Punch a Nazi: Exploring Resistance and the Optics of Political Violence


Zoe Mansfield, Conflict Journalist, Arts and Culture Editor

In August of this year, I went to a white nationalist rally in Portland, Oregon to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of anti-fascist counter-protesters and report on both sides of the rally. It was my first time at a protest in a city with highly active far-right organizations and alt-right communities.

I have always been afraid of Nazis gaining political traction and visibility, mostly because of their unified ideological opposition to my existence as a leftist and as a queer person. Nazis, as a necessity of their ideology, have dedicated themselves to eradicating societal heterogeneity and those who promote it.

In an era of American politics where white supremacists and members of the alt-right are given equal visibility in the marketplace of ideas, the number of people who are openly in support of their politics has skyrocketed. No longer are fascists and white nationalists hidden in their basements or quarantined to the darkest parts of internet chat rooms like 8chan. They are out in full force in the streets, unashamed and loudly proclaiming exactly where their political sentiments lie. 

The question is not, at this point, whether or not punching Nazis morally correct. It instead has become a question of whether or not it is effective in removing Nazis from mainstream politics and stopping the spread of fascist, white supremacist, ideology in its tracks. Does punching Nazis strip them of their political power? Is violence more effective than peaceful resistance? 

There is a part of me that is absolutely in support of punching Nazis, of beating up Nazis whenever the opportunity arises. They want me dead, so I’m not inclined to treat them with respect, let alone acknowledge their ideology as one worthy of debate or publicity. I struggle to find an absolute answer when I ask the question “should we punch Nazis?” On one hand, I think it is a poor choice for the optics of anti-fascism since it alienates moderate, center leaning folks who are committed to establishment politics; strength lies in unified numbers when fighting the incipient force of fascism that is growing in the United States. But then I think back to what I saw at that rally and the acts of violence that have been attributed to violent white supremacists in the past. 

At the rally, there was a white supremacist in homemade riot gear — a helmet with a visor, a bulletproof vest, combat boots — the whole outfit screamed that he wanted confrontation. He had waded into a crowd of antifascists; he had been outed as an abuser. They knew his name, and were yelling at him — they knew what he had done, and to whom he had done it  — that he should be ashamed of himself. As they yelled, he stared at the ground and hunched his shoulders. At that moment, he was vulnerable. No amount of combat equipment could keep him from looking exactly like what he was — a very scared, ashamed man. Violence wasn’t necessary to take away his power — the disappointment of the community was all it took to completely remove any semblance of intimidation that he was trying to convey. 

Nonviolent opposition worked in that situation because he was vastly outnumbered. If a situation arises in which that is not the case, nonviolence may not be a safe or effective option for the person(s) who have been confronted by a Nazi or white supremacist. If you are a white straight male, then you have the privilege of choosing whether or not nonviolent no-platforming is a viable method in which to engage with a Nazi. If you are a woman, a visibly queer person, a religious minority, or a person of color, then the power dynamic in the conversation shifts dramatically. You no longer have the choice to engage in conversation as equals. Civility becomes increasingly difficult in the face of someone who refuses to acknowledge your humanity. It becomes additionally difficult to remain civil when you realize that they have a fundamental ideological objection to you being classified as a person. So, if your only option to prevent the spread of white supremacist talking points is to physically defend yourself, and you feel comfortable doing so, then that has to be a viable method of resistance.

 This hypothetical moment of resistance and self-defense exists with a grander context. You could, in theory, remove the context and attempt to simply analyze the actions of the participants. One was being verbally abusive or threatening, so the victim responded with violence. In this case, both seem to be in the wrong. But in removing the context surrounding the event, you consequently remove the moral weight of the plight of the victim, and the significance their response has in the political zeitgeist of the time. 

It is painfully easy as a straight white man to be unperturbed by the injustices that marginalized groups experience. The far-right isn’t a threat to a straight white man’s existence, and so naturally, their dedication to no-platforming Nazis is not going to be as urgent or relentless as a person who suffers directly as a result of the proliferation of white supremacy and fascism into establishment politics. 

If you are not part of a marginalized community, if you occupy a place of such privilege that no-platforming Nazis is not important to your safety and existence, then you don’t get to decide what methods of resistance are acceptable. You don’t get to have a say in that conversation. It is your job to support those that do and use your privilege to fight antifascism. If you have a moral opposition to punching Nazis, then don’t. But don’t demonize those of us that have no voice in the face of Nazis for making our own decisions on how to resist. 

To quote Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, “Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.”