There’s this thing people have about violence, people who say violence is never the answer. They say it with such conviction, and yet, it’s so clearly not really right. I admit it would be fantastic if we lived in a society where violence or its threat would never be needed. That would be great. The Wild West would have been totally different in that world. World War II would never have been necessary. A lot of Native American families would still be in existence if we lived in that world.
Another thing that would be great about living in that world is that you would never have to make any hard calls on the ethics of cause and effect. Knowing who was “at fault” in any interaction would be totally simple. I mean, if you came into a room to find your kids tussling, and both of them were whining that the other kid started it, you would just look for the one with the bloody nose and know the other one was responsible.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
We live in a world where events slide into each other over long distances of time, where those collisions create a huge ocean of cause and effect, and where violence can and often does settles things—at least for a while. Of course, that violence doesn’t always wind up working the way you think it will when you use it. Martin Luther King’s approach with the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, for example, found ways to use an opponent’s violence to expose fault in Bull Connor’s position. In Dr. King’s case, he lost the days—Connor and his cops turned the hoses and dogs on the protestors, and arrested thousands. But the violence King’s plans incited resulted in change. In the end, the Bull Connor started the violence,” but MLK and his council started the conflict…except, of course, the plan was a reaction to the violence made over years of the US not actually living up to its Constitution and to people like Bull Conner being in charge, so Bull Connor started it…or you can follow the chain of events back as far as you want.
In the end, though, non-violent tactic or not, the Dr. King’s Crusaders were on the “right” side even if you want to blame him for creating the violence he triggered in Connor. It’s all very complex, you see? Violence is not where things begin.
At the end of the day, though the use of non-violence is helpful in these moments, though, because it makes it much easier to see who was in the wrong and who was in the right.
But Dr. King’s approach was not the only approach on the table. There were violent people on his side, too—call them Malcom X followers for simple white-guy shorthand (I am, of course, a simple white guy, so this works for me). They were people were ready to claim their rights “by any means necessary,” and whose presence scared the average citizen. Their approach was less successful in getting the result they wanted, and it drew unwanted attention from law enforcement, especially since law enforcement was the direct representative of a government that was, to them, the oppressor. But they wanted the same thing that Dr. King wanted. Their approach was different, but they were incited by the same oppressors and had the same goals. Both of them were on the “right” side of a hundred year old argument. One approach defended himself, the other did not, but both were on the right side of the fundamental argument that was going on across the nation at that time.
While Dr. King’s non-violent approach was more effective in driving change in the 1960s, I don’t blame “the violent left” for lashing out while being on the receiving end of a systemic history of aggression that set everything on a hairline trigger, and then became incited by whatever single fateful moment happens. There is no carte blanche, of course, every situation has to be looked at properly. But violence against power that’s there to dehumanize has an inner logic to it that I can “support” in the right times. I understand that violence. Just as I understand the violence, or at least the preparation for such, of groups who rise up to meet members of the Ku Klux Klan and other Heil-Trumping Nazis who were advocating ethnic cleansing of the country this past weekend.
I wish that such preparation wasn’t so necessary. Of course I do.
I wish that the demonstrators who came “to protect the Robert E. Lee” monument had actually gathered peacefully and chanted “Save Robert E. Lee!” rather than carrying torches and chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “White Lives Matter!” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” I wish they had not driven home their KKK ideology and had not flown the flag and used the words of a race-based ideology that exterminated 6 million people of Jewish descent and started a six-year World War that took millions and millions of soldiers and civilian lives and affected nearly every person on the planet. That would have been great. I wish these protesters did not actually believe that only white people deserved to be in this country and that their group’s openly stated purpose wasn’t to aggressively reclaim the country for the white male. I wish they had not brought a militia. I wish they had actually gone to Charlottesville and been orderly, and they would have gathered around the monument and had their speeches and chanted “Robert E. Lee is the Guy for Me!” or whatever.
Alas, that was not to be. Nary a “Save Lee” chant is to be heard on any tape I’ve seen or is included in any conversation from a KKK/White Nationalist I’ve seen or heard any comment about the monument. Go figure.
And I wish it weren’t predictable that a Nazi would kill someone. I wish that leaders and planners of the event hadn’t expected people would be killed and that they weren’t fine with that. I wish that the history of these Alt-Right demonstrations did not have a very long trail of bloodshed. I wish the organizers of the event would express immediate sorrow and remorse for the loss of a life, and the injuring of so many others.
Yes, I wish all of that.
And I wish that all sane people—white, black, white, right, white, left, Asian, moderate, white, agnostic, white, Christian, black, Jewish, white, Hindu, and what-the-hell-ever—would immediately side against this collective ideology that is foreign to American views of equality for all, banding together to say “we’re not falling for your free speech crap…we may not know or agree on much, but we know evil when we see it and we’ve got family buried in France and Germany and all across the Pacific because of you assholes…” I wish this would happen because there is this higher good that needs to be maintained in this country, and because if that aggressive alignment of all American people of all types were to happen there would be a much smaller chance of counter-violence from an anti-protest group to ever be necessary.
But that’s not the world we live in.
We live in world where when real fascists rise up—I mean, real live flag-carrying, “Blood and Soil,” “Get out of my country, we are the master race,” Nazis—it is fair that people defending the ideas of equality for all are allowed to, and be expected to, come to a counter-protest prepared to defend themselves.
We live in a world where “Blood and Soil” in the form it was used is not the free speech of ideological sharing. In our world, “Blood and Soil” chanted as it was is a threat. Last I saw no one was arresting a KKK folks for saying anything, anyway, so this isn’t about free speech. in this situation, the reaction to “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” was not about free speech. In this situation, this kind of behavior is about intimidation, and that is what the reaction is about. The open display of the expectation of the use of force is group bullying at its worst. The alternative for the counter-protester in these situations is to suffer the fate of Martin Luther King’s people, to take your beating as a defenseless person, or allow yourself to be run over by a car. That kind of response takes an amazing amount of fortitude and courage that should be honored and admired when it exists, but never required in order to prove one’s fundamental position is correct.
So, of course whenever Nazis demonstrate there will be people on the counter-protest side who are ready for violence. Violence is not preferred. It is not acceptable as a first reaction. But violence will always be on the table as a tool against this kind of overt display of intimidation. This game started decades ago, after all. Therefore, violence should always be expected from these confrontations. It was almost guaranteed to happen, and in my opinion it was guaranteed to happen somewhere from the minute Donald Trump won the election. The only question was where.
Given this guarantee, trying to figure out who threw the first punch is missing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter. In this situation, in this fight, the first punches were thrown a lot of years ago, so trying to decide who is at fault based on the existence of violence is a false shell game.
In other words, I don’t need to see whose nose is bleeding in this situation to know that Nazis are wrong.
There is no wiggle room when it comes to Nazi/KKK/Alt-Right demonstrations. If a Nazi group wants to protest the removal of a monument, fine. If they want to chant “I loved Robert E. Lee,” great. But the moment “Blood and Soil” gets spun up and the Nazi regalia gets to flying, the game changes and the leash gets really short. The Nazi/KKK/Alt-Right ideology is counter to the very idea of what America is.
If you stand in a group as they chant about ethnic cleansing, you are part of their group. You are also wrong, and not a “very fine person.”
If you defend Nazis in this situation, you are wrong.
If Nazis are chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” and you say they might have a point somewhere in there, you are wrong.
Which brings me to the cartoon villain that is our duly elected president, a guy who is a mixture of Lex Luthor, Archie Bunker, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. He may not be a card-carrying Nazi, but he is the chief enabler, an obvious sympathizer, and an embarrassment to any society that considers itself civilized. Watching him operate on a daily basis is like splashing down in the middle of a Philip K. Dick novel written when the guy was on his “Full-Blown Drugged-Out Paranoia” mode.
Trump is wrong. He is the wrong person for this job. That fact has been evident for some time, but is now impossible to miss.
The only real questions that remain are how long congress will stand beside a Nazi sympathizer as he chants his “Many Sides” chant, or whether we will still have an America that we can recognize by the time it falls to the people and the ballot box to do what must be done.