Back in January, the white supremacist Richard Spencer was being interviewed by a reporter in Washington when a man wearing a mask ran up and punched him the face.
The punch was caught on camera and immediately went viral, viewed online more than 3 million times, and we can understand why: There is undeniable satisfaction in watching a creep get clocked.
All the same, we wish the police had caught the puncher. He should have been locked up. There is no place for violence in America’s moral fight against the racists and haters who have crept into the sunlight in these days of Trump. Violence is a gift to them. It has even allowed the president to argue, against all truth and decency, that there is a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and those who stand up against neo-Nazis.
But the Spencer punch was a sign of things to come. Since then, black-clad forces on the far left known as antifa — short for anti-fascists — repeatedly have waded into white supremacist demonstrations around the country, doing battle with fists, sticks and pepper spray. Last weekend, most recently, about 100 members of antifa attacked Trump supporters and far-right demonstrators in Berkeley, California, resulting in five people being injured and 14 arrests.
Let’s understand something: Some 4,000 people turned out in Berkeley to march against bigotry, and the vast majority engaged in entirely non-violent protest. They belonged to church groups and unions and carried signs with slogans like “Stand Against Hate.” But their message was hijacked by a relatively small band of antifa who had no more respect for free speech and tolerance than the bigots they so eagerly beat up.
Fascism is fascism, whether coming from the right or left.
The better way to stand up against hate, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a generation of civil rights activists taught us, is non-violence. When young black men sat down at segregated lunch counters in the South in the 1960s, it was precisely their refusal to fight back when they were punched and spat upon by white bigots that ultimately gained them victory. Millions of Americans, watching it on TV, were sickened by the one-way violence. Jim Crow could take a punch, but not the moral outrage.
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it,” King said. “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.”
Or should all the good people just stay home?
That was Tina Fey’s advice in a comedy skit she did for Saturday Night Live two weeks ago. Instead of picking up a sign and counter-protesting at alt-right rallies, she said, we should all stay home and ease our frustrations by eating cake — lots and lots of cake.
The bit backfired on Fey a little. Critics said she’s living in a bubble of white privilege if she thinks ignoring racists and anti-Semites will make them go away. But Fey was hardly the first thoughtful person to argue for just staying home when losers come to town, and who’s to say there is only one right way?
When a group of local neo-Nazis announced in 1977 that they would hold a rally in suburban Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors and their families lived, the village was deeply split on how to respond. Many residents called for a massive counter-demonstration, while many others said everybody should stay home, denying the bigots the attention they craved. Ultimately, the neo-Nazis backed out.
The antifa, made up of an uneasy mix of anarchists, anticapitalists, communists and what have you, is not about to heed the words of Tina Fey or even Dr. King. It is convinced the only way to deal with America’s surging white nationalist movement is physical, with fists and feet and clubs.
It is up to the rest of us to condemn the violence, just as surely as we condemn the hate.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” King said. “Only light can do that.”
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