Activism

Why It May Not Be the Smart Move to Punch a Neo-Nazi, No Matter How Much He Is Asking for It

Violence muddies the water between the good guys and the bad guys.

Photo Credit: J. Bicking / Shutterstock.com

Recently I posted something on Facebook about punching Nazis. It wasn't from my official page, but it was a public post, and I think a pretty important discussion ensued.

Neo-Nazis, KKK and other white supremacist groups represent cruelty and hatred, so talking about how to resist can get complicated. This is compounded by the fact that white supremacists tend to idolize militancy and violence. So I'd like to to be very clear on my position regarding punching, nonviolence and resistance.

video was posted on the New York City Republicans Facebook page that purports to capture someone hitting the car which plowed into counter-protesters at Charlottesville with a bat, before the car speeds off.

I am not here to weigh in on the validity of the video. Looks like the guy ran into a bunch of people and killed someone, from inside the safety of his car. However, content like this is what drives the feed of the people I see condemning the "alt-left" and siding with Trump's talking points that there's "hate on many sides."

What can we do about this?

When I attended my first Black Lives Matter NYC event, they handed out Martin Luther King Jr.'s Six Principles of Nonviolence. Today, I feel number four is important to remember:

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

Basically, being nonviolent when there is aggression around you transforms the debate, robbing opponents of their arguments and providing moral clarity for those on the sidelines.

Our work in transforming civil society cannot be achieved through violence. Violence discredits. Violence is segregating. Violence excuses. And my favorite Kingian principle—violence is not courageous. It should be a hard and fast rule that physicality can never serve our ends.

Will there ever be a time for violence? I believe in self defense. It can be necessary to save your life or the lives of people around you. To that end, preparing for conflict is also valuable, so that you can escape by doing and receiving the least harm possible. But conflict should never be sought. While the driver of the car may not have struck first, his decision to drive down a densely packed road full of people protesting his bigotry was not avoiding conflict.

On a larger scale, when there is a need for violence it is because we've exhausted our options. It is because we are at war. I know this may feel like war and I know we've fought wars over these issues, but we are not at war yet. Right now, we still have all the means we need to beat back evil. Perhaps they are not as exciting, but they are there:

  • Nonviolent protest: Take the rallies to them as the civil rights movement took it to Selma. Bring peace to their backyard and their own violence will tear them apart. 

  • Register voters: What is #ResistanceSummer? What are you doing? Protesting? We need #FreedomSummerII. Our greatest freedom is to choose our own government and our own destiny; it is to vote. That is why, in the summer of 1964, people died registering voters. We are back to fighting for our very freedoms, from fascism, subjugation, hatred, and fear. While you have your freedom, use it to fight for freedom.

  • Elections: You cannot tell me we are at war if you have not voted, or asked others to vote, or volunteered on a campaign. Donald Trump won by a hair's margin. Republicans spent 50 years taking over state legislatures to control redistricting.

I believe nonviolence works. But I know it’s hard to hold that ground. When the president fails to condemn neo-Nazis immediately and then presses web hosters to release the IP addresses of those visiting websites to organize against his administration, I know the sad day when I have to yield my desire for nonviolence to my principles of effectively fighting for justice and freedom is closer than I ever thought possible.

But right now, I spend my weekends traveling to states with elections to beat bigots at the ballot box (join me). It's easy, painless and effective. I will continue to practice nonviolence until evil has commandeered the levers of governance and we have failed to prevent it from setting up an illiberal state. Should that day come, rest assured, if we have to fight I'll be there.

So, as the debate over punching Nazis and appropriate forms of protests continues on the internet, please consider—violence muddies the water between the good guys and the bad guys.

Nonviolence is not cowering

When I studied Nazi Germany one of the most striking and terrifying elements of the growing fascist regime was the behavior of the Brown Shirts. The Brown Shirts, or S.A., were Nazi Party members who acted as enforcers. They were not police or agents of the government, just Nazis that the government allowed to be violent with those who disagreed with the regime.

It was horrifying to read about the fear this instilled in the general population. The daily crushing of resistance through small acts—not large ones. The chilling of free speech and cowing of a population interested in avoiding trouble and preserving daily peace. And people say nonviolence failed.

That is not nonviolence. Nonviolence is not cowering. Nonviolence is loud and it is brave in the face of violence. It relies on everyone standing up, and understanding that when they do, they cease to represent themselves but represent the values and morals of a movement.

Militant racists must be stopped at any cost and absolute pacifism against neo-Nazis is a death wish. But violence is never a good first step. So when you march, when you protest, when you register voters, when you knock on doors, do it courageously.

Ben Yee is state committeeman for New York's 66th Assembly District, and secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He is an organizer with the activist community You Matter Nation. Visit his website at benjaminyee.com and follow him on Twitter @yben.

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