunity to strike the left at its core and destabilise [sic] them."
The posters refer to their new campaign as the "Right Wing Safety Squad," using "SS" for short, in an apparent reference to Hitler's Schutzstaffel paramilitary force. Many memes are also tagged with the acronym "MASA," or "Make America Safe Again."
The posters have emphasized locations in Washington, DC, they believe serve as convergence spaces for activists planning protests of President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20. One poster writes:
"These are the places where a lot of the protests over the last couple months have recruited from, originated from, and that have housed people from out of town to participate in. It is anticipated that on inauguration day there will be protests, these will be the places sowing drug fueled chaos. This must be quelled. To that end here is a list of addresses of DC 'spaces' they need to be sorted through and shitholes discovered. DO NOT REPORT ON RESPONSIBLE BUSINESSES, research the list. report shitholes. MASA [sic]."
According to lists of spaces posted on the threads, the posters claim to have already shut down 16 venues throughout the country, but it's unclear whether or not the shutdown of venues like Baltimore's Bell Foundry and Nashville's Glass Menage can be attributed to their actions alone or simply to a wider crackdown.
The CAFÉ Infoshop in Fresno, California made the posters' list as one site that is currently under investigation after being reported. Founded in 2005 after Fresno-area activists returned from national protests at the Republican National Convention and presidential inauguration the previous year, the "Collective for Arts Freedom and Ecology" Infoshop provides a community center for the leftist activism in the area, including hosting shows, meeting, lectures, film screenings and a regional convergence space for groups like Earth First! and others.
Infoshop collective members learned they were included on the neo-Nazis' list when organizers from other DIY spaces under attack reached out to warn them. Now, they're gearing up, working to organize trainings for marginalized groups in the community and double-checking their space to make sure it meets safety and fire codes.
Collective member Dallas Blanchard told Truthout the site underwent its five-year sprinkler system inspection just this month before learning about the neo-Nazi campaign against DIY spaces, and passed with no problems. "Being in an older building, of course, there's always going to be some minor stuff we need to look at, and we did go through and kind of check and say 'OK, what do we need to do,'" Blanchard said during a sit-down interview in the venue's first-floor meeting area.
A call to the city of Fresno's code enforcement office confirmed that a complaint was registered against the location on December 12. A city inspector has been assigned to the active case, but has yet to conduct an inspection at the location.
Blanchard thinks the attacks on spaces like his own could potentially backfire on the right-wing campaign to close them, telling Truthout that since the group posted a link to the threats against them on their Facebook page, they have found renewed support for the space from the surrounding community. Likewise in Texas, 1919 Hemphill has raised more than $5,300 for upgrades to the space and an outpouring of support from the community in the form of positive reviews of 1919 on Facebook.
"We've gotten a lot of support from folks that haven't been around lately, so … folks are coming back and it's kind of rejuvenating the space," Blanchard says.
He also points to gentrification as a force complicating how DIY venues like CAFÉ Infoshop hold space in California, especially for those venues now being shuttered in the Bay Area. He sees the neo-Nazi effort as abetting a broader agenda by developers across the state to push out DIY and art spaces. "With the rent control laws in the Bay [Area], this is a prime way to get rid of folks that have been in these spaces for a long time, because city officials listen to the business interests before they listen to the community a lot of times," Blanchard told Truthout.
Cotter in Texas agrees. "You can kind of understand what kind of things can happen when you take a space like 1919 and you put it in the middle of a neighborhood that's being developed." he told Truthout. "Because of that there might be some political support in certain cities, in certain states, in certain places for these [closures]."
While the neo-Nazis' claims about the shutdowns may be somewhat overstated, the threat against organizing hubs and safe spaces for marginalized communities on the left is real. A resurgence in neo-Nazi and white nationalist activity, especially across the south, hasn't been limited to public demonstrations in which anti-fascist counter-protesters have been called to drown out hate speech recently amid a horrific spate of racial hate crimes nationally since Trump's election victory. It has calcified into calculated, coordinated attacks on spaces that are integral to organizing efforts in some areas.
And the attacks aren't simply limited to brick-and-mortar buildings, but the human beings who occupy and co-manage them. Even as support has poured in for 1919, Cotter and other collective members have had their names, phone numbers and email addresses posted publicly in online forums by neo-Nazis attempting to threaten and intimidate them.
Moreover, they remain unsure about just how they plan to proceed, since, to obtain a proper certificate of occupancy, the building would need to host some kind of business entity under Fort Worth's city codes. (The collective currently operates the building via a nonprofit organization.) The group may even have to completely renovate the building's electrical systems, which could cost them upwards of $10,000.
Like 1919, If CAFÉ Infoshop were to close for any reason, "a lot of youth from marginalized communities would lose a space they feel comfortable at, whether it's the LGBTQ community [and/or] folks of color," Blanchard says.
Beyond organizing, this is what some areas stand to lose. It is a culture of resistance that many marginalized individuals and communities have sought harbor from time to time. They come to places like 1919, because, for many, these spaces are some of the only spots where they can truly be themselves. They come to punk shows and perform poetry -- screaming their anger into microphones and spilling their inner-most secrets and deepest-felt wounds in front of crowds they know are not only likely to just understand them, but empathize.
The future of venues like CAFÉ Infoshop and 1919 Hemphill remains unclear. "I don't know what's going to happen," Cotter says.
But he emphasized that the hurdles posed by city officials, developers and online fascists are not insurmountable for everyone, and there are ways to prepare and resist.
"These things are scary, but you can do something about it. I mean, you're a DIY space: If there's something that needs fixing -- do it yourself," Cotter said. "Just get your friends together with ... a circular saw, a nail gun a concrete drill, a hammer drill, a jigsaw, key square, a tape measure. ... If your city does come down on you, they won't just come down on you immediately. They're not going to chain up your door the moment that you fail. They're going to give you a timeframe, and if you're expecting to be harassed by these [neo-Nazis], and you think that might be a possibility, reach out to the community."