John Michael Carico, 32, is not a typical anarchist. Most anarchists would never launch a serious bid for public office because they oppose the existence of the state but, despite loathing the electoral process, Carico is running for U.S. Senate in Tennessee as an Independent. This is not an act of radical performance art, like when the activist Vermin Supreme runs for various offices wearing a boot on his head and promising everyone ponies if elected. Carico’s bid is real.
Carico, who is nonbinary and goes by Jae Em, wants to mainstream anarchism and push Democrats further left. White supremacists from David Duke to Tom Metzger have used political campaigns in this manner for decades, and now, according to the Anti-Defamation League, there are 10 far-right extremists running for national office, eight as Republicans. A couple have even won primaries. Self-identified members of Antifa have not yet copied this strategy — but Carico hopes to change that.
“It’s how political thought is offered to the masses,” Carico told me over the phone. “And it’s the only way the media will pay attention.”
Carico’s anti-capitalist and social progressive values might lead some to align them with the Democratic Socialists of America, even though they are not a fan of the Democratic Party. To that end, Carico’s campaign could be seen as an extreme extension of the rise of other left of center candidates, like Democratic Socialist Rashida Tlaib, who earlier this month won the Democratic primary to represent Michigan’s 13th district in Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in the primary for New York’s 14th district.
However, for Carico to mainstream anarchy as a political philosophy, other Antifa members will have to follow. And that might not be likely.
Brian Levin, Director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, said that Antifa members don’t have the organizational skills to burrow into mainstream politics like far-right extremists.
“People join Antifa to overthrow what they think is an indelibly tarnished system,” Levin said. “They do not join Antifa because they want to canvas neighborhoods to register progressives to vote.”
Not only is that what Carico is doing, but it’s also probably what they do best. A former community organizer, Carico is friendly, talkative, and extremely polite. Whenever they have the funds, Carico drives around Tennessee, registering people to vote. They explain their platform, which includes universal health care, prison reform, a living wage, a one-to-ten ratio for income within every company, and a counsel-based authority system similar to what is being practiced in Rojava, in northern Syria.
Carico is running against Democrat Phil Bredesen, Republican Marsha Blackburn, and five other Independent candidates. Earlier this summer, Carico held a Reddit AMA (in the r/latecapitalism channel) in which they said voting alone won’t bring the change the country needs. “We need armed struggle,” Carico wrote. “We need to stop the fascistic empire and build something new. We need that yesterday. This [campaign] is an attempt to get that idea out to as many people as possible.”
Anarchists should make as much effort to reach the public as those who support the state. The stakes are a little high for dogma.
Carico’s first political rally will be on August 25 at the Big Blue Bash, hosted by Brad Hartley, a Democrat running for State Representative in Tennessee’s 23rd District, at the McMinn County Layman Expo Center outside Athens, Tennessee. At the rally, Carico will outline some of their core beliefs, like paying black people reparations for slavery, making access to the internet a basic human right, giving homes to the homeless, implementing infrastructure reform, and creating more green-energy jobs.
Carico’s campaign has a website, but no outside money, no commercials, no campaign chairperson — just volunteers dropping banners, passing out flyers, and posting to social media. Their online following is not immense (about 2,300 followers split between two Facebook pages), and Carico doesn’t even officially have the support of Antifa because it’s not an interconnected organization with leadership. Not that Antifa would endorse them if it could. A friend of Carico’s, who spoke to The Outline on the condition of anonymity, texted me that Carico’s campaign is a futile attempt at “bourgeois democracy” that is shifting revolutionary potential away from tangible methods of activism.
“Their message will be drowned out at best,” they said. “At worst, it will be co-opted by the Democratic Party and used to detract from the revolution. Direct action and grass roots organizing is what gets shit done, not bourgeois politics.”
Jessica Nocero, an Antifa activist known for doxing white supremacists who volunteers to help Carico, said that the anarchists who oppose Carico’s campaign are the same ones who refuse to give journalists interviews. “They consider themselves purists,” she said.
Another Antifa member who spoke on condition of anonymity wrote to me in an email that, while they understand the logic behind opposing Carico’s campaign, they think it’s time Antifa enters a new phase of activism.
“Anarchists should make as much effort to reach the public as those who support the state,” they wrote. “The stakes are a little high for dogma.”
Carico is running a campaign without money on purpose — “to show it can be done”— but because of that, a lack of exposure is one of their biggest challenges. Levin hadn’t heard of Carico, and Jessica Reaves, a communications specialist for the ADL, called the campaign a stunt.
“It’s very difficult to take an anarchist campaign seriously, given that they want nothing to do with government and are for the dismantling of systems,” Reaves said.
But Nocero maintains the campaign is serious. “People left of center like to say, ‘If people who have far-left politics want to participate in the mainstream, they should run for office,” she said. “So, Jae Em is kind of like our trial balloon.”
Carico grew up in Cleveland, Tennessee, a small city near the Georgia border. When Carico was 18, they enlisted in the Navy, but were discharged after a year. Military service may seem like an odd choice for Carico now, but they were raised fundamentalist Christian by an upper-middle class family. Carico, who had spent all but two years of their life in a private Christian school, felt it was their duty to join the Navy because of 9/11. Over the next decade, Carico dropped in and out of three colleges, lived on communes, and eventually went to New York to take part in the Occupy Wall Street movement. For the past several years, Carico has worked as a citizen journalist, writing for the Fifth Column, a left-leaning news site. It has given them an outlet for their ideas and has served as a precursor to running for office.
Carico attributed the roots of their radicalization to going on mission trips to Jamaica and Nicaragua as a teenager and seeing abject poverty in those countries. Carico, whose father worked as a chemical engineer and owned real estate, soon felt guilty about how privileged their family was compared to others in their church. And today, even though Carico has two daughters — ages 7 and 5 — they don’t have a full-time job, opting to juggle part-time gigs as a landscaper and caterer.
Carico doesn’t even officially have the support of Antifa because it’s not an interconnected organization with leadership.
“My kids’ mom’s family is pretty well off,” Carico said. “And my family is well off, so they have everything they need. So, if I can use what privilege and free time I have to engage with the things that other people may not be able to engage with, then I should do that because that’s the responsible thing to do in the long-term perspective.”
Carico said their children’s mother agrees with their ideology and supports their activism. Sam Carico, Carico’s father, assists his son financially — Carico and his partner, who goes by their roller-derby name Charlie Spleen, live in one of his properties rent free with Dogtor Phil, their boxer-labrador retriever mix. (Spleen, a non-binary 19-year-old from Ithaca, New York, said they developed a fan-crush on Carico after they beat up a white supremacist while protesting the 2017 American Renaissance conference in Tennessee. They began messaging Carico over Facebook earlier this year; Carico said the 13-year age difference made them hesitant at first. “I told them I don’t date anyone under 25, but it all went out the window when we met,” Carico said. “I didn’t feel there was a difference in our ability to communicate and rationalize.”)
The elder Carico is not happy with his child’s political leanings.
“I think what he’s doing is messing up the world,” Sam Carico said. “If they would leave the fascists alone, nobody would pay attention to these nasty guys. They’re not a threat, but [Antifa] is making them a threat.”
Despite disagreeing about politics, the two still debate them. Although Sam Carico doesn’t plan on voting for his child in November, he hopes they win.
“Sure would help me out a lot,” he said. “Wouldn’t have to worry about what he’s gonna do when me and his mother are gone. Right now, the path he’s heading down, he’s going to be shot.”
I joined Carico and others earlier this month, when they gathered with other protesters in Washington, D.C. to disrupt a rally organized by white supremacists to mark the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots.
Police had barricaded the rally’s organizer, white-supremacist leader Jason Kessler, and the roughly two dozen followers who showed up in Lafayette Square to hear him speak, so the antifascist protesters decided to march through the capital and protest in front of the Department of Justice. But they were trapped.
Carico wears a bulletproof vest to rallies, but on this day, they were dealing with tear gas, not gunfire. Motorcycle cops sitting along 13th Street NW revved their engines in unison, and then officers behind them shot tear gas into the crowd. Several black-clad protesters fell to the pavement and vomited. Others ran under the awning of nearby Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken to escape the gas.
Carico grabbed Spleen and they ran hand-in-hand into a dead-end alley next to a Wells Fargo Bank. Carico picked up a broken broomstick the length of a forearm and smacked it into their palm. They tucked their red bandana under their chin. “This’ll do,” they said.
Carico covered their face again and slid the broomstick up their black leather jacket sleeve. Protesters were running away from the tear gas toward 14th Street, where there seemed to be fewer cops blocking the road. Joining the crowd, Carico and Spleen sprinted toward a fenced-off construction site on the other side of Wells Fargo. Antifascists pushed against the fence until a section fell down.
Carico and Spleen followed a group of roughly 20 people through the construction site. Someone in front of Carico dropped a round, wooden shield onto a pile of bricks, and Carico scooped it up. Now trapped in another alley, protesters tried opening doors to buildings that face F Street NW. One antifascist jumped onto a fire escape and began climbing.
“Let’s take it to the roof!” he shouted.
As several people yelled for the protester to come down, someone found an open door, and the crowd, with Carico and Spleen near the front, rushed into the building.
Inside the building, there was an elevator, another doorway, and a hallway that led around a corner. There was a moment of confusion, as the antifascist protesters didn’t know where to go. After a moment of shouting, Carico and Spleen followed the others through the doorway and down a flight of stairs.
Now the protesters were in an industrial kitchen. Two line cooks wearing white aprons pointed and shouted for everyone to go left. One of the antifascists knocked over a tray of mugs as the group ran out of the kitchen and into the front of Maison Kayser, an artisanal bakery chain. The customers hurried out of the way, and the protesters exited onto the street.
After hours of continuous rain, the sky had finally cleared. Spleen was wearing red eyeshadow, and for a moment, Carico thought they were bleeding. Carico wiped the dripping makeup with their thumb, and then set the shield and broomstick on top of a garbage can. As they walked toward down the street holding hands, Carico wondered how their dog was doing — home alone with neighbors feeding him. “I hope Phil’s OK,” Carico said.