I recently had a conversation with several Facebook friends about articles like this:
After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many people are asking themselves what they should do if Nazis rally in their city. Should they put their bodies on the line in counterdemonstrations? Some say yes. History says no. Take it from me: I study the original Nazis.
I’ve been getting similar advice from well-intentioned folks on Twitter. The more I hear these arguments warning against assertive counterprotest, the more they strike me as simplistic, judgmental, and unhelpful. Especially when they offer, as does this “History says no!” article, barely a gesture at alternatives.
In the first place: You know what it finally took to defeat the “original Nazis”? THREE FUCKING ALLIED ARMIES. Sure, non-violence works. Ask Neville Chamberlain.
Since a lot of these sermons seem to come from academics, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask that we place the claim “nonviolence always produces better results in the long run” in the context of all the systems of violence that allow “nonviolent protest” to have any effect whatsoever: the police who may or may not keep order; the government which may or may not send in federal troops; the court system which is structurally designed to punish non-whites disproportionately; even the educational institutions that fund the professors doing this research—institutions which exist largely to burnish state prestige and thus, maintain state power.
Instead, most of the time I hear this argument as a kindergarten-level lecture from white “allies” and think, Gee it sure sounds like you’re accusing those Hispanic teenagers in the antifa of having poor impulse control and not going “slow enough.”
My friend Carmel pointed out that this sententious approach to nonviolence ignores the very real physical effects of oppression—the reality that people who are threatened and abused have specific, instinctive, bodily responses, grounded in evolutionary survival patterns. Many people who are offering resistance to the right today are literally fighting for their lives. Yet I hear the “nonviolence is the only acceptable form of protest” argument loudest (and most patronizingly) from people who are relatively safe and comfortable.
As Carmel put it,
Think about it being translated to a partner violence situation: “If you fight back, you are making the problem worse.” I just can’t accept it. Even if the problem does get worse, the person fighting back is not the one to blame. If the people are fighting back for their right to survive, and the power structures say, “we need to crack down on you for fighting back,” then my bet is that the power structures were never really helping them much anyway.
The reality — which is underdiscussed but essential to an understanding of our current situation — is that the civil rights work of Dr. King and other leaders was loudly opposed by overt racists and quietly sabotaged by cautious moderates. We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation….The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational and yes, sometimes violent. Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait. They, we suspect, will be this generation’s version of the millions who claim that they were one of the thousands who marched with Dr. King.
If you are unwilling to risk your bodily integrity to stand against literal Nazis, but you are willing to criticize the people out there who are taking this grave threat seriously but not in a way of which you approve….I just don’t know what to say to you. Truly. Your moral authority is bankrupt and you’re not helping. You’re a hypocrite.