The first threat came on a Thursday afternoon about a month ago:
“You better pray the police aren’t defunded in c-u. Because that is all that is keeping you and you [sic] brethren safe,” said John, via my Facebook Messenger inbox.
C-U is Champaign-Urbana, the Illinois college town I have called home for a decade. This story, reason that the local police are apparently my only protector, is filled with banality and screenshots, but also illustrates how effectively the wealthy American right can mobilize bad faith claims into tangible attacks against people with whom they disagree.
I should probably say here that I can neither confirm nor deny that, in addition to my job as faculty at a state university, I moonlight as upper management at Antifa (this will be important later).
Thirteen years ago, an undistinguished right wing grifter named John Tillman relaunched the Illinois Policy Institute [IPI]. That was approximately thirteen years prior to when I told them to “go fuck yourselves” in a Tweet, a response to a piece of anti-union direct mail they sent me.
In 2018, according to tax documents, Tillman drew a salary of over $400,000 from the non-profit Institute in exchange for his 23 weekly hours of work. The institute’s functions included, according to ProPublica, “mov[ing] millions of dollars around five interconnected nonprofits [Tillman and his close colleagues] run, steering money to for-profit ventures in which they have a stake.”
Some of the money moved amounted to a loan from a nonprofit to its officers, which a Notre Dame law professor called “a flat-out violation of nonprofit law in Illinois.” Other than its appearances of malfeasance, IPI is notable for its close financial and policy relationship with former GOP Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and its eager support of a Supreme Court case that substantially weakened labor unions in the United States, to the point that they gave the plaintiff a job after the case was decided.
They also have a history of astro-turfing, setting up shell media organizations all over the state to spread propaganda.
I tweeted that the members of this well-capitalized, anti-labor organization should go fuck themselves on a Wednesday afternoon, one day before my brethren and I were threatened.
Let me take a moment here to say that my Twitter feed is…not notable. Unless you are interested in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, distance running, or center-left U.S. politics, you probably do not follow me.
Also notable about my Twitter account, I later learned, is a throwaway joke I put in my profile in the last few weeks. Not only am I a Geographer who studies Lesotho, land, gender, development, housing, and climate and who uses he/him pronouns; I also am the SVP of Operations at Antifa.
This joke, that I am the Senior Vice President of Operations at Antifa, a loose constellation of anti-fascist allies better described as a way of behaving than as an organization, is neither particularly funny nor particularly ambitious. I don’t recall adding it to my profile, but I’m sure I gave a mirthless chuckle when I did; that’s also all I expect from anyone reading.
However, paired with one more piece of information I have since removed from my Twitter profile, my day job as faculty at a large land grant university, the joke allowed for the favorite pastime and highest calling of the right wing non-profit: to try to get a left-of-center professor fired.
At 3:59 PM, I told them to go fuck themselves. Less than an hour later, a screenshot of my Twitter profile was shared by a shadowy, non-traceable Facebook page called “Prairie Fire Illinois”, which has about 40,000 followers and, as recently as 2016, a direct relationship with the Illinois Republican Party.
“The SVP of Operations at Antifa is a member of the faculty at the University of Illinois,” read the text next to my profile, “And we wonder why higher education has become a joke.”
I will give “Prairie Fire Illinois” the benefit of the doubt; whoever does social media for them likely understands that Antifa, if it exists in a hierarchical form, is unlikely to employ someone who would publicly claim to be their Operations SVP.
However, the 277 people who shared the post, the others who threatened me, those who attempted to alert the University — a whole caravan of angry white people — were significantly more credulous.
For a brief moment, people like Dawn, who has “read every man in a fraternity upon graduation, gets it up the a$$,” and Roger, who attempted to alert my employer that a “Faculty member is a member of terriorist [sic] antifa” were motivated by a higher purpose and meaning. Do those folks really believe the crisis they espouse — that “this university harbors many domestic terrorists and is frankly an embarrassment to itself”?
I don’t have a satisfying answer to that, which remains my biggest question. But I do recognize the posters’ sense of righteousness. In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, there was an opportunity to do something through the avenue of angrily posting on Facebook.
In a time of social isolation, of a hatemongering president, of ongoing wars, of expanding economic violence against the vulnerable, what a comfort it is to do something, even if that something is just changing your profile to read “SVP Operations at Antifa”. How generous of the Illinois Policy Institute to give some angry white boomers a windmill to tilt at, even if, upon closer inspection, that windmill looks…well, just like me.
What have I learned from this? First: I believe it is more important than ever to tell despicable union-busters to go fuck themselves. Second: real, ugly malice exists and is as loud as ever. A Facebook page featuring the white nationalist group the Three Percenters’ logo as part of its own used identical language to Prairie Fire Illinois in posting the photo of my Twitter profile, but their commenters also engaged in casual anti-semitism about my last name.
Finally, there are a lot of really pissed off people around. Of course this is true; there should be. But to feel some of that rage directed at my silly joke puts it into sharper focus. It is only through the bad faith claims of multi-millionaires and billionaires that people’s ire is not directed at the John Tillmans of the world, but at fairly innocuous and well-meaning people like me, junior faculty with 20 years left on our mortgages.
Those of us who imagine a more just world have a large hill to climb. Our task is not to mock the people who believe that I am angling for a corner office at Antifa HQ. It is the much more difficult work of reminding those people that we are on the same side.
Dawn, Roger, John and I are on the same team, that of working people; well-capitalized and greedy lobbying groups and their benefactors are our common enemy. For any part my silly joke had in harming our shared goals, I am truly sorry because now is the time for unity. As my colleague, Antifa’s Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), said on a Zoom call recently: “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
And to the Illinois Policy Institute: Go fuck yourselves.
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