Especially on the West Coast, it seems, violence-prone anarchists are notorious for hijacking peaceful demonstrations. Rarely do they organize their own demonstrations and openly call for people to fight the police or rampage through commercial districts. Instead, they hide under the cover of nonviolent marches, throw rocks and other objects to provoke the police, engage in street fighting, and then blame the police.
This pattern poses a real threat to prospects for progressive change. Witness the law-and-order campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the rise of the Right in the 1980s. How to deal with that threat is a pressing concern.
Arguing with violence-prone anarchists is a waste of time, as is the case with any other true believer. It just reinforces their beliefs. The more they argue their case, it hardens.
The most effective response was demonstrated Saturday, August 19 in Boston. When white nationalists rallied in the Boston Common, a much larger, life-affirming, non-violent demonstration countered them. Rather than dwelling on “if it bleeds, it leads” violence, the media coverage made a positive point.
Nevertheless, it’s helpful to understand the arguments of the violent anarchists, if only for those instances when one is engaged with someone who is uninformed or has an open mind. “The Rise of the Violent Left” by Peter Beinart in the September issue of The Atlantic helps provide clarity, as does a weak two-part Democracy Now program in which a proponent of the antifascist “antifa,” Mark Bray, makes a case for violence. On Democracy Now, Bray does not dispute Beinart’s reporting of the facts and offers no logical refutation of Beinart’s argument.
Bray argues that neo-fascists in the United States pose such a serious threat that anti-fascists are entitled to assume the power of the State and, by any means necessary, forcefully prevent neo-fascists from meeting or appearing in public. They want to “nip fascism in the bud.” That violence is justified, they say, because the State has no legitimacy and can justifiably be ignored or attacked.
Beinart points out the obvious contradiction. Anti-authoritarians end up being supremely authoritarian. They claim the authority to apply physical force to suppress noxious expressions of opinion so those seeds will not flower into a full-blown threat.
Bray repeatedly cites European history to justify his violence. But he neglects several points. Fascism in the United States has been suppressed without vigilante violence. Violent street-fighting here led to Nixon and Reagan. The anti-fascists in Europe, I believe, did not display a massive commitment to the kind of nonviolence shown in Boston Saturday. And the mainstream reaction to Charlottesville demonstrates that fascism is not the threat projected by Bray and the antifa — unless the anarchists provoke so much violence that the forces of repression are strengthened.
Cornel West told Democracy Now that in Charlottesville antifa defended him and 20 other antifascists, many of whom were clergy, and saved their lives. I have not seen solid reporting on that situation and suspect that he exaggerated the threat.
But even if he is correct, two facts are clear. The use of physical force to restrain violent people is justified. But that is not the antifa strategy. Antifa does not limit itself to using violence to defend against active physical threats.They affirm preventive violence.
Second, if West and his cohort had responded to any such threat with Kingian nonviolence and lost their lives, many more neo-fascists would be in jail facing long prison terms, those deaths would have strengthened the anti-fascist movement manyfold, and the “both sides” argument would have had even less credibility.
Nonviolent peace forces can help protect demonstrators. We need to develop new ways to do that absent massive demonstrations like Boston. But ultimately, the willingness to endure a physical attack or even risk one’s life is required.
Like young men in some Fight Club, the violent neo-fascists and the violent anti-fascists feed on each other. The best antidote to their madness is a massive outpouring of love.