Now feels like a strange time to question “Punch Nazis,” the simple, catchy, intuitively satisfying two-word imperative a big chunk of the left-of-center internet has been gleefully repeating ever since white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer was, well, punched by a masked protester in Washington, D.C., after Trump’s inauguration. (Strictly speaking, Spencer is a white nationalist rather than an all-out Nazi, but fully explaining what that distinction means in this case would in turn require explaining Spencer’s “plan” to “peacefully” relocate American minorities to create a white ethno-state, and this would not be a good use of anyone’s time.)
After all, white supremacists marched with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Friday night, creating a terrifying scene; after all, Heather Heyer is dead; after all, earlier this week Donald Trump put on an unhinged-even-for-him press conference in which he expressed more sympathy for white supremacists than for those who had gathered to protest them.
But there are going to be more white-supremacist rallies. There will always be more. And it’s worth thinking carefully about what the responses should look like, and what the wrong sort of response could lead to. In the case of violent counterprotest tactics — e.g., punching Nazis — experts on extremism say it is likely only to aid the white supremacists’ cause.
To overgeneralize, the logic that has set in among progressives goes something like this: Explicitly racist gatherings simply cannot be allowed to happen — not when hate crimes appear to be on the rise, and when Trump’s election has emboldened some of the most evil groups in the country. They need to be prevented from occurring, and when that’s not possible they need to be physically disrupted. If this leads to violence, so be it — nonviolence has its limits when it comes to Nazis and their ilk. In fact, few on the left seem to be saying we should physically prevent these rallies from happening, but only if we can do so nonviolently. Instead, there’s more and more talk of violent resistance whenever and wherever Nazis rear their heads to rally or march.
In part as a result of this viewpoint, between Inauguration Day and last weekend’s tragedy, there were a number of highly publicized riots and street fights between far-right groups (some openly white-supremacist) and counterdemonstrators. In places like Berkeley, California, and Portland, Oregon, these clashes have generated countless images which were received with shock by a country that has very little recent experience with in-the-streets political violence. And while there is of course no moral equivalency between white supremacists and those who oppose them, it is undeniably the case that these clashes have attracted a cohort of hotheaded counterdemonstrators who simply want to beat up Nazis, or anyone they think is enabling Nazis, or sometimes random other people, too (if you doubt this, talk to the two journalists who were assaulted by counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville last weekend, one of whom required stitches to close his resultant head wound).
There are, to be fair, some clear benefits to violently resisting white-supremacist gatherings. One is that it sends a signal to those who would attend those rallies that doing so might not be a good idea. Back in November, Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements, told me that one important reason for the Trump resistance movement to embrace nonviolence was to help it appeal to as many people as possible. In other words: For some people, the threat of violence is a deterrent. Some of the people who might otherwise show up and protest in the name of white nationalism might stay home if they think the protests might turn violent.
On Saturday, for example, the documentary filmmaker CJ Hunt recorded remarkable video of a white-supremacist protester surrendering dramatically as a counterdemonstrator who looked ready to impale him on a flagpole closed in on him. The young man literally took off the white shirt that marked him as a member of a hate group. “I’m not really white power, man. I just came here for the fun,” he insisted. “Fuck.” White supremacists like that — scared, racist little boys who found themselves in over their heads — might not show up next time. (Though, as we’ll see in a moment, violence could have the exact opposite effect on a different, more hardened crowd.)
It’s also worth keeping in mind that these sorts of rallies, protected though they may be from a free-speech perspective, can have a truly terrifying effect on the communities they target. “On Friday night, I was locked in a church full of people, who were singing loudly to overpower the hate-filled chants of alt-right protesters carrying torches right outside the chapel doors,” wrote Aryn A. Frazier, a University of Virginia student, in an excellent Times article consisting of dispatches from various UVA students.
Then there’s this account from Alan Zimmerman, president of Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel synagogue:
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
In short, this is a compelling argument: “Aryn Frazier and Alan Zimmerman don’t deserve to be terrorized by racist, gun-toting thugs. I’m willing to risk arrest and physical harm to prevent this, even though I know doing so will almost certainly entail engaging in violence.” It also comes from a place of genuinely wanting to help vulnerable groups.
If you zoom out a bit, though, things get murkier, and it’s worth asking some questions here. In just about every other situation, of course, progressives have a habit – or would like to think they have a habit – of carefully weighing the pros and cons of violence and the potential for it to unexpectedly spiral out of control. Progressives almost always look for any possible nonviolent alternative. For good reasons, they frequently reject arguments like, “How can you be against drone strikes that kill terrorists?” or “How can you be against us physically removing a monster like Saddam?” Violence is seen as a last resort, in part because many progressives recognize that even if an individual act of it seems just, there are often long-term consequences that may not be immediately apparent.
With Nazism and other forms of explicit white supremacy so visible these days, however, this mode of thinking seems to be evaporating. The question of necessity and the normal cost-benefit language that usually precedes the acceptance of violent tactics are being tossed out. Arguments that in any other context progressives would find laughable — You don’t think we should punch Nazis? So, what, you’re defending them? — are becoming more and more common.
So let’s look at this more carefully rather than assume that “Punch Nazis” is both a satisfying catchphrase and the obvious best course of action in the face of a white-supremacist rally or march. The most commonly stated argument in favor of physically disrupting white-supremacist rallies is that society can’t give an iota of legitimacy to these groups. To allow them to spread their message of hate is to offer them a platform to recruit and to glorify their cause. What this logic leaves out is that it may well be the case that hate groups are better able to recruit and glorify their cause when they are able to engage in violence, regardless of how that violence starts, according to researchers in the field of countering violent extremism, or CVE.
“On the one hand, I don’t think these expressions should go unanswered,” David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, said of the recent white-supremacist gatherings. “But you’re essentially giving them exactly what they want when you try to confront them directly.” That’s because these groups’ efforts to recruit and mobilize supporters rely on a very specific strategy that benefits greatly from violent conflict.
In the U.S., explicitly white-supremacist groups know they are vastly, vastly outnumbered by everyone who hates them — their paltry numbers being an easy thing to forget in the age of social media and especially so this week, in the wake of a real-life white-supremacist murder. So their only hope for relevance is to maximize every potential bit of media coverage. And the best way to do this is to create media moments: scary, evocative images like the torch photos from last weekend, but also as many violently photogenic confrontations with counterprotesters as possible. Producing violence is an underlying, often unstated, goal of many white-supremacist protests and gatherings.
When violence does break out, videos of it race through the internet’s white-supremacist underbelly, serving as incredibly valuable PR material. It doesn’t matter who gets the better of a given confrontation: When the Nazis get punched, it’s “proof” that anti-fascists or liberals or [insert minority group] or whoever else did the punching have it in for “innocent white Americans just trying to protest peacefully.” When the Nazis punch back, it’s proof that their enemies are, to borrow a word from alt-right parlance, “cucks” who are easily bested in the streets. Even when white supremacists lose street fights, they win the long game.
This sort of tactic, said Jeffrey Kaplan, an academic researcher and the author of a number of books on terrorist movements, “is a constant in terrorism or any form of asymmetric warfare,” whether the group in question is jihadist or white supremacist or whatever else. Kaplan, who is an incoming professor at King Fahd Security College in Riyadh, summed up the extremists’ logic like this: “Our numbers are paltry, we are despised by our countrymen and we couldn’t get a date for the life of us, but any action that has enough impact to strike at the heart of the enemy by getting media coverage is a major triumph.” Violent confrontations allow extremists to make a tantalizing offer to the angry, disillusioned young men — they are almost entirely men — whom they hope to groom to become tomorrow’s haters and killers: We are part of a movement to change the world, as you can see from this latest video that movement is working, and you can be a part of it.
What proponents of disrupting racist gatherings often leave out is that there are alternatives that can help delegitimize white supremacists without falling into any of these potential traps, and without setting aside progressives’ normal ethical qualms about violence. For those instances in which a group of white supremacists really are just attempting to rally or to march, have their permits in order, and so on — meaning there’s no legal way for their opponents to prevent the event — Schanzer laid out a fairly straightforward alternative: Counterdemonstrators should respond assertively, vociferously, and in far superior numbers — but at a distance from the extremists themselves. This tactic both prevents the sort of violent conflict American hate groups want, and has the added benefit of drawing at least some media and social-media attention away from the smaller hateful gathering and toward the much larger counterprotest.
It also seems to be the preferred approach of a wide variety of experts and advocates in this area. “The main thing that [hate groups] seek is attention and publicity to disseminate a message of hate,” Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, told NPR’s “All Things Considered” during an interview about today’s planned “free speech” rally on Boston Common, which some are concerned will be a magnet for hate groups. “And so the best-case scenario is they come and they speak at the Common and there is nobody there to listen.” And Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a contributing op-ed writer at the Times, explained earlier this week that according to experts, “Violence directed at white nationalists only fuels their narrative of victimhood — of a hounded, soon-to-be-minority who can’t exercise their rights to free speech without getting pummeled.” “I would want to punch a Nazi in the nose, too,” Maria Stephan, a program director at the United States Institute of Peace, told him. “But there’s a difference between a therapeutic and strategic response.” Progressives would be eagerly echoing and retweeting this sort of logic if the wonks in question were talking about ISIS rather than the National Vanguard. Why should their insights suddenly be ignored?
If this line of thinking is correct, anyone disgusted by organized displays of explicit hatred should adopt a stance along the lines of this: “You know what? Let the Nazis rally. Let them try to promote a dying ideology the entire nation finds execrable. Down the road we are going to set up a big, inclusive show of solidarity that will be ten times larger. And anyone who is scared or intimidated or angry should come there, rather than risk their well-being facing down the dregs of society.” To be sure, this approach may not be as satisfying as punching Nazis, but it may increase the odds that in the future, there will be fewer Nazis to punch in the first place.
But perhaps the best reason to try to respond peacefully, whenever possible, is simply that violence is unpredictable and never easily contained (not even in the short term – again, ask those two journalists who got attacked). The risk that whites-supremacist groups could get more and more radicalized and militant needs to be taken seriously, because however scary it was to see what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, things can get much, much worse. And if things do get worse, plenty of the victims will be people who never asked to take this fight to the streets. In most other situations, progressives understand — or claim to understand — the moral gravity of calling for violence. They shouldn’t let a scary but small group of deeply loathed bigots steer them off course.