The far right is unquestionably escalating its violence against those who oppose their agenda of racism, sexism, and fascism. I’m not going to waste your time with cautions about the legal or ethical perils of physical violence. I’ll assume you are all adults and you wouldn’t be interested in damaging people’s bodies unless your own life and physical safety were under attack. Nor will I digress here with thoughts on the limits of nonviolence, or the propensity of privileged white people to demand wholly nonviolent activism, while ignoring the impact of structural violence on non-white, non-privileged people. Maybe in another post. My purpose is simply to alert people to the process by which the alt-right tends to escalate “protest” into mass assault, and provide a few basic ideas for reducing injury to oneself is such a situation.
To date, I have not been involved in serious physical violence at a protest, so take the following with that caveat. I did, however, head up security at this event, where the alt-right did their damnedest to incite violence and failed. I’ve also been a counter-protester at racist rallies where violence occurred, though I wasn’t involved in it.
Among my other qualifications on this topic: I hit people for fun. I have black belts in two different styles of karate and I’ve been hit in the head a lot (it sucks). I have also taught practical self defense for many years using a research-based approach that selects techniques for effectiveness–and which also locates physical defense within a larger framework of community safety, social justice, and cultural change.
Please remember that a physical fight will inevitably complicate your life for a long time, whether you win or lose, and it’s always smart to keep your options open. Practicing emotional self-regulation, boundary-setting, and de-escalation skills is a good idea whether you adhere to the tenets of philosophical nonviolence or not. This Basic Protest Safety handout (PDF) has general advice on preparing yourself physically and emotionally to protest.
In addition to common disruptions like amplified noise (bullhorns, shouting over speakers, airhorns), or attempting to block or destroy their opponents’ signs, right-wing counter-protesters practice specific tactics to position themselves for violence. Some of these are quasi-military “maneuvers,” but more often they are behaviors common to abusers and bullies. These behaviors weaponize very well in an environment where the targets are committed to behaving “politely.” Watch for:
Boundary violation/encroachment: This may begin as sneaking or edging into officially reserved spaces or informal areas of “territory” occupied by their opponents. They will try to gain control of an area by grabbing microphones, will interfere with signs or movement in the area, and may trip or shove people. At first they’ll usually try to make this look like accidental or incidental contact. It isn’t. It will escalate. If they establish a foothold in an area, more of their group will pile in to hold the ground.
Alternately, as at UVA, they may simple form up en masse and move in as a bloc, pressing forward and physically forcing others out of their way.
Mingling/Infiltrating: Similar to boundary violation, but a slightly different tactical goal. Rather than seizing territory or forcing you to move unwillingly, here the objective is to break up your group’s ability to communicate, to thin out your people and spread them further apart, making them more vulnerable to violence and easier to intimidate. Mingling into your group also increases the area of “contact zones,” where there is direct contact between their members and yours–increasing their chances to verbal and physically assault you. In Austin, APD stood by and watched formed-up blocs of neo-Nazis, staged at each intersection along our parade route, step into our march, break up our line, and form units within our group, spreading out and slowing down the march and disrupting communications. LE was completely unprepared for this tactic (as were we).
Verbal Escalation: Another form of boundary violation; may begin with more or less casual conversation but will ALWAYS escalate to insults, abuse, taunting, and provocation.
Bumping/bouncing: Interpersonal rather than territorial boundary violation; this has the direct goal of provoking physical conflict.
Isolating and attacking: As happened in Charlottesville, small gangs may follow or chase individuals to more isolated areas, surround them, and attack them verbally or physically.
What to do
Recognizing what they’re doing is an important first step.
Event organizers, if they are working with law enforcement, should alert LE ahead of time to these tactics, see if LE understands them, and ASK THEM SPECIFICALLY WHAT LE WILL DO IF THEY ARE USED. Get the NAME of the LE officer who tells you what the response should be, know their place in the chain of command, and have CONTACT INFORMATION so you can directly remind them of what they said they were going to do.
DOCUMENT the response of law enforcement to these tactics. Follow up with them to discuss if the response was effective and if not, what should be done next time.
Attendees should also, if possible, document, by photos and video, what is happening, and document the response or non-response of law enforcement.
React early and forcefully to attempts at infiltration, bumping, or pressuring in other ways. This is doubly important if there is any kind of bystander presence at all–photographers, reporters, police, passers-by, or other protesters. You want to communicate to the bullies that you’re not going to be bulldozed, and you want to alert bystanders to the aggressive behavior. Use your voice and body language to set a boundary. If you are photographed, your body language will help define the boundary that is being violated. If the interaction is being recorded, your verbal account of what is happening will help frame the interaction for viewers:
“Stop pushing me!”
“Stay back!” (with hand gesture)
“Keep your hands off me!”
“Let go of me!”
Responding to physical attack
Don’t be dismayed by all the “self defense” videos and tutorials available that conflate “self defense” with “this one really cool Jiu Jitsu technique I learned after three years of training.” Practical physical self defense is quite simple. The first rule of Nazi Fight Club is “Protect your head.” This is also the second, third, and fourth rule of Nazi Fight Club. PROTECT YOUR HEAD. This means being aware of the potential for punches, kicks, and strikes with weapons, moving away/evading them if they occur, and using your arms and body to block them if the previous options fail.
In self defense classes, we teach the importance of fast, physically damaging strikes that will disrupt an attack and allow you to leave. This generally means using hard weapons (fingernails, fists, elbows, heels, knees) against soft targets (eyes, nose, throat, groin, toes). Here’s a short video showing a few applications. If your attacker is wearing armor (eye shields, helmets, etc.), you’ll have a more limited range of targets (we are working on a post about using attackers’ shields and other weapons against them). If you can’t reach a vital target, hit a not-so-vital one, and a better one might open up. Pinch and twist flesh in vulnerable areas: Inner thigh, flanks, whatever you can reach.
NB: I’ve observed right-wing armoring fashion at numerous events now, and while they are big on helmets, safety goggles, and kneepads, I have seen almost no one wearing groin protection.
Also note that In multiple-attacker situations, it is even more critical to inflict heavy damage quickly. Your goal is to disrupt the attackers’ focus enough to get away. Seeing Billy Bob writhing on the ground clutching his testicles will probably be a significant distraction.
One final piece of advice for white people who are standing up to racists: IF YOU SEE SOMEONE BEING ATTACKED, HELP THEM. In my opinion, the damage you may take from aiding a victim of racist assault is far outweighed by the damage your soul sustains when you stand by and do nothing. If you don’t want to physically harm an attacker, drape your body over the targeted victim. And don’t, whatever you do, criticize those who do respond with force to protect others and oppose racism. For the vast majority of white Americans, the ability to protest nonviolently and not suffer grievous harm is a luxury and a privilege. Not everyone has it. And that’s not their fault; it’s, frankly, yours and mine.