To defeat neo-Nazis, Americans need to revisit their own history of political protest

Americans overlook the uses of violence, and how it can defeat extremism.
Americans overlook the uses of violence, and how it can defeat extremism.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
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Nary a day goes by in the American news cycle without coverage of some sort of Donald Trump-related protest. From the Women’s March to his Muslim ban, from the March for Science to the ongoing protests over the ending of the DACA program, there are a lot of angry people in the streets.

And, indeed, some of these angry people have turned to violence. We saw it in Charlottesville, when a neo-Nazi, part of the “Unite the Right” rally, ran over counter protesters in his car, killing one. We saw it in Berkeley, when several Antifa protesters beat and pepper sprayed members of a far-right rally.

But while Trump is correct about violence “on many sides,” the similarities between neo-Nazis and members of Antifa should start and end there. Any further attempt to equate the sides is the byproduct of a series of popular misconceptions about American history. Most of us learned the wrong lessons when it comes to violent protest.

Specifically: an oversimplification of American history has papered over the fact that violence has played an integral, if ugly, part in many of the civic progress victories we celebrate as a country. It is that oversimplification–that progress is always made without violence, and that non-violence is both morally and tactically superior–that has managed to reach the absurd conclusion that Nazis and a subset of those protesting them, Antifa, are somehow of equal moral standing.

The oversimplification of political violence takes two forms: an inability to measure the danger and magnitude of violence, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the frequent failures of non-violent protest where violence succeeds.

We’ll start with the former: the inability to measure.

Quite simply, violence is not a binary. An action is neither “violent” (bad!) nor “non-violent” (good!). No one would seriously argue, for example, that punching someone or pepper spraying them is more violent or worse than running them over, or shooting at them. Indeed, our own justice system recognizes this: there are steeper penalties for murder and attempted murder than there are for assault. Yet it is Antifa that has engaged in the “lesser” forms of violence, and white supremacists that have engaged in the greater ones.

As my editorial colleagues at The Atlantic point out, the body count and danger posed by white supremacists is orders of magnitude larger than the body count and danger posed by Antifa. When it comes to terrorist attacks and mass killings, it is the far right that’s running up the scoreboard. The asymmetry becomes further imbalanced if one adds, for example, thousands of lynchings domestically and the Holocaust’s murder of millions to the white supremacist tally. It’s a credible enough threat that when men like Christopher Cantwell outright state their goal is the extermination of non-whites, the violence of some Antifa protesters could be characterized as self-defense. At the very least, putting neo-Nazis and Antifa on the same moral plane is the very definition of false equivalency.

Yet while Antifa vs. Nazis might make for intriguing headlines, it’s only the latest example of the second oversimplification: that non-violent protest is inherently superior to violent protest. It’s not.

I don’t mean that in a moral sense; like many, I would prefer our progress bloodless. I mean it in a tactical sense: non-violent protest doesn’t work nearly as well as we’re taught in school or in popular culture, and violence is by no means a disqualifying factor in one’s movement. It’s a disquieting thing to realize, yet it’s borne out in American history.

Let’s start with the Vietnam War. By the time Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the war was rather unpopular (52% opposing vs. 39% favoring, as measured by Gallup at the time.) As the war dragged on and the US escalated its Cambodian campaign, further protests broke out, including those at Kent State in Ohio.

The protest turned violent, culminating in National Guardsmen opening fire on protesters, killing four students and wounding several others. Two of the dead weren’t even at the protest, merely walking to their next class through the line of fire.

I was taught in school–as were my peers–that Four Dead in Ohio mattered, turning public opinion against the war. It’s not true. The massacre happened in May of 1970. Yet, per Gallup’s polling, perception of the Vietnam War hardly changed at all. The opinion in April 1970: 51-34 against, a 17-point difference. The opinion in late May 1970, weeks after Kent State? 56-36 against, a 20-point difference. Even if this swing can be credited to the shootings, it’s a three-point swing at the expense of four young lives, hardly an impactful event.

How is this possible? It turns out an overwhelming majority of Americans blamed these unarmed Americans for their own deaths. A Gallup poll at the time found that a mere 11% of Americans blamed the perpetrators of the assault, and that 58% blamed the victims. Indeed, the victims were posthumously vilified, as detailed in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. A popular chant at the time: “The Kent State Four! Should have studied more!”

The Kent State Massacre is a shameful chapter in American history, but not for the reasons we’re typically taught. Rather than showing that Americans are moved in the face of “disqualifying” violence, it shows precisely the opposite: that we are capable of overlooking violence–especially that perpetrated by the state–if the victims have the “wrong” set of political beliefs.

If violence isn’t disqualifying, is non-violence empowering? For that answer, one need look no further than Martin Luther King as he’s taught and remembered today–a peaceful man who was embraced by all but a few racists, and murdered by a man who didn’t represent what America stood for. Of course, that entirely ignores that the FBI itself sent a letter to King urging him to kill himself. Or that King’s favorability ratings were upside down during the civil rights movement, with a majority of Americans viewing him unfavorably; he only became popular posthumously. Non-violent protest, such as lunch counter sit-ins, may be lauded today, but at the time they were just as unpopular, as (for example) the peaceful protests of Colin Kaepernick and several other NFL players. For all his practiced non-violence, MLK was tremendously unpopular in his day, and arguably less popular at the time than Governor George Wallace, one of the villains in our sanitized civil rights history.

Thus, we have examples of the state committing violence against its own citizens to no ill effect, and of peaceful protest being vilified in the public eye. How does violent protest on the part of citizens play?

There, we can look at the Stonewall Riots. In this case, another marginalized group–members of the LGBTQ community–pushed back against repeated police abuses, in, well…a riot. Beer bottles, bricks, coins, and so on were thrown at police, an act that’d be almost unheard of given today’s heavily militarized police. Yet rather than this violence dooming the LGBTQ community to further discrimination, it galvanized the movement. Numerous gay-aligned organizations, inspired by a violent response to years of discrimination, either formed outright or saw their existing ranks swell. The Stonewall Riots were absolutely on the critical path toward greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

None of these cases are absolute: sometimes non-violent protest is tactically superior to violent protest, and sometimes both forms of protest are doomed to failure. But these examples fly in the face of the oft-heard declarations following violence and tragedy: “This is not who we are,” and its cousin, “We are better than this.”

These statements are more aspirational than reflective of reality. The reality is that Americans prove more than willing to accept violence perpetrated against people they don’t like, and that the violence will be papered over by the survivors thereafter.

To be sure, violence causes discomfort to a society taught to believe in the superiority of non-violent resistance, but it’s demonstrably not a tactical error in many cases. In the pantheon of tactics one can use to push back against a dangerous uptick in white supremacy, it’s certainly more effective, than, say…sitting at home and eating a sheetcake.

Should white supremacists not win, as Joe Biden terms it, a “battle for the soul of this nation,” history will likely remember violent protest as both a necessary part of the variety of tactics that defeated these neo-Nazis. If history repeats, the very same people condemning the violence today will, as they did in WWII, claim it as necessary all along.