Richard Spencer just before he was punched at Donald Trump's inauguration. Youtube. Fair use. The place of violence in resisting the far right is contentious. Some will tell you that it is never justified. Others will say that it is the only effective way to fight fascism.
The truth probably lies somewhere between these two positions. In the UK in the 1970s, the Anti-Nazi League would confront National Front street gangs to disrupt their marches. This was one element, combined with non-violent campaigning, changes in football stadium culture, and internal divisions within the National Front, that led to the far-right group’s decline.
We see echoes of this in the modern anti-fascist movement, with masked black bloc marchers present at many protests (as protection at events for progressive causes; and as resistance at events held by those on the far right). They have even made the news lately due to conflicts between anti-fascists and “alt-right” Trump supporters in Berkeley.
The question remains, though: what role does violence have to play in the modern anti-fascist movement? Is it always okay to punch a Nazi? That may depend on what we hope to achieve.
Is it ok to punch a Nazi?
Let us rewind for a moment to 20 January 2017. Richard Spencer – alt-right white nationalist and advocate of “peaceful ethnic cleaning” – is in Washington at Trump's inauguration. He is explaining his ridiculous 'Pepe the frog' badge to an interviewer on camera. Then boom. He is punched by a black bloc protester.
It is understandable that many enjoyed seeing Spencer punched, given his genocidal views and air of insufferable smugness. So the fact this punch quickly became a meme was probably inevitable.
Yet maybe we should park our schadenfreude and consider the consequences. Spencer took to Periscope shortly afterwards to decry the punch. In the broadcast, he presented himself as someone who just wanted to talk. He played up his fears for his safety. He said that anti-fascists are violent cowards. And he claimed that it was merely the latest in a series of similar attacks.
In short, he claimed victimhood. And in doing so he presented his opponents as vicious and unreasonable. Implicitly, this suggests that his position is reasonable. That he deserves protection on the basis of his ideas. This was reinforced by some on the left who objected to the attack, arguing that even Spencer has a right to speak. Which is troubling when talking about a white supremacist.
Spencer claimed victimhood. And in doing so he presented his opponents as vicious and unreasonable.
Essentially, the debate has been posed as if anti-fascists face a dilemma: either we condone violence against extremists or we tacitly endorse their ideas by letting them speak.
But it is more complicated than that. And the question of whether it is morally okay to punch a Nazi is almost beside the point. In terms of resisting the far-right, we need to recognise that people like Spencer exploit claims of victimhood to legitimise their opinions.
By punching him, that anonymous black bloc protestor gave Spencer a documented instance he could cite to validate his claim of victimhood. This simultaneously makes people more likely to defend him and risks undermining the victimhood of those he would see “peacefully” cleansed.
In addition, by celebrating the violence, the rest of us gave Spencer undeserved prominence. There was, for instance, a spike in Google searches for his name in the aftermath. Many of the searchers will have been people enjoying Spencer’s misfortune, but others may have been sympathetic to him.
Some have argued that white supremacists “make shit up” anyway, so they’ll call anti-fascists violent regardless of whether they’re attacked. But there is a massive difference between “alt-right” propagandists painting the left as violent and handing them material they can use to back up lies. Ignoring this undermines our ability to resist white supremacism.
Trouble in Berkeley
The ripples of the appropriation of victimhood by the far right can be seen in the violence at recent protests in Berkeley. One early flashpoint involved alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos (whose downfall we will touch upon later). Yiannopoulos made headlines when anti-fascist protestors shut down his talk at UC Berkeley. The disruption was effective in the short term, as Milo did not get a platform for his racist, misogynist rhetoric. But it also gave Yiannopoulos an opportunity to describe anti-fascists and other progressive campaigners as “antithetical to free speech”.
The same rhetoric was used by far-right supporters at the pro-Trump rally in Berkeley on 15 April. Alt-right activist Lauren Southern, who had been invited to speak at the rally, explicitly referenced the attack on Spencer in decrying the anti-fascist counter protestors: “You see them all over the media saying, ‘Should we punch Nazis? Yes, we should punch Nazis,’ when their interpretation of Nazi is anyone to the right of Marx.”
Violent resistance can be counterproductive, bruising individuals but leaving their hateful ideas untouched.
Others attending in support of Trump spoke similarly: one marcher said that he felt justified in using violence because anti-fascists “create violence all the time... somebody has to stand up to them”. Nor should we be surprised that far-right commentators on Twitter have seized upon the image of one of their own punching a woman in the face as a response to Spencer’s assault becoming a meme (most obviously captured in one user sharing the photo and saying, “The smug freaks that constantly repost Spencer being assaulted will likewise learn to face the fist”).
I’m not saying that far-right protestors would have been entirely peaceful without such provocation. Nor am I saying that the anti-fascists were wrong to fight back on this occasion (far-right groups march to intimidate other people, so resistance is as necessary now as it ever has been).
But I am saying that things have changed since the 1970s. The modern white supremacist movement relies on the internet for recruitment. Its spokespersons present themselves as “respectable” and as having “legitimate concerns”. They rely upon being seen as victims. So violent resistance can be counterproductive, bruising individuals but leaving their hateful ideas untouched (or strengthened).
Consequently, we have to be aware of how violent tactics can backfire in the fight against fascism. And we need to see this in terms of a larger struggle in which we have other weapons, some of which may be far more effective in the long term.
I mentioned Milo Yiannopoulos before. Since his ill-fated attempt to speak at UC Berkeley, Milo has run into a few problems of his own making. Specifically, footage emerged of him discussing the benefits of relationships between older men and underage adolescent boys.
Yiannopoulos has argued that he does not support paedophilia, but it is fair to say that mocking victims of childhood sexual abuse and advocating the idea that sex with children under the age of consent is sometimes acceptable has not done his career a lot of good. His comments cost him high-profile speaking engagements, a book deal, and his status as the public face of the alt-right.
It is worth noting that not a single punch was thrown to achieve this. It simply required showing up Yiannopoulos for who he is by exposing his words and ideas. By comparison, the violent protest against Milo’s talk at Berkeley only strengthened his position and raised his profile, even eliciting a tweet from President Trump saying, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
This is important because the far right is gaining headway in its mission to present itself as the oppressed side in a cultural war. Alt-right speakers target university campuses under the guise of creating “safe spaces” for white identity politics, because they know it will provoke confrontations with student protestors. Those who oppose the bigoted ideas presented by far-right speakers need to be aware of this, as violent resistance can empower those they seek to resist.
Letting the mask slip
To reiterate: I am not saying that violence has no place in resisting the rise of the far right. But nor should we take it lightly (no matter how funny it is to see the Spencer punch set to music).
A commonly cited example of how violence can be used against fascism comes from Hitler, who reportedly said that the Nazi movement could have been stopped if it was “smashed with the utmost brutality” in its infancy. But in the speech from which this is taken, he also claims that violent resistance ultimately fed the movement. And there is little doubt that the Nazis used conflict with Communist street gangs to justify extending police powers to silence opponents.
Therein lies the danger. Even in situations like the recent conflicts between Trump supporters and anti-fascists in Berkeley, we risk fuelling the movements we want to resist. And with cases like the assault on Spencer, the alt-right doubles down on appropriating victimhood to normalise hatred.
Milo, though, was brought low by someone using his own words against him. People like Milo operate by using provocation to set the terms of the debate: if we don’t let him speak, if we use violence to silence him, he gets to claim that we are the fascists. Where some go wrong is swinging too far in the other direction, giving racist provocateurs high-profile media platforms.
Some swing too far in the other direction, giving racist provocateurs high-profile media platforms.
But those are not the only choices, especially with professional provocateurs. We can also confront them with their own words in all of their ugliness, whereupon their opinions lose legitimacy. They silence themselves by letting the mask of reasonableness slip. Our job is to find those gaps and exploit them, as this is far harder to spin into a form of victimhood than a sucker punch to the skull.
As much as it might disappoint those who make glib references to Captain America and Indiana Jones in this context, it may be that punching Nazis isn’t always the right way to provide meaningful resistance to far-right ideologues. Nazis and other white supremacists will use victimhood to further their political aims. Celebrating violence against them gives the far right what it wants.
So while we have the right to defend ourselves and our communities against far-right violence and intimidation, we cannot hope to combat the nascent renaissance of fascism with fists alone.
Instead, we should focus on showing others – especially those who usually avoid politics and those disenchanted with the status quo – how hateful the ideas of the “alt-right” truly are.