(It has taken me over a year to write about lessons I learned from my dear friend, Gil Fagiani. Gil died in Spring 2018 and his loss is still felt through all of the communities he was a part of. -JT)
In 2007, I was looking for a man named Gil Fagiani. At the time, I was doing research for Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power. Gil’s name had come up in both original documents and interviews as a member of White Lightning. White Lightning was a New Left organization made up of white, working-class New Yorkers. Like their cousin organizations such as Rising Up Angry, The Young Patriots Organization and October 4th Organization they attempted to “Organize their Own” in coalition with radical organizations of color. White Lightning members played an important supporting role in the takeover of Lincoln Hospital. They worked with the Young Lords Party and were the only white organization invited to assist in security work in the Attica solidarity protests in Harlem.
When I finally tracked down Gil’s contact information, I cold called him. When I told him the purpose of my call, and of the research, he was initially taken aback. Turns out that he had circulated a similar book proposal a few years prior. I could tell that he was suspicious, but he promised to let me know if I could interview him before I got on the plane for a trip to New York. That call came just a few hours before my departure. He acknowledged that he had wanted to be the one to write the story, but that he would be more than happy to be interviewed and help myself and my co-author Amy Sonnie out in anyway he could.
When we met a few days later, it took hours to even start the interview. It turns out that we had both had a deep love of poetry, especially Passolini. In the 1990s, Gil was one of the organizers of Italian-Americans for a Multicultural U.S., while in the 2000s I had worked in ad-hoc organizations such Avanti-Popolo and the Italian-American Political Solidarity Club. We shared a belief that despite the acute white supremacy and conservatism in our communities that Italian-Americans could be extremely receptive to anti-racist ideas.
“But you can’t reach our people sounding like an ideological ton of bricks. You have to start with what we value and make the case that what we want for our families is what all families should have.” Gil said.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a story that Gil shared with me. In 1971 or 1972 he wrote an essay comparing the trial of Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti to the Angela Davis trial going on. He believed that histories of solidarity and resistance could be deployed to counter-racism in white ethnic communities.
The story of this essay was painful to him. Gil had clearly hoped that the essay could help turn Italian-American hearts towards the cause of Black Liberation. However the essay never saw a broad audience. After an initial circulation, it was so thoroughly castigated by many people on the left that he destroyed as many copies as he could get his hands on. The main objection was the belief that any positive take on white ethnic history would somehow bolster racism. When I pressed him as to what organizations or individuals made this critique, he refused to name them specifically.
Decades later, we are living in a time of an emboldened racist right, that has consolidated power. Central to their world view is the idea that European-American values, history and accomplishments will be thrown to the rubbish heap. In Gil’s worldview, history could be used to build up a sense of multi-racial solidarity. In the paranoid world of today’s extreme right, history only holds a single lesson: white supremacy must be maintained or risk erasure.
The consequences of the extreme right’s move to center-stage are all around us, and make it extremely difficult to envision humanity surviving the next several decades of environmental reckoning, let alone making noticeable progress around inequality within racial capitalism. Much of this rests on the stories that the racist right tells us about what we don’t have in common. I can’t help but think that the stories that Gil wanted the anti-racist left to tell might have led to a better conclusion if allowed to grow and integrated into the long-term organizing project.