Evaluate the efficacy and morality of violent protest
Unless you have been living under a very enviable rock, you are doubtless aware that Donald Trump was inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, and ever since, the American public has been letting its voice be heard, with up to 4.6 million protesters marching on Jan. 21 alone, according to a Jan. 23 article in the Atlantic. Richard Spencer is best known for coining the term “alt-right” and holding a post-election conference where the attendants put their arms out at a 50 degree angle and screamed “Heil Trump!” until they went hoarse, according to a Nov. 20, 2016 New York Times article. Spencer has been in the news quite a bit as of late, and it is not even for his usual callings for ethnic cleansing, which he does frequently, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Instead, his new 15 minutes of fame are thanks to a video that has been all over the news and social media and has led to a new fight over an ages-old question: Is violence a legitimate means of civil resistance?
In the video, he is seen ready to give his usual, dead-serious diatribe about how terrible Black Lives Matter is and extol the values of unified whiteness when a hooded figure runs up to him and sucker punches him in the back of the head. Immense amounts of schadenfreude over seeing an absolutely repugnant individual reap what he sowed aside, the aftermath of this has been far murkier. Spencer’s assault, along with fellow right-wing firebrand Milo “Would you rather your child have feminism or cancer?” Yiannopoulos having his University of California Berkeley rally shut down and his talk canceled after a full-scale riot broke out over his presence, has reignited a centuries-old debate among activists seeking to use protests as a means of change.
On the one hand, you have the more traditional liberal wing that argues that this only helps the alt-right’s cause, allowing conservatives to label the entire protest movement as one full of “anarchists” or “looters” or whatever horrible buzzword is in favor that month and delegitimize major efforts like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter protest with a simple “but they’re violent!” In that sense, nonviolent protesters follow in a tradition of civil disobedience stretching all the way back to Gandhi and Thoreau.
No discussion of nonviolent protest in American politics is complete without acknowledging both the accomplishments and values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement. King’s view on protest was that attempting to achieve equality through violence would prove futile as a means of change, because any meager gains made with such extreme tactics would be nothing compared to the widespread animosity and distrust such violence would breed. Shutting up a particularly loud racist or wrecking a vocally segregationist restaurant would not be worth losing the nascent trust and sympathy of the white majority whose representatives in Washington were the only ones who could make any semblance of racial equality on a national level a reality. As King wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
For much of his public life, King disagreed with groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, which felt that the olive branch approach had failed and that the only answer to white bigotry was to respond with force. Their descendents are the explicitly anti-fascist and much less cohesive group whose members range from liberals completely opposed to Trump to actual communist revolutionaries. Within the broader “antifa” sphere there exist factions given names like “Code Black” and “Black Bloc” who derive meaning less from the distinctive black getup that gives them their labels and more by their willingness to use violence to make a point. Whether that point consists of punching Spencer for putting on his usual harassment shtick, pepper spraying Vice founder Gavin McInnes when he tried to give a lecture in support of “white chauvinists” at New York University or even Shia Labeouf — yes, Shia Labeouf — being arrested for attacking a man who shouted “Hitler did nothing wrong” during his anti-Trump demonstration, the reason remains the same: a belief that fascist rhetoric should not be allowed to enter the American mainstream at any cost. These acts, while indisputably illegal and well beyond the limits of normal political discourse, are being committed against people who hold equally violent ideologies. If the alt-right worldview is predicated on violence against marginalized groups, antifa protesters argue, those groups responding in kind is hardly surprising.
Here is where I have trouble threading the needle on this one: In the most obvious sense, trying to defeat a movement predicated on violent suppression of those deemed unfit by out-violencing them is counter-intuitive to the extreme, which should render the “black bloc” point moot. Yet, their argument that giving people like Spencer a voice serves no real purpose outside of giving their bigotry a captive audience is a point that should not be dismissed. When internet provocateurs like 4chan and Reddit’s /r/the_donald were allowed to promote extreme racism and misogyny under the guise of “free speech,” they proceeded to harass and threaten anyone who drew their ire and continue to make life hell for journalists and citizens who dare take an opposing viewpoint, according to a June 17, 2016 Washington Post article. Milo Yiannopoulos is still touring college campuses around the country peddling his misogynistic future, Spencer is still spewing his xenophobic lies through Twitter, and conservative media is rapidly coalescing around the extreme reactionist nature of Steve Bannon’s Breitbart. While I cannot bring myself to endorse violence as a means to an end, we must come to grips with the fact that as long as the alt-right’s apocalyptic vision of racial conflict remains a major component of public discourse, violence will flow freely from both sides. We as a country must figure out a civil way to minimize these voices before they divide an already fractured country even more.