I want to talk about this whole “punching nazis” thing, which I have been thinking about for some days.
To start, let me clarify that I have no moral or ethical qualms with Richard Spencer getting punched in the face on tv. I’d be happy to see it happen again.
But I do have a couple issues with much of the dialogue that has emerged in the wake of this event.
A lot of the people suddenly talking about nazis right now are people who didn’t seem to even realize they existed in this country prior to this election.
A lot of people seem to have gotten some strange ideas about how and where nazis are typically encountered, or who they actually are.
So, I’d like to talk about some of the times in my life when I’ve encountered nazis.
Before I do that, let’s try to establish a definition. There are a lot of different stripes of fascists and white supremacists out there, with varying agendas and varying degrees of organization. In the US we’ve got many types, ranging from the KKK and Aryan Nation to various unorganized skinhead rabble to the newish group calling itself the Alt Right. It seems easiest, at least for the sake of this argument, to lump those all together under one general “nazi” category. But does that really make sense? I’ll come back to that. But for now, in most of the examples I will describe below, these were people who openly called themselves such.
Also, I want to establish a bit about who I am. I don’t like to discuss any of these things publicly, but I also feel like I kind of have to, to explain where I am coming from. So: I am Jewish, I am bi, I am neurodivergent. Due to this last thing, I have certain issues navigating the physical world. I am physically fit but not athletic. I have very little self defense training. By occupation I am a musician.
And lastly I want to point out that these examples are from 15-20 years ago and describe some of my earliest encounters with these forces to provide context. And I’m going to start with some clear cut cases:
I first became aware of the existence of modern nazis my first year in high school. This was in the suburbs of San Francisco. I had a few friends who were into punk music and culture. I heard about “white power punks” and nazi skinheads who would sometimes show up at shows. When I started going out I would see them every once in a while. When I started going up to the city, at that time there were places that were absolutely notorious for nazi skinheads. I never interacted with them, I always steered clear of them, and never really fell in with the punk scene anyway. But that’s when I first became aware that there were people in modern America who called themselves nazis and directly advocated for white supremacy.
To be honest I did not think of myself as their “target” because (in my mind, at that time) Jewish culture in the SF Bay Area was practically invisible and unlikely to be on their radar. In fact I didn’t think too deeply about who their target was. I mostly thought they were crazy people who loved violence and called themselves “nazis” because it was the meanest thing they could think of, that they were in favor of “white power” because it was so obviously wrong. At this time, there was fair amount of tension in the state around the issue of immigration from Mexico. But it did not occur to me then that there could have been any relationship between the xenophobia I saw expressed by mainstream circles in conversations about Proposition 187 and the blatant, violent white supremacy expressed by the skinheads on the periphery of local punk scenes. (also please note that I am aware that not all skinheads are nazis and that there is an anti-racist element within skinhead culture as well)
In college, in Pittsburgh, I lived on a store with a convenience store on one end. One of the people who worked in this store was a skinhead who wore a jacket covered in various white power/“rock against communism” band logos. He had a group of similar buddies that often hung around nearby, a couple of whom had aryan nation tattoos. On several occasions when I woke up in the morning I would find leaflets distributed up and down the block decrying the Holocaust as a “Jewish scam to make money”. These flyers were attributed to Church of the Creator, one of the more active neo-nazi groups in Pennsylvania at that time. Every once in a while I would cautiously engage in arguments with some people on the fringes of that crew of guys who hung out in the area. Things were sometimes tense but never got physical. Soon after 9/11 most of them disappeared. I don’t know why or where to.
While traveling alone in Slovenia, I nearly ran into a parade of about 40 skinheads chanting and marching in the street while I was on the way back to where I was staying. I do not know what specific group they were affiliated with but wore patches with the common “celtic cross” symbol used by far right/white nationalist groups all over the world. At that time, fascist graffiti covered Ljubljana.
Those are just a few of the more blatant examples from that time. These experiences were not rare. The KKK and various neo-nazi groups held public parades and rallies all throughout this period, and sometimes showed up as counter protestors or forces of violence at protests for progressive causes. They marched through downtown Pittsburgh - with the local government’s blessing - and many other cities in that region.
There were protestors at those marches, and there were people who fought the nazis directly, but the general consensus in mainstream liberal circles at that time seemed to be that nazis had the right to march just like anyone else, that any violence against them would be bad. It certainly wasn’t at all common to hear college educated, NY Times-reading liberals talking about the glories of “punching nazis”. This is a problematic but very complicated phenomenon: they were to be tolerated up until the point at which they’ve come into power.
But let me explain why _I_ didn’t go around punching the nazis I saw, during those times when I encountered them personally. To some extent, part of me did follow that logic mentioned above, but that’s not the real reason. The real reason is pretty simple: most nazis are a lot better at fighting than I am, they do it more frequently, they usually travel in numbers, they are often armed, and in almost every circumstance when I’ve encountered them the odds would not have been remotely in my favor had things gotten physical.
Richard Spencer was alone and unarmed standing in front of a video camera busily talking about an internet meme while he was sucker punched. This occurred in broad daylight in a very crowded, open area with a ton of media and police present. While I applaud the anonymous puncher for seizing upon that opportunity, that’s not really a typical situation in which one encounters nazis.
Recently, Richard Spencer posted a video in reaction to this incident. In this video he mentions that the Alt Right will not succeed if they are unable to be who they are in public. I’ve seen a lot of people pointing to this video as a sign of victory over the Alt Right, a sign that they are scared. I think the latter half is true but not the former. What Spencer is saying is that they are going to ramp up security. And I would anticipate that these people will begin to receive even more protection from the current administration.
So, this is one conclusion I’d like to leave here - in most cases “punching nazis” means getting involved in serious physical violence in which your life will be at risk. And that risk is only going to increase in the future. Fantasizing about punching some idiot talking about a frog on tv is fun, but I think it ignores the realities that many have faced and many more are about to face. And while many of us have disabilities that hinder us in this department, I think it would behoove anyone who is serious about getting physical with fascists to study and learn how to do so before getting involved in a situation you are unprepared for. I would also think long and hard before making that demand of anyone else. But that’s not the most important point.
I’d like to circle back to talking about definitions. The examples I gave above are obvious. These were people who, in almost all cases, were openly wearing the actual logos of white supremacist organizations. So let me bring up a different example:
About one year after 9/11 I was in Budapest, taking an overnight train to Amsterdam. I had a spot in a sleeper compartment on a train. I got on and a couple other passengers came in. One of them was a young guy, a little older than me (I was in my early 20’s at this time). He spoke English very well and we got to talking. It turned out he was an Austrian who worked in finance. Middle management at a major bank. He bought us a couple of beers and we were getting along. Inevitably, the topic of 9/11 came up. Seemingly out of nowhere, he explains to me how “there were no Jews in the building that day”. He then goes on to explain how 9/11 and the entire War on Terror that was then unfolding was all a Jewish plot to direct money to Israel’s armed forces. And hinted that the Holocaust was a similar plot. I tried to argue with him for a bit (without letting on that I was Jewish) but it was nearly impossible to get through to him, and he soon became surly and then passed out. I tried to do the same. But what caught my attention was that this man was well spoken, dressed conservatively, he looked every bit the upper middle class finance professional. It was difficult to imagine him in a street fight. No one would have described this person as being on the fringes of his society.
Up until a year ago, if I told this story to a European, or to an American person of color, they were unsurprised. But if I told it to a white American their reaction would usually be “yeah, well, that’s Europe for you”.
But that’s never been the case.
One common narrative is that many of the groups of fascists have figured out that they aren’t going to get very far if they are seen just thugs who march around on the street wearing in leather jackets getting in scraps. many of them have figured this out some time ago, and have been infiltrating mainstream education and corporate life. And yes, that is happening.
But there is a big problem with that narrative: it ignores the fact that many of America’s institutions and businesses are, themselves, organizations that promote white supremacy. Many of our banks, many of our police departments, our prison system, much of our media. Does these mean they are all “nazis”? Not really. But what it does mean is that white supremacy is not some outside force that just suddenly popped out of Steve Bannon’s suitcase. It’s been here for a long time. It is deeply engrained in our society. Fascism is not some new danger that we suddenly need to prevent from being “normalized” - for much of America, fascism has been the norm for a very long time.
Here’s my point with all of this: sooner or later, Trump will be defeated. This regime is monstrous, but I have seen the power and anger and sheer volume of opposition to it, and I do not think that this regime will last. My worry is, once this most obvious of enemies is defeated, the liberal establishment will go right back to completely forgetting that white supremacy and fascism are a major problem in this country. The sad fact is, even when Democrats in power, even when the POTUS is the most progressive sounding person electable, the nazis are still here, white supremacy is still here, fascism is still here. And not always on “the other side”. We need to remember that, we need to keep pointing to them and ostracizing them and speaking out against white supremacy and fascism even when it looks like things are more comfortable, because that comfort is a trap.