It’s incredible the kind of sanitized version of activism Americans believed existed before the modern day. Unions and Suffragettes started fires and planted bombs. They engaged in civil disobedience and had to be ready to defend themselves against both fellow citizens and police. In the Civil Rights movement, the Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins were all violating local law, and defending themselves when brawling did break out was not unheard of. In one of the clearest through lines from violence to results, the gay rights movement didn’t start getting taken seriously until they started throwing bricks at cops.
I think Charlottesville was a good example of why people who counter-protest white supremacists ought to be prepared to fight back. The Nazis talked beforehand how they were planning on killing people, and they did, and they were recorded afterwards saying they were happy that they killed someone. Brawls broke out, with Nazis making no distinction between people who wanted to counter-protest non-violently, and the people who were ready to meet their violence. Even as Nazis fired pistols at counter-protesters, the Police did not intervene. If you’ve read up on the history of protest movements—or even look at contemporary events—you’ll see that law enforcement as a whole is largely disinterested in keeping leftists safe.
Most of the people who came out to Berkeley the other week had good intentions. Even the ones dressed in black and wearing masks. That being said, it does not appear there was provocation for some of the more jarring altercations filmed and shared through social media. 7000 people showing up to disrupt what had been a planned white supremacist rally was an effective enough counter. If a lone Nazi takes a swing at you, sometimes you have to take a black eye to control the narrative of the event. I wear my suit at political actions for such eventualities. But Berkeley wasn’t the first time I’ve had to contend with rowdy people just looking to fight or break stuff.
Back in 2003 there would always be a contingent of black bloc who would come to any protest. At a certain point they would peel away from the main group and start smashing things. This was annoying on two levels: first, it entirely undermined the nonviolent nature of our message. Two, it was entirely misdirected; trying to disrupt the process of the war using violent means could have been at least an understandable political act. Indiscriminate and omnidirectional violence, however, would dominate the headlines and derail the message the protesters were actually trying to send.
So I’ve spent the last 15 years complaining about black bloc tactics, because they’ve often seemed to me to be young people using a legitimate event as cover to start illegitimate violence. But the critical thing to remember is that leftist protest movements are not unique in this. People go to music events looking to start a fight at any provocation. There’s literally a widely used phrase, “football hooliganism,” used to describe people who go to sporting events looking for a fight. The FBI has had a long running investigation of police organizations being infiltrated by white supremacists, and plenty of cops join for the wrong reason besides. The military, Islamic religious organizations, the list goes on. They all have Those Assholes. I’m going to assert that there’s a problem with people seeking institutional cover for petty violence that transcends leftist protest movements.
Why doesn’t the left more vocally denounce such violence? Well there’s a lot of denunciations of a lot of violence that does go on. We spend a lot of time denouncing war, and the death of civilians. The major cause that the left has been rallying around the last several years has been the extrajudicial murder of unarmed black people by the police. But you know what? It’s really hard to take critiques seriously from people who spend more time wringing their hands about broken windows than dead people. And any kind of well meaning public self reflection tends to be seized upon by conservatives, taken entirely out of context, and used as a cudgel to discredit notions of social justice as a whole.
I think Americans in general need to address their culture of violence. The most tenaciously persistent trope in our cinema, particularly those directly marketed at men, is the notion that emotional catharsis and resolution only comes after a fight. People who are left in their politics are just as prone to internalizing that message as much as anyone else.