By Ayman Khafagi
This is a real question that emerged from our surreal circumstances.
We have to begin by admitting that the answer is complex, and not a simple yes or no. To answer it completely, the original question needs to be broken down further.
First, with whom or with what is the fight? Are we fighting the human beings who adopt, to different degrees, nazism or is the fight with Nazism and fascism? Second, what is the magnitude of the problem, and accordingly the fight against it? Third, what is our strategy? In other words, what are the stages of the fight and what are the goals of each stage? Last, what are our guiding principles? We may agree on the principles but differ in our answers to the other questions. It is important to know where we differ: Do we differ in our assessment of reality or do we differ in our values? In the case of differences in our assessment, we can continue to dialogue and share information in hopes that our assessment will converge. However, if we have different values, while respecting continued dialogue, we should acknowledge where our differences lie and that co-organizing will be unlikely.
Valuing human life–all human life, including the lives of all scum bags–is one of my guiding principles. I believe that human beings can be reformed. But I also believe that punishment should be the last resort. Punishment itself needs to be humane, implemented in a transparent, lawful manner, and restrained.
If we value human life, we need to appreciate human complexity and avoid dehumanizing anyone even if we conclude that a human is evil. The Nazis engaging in protests, committing crimes and speaking obscenities are humans who have families and friends. Each one has a complex story. Some are there because they always lacked a sense of identity; others are there for expression of anger at what they perceive as their oppression; finally most are just straight up white supremacists. All of them, however, have families and friends some of whom are disgusted by their actions. I choose to make the culture of white supremacy, toxic masculinity and dehumanizing the other as my target and not the people. I understand that people and culture are inseparable and that there are people who are determined on propagating the toxic culture.
This takes us to the second question: How deep is this problem? It is my assessment that white supremacy is as old as the first pilgrims to the new world and is embedded in the foundation of the United States. White supremacy is one of two codependent monsters we have to fight, the other being capitalism. Each one of them has the ability to recreate the other and we cannot afford to fight one without fighting the other. Both have to be taken down simultaneously.
A problem of such depth and magnitude has to be confronted with a multi-dimensional strategy. We need to gain as many allies, we need to win hearts and minds and we need to isolate those who are perpetuating the ideology–isolate them from their friends and families. We need to form a solid front so they are swept back to the fringe of society where they belonged, and we save those who were attracted to the ideology for very different, albeit inexcusable, reasons. We need to gather the numbers, a large and critical number of people along our side. For example, if 2000 Nazi protest in a city and 2 million counter protest, we would not be talking about punching. That’s what happened in Boston. If Nazi rallies take place across the nation and that leads to an overwhelming electoral wins for progressives, Nazism will retreat automatically. Organizing to achieve these goals takes time and energy. It takes canvassing and writing. Punching, on the other hand, polarizes, alienates and diverts the conversation to social peace and stability away from social justice. In an era of strong ruling men popularity, chaos plays directly in the hands of fascists and not the other way around.
While we are organizing in the meantime, we face immediate safety concerns. When we call for a counter-protest and only 200 show up, what are we supposed to do to protect ourselves from the violence and provocation? I think we should be prepared for that scenario all the time. We should have safety and retreat plans. We should plan to meet as far away from them and as our numbers increase or decrease we follow the plans we set beforehand. We should never be caught unprepared. Some, however, believe in awareness through confrontation. I don’t think it works. Amid the chaos, people retreat to the comfort of familiar media outlets and nothing changes. If anything, the loudest voices win the debate. If you believe like I do that media is controlled by the far and center right, then allowing the loudest of voices to take the upper hand is counterproductive.
My friends who like me have been caught in street fights, who have witnessed bullets puncture organs and throats slit in real time, don’t speak of punching lightly. Any kind of violence is potentially lethal. It is a fact. I have seen the loudest people at the front lines of protests chanting to be allowed to fight to free Palestine and once bullets come showering our way, they run back stepping over women and men in their way. I also saw heroes ensuring everyone’s safety before their own when violence takes place. Some of them ended up with legs full of rubber bullets that were miraculously saved from amputation.
When we are very well organized, when law enforcement fails us beyond redemption, and when we develop consensus, that some sort of punishment is necessary for those who attack us. When we develop ethical rules for physical punishment, then we can address physical responses. No aggression should ever be executed outside the bounds of the law, the establishment law or a law to which we hold ourselves accountable. While seeking justice may inevitably lead to chaos, we have to understand that it is an undesirable effect that we should seek to contain not to cause. When the counter-revolutionary voices try to dissuade us from seeking justice because of the threat of chaos, our response should not be to make a case for the necessity of chaos. Instead we should show that we are responsible, aware of the consequences and ready to contain the undesirable results.
In conclusion, if you decide to punch a Nazi, know that you are making a unilateral decision on behalf of all of us and dragging us into a confrontation to which we did not consent. This is not a revolutionary behavior. A revolutionary does not act despite the will of the people. That’s if we are serious about creating a democracy that governs with the consent of the people. Those who called themselves revolutionaries and declared that they will continue to pursue violent change despite the will of the people ended up creating some of the worst autocracies in human kind.
Ayman Khafagi is a family medicine physician, an organizer with Ann Arbor for Revolution, and Vice-Chair of the MDP Progressive Caucus.