In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)
A week or so ago, shortly after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, I asked on my Facebook page: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Asking for a Virginian friend.” As might have been expected this semi-serious query sparked an interesting discussion in the course of which one of my friends asked me to clarify on when I thought the use of violence was justified–against the kinds of folks who marched in Charlottesville or against folks like Richard Spencer, who did indeed, get punched in the face. My reply went as follows:
I do think that Nazis create a greater threat than other instance of ideology on two legs, and will amplify and make that threat more manifest in a manner that will prompt violence directed at them – I’m OK with that violence. If I see a Nazi rally in my street, and a couple of goons screaming in my daughter’s face, I will fucking punch them. It it possible then that I will suffer Clanton’s fate, but I will plead in my defense, that I was protecting my daughter from ‘assault.’ And I will have a good legal case for doing so – Nazis, too often, behave in ways that constitute ‘assault’ – technically. They’re asking for punches.
My reply clarifies something about the nature of the so-called ‘violence’ directed at Nazis by Antifa, and responds to the various critiques directed at those who have ‘clashed’ with the various brands of white supremacists who have started to emerge, in increasing numbers, from the woodwork. The following points, I think, are salient, and build on it:
- Violence takes many forms; current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence, the actual meeting of flesh vs. flesh; they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power. These critiques are blind in a crucial dimension; they take their eyes off the content and the history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; they do not examine their impact of those that bear the brunt of these. The legal definition of ‘assault’ is more catholic: it admits of more forms of violence, and allows for a greater range of actions in response.
- For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis. I will not allow my daughter to be ‘assaulted’ by Nazis; more to the point, I will not rely on the goodwill of the police or the state to protect me. They have already made clear they will not defend my family or me. The daily news assures me of their non-cooperation in this matter. Indeed, I expect that they will stand by and let violence be done to me.
- Unsurprisingly most objections to the Antifa originate in ‘moderate whites’–the same folks that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as being the greatest barrier to the civil rights movement–these folks do not feel physically threatened in the same way that people of color are when Nazis and white supremacists march through their neighborhoods; they have not been subjected to the daily rituals of aggression that people of color are. They do not have their accent remarked on, they are not asked to repeat themselves, they are not subjected to relentless, ignorant queries that betray a lack of cultural sensitivity and an overwhelming ignorance that is anything but benign. Sexism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia; these all exert a daily toll that most ‘moderate whites’ do not experience or understand. As James Baldwin pointed out a long time ago, thanks to segregation, which continues today, most whites know nothing about their fellow black citizens; they do not know what they feel, how they feel, what they think or how they think. Offering political advice on how to conduct protests to this community is an act of political hubris. So is offering political advice to those who, by their actions, act to reduce the daily intimidation experienced by people of color.
- Every single call to denounce the Antifa and their tactics abdicates political agency: if the Antifa do X, then our political opponents will do Y, and we can do nothing about it. There the discussion stops; there is no talk of whether there are any substantive countermoves to Y. The propaganda countermeasures that say that violence on ‘both sides’ will be condemned cannot be combated; the state’s crackdown–now justified because of Antifa’s violence–cannot be resisted. Our only option is acquiescence in the face of precisely those some propaganda countermeasures and the same state crackdown that are already visible today. Here, the moderate white’s imagination breaks down. He cannot imagine a political move in response; all is lost. The ‘other’ will act, and ‘we’ will simply be subject to their actions. We, through our actions and speech, can do nothing in response. This is not political critique; this is surrender.
- This is a country in the grip of an ongoing large-scale human rights violation and moral atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’; in this country, police can arrest, assault, harass, imprison, and kill people of color at whim with no accountability; this is the world in which ‘moderate whites’ want the antifa to be treated as morally equivalent to the marching Nazis and for those who seek to combat their violence. In this country, white supremacists control the government and its other branches; here, the moderate white would like the Antifa to keep on marching, keep on checking to see if the ‘moderate white’ approves of their tactics–the moderate white will continue to wait for the non-existent perfect protest, made at the right time, in the right place, in the right way.
- Here is a thought experiment concerning 1930s Germany: What would have happened if German Antifa had indeed come out swinging against the Nazis? What if every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face every time one of them opened their mouths to pronounce their murderous ideology? What if that ‘violence’ had indeed overwhelmed the Nazis in Germany? Perhaps the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it. Twelve years later, German cities had to be reduced to ashes.
The Donald Trump rally in Chicago on March 11th was not ‘shut down.’ It was called off by Trump himself, a decision for which the Chicago Police stated they had not extended any support (they did not consider the situation to be out of hand.) The protesters showed up in numbers thanks to advance organization, and were greeted in the same way all protesters are at Trump rallies–with abuse, and threats of violence. But this time, the protesters were different; they had come in numbers and were much, much louder. And there is strength in numbers, which means that the same bullying which saw single, isolated protesters get beaten, abused, mocked, and ultimately ejected from other Trump rallies, ran up against a wall of locked arms and even louder chants. Violence against such numbers quickly fades from viability: if anyone had dared throw a sucker punch at a protester, it would have been responded to with ten punches. Bullying works when you have superior numbers and/or perceived or actual strength. When you don’t, you get bullied right back. Bullies always, always, back off when they are first confronted with anything resembling a credible threat. Trump behaved like all bullies do when an ostensible victim fought back – he ran for the hills.
One reaction to these events is that the protest and the ‘shutting down’ plays into Trump’s electoral strategy: he can play the role of victim, claim his right to free speech is being infringed (an idiotic claim because–other than in exceptional cases–First Amendment rights cannot be infringed by private actors), and enable him to fire up his ‘base.’ Now, it can’t possibly be a consequence of this position that no one should protest at Trump’s rallies–that would have had the ironic effect of shutting down Trump opponents’ rights to protest. This suggests there are only two options for protesters. Either loners show up to to protest and get beaten and abused as before, or for safety’s sake, masses show up as in Chicago, provoke loud, angry responses, and Trump shuts down again. In that case, he will keep whining like a bully, perhaps his base will be ‘energized’ and they will become more ugly, which might in turn lead other Trump-opponents becoming even more turned off by him, and possibly becoming more ‘energized’ in turn. Or, perhaps protesters could protest outside Trump rallies, and not inside their venues. But in that case, my guess is that those protesters would still be attacked and abused by Trump supporters–remember, this is a crowd that has been fed possibly illegal incitements to violence from Trump for a while now. Either there are ‘rumbles’ inside, or they will happen outside. That’s what Trump folks do. And if there is a rumble, I suspect the protesters will fight back–if they have the numbers–and take the chance that the Trump rally will be ‘shut down’ and for that fact to be blamed on them.
The claim that the Trump campaign got what it wanted, and that therefore, loud mass protests at Trump rallies should cease misses out on the fact that Trump opponents also got what they wanted: a demonstration of unity and capacity to mobilize, and strength in numbers, . They too will get ‘endless publicity;’ they too know how to manipulate social media.
This is democratic politics–messy, crude, with all its rough edges–in action. People speak, people protest. Democracy would be absent if the government intervened and threw people into jail just for speaking their minds. Those who have been inciting violence for months now bear all the responsibility for the curvature of the arc that has tended from speech to violence.
Spending a day in jail has some social scientific value for the temporarily detained; it enables a closer, albeit short-lived, look at the systems of policing and criminal justice. And because I often expend much time on this blog railing against the excesses of the New York City Police Department, it makes especial sense for me to offer a few observations on my interactions with them on Tuesday last.
First, the arrest itself. The NYPD was scrupulous about providing warnings to those that lay down on Second Avenue; we were told that we were obstructing traffic and had to clear the intersection, failing which we would be arrested. We were not immediately bum-rushed. After the warning was repeated, and those who did not want to court arrest had moved out, the police moved in. I was hauled to my feet but I was not treated roughly. The handcuffs placed on my wrists–the plastic variety–were painful, and a couple of tightening tugs made them more so. The arresting officer then placed his fingers through their central loop, making them even more painful. I told him I had no intention of absconding, as I had deliberately courted arrest; he replied he had to follow arresting procedures. Fair enough. We were then bundled into the wagon, un-seatbelted, and thus susceptible to being thrown around, forward and backwards, when the wagon braked or took corners. The driver of the wagon thankfully opened the doors when we arrived at the precinct, and assured us he had turned on the A/C, but it hadn’t worked, thus leaving us sweltering. I believe him; he sounded sincerely apologetic for any discomfort caused to us.
I had been a little nervous about the arrest because I did not want to get shoved around or slammed to the sidewalk, but none of that occurred. There was no animosity directed at the police by the protesters and the police seemed more bemused than anything else by our doings.
Second, my booking at the precinct. The central irony of the precinct–as Corey Robin and I both noted in our conversation after we had been released–is that while it is a zone of legal enforcement, it feels, and very often is, a lawless zone. You come face to face to unblinking, resolute bureaucracy, beholden to its procedures, and their utter rigidity, all the while knowing that the police can stretch and violate them with impunity. The incarcerated are always aware that they are powerless, that the police can exert all manner of power over them. You might seek redress later, but that will not, in any way, diminish the terrifying powerlessness when a policeman got in your face, or pushed you, or otherwise abused you in any other way. There is also the depressing empirical fact that the long arm of the law rarely reaches out to accost a policeman. You are at the policeman’s mercy. Questions may be treated with a blank stare or a noncommittal reply, and very little helpful clarification about procedure is offered. It is here that you most sense a figurative forcing of you to your knees. The swagger, the cockiness, the brusqueness of the cop; these are all external manifestations of the confidence they posses in their imperviousness to any forms of pleading or redressal.
Third, my time in the holding cell. This is a continuation of the previous state; you are imprisoned; it can be a terrifying feeling.. The police are taciturn and reticent; they do not offer helpful responses to questions put to them, and requests for the lessening of personal discomfort are responded to with visible reluctance; you do not get straight answers on when you may expect to be booked and released. (One Bangladeshi cop was kind enough to tell us we would be released soon; in an effort to reach out to him, I told him my father had fought in the war of liberation for his erstwhile home; he offered me a tight smile and walked away, telling me his wife was from Mumbai.) You sense the police bound by procedures of due process but you also sense that they may at any time, at their own whim, decide not to follow them. (The refusal–and then later, grudging agreement–to provide water despite our constant requests seemed one instance of this.) The irony of the co-existence of the arbitrary with the rules of law is reinforced. You draw companionship from your fellow prisoners if you can. I was lucky to be with my partners in civil disobedience; their companionship sustains you; it is far more uncomfortable to be with those who are strangers. (Note: at one point late in the afternoon, a middle-aged Cuban gentleman was brought into our cell; he had been arrested for panhandling. He claimed he had merely been asking a friend for some money. His English was not as good as his Spanish, and he seemed a little discombobulated. The police had a field day with him, cracking several jokes at his expense as he was led out and in and otherwise subjected to other procedures. I presume the police code of conduct includes no strictures on gratuitous mocking of the incarcerated.)
My imprisonment was exceedingly brief; I only suffered minimal discomfort (one of my fingers is still slightly numb). I am privileged and lucky. Many others who deal with the police and the penal system are not.
A Facebook friend of mine asked in response to my posts and photos about yesterday’s protest at the Israeli mission to the UN:
It seems as though you all knew you were going to get arrested and almost seem proud of that? Isn’t there a way to protest without being arrested?
This is a very good question. Let me attempt to answer it, building upon a response I initially wrote in the comments space of my Facebook page.
My friend is right. There are ways to protest without being arrested. I have taken many political actions, participated in many rallies and protests, all without being arrested. I have written blog posts, held up banners, shouted slogans, and marched through city streets in sub-zero temperatures. These forms of protest suffer from one disadvantage: they are often not as politically effective, or as rhetorically and substantively powerful as civil disobedience actions, which culminate in protesters getting arrested.
Consider yesterday’s action for instance. If some hundred or so protesters had shown up, shouted some slogans, all the while confined to the pen the NYPD had put up for us, and then finally dispersed, their energies dissipated, the associated political message would have all too quickly been lost. Yet, precisely because twenty-six folks were arrested and put into jail, we have had a day and perhaps more of social media buzz. Some folks already know what is happening in Gaza, yet others will learn about it for the first time. More conversations will be sparked, and perhaps some might be inspired to take action as well–of whatever form they choose.
Civil disobedience actions are thus more effective in raising political consciousness. Moreover, they are more disruptive of the social order; they send the message–to those watching, to those on their way to work–that business cannot proceed as usual. They impose costs, and thus send a message that political stances, strategies and tactics, such as the US’s support of Israel with a seemingly blank check, lead to domestic costs. Getting arrested shows you are willing to incur a cost yourself – like spending time in jail. It shows your commitment to the cause, which is an expression of solidarity for those who are far more viscerally involved in the political struggle. Getting arrested, and undergoing all the discomforts it entails, sends a message that the cause at hand is not a trivial one, that it has somehow evoked people to step forth and expend time and energy in this fashion. It is not a pleasant experience, and thus provokes the question: Why would people be willing to undergo handcuffing, being pushed around by cops, and being confined in a holding cell?
Imagine millions of American citizens doing the same thing, shutting down traffic, clogging up the jails, bringing all work to a halt. Could the US government really continue with its policies if that was the case? They could, if all they had to deal with was large, vocal rallies. (As they perhaps did at the time of the Iraq War.)
Politics, political action, and rhetoric go together. Getting arrested is a form of speech; it speaks loudly to the cause it represents. It is another arrow in the quiver of the political activist, one which if used well, can be singularly effective.