Fifty Ways to Punch a Nazi

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. 
ThisNew York Times piece, Waiting for the Perfect Protest? by Michael McBride, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid, and Barbara Williams, does a much better job than I am doing of exposing the hypocrisy of white allies:
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.
Rather than tut-tutting at violent protesters, true allies need to be out there observing what goes on at protests where violence is in the offing. Talk to the people who are willing to use force to defend themselves or others. And by “talk to them,” what I really mean is LISTEN TO THEM. They have their reasons. Most of them have more experience with violence than you ever will—and that experience probably came courtesy of the same systems that keep you comfortable and safe. They also probably have more commitment and guts than you do—sorry, professors of non-violence, but for 99% of you, that’s true, because you haven’t been truly tested.
As this wonderful post from Logan Rimel, parish administrator at University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, who was in Charlottesville during the violence, puts it, 
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.
If you, like me, comprehend limits to nonviolence, either tactically or intellectually or spiritually, there is a very clear ethical path forward, even if our critics deny it. We need to be responsible for our part in any conflict. Think ahead about the situations where you are or are not willing to use force, and the situations where you are or are not willing to suffer violence from others without defending yourself. Learn effective ways of using force for self defense. Learn about the consequences. And talk to the people around you—in your life and at protests—about their beliefs and intentions concerning the use of force. Prepare as best you can, do the best you can. Study the results of your actions. Try to do better the next time. Fight your fight.
Resistance is messy and complicated. We are fighting in defense of diversity, of tolerance, and of individuality. Trust me, authoritarian approaches are a lot simpler: Someone at the top tells everyone else how to behave, and they either do, or suffer consequences. But “the resistance” is premised on the opposite belief: that we are stronger and better when we honor different experiences, tolerate a wide range of behaviors, and cooperate out of an understanding of our mutual vulnerability.
Based on what I’ve observed at many protests since November, and because of my background in assault prevention and violence reduction, I recommend responding early and forcefully to threats and intimidation. I’ve been sharing information about physical self defense against armed and armored attackers. I’ve begun codifying best practices for protest safety planning, and documenting and analyzing law enforcement response to violence at protests. And I’m in the midst of researching and testing methods of strategic ridicule and street theatre to counter right-wing aggression at protests. All of these approaches are aimed at ultimately reducing violence in our country, but not all of them are “non-violent.” Not all of them will appear pleasingly peaceful to those accustomed to sanitized visions of past campaigns for change. 
If we want to bring the full resources of our diverse, energized resistance to bear in the current crisis, we cannot rule out approaches that offend us aesthetically, culturally, or philosophically. Because there are no allied armies waiting in the wings to help us. We’re going to have to get our hands dirty.
If you don’t approve of that approach, fine. But stop pretending you have the right to give orders to those who feel differently. This isn’t your movement, and that’s not how it works. 

3 thoughts on “Fifty Ways to Punch a Nazi

  1. Thanks for this post. It clarifies und sums up many points that i found myself always repeating to explain to friends and colleagues. Now i will share this post instead ;)

  2. At the street protest level, do you view the white supremacist tactics as equivalent to the “interview” which precedes some bar fights? I ask because an assertive response in the latter instance can reduce violence.

  3. Yes, I think that’s often a good analogy (when the Nazis start out verbal or use terrain infiltration to test the grounds for violence). I have less experience with bar fights, but I have heard that it’s more like 50/50 whether you want to respond assertively or de-escalate. Can depend a lot on the reasons for the challenge (gender, perceived gender, size, race, etc.)