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Punching Nazis

Violent anti-fascism activism is resurgent, but is it productive?

The anti-fascist movement, or antifa, began in Europe in 1920s.

Jane Campbell / Shutterstock.com

Alt-Right figurehead Richard Spencer took a fist to the jaw in January. Celebratory memes of the punch swept the net before Spencer’s swelling subsided, and a month later rioters cancelled an appearance at UC Berkley by Alt-Right speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos. Both events reignited a nationwide debate over the morality and effectiveness of political violence. 

Voices from both the left and right decried the sucker punch and riots as assaults on free speech (and as plain old-fashioned assault). Others argued that fascist views are a direct threat to the existence of oppressed groups, and any violent retaliation is self-

“What are you gonna do, hug the Nazis to death?” has become a de facto response to the non-violent cry of “love trumps hate.” In turn, violent factions from both the left and right have taken to the streets to clash in the name of their ideologies. 

“It’s hard to say ‘don’t bother’ [punching Nazis]”, said a former member of Tulsa’s anti-racist group United Youth Crew (UYC), who requested anonymity. “Because these people need to know that just because their speech might be protected, there still can be repercussions. However, it seems that throwing that punch, as righteous as it feels, will do nothing more than create more hate and violence.”

The current climate of political violence and the debate surrounding it echo the late 80s epidemic of skinhead violence in Tulsa, when UYC was also active. 

During this time, groups like Tulsa Anti-Racist-Action and Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (S.H.A.R.P’s) formed to counter fascist skinhead (or “bonehead,” as they’ve also been nicknamed) groups like the Confederate Hammerskins. Bats were broken on heads, stabbings occurred, and people were hospitalized for “race mixing.”

Former Nitro Club (now the Blackbird on Pearl) owner Khaled Rahhal had his head bashed with a brick by boneheads and received 28 stitches. Many involved in the scene at the time view the firebombing of Rahhal’s club as the final punctuation mark on the era. Hate crime legislation had recently made its way to Oklahoma, and four men involved in the firebombing were convicted in ‘91. 

Dan Riffe, a Tulsa punk historian of sorts, told me most people “just grew out their hair and disappeared” after those hate crime convictions. “Of course,” Riffe said, “an article over this means something different now, compared to even a few years ago.” 

In the 1991 hate group documentary, “Blood In The Face,” a man in SS regalia told his interviewer that the U.S. economy and power structure will crumble and the extreme right will be waiting to strike. The interviewer asked him when that would be, and the man offered a guess of “25 to 30 years.” It’s been 26 years, and some see the Trump administration as a fulfillment of this grim prophecy. 

“I’ve stopped looking at political violence through a lens of morality,” said Rafael Diaz, a longtime fixture of the Pennsylvania punk scene and current community organizer. “In the face of what people face every day, whether directly from a cop’s gun, or indirectly through poverty, starvation, lack of healthcare access, etc., it’s very hard to argue that punching a Nazi is anywhere on the same level of moral repugnance.”

A current member of Tulsa’s small-but-growing Anti-Fascist (Antifa) group, who also requested anonymity, believes the moral question isn’t an easy one to answer.

“There’s a lot of historical stuff in the 80’s/90’s punk scene and during the rise of fascism in Germany that [have] parallels,” he said. “In both cases, the argument for free speech was made—they aren’t hurting anybody by just simply saying racist things. But if you ask anyone who took part in the skinhead wars [in the 80s/90s], they said the same thing as people said after fascism did its work in Germany: ‘we wish we had done something earlier.’

“So the short answer is yes, it’s acceptable to punch Nazis. The long answer is that no, it’s not okay unless all other avenues for communication and debate fail. In [Tulsa] we’ve had young Nazis come to us and say ‘I want out of this hateful life, I don’t even believe this, I was just born into it.’ Is it justice to put some teenager who grew up with a racist dad in the hospital? Hell, no. It isn’t. It’s the opposite of what we are about, politically.”

Studies show a correlation between conservative political gains and increased rioting. In the documentary “Inside The KKK,” a Missouri Klan leader cites the Ferguson riots as the driving force behind his chapter’s booming membership. Some claimed the recent Berkeley riots were precisely what Milo Yiannopoulos hoped for. In the wake of the riots, right-wing bloggers seized on the most violent actions and presented them as the “illiberal left’s” modus operandi. 

Diaz isn’t concerned over the right’s image of the left, but believes the violent Antifa and Black Bloc tactics used at Berkeley and at President Trump’s inauguration—where windows were smashed, and limos were torched—are ineffective. 

“I worry about the passive allies and the neutral folks that we could be shifting over to our side who suddenly don’t want to be because they don’t see their self-image … in the image of the radical left,” Diaz said. “And that’s not just soft, white liberals. Plenty of people of color turn off and look at you quizzically when you play a lot of that shit.” 

“The desire to purge all people of color from the USA is not a political view. It’s genocide,” said the Tulsa Antifa member. “And that’s exactly what these white nationalists are saying. Look it up for yourself and you’ll see that, don’t take my word for it.

“If are you a person of color, or gay or transgendered, and some guy is gesturing or screaming bigoted obscenities at everyone around him in a public space and you’re uncomfortable with it—or, maybe you’re a white hetero guy whose friend is uncomfortable or afraid—yes. You have every right to shut them down, to occupy a public space without your entire culture or identity being attacked. The first amendment only covers the right to say what you want without the state’s intervention in doing so.”

While the current U.S. climate of sucker punches and flaming dumpsters is a far cry from the stab wounds and bashed heads of the not-so-distant past, political violence and terrorism is on the rise globally—and here at home. With the hate crime murder of Khalid Jabara last August and the March 6 shooting of the Oklahoma Equality Center—both here in Tulsa—we may see a resurgence of antifa groups whose mission is making racists afraid again.

For more from Mitch, read his article on local comedian Michael Zampino.