[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
Early on during the Inauguration Day alt-right event on the University of Washington campus that eventually devolved into a near-fatal melee, I looked around Red Square, and I had a bad feeling.
I wasn't just afraid that things would get ugly. I saw the guys in the red "Make America Great Again" hats -- I just took to calling them Red Caps -- were itching for a fight, smirking and leering with that privileged alt-right sneer. I saw a dead serious, angry protest crowd, intent on blocking their entry. And I could see that no matter what, the scene was going to make everything worse -- by playing right into those alt-righters' proto-fascist hands, straight out of their historic playbook.
Even though it seemed peaceful enough at the outset, when the numbers of would-be audience members for Milo Yiannopoulos' talk began lining up outside Kane Hall were roughly equal to those of the anti-fascist/anti-Milo protesters who began surrounding them and blocking their entry, it nonetheless seemed like a situation ripe for violence, since many of the protesters were coming into pretty close proximity to the alt-right Milo fans and there were plenty of verbal exchanges. Some of them even were conversations, but others were mere back-and-forth unpleasantries. There were minor physical moments, notably some of the red ballcaps getting knocked off people's heads and then swiped. And then the Black Bloc showed up, in an organized troupe, and it really did take a dark turn.
I know the Black Bloc folks love to claim that they need to wear masks with their black clothes in order to hide their identities from retaliation by neo-Nazis as well as police. Color me less than convinced, but what do I know: I've only been reporting on neo-Nazis and fascists for over 30 years with my face and my name out there, right? (I also get the feeling that a lot of them wear masks because it makes them feel badass. Whatever.) And they certainly make no bones about looking down their ideologically pure noses at normal mainstream nebbishes like myself, since we are insufficiently militant in the face of the fascist threat. Or so I've heard.
Well, the cold reality is that the masks also become a license for acting out violently, indulging in behavior they'd never consider if there were a chance their identities would be known. Obviously, that includes assaulting journalists, even those there on assignment to monitor the situation for the SPLC, as I was. On three separate occasions I was assaulted by a Black Bloc person who knocked the phone I was recording the event with (on a selfie stick) out of my hand.
Indeed, it seemed to include assaulting anyone they damned well pleased. And that was where the whole thing turned dark. What had been a fair and peaceful (if pointedly uncomfortable for the alt-righters) exercise in free speech by the anti-fascists, socialists and leftists who first comprised the protest crowd suddenly became an exercise in mutual menacing.
Of course, I understood why they were whacking me -- because they wanted to protect their identities from further reprisals afterwards (even though every one of them wore a mask as well), and they in fact coach each other in knocking down cameras as an identity-protection measure. I don't think a single one of them thought about the bizarre totalitarianism of their actions -- their attempts to control the information from a mass public event, attempts that (like similar corporate or law-enforcement attempts at controlling information) eventually prove futile, especially in an age when everyone has a cell phone with their video cameras rolling at events like this. It eventually just becomes a choice to be an asshole to a select few.
Sure enough, eventually the brutality became physical: One young Trump supporter made the mistake of getting too close into the faces of a phalanx of masked Black Bloc folks and wound up getting smacked in the mouth and hit with a bulb full of blue paint that covered half his face. His red-capped buddies patted him on the back and hugged him; one of them took his picture, exclaiming: "You're red, white and blue!"
The Red Caps, meanwhile, were frustrated that they couldn't get in to see Milo, and their frustration boiled over. It began to reach a peak when one of the smirking alt-righters pulled out a Pepe banner -- which, for anyone at all social-media savvy, is well understood now to be the rough equivalent of pulling out a swastika flag. Certainly cheering the Milo fans, who then chanted "Pepe! Pepe! Pepe!" knew it. And that was about the time things began to get ugly.
More of the Red Caps and their friends began shoving their protesters, and several minor tussles began breaking out. There was a group of dedicated peacekeepers who had been intervening with the crowd's interactions all night (most of them wearing bike helmets and backpacks to protect themselves) and they intervened in several of these brewing melees.
One of these was a 34-year-old computer programmer named Josh Dukes, who is a big, imposing man with a noticeable anti-fascist tattoo, and his interference was notably effective in dealing with some of the more violently inclined alt-righters, who were tussling right next to me when he stepped in, as you can see in the video above. I'd been observing Dukes throughout the event as well, and he had only been intervening peacefully in every situation.
At that particular moment, I was whacked from behind by a young woman in a masked black outfit who sneaked away through the crowd while I searched for my camera/phone, even as the melee began to spread and I heard more shouting, and then a muffled bang. By the time I had collected my gear, people were clearing away and Josh Dukes lay on the ground, critically wounded. (Dukes survived, but just barely; he suffered a .22 wound to his vital organs and has undergone multiple surgeries since. He remains in serious condition.)
The man who shot him was someone else I'd been observing all evening (you can see him throughout my video, wearing a black leather jacket and a maroon hoodie). I took note of him early because the Red Cap crowd was noticeably white, and this man was the exception -- he was of Asian extraction. (People who study the alt-right do not find this unusual, FWIW, since the movement's authoritarian appeal can cross ethnic, racial and gender boundaries.) Just before the shooting, he had donned a yellow ballcap (he's among the people chanting "Pepe!" in the video), and somehow ended up in the middle of the melee that erupted next to me. We still don't know how and why he shot Josh Dukes, but that's what court hearings are for.
Milo, as I reported, attempted to claim in his speech inside the hall that the roles were reversed -- that it had been one of his alt-right fans who had been shot by an antifascist. Breitbart News and the Daily Caller both reported the same. The Daily Caller wound up writing a story that corrected the facts but, notably, did not explain that it was a correction of the site's previous reportage. Breitbart, meanwhile, not only never bothered to correct its reportage, it instead (without a hint of irony) accused the UW president of changing her story about the event, and left the shooting utterly unmentioned in its subsequent reportage.
Both sides blamed the other for the violence, though it seemed the Red Caps were unhappy and freaked out merely by the presence of protesters peacefully asserting their own free-speech rights -- which, in their worldview, constitutes an assault on their free speech. Certainly the Black Bloc escalated the tension into violence, but in the end, there also was little question about who showed themselves willing to resort to lethal force: the pro-Trump contingent.
That was underscored a few days later when the College Republicans at the University of Washington -- the sponsors of the event and the people who had invited Yiannoupoulos and thus held ultimate responsibility for his presence on the UW campus -- issued a public statement that made no mention of the shooting victim or concern for his well-being or recovery, but instead warned the anti-fascists that "it's time your flame is put out. If you keep prodding the right you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome will be."
Simultaneously, we're now being subjected to a hysterical propaganda campaign from the right attacking the mainstream marches against Trump as being the products of a nefarious "leftist" scheme to wreak violent havoc, using the Milo protest at UW, and the subsequent violent protests in Berkeley a few nights later when he tried to speak there, as their primary examples. Republicans are now associating these scenes with the outspoken town halls that people like Jason Chaffetz are currently enduring, saying they now fear for their safety, even though the town-hall scenes have been in reality only about as raucous as your average Tea Party protest at the health-care town halls in 2009.
Not exactly advancing the debate has been the viral video of alt-right/white nationalist leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face, which became the topic of conversation about the same time as the protests, and over which many nominally peace-loving liberals indulged their inner authoritarians and openly approved of the violence. "It's OK to punch Nazis" is the essence of their logic.
OK, I will be among the first to admit that Richard Spencer has an eminently punchable face. More than a few times, when I have been sifting through and editing videos featuring his smug, dead-eyed smirk, I've had to resist the impulse to reach through the screen and just slap that shit off his face. So, yes, there was something viscerally satisfying to seeing him punched. But I also winced.
I winced, first, because I'm human, and acknowledge it or not, so is Richard Spencer, and I happen to still feel enough natural empathy that I respond viscerally and strongly to other people's pain and suffering. Even people I know have it coming. That's one of the main things that separates me from people like Richard Spencer.
I also was chagrined, however, because I have a deep enough familiarity with the history of fascist movements to recognize that the Left, as represented by the guy punching Spencer, is simply playing right into their hands.
This is the fascist playbook: Provoke violence by your enemies, the kind that creates scenes of fascist victimhood and left-wing brutality; then, through deft manipulation of popular sentiments through propaganda and media, use it as an excuse for (a) consolidating power, and (b) wildly overreactive, exterminationist violence, often backed up by state police and even military force.
Recall, if you will, that this was a strategem used by both the German Nazis and the Italian Brownshirts, embodied in the Nazi anthem, the "Horst Wessel Lied," and dozens of propaganda posters depicting Brownshirt martyrs:
In the final years of the Weimar Republic, Germany was mired in a grave political and economic crisis that left the society verging on civil war. Street violence by paramilitary organizations on the Left and the Right increased sharply. In the final ten days of the July 1932 parliamentary elections, Prussian authorities reported three hundred acts of politically motivated violence that left twenty-four people dead and almost three hundred injured. In the Nazi campaigns, propaganda and terror were closely linked. In Berlin, Nazi Party leader Joseph Goebbels intentionally provoked Communist and Social Democratic actions by marching SA [Brownshirt] storm troopers into working-class neighborhoods where those parties had strongholds. Then he invoked the heroism of the Nazi "martyrs" who were injured or killed in these battles to garner greater public attention. Nazi newspapers, photographs, films, and later paintings dramatized the exploits of these fighters. The "Horst Wessel Song," bearing the name of the twenty-three-year-old storm trooper and protege of Goebbels who was killed in 1930, became the Nazi hymn.
The well-publicized image of the SA-man with a bandaged head, a stirring reminder of his combat against the "Marxists" (along with other portrayals of muscular, oversized storm troopers), became standard in party propaganda. In the first eight months of 1932, the Nazis claimed that seventy "martyrs" had fallen in battle against the enemy. Such heroic depictions -- set against the grim realities of chronic unemployment and underemployment for young people during the Weimar period -- no doubt helped increase membership in the SA units, which expanded in Berlin from 450 men in 1926 to some 32,000 by January 1933. (State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, U.S. Holocaust Historical Museum, 2009)
This was a refinement of sorts of an old tactic mastered by American Southerners in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when they managed to turn any effort to contain their own implacable racial violence and the war of terrorism waged by whites against freed slaves and Northerners who came South to assist them into an egregious attack on their sullied honor. A man whipped to near-death by the Klan could become, in their rhetorical up-is-down world, a villainous lowlife injuriously accusing an upstanding white citizen, the act of which became the greater sin.
Precisely such a scenario gave birth to one of the hoariest of American political cliches, "waving the bloody shirt." The phrase originated with the case of a white schoolteacher who was whipped within an inch of his life by Klansmen for having dared to teach black children to read; the incident became nationally notorious, leading prominent liberal senators to demand action from Congress. One of these was (falsely) accused of waving the teacher's tattered, bloodstained shirt on the floor of the Senate, lending itself to the phrase. The phrase then became a stock retort among Southerners whenever accused of waging acts of violence against black people and others, a dismissive sneer that couldn't have been better propagated by Fox News.
The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it. The mere suggestion that a partisan motive was behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage. (Thomas Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terrorist Violence After Appomatox)
In other words, this is a tactic that is already deeply embedded within American conservatism -- every right-wing pundit from Bill O'Reilly to Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh has trotted out a version of it in the past eight years or more. The right's persecution complex is one of its most enduring and overpowering traits.
And now Donald Trump is tapping into this projection-fueled trait on behalf of his far-right populist and nationalist agenda. So it's very clear how this is going to play out -- especially with a compliant media always eager to provide "balance" to their reportage: Any kind of violence, even defensive or responsive, from Trump's opponents is going to be used as an excuse to escalate, ad infinitum.
This is why I had a bad feeling on the night of Inauguration Day, watching the scene unfold in Red Square, observing the antifascists playing into the alt-right's game, culminating in seeing someone get shot. It was straight from the historic fascist playbook.
And it doesn't have to be this way.
I'll be honest, even though the SPLC's official position is to discourage protests at far-right events (because too often bad shit happens ... as manifested that night in Red Square), I have to confess that I was glad there were people out there standing up to them, letting them know that a hatemongering voice like Milo's is considered toxic in our community, voicing their unflinching disapproval. Too often these smirking little alt-righters like to tell themselves that they represent the real community, and it is good -- no, essential -- to remind them that they most decidedly do not.
But there was an essential element, an important part of our community, a reminder of the empathetic values we stand for, missing:
Humor. Mockery. Laughter.
When confronting fascism -- or, in the case of the alt-right, proto-fascism, which differs from the full-bloomed phenomenon on insofar as it is not yet wantonly killing people, nor does it hold dictatorial police-state powers -- in the face, it's really essential to comprehend the nature of this most foul of political beasts.
Fascists, you need to understand, are the ultimate psychic vampires: They feed off hate. They want to stoke it as much as possible. They're like the monster in the bad sci-fi movie that just gets more powerful and voracious the more it gets zapped with the laser cannons. They want things to become as violent as possible. They love it when you become violent, and give them martyrs, like the young man with with blue paint on his face. That's all the excuse they need to step things out. To get out the .22s. And after that, it just keeps ratcheting upward, with more and more violence.
If you think that the Left is going to win in that scenario, you have another think coming. We've already seen that most liberals underestimate these proto-fascist right-wing populists who now control our government. Do not underestimate the ease with which we can reach a fully authoritarian state, especially now that we have seen nearly half the nation embrace an open authoritarian leader as president. If we continue down this track, and continue to give them the violence they crave, we will see the worst nightmare imaginable coming at us.
We have to stop feeding them, and yet we also must let them know we stand against them. The only solution is a serious dedication to nonviolent action. But the general shape that such action takes is also so passive that it creates a vacuum into which swoops the Black Bloc element that clearly is doing more to help the fascists than they are to harm them.
If you want to see an example of how to do this right, look back to Olympia, Wash., on July 2, 2005, when a clutch of flag-waving fascists announced their intentions to recruit openly in the Northwest, as well as their hopes of sparking a "race war" in America:
The neo-Nazis in question -- the Northwest chapter of the National Socialist Movement, whose activities regionally we've reported previously (you may also recall they were the group that designated me a "race traitor") -- were not exactly threatening. For that matter, they were completely unimpressive in nearly every regard: disorganized, lackluster speakers with nothing interesting to say, and physically unimposing. Even their new brownshirt outfits came off more like insipid geek fantasy role-playing.
The speakers -- like Nigel Fovargue, the Los Angeles Nazi whose image graces the top of the post, or Shawn Stewart, a skinny Iraq War veteran from Billings, Montana -- really had little to say, other than spewing racial invective: "There's a little cockroach that has crawled into every nation and they have been kicked out everywhere. Who am I talking about? The Jew. The Jew hates you all," Stewart said.
This meant they all ran out of steam after about ten minutes; by 2:30 p.m., a half-hour into the rally, they all began talking among themselves about who would speak next. After awhile the speakers began returning to the podium to rant a little longer.
In stark contrast, the crowd in Olympia was largely good-natured -- their main purpose was to mock and laugh at the Nazis. Following up on the previous day's community gathering that celebrated the city's diversity, the crowd of protesters that showed up was intent on making a positive response to the Nazi presence.
Especially noteworthy was the troupe of protesters dressed as clowns -- Nazi clowns, who actually goosestepped together better than the inchoate cluster up on the Capitol steps. They pranced and laughed and danced in the front of the crowd, setting the light-hearted mocking tone that prevailed throughout the afternoon.
The idea for this was hatched by local organizers, including Rick at Olyblog, who approached me last January with the idea, and which sounded at the time like an excellent response I endorsed.
Mind you, this runs directly counter to the advice given by my friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, who consistently urge people to stay away and defang the Nazi rallies by denying them an audience.
Having covered Aryan Nations events in Coeur d'Alene, I can attest that this is generally good advice. Though community organizers in northern Idaho would often hold counter-rallies elsewhere as an alternative celebration (to good effect, I might add), nonetheless, the parade routes there would still be lined with counter-protesters who just turned ugly, spewing hate right back at the Nazis; this always seemed to me to be counter-productive, a matter of feeding the beast. The Nazis always took sustenance from it.
The response in Olympia, however, was one of the most effective I've seen yet. For one thing, by making mockery the theme of the day, it transformed the mood of the crowd from an angry one -- and who wouldn't get angry if they actually listened to what these Nazis were saying? -- into a celebratory one. They played music, they danced, and made so much noise having fun that, if you were in the crowd, you couldn't hear a word the Nazis were spewing.
It also seemed to disorient and dishearten the Nazis. Of course, they recognized that their entire audience that day was constituted of people who opposed them -- and it was clear from their taunts ("The only reason we are able to be up here today is because you people don't have the guts to do what it takes to silence us," Gary Nemeth told the crowd) that they hoped to spark violence from them, a la Toledo. But after awhile it became clear that their audience was, for the most part, studiously ignoring anything they had to say, and was more intent on dancing and playing music than taking after their sorry asses. And this clearly deflated them.
Finally, it provided an opportunity for the various diversity-oriented interest groups drawn out by the Nazis to get together, network, and actually form working coalitions that likely will prove effective in organizing the Olympia community against the lapping waves of right-wing extremism.
I look back on that rally with extreme fondness. Not only was it the most striking defeat I've ever seen dealt to neo-Nazis, it was also one of the most empowering events for the participants I've ever witnessed. People were laughing and smiling and positively glowing as they left the place. Because they knew they had accomplished something that day beyond just hurling empty epithets. I vowed never to forget that lesson.
Let's not punch Nazis, people. That's playing into their hands.
Let's mock them instead. Laugh at them. Make fun of them. Nothing makes their little penises shrivel right up like abject humiliation. Nothing gets their quivering little insecurities flaring into an inchoate roar that reveals their inner Psychopathic Asshole Who Scares the Fuck Out of Everybody like being the object of well-earned derisive guffaws. Just think of how Alec Baldwin's SNL portrayals send Lord Cheetomort into paroxysms of unrequited wrath.
I'm not an organizer. But I have seen what works. If someone would be kind enough to tip off those organizers, that would be awesome.
It sure would be great to see Milo confronted by a clown brigade, and Jason Chaffetz confronted by audiences wearing Groucho masks who mass mooned him.
That would make the news too. And get everybody -- except their victims -- laughing. At this stage of things, that is truly the best possible national medicine. Especially when it's at them.