Many communities seem to have embraced the militant tactics of Antifa, so much so that it seems like it’s already an expectation that every alt-right rally will turn into a violent battlefield.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if these tactics are giving the alt-right exactly what they want. Is it possible that we could be winning small battles while losing the war? Is it possible that as we celebrate Nazis getting punched, their numbers are growing as a direct result of it?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I would even admit that a portion of the blame for the rise in violence has to go to those of us committed to nonviolence for our failure to come up with the type of assertive response necessary in these urgent times.
And I do give a lot of credit to Antifa activists, for as much as I have major disagreements in strategy, they have had the courage to put their bodies on the line. When the levels of hatred are as extreme as they are, our responses to it — nonviolent or otherwise — has to match its intensity, and Antifa has done that.
But as these battles rage on (the alt-right has planned rallies this weekend in San Francisco and Berkeley), it’s critical that we not get dogmatic and are able to evaluate our strategies.
Violence has a simple dynamic that Rev. James Lawson once described as, “I make you suffer more than I suffer.” If we think that punching Nazis and pepper spraying them will make them suffer so much that they go away, I’m afraid that we are severely underestimating their commitment to their cause.
Right or wrong (spoiler: they’re wrong), they feel like their culture is being threatened and white people are being oppressed. As the adage goes, “when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” If members of the alt-right already feel like they are being oppressed (and they do), using violence to shut them down may only make them dig down even deeper into their hole and fight back even harder.
As I’ve written before, “we shut their event down” is a poor measure of success if it comes at the expense of growing their base. Is it possible that when we confront these hate groups with violence, that we are actually empowering them?
Over 14 years after President Bush announced “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the war in Iraq rages on, with one result of the U.S. invasion being the formation of ISIS. And that can be the unintended consequence of violence: when the other side is convinced that they are “right,” and when they feel like they are the ones being oppressed, violence against them is the best recruiting tool they can ask for.
While that is an extreme example, there are countless smaller examples of this dynamic, and it goes both ways. Milo Yiannopoulos’ book became the number one seller on Amazon overnight after his speech was shut down at UC Berkeley. The Birmingham campaign in 1963 exploded when Bull Conner attacked children with fire hoses, giving the movement one of its principal victories within days. After the Alabama state troopers attacked civil rights marchers in Selma, the number of marchers grew ten-fold within two weeks.
While many mocked and celebrated the original “punch-a-Nazi,” I’d never even heard of Richard Spencer until he got punched. Now he’s a national hero to many. If that interview had gone on without incident, almost no one would have seen it. It would have been just one more video of Spencer talking on YouTube. Instead, it became a rallying cry for the alt-right.
When white supremacists gather, I get that our initial impulse is to do everything we can to simply shut them down. But it’s very possible that attempts to do so are giving the alt-right exactly what they want. To feel like they are being victimized, to feel like their way of life is being threatened, to gain media attention to legitimize their movement, to demonize the left and to gain more and more recruits for their cause.
Of all the places in the country where they could go, there is a reason that this coming weekend will mark the third time in six months that the alt-right is coming to the San Francisco Bay Area: Because they know they can count on a fight.
And while there are many involved in Antifa who are as dedicated as anyone to defeating white supremacy, I also wonder sometimes if some others want to fight more than they want to win.
So what do we do?
Part of what we need to do is to keep things in perspective. Part of that perspective is that this is a serious moment in history. Charlottesville escalated to a point where a woman — Heather Heyer — was killed, and many more could have easily died.
And even that is just an outward expression of a system of white supremacy that is killing people every day. So calls for people to “just get along” isn’t going to cut it.
When San Francisco mayor Ed Lee says, “I ask that when they chant of hate, San Francisco chants of love,” I am not sure he understands that. We cannot simply offer free hugs to Nazis and hope they change their minds.
At the same time, we should keep this in mind: We are not the resistance.
All over the country, confederate memorials are coming down. This was beginning to happen even before Charlottesville. Even GOP leaders are distancing themselves from comments made by Trump, something we would not have seen a couple of decades ago.
As slow as progress can feel at times, things are changing. As a nation, we are making progress. And it is the alt-right that is reacting to those changes. Their worldview is being threatened by progress, and they are the ones resisting.
A friend of mine heard Angela Davis speak some time ago, and that was her message to those involved in the “Trump resistance.” We need to remind ourselves that we are the majority, and they are the ones resisting the changes our society is going through. While we need to meet the urgency of this moment, we can also allow ourselves time to breath and not feel like the world is collapsing around us.
Maintain the Moral High Ground
This is ultimately a battle for the morals of this country. It is about right and wrong.
Most people like to think of themselves as moral people, and while white supremacy runs deeper than the average person realizes, most people would not identify as Nazis or white supremacists.
In a battle for morals, imagery and messaging is everything. If we lose the PR battle, even if we are ultimately on the right side of justice, we may give the alt-right ammunition they desperately need. And if we don’t provide them with that ammunition, their movement will struggle to gain momentum.
When you see images from nonviolent movements confronting forces of injustice, the images are very clear which side is on the right side of justice. When you see images of the alt-right confronting Antifa, that’s not so clear.
And this is not in any way to make a moral equivalency between the two as Trump has repeatedly done. One side are Nazis and white supremacists. The other side is fighting Nazis and white supremacists. There is no moral equivalency there.
What I am suggesting is that rather than meeting violence with violence, we need to expose their violence. Trump is finding himself more and more isolated as he continues to expose his violence. We need to do the same with the alt-right, and fighting them with sticks makes that harder.
Build Mass Popular Movements
I grew up in Massachusetts and am a die-hard Boston sports fan. And I’ve always been a little embarrassed by the long history of racism there. That’s why I was so proud of my home state this past weekend when counter-demonstrators so outnumbered the alt-right that they were completely drowned out.
And that is the best way for us to win — by surrounding these hate groups with so many people that they can’t get their message out. By showing them and the country how isolated they are. By embarrassing them to the point that they don’t want to come out in public again.
If we outnumber them five-to-one, ten-to-one, twenty-to-one, a hundred-to-one, then we won’t need to use violence to stop them. Our mere presence will, like it did in Boston when 40,000 people showed up to counter “a few dozen” alt-right demonstrators. “Boston right-wing ‘free speech’ rally dwarfed by counterprotesters” does not make for an effective recruitment tool for the alt-right.
Violence limits the number of people who are willing to come out to these types of events. We can’t let the alt-right feel like this is anything close to an equal fight. And if those of us on the radical left are the only ones showing up to counter-protests, that’s the sense that they will get. We need the masses to win, and we need to maintain nonviolent discipline to turn the masses out.
While the actions of Antifa are getting support on my social media feed, we know that social media can be an echo chamber of limited political views. The masses do not support violence, and that needs to be part of our calculations.
We also need to stop thinking that going head-to-head is the only option we have. There is so much diversity within nonviolence, and we are doing ourselves a disservice when we don’t fully utilize our creativity.
My favorite example of this is a dilemma action where the German town of Wunsiedel turned a Nazi march into a walk-a-thon for an anti-hate group organization. Residents committed to donating money for every meter that the Nazis marched. When the marchers came to town, the residents welcomed them, celebrated and thanked them for raising money to fight Nazism.
Or when clowns showed up to counter a KKK rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s hard to fight when the other side is dressed like clowns, and the images don’t make for good recruitment either.
Or what if instead of trying to stop them, we mix in with them with signs opposing hate? If our signs outnumber theirs, again their photo-ops would become useless.
What if we hold massive banners and completely surround them, not letting anyone see them?
What if instead of shields and sticks, every person came with instruments, pots, pans, air horns and drums and completely drowned them out without actually trying to stop them?
What if we go to the site of their rally the night before and somehow transform the site itself? Maybe paint the entire ground a bright rainbow?
What if we coordinated the “Yes, You’re Racist” Twitter feed and tried to take pictures of everyone who shows up at the event? Members of the alt-right have already had their businesses boycotted, been fired from work, had their accounts suspended from Airbnb, social media and even the dating site OK Cupid.
Action vs. Inaction
At the end of the day, the most important thing for anyone reading this is to be ready to mobilize every time the alt-right gathers. The fewer counter-demonstrators there are, the more likely it will be that violence will erupt. The more counter-demonstrators there are, the more likely that the alt-right will simply run away.
For those of us committed to nonviolence, it is easy to criticize people who have played a role in escalating violence. But if we are not at least in the streets with them, then our criticisms ring hollow. If we believe that we can defeat hate by building a popular movement, then we need to get into the streets and create one.
Violence vs. nonviolence is an important question, and a complicated one. A less complicated one is the question of action vs. inaction. Regardless of where you stand on nonviolence, if you stand for inaction you are helping hatred gain steam.Φ
Kazu Haga is a Kingian Nonviolence trainer based in Oakland, California. Born in Japan, he has been involved in many social change movements since he was 17. He conducts regular trainings with youth, incarcerated populations and activists. He is the founder and coordinator of East Point Peace Academy, and is on the board of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, PeaceWorkers and the OneLife Institute. This article first appeared on August 22 at Waging Nonviolence.