A viral video of a masked protester socking white supremacist and anti-Semite Richard Spencer in the jaw as he was being interviewed about protests at the presidential inauguration prompted an increasingly common question: when it is acceptable to use non-lethal violence against those who advocate ethnic cleansing?
It’s difficult for many to say out loud, but the violent attack against Spencer does not deserve condemnation.
Those who don’t underestimate the violent nature of white supremacy see these acts of intimidation—including the attack on Spencer—as self-defense.
Spencer advocates a white nationalism masquerading as nonviolent, despite his followers’ clearly apocalyptic fantasy language. His movement spurred an on-again-off-again-maybe-on-again armed march by Neo-Nazis against Jews in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a spike in racist incidents following Donald Trump’s election, including several dozen bomb threats against Jewish community centers. Even if Spencer maintains he wants a nonviolent sorting of the races, many of his rabid followers are having none of it, and he’s canny enough to know it. Up until months ago, it seemed that the alt-right might be extreme and reprehensible, but still operating under free speech. But when a movement becomes so inherently racist and violent, we must judge the attack on Spencer in the right context.
The alt-right called for a fight and they got one.
In the caldron of the Internet, the alt-right routinely harasses and threatens liberals, women and minorities including Jews and Muslim. Anyone who complains about the online bullying is ridiculed as a “snowflake”—someone who is weak and can’t handle the alt-right’s manly power. Now the alt-right has gotten a taste of its own medicine. They wanted a discourse free of political correctness? They wanted an end to “safe spaces”? Well, the incident with Spencer showed they got what they wanted, and if they’re unnerved by their leader getting pummeled they have no one to blame but themselves.
Alt right fans might rail against the attack, but they shouldn’t be surprised by it. For months, anti-fascist groups have used phrases such as “smash racism” or “make racists afraid again.” These weren’t idle slogans.
For his part, Spencer told The New York Times the attack made him fearful to even go out to dinner. While no one should be deprived of a good meal, if this ordeal gives him second thoughts about leaving the house with the purpose of organizing white nationalists, then Jews and other minorities are going to be a little safer. And if the video of Spencer’s throttling means one of his followers decides not to spray paint a swastika on a synagogue for fear of retribution, it benefits enlightened democratic society.
This bring us to the uncomfortable realization that the American obsession with nonviolent resistance is arguably dangerous. Nonviolent forms of protest have often been useful, because the image of peaceful protests against state violence enables a movement—such as the Civil Rights struggle—to hold the moral high ground. But this falsely implies that violence can never be moral even if it prevents more catastrophic violence. The defeat of the South African Apartheid, for instance, government involved the use of force as well as peaceful protests.
While our Founding Fathers didn’t wear balaclavas and throw bricks at Starbucks like today’s anarchists, they did don costumes and engage in property destruction in Boston Harbor. And it would be a little hypocritical for one to say Israeli military action is necessary to protect Jews and bruising up someone like Spencer isn’t.
For many of us fearful of the alt-right movement and an administration that was swept into power by a campaign of xenophobia and bigotry, we wish for nothing more than to avoid violence from any side. But the alt-right called for a fight and they got one. If they don’t like it, the solution is for them to stop their brutal campaign of hatred. And, no, this isn’t about silencing conservatives. Talk about free market economics and social morality all you want, because no one will lay a hand on you. But a quotation attributed to James Baldwin reminds us of an appropriate line to draw: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Ari Paul has covered politics for the Nation, the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, Jacobin and VICE News.