There is No Right to Aggressive Violence

We’re living in a dangerous time when confronting opinion with violence (not as metaphor or virtual play, but as actual physical action) is encouraged and celebrated. The advocacy of aggressive violence, albeit generally protected expression, increases the risk of more violence, including government suppression of assembly and speech. Those who respond to opinion with violence are in part responsible for pushing the nation towards the authoritarian path. Those calling for the suppression of speech and assembly are making a whip for their own backs. Those who believe in keeping an open and democratic society must therefore remind others of the morality and practical value and strategic use of violence and, by extension, nonviolence (see Martin Luther King, Jr. for the arguments concerning the use of nonviolence in political action; this essay focuses on the use and ethics of violence).

Violence may be an end or a means to an end. For those who like to fight, injure, kill, maim, and rape, it is an end, an expression of frustration or hatred or power, or a type of thrill. Committing acts of violence make some people happy, give them joyful memories, bragging rights, and trophies. In these instances, one may conceptualize violence as a means to such ends. The line is a bit blurry. However, this type of violence is rarely justifiable (except, perhaps, in sport, where both parties agree to combat). As a clear means to an end, violence can be right or wrong depending on the ends its users seek and how they use it. Violence used to obtain things that others genuinely need cannot be justified. Violence used to maintain the conditions of exploitation or oppression cannot be justified. Violence used to eliminate, punish, or silence others for their associations, beliefs, expressions, or lineages, on these grounds alone, cannot be justified.

There are three conditions that justify violence: (1) self-defense; (2) protection of targets of unjust violence; and (3) the overthrow of exploitative or oppressive conditions.

If you are attacked, you have the right to use force sufficient to end the attack and save yourself – after exhausting reasonable options (such as your duty to retreat). You are defending your right to life and health, which are essential to the freedom you have an inalienable right to. If a child is threatened with bodily harm, you have the right to use force to negate that threat for the same reason. If you are being oppressed, you have the right to overthrow your oppressor, again for the same reason. Slave revolts, for example, although illegal, are morally justified. The violent overthrow of capitalism is also morally justified—after all other avenues of obtaining liberation have been exhausted. The overthrow of tyranny is defense of freedom. All of these forms of violence are defensive acts.

The moral and practical uses of defensive violence have an associated ethics. Even when justified, violence must be used in proportion to the magnitude of the threat. You have the right to repel a threat. You do not have the right to pursue an attacker who is retreating. You do not have the right to engage in excessive violence in repelling a threat. You do not have the right to kill the deposed leaders of the toppled government. You do not have a right to be cruel or moved by malice or revenge. You cannot torture to save lives. Justifiable violence must be a rational exercise. To the extent that persons were using violence in self-defense or to protect others who were under assault in Charlottesville, violence exhibited on August 13, 2017 may be justified. However, much of the violence witnessed and documented was not. 

There are clear examples of white nationalists using wrongful violence in Charlottesville. Indeed, aggressive violence by white nationalists constitute the worse offenses that occurred in Virginia. The beating of Deandre Harris in a parking garage by white supremacists was a horrific display of racial hatred – and slow to get media attention. The murder of Heather Heyer and the maiming of scores of other persons by a white supremacist James Alex Fields, using his car as a weapon, appeared to be motivated by hate and politics. If so, this was an act of domestic terrorism. Fields has been charged with counts of second degree murder, malicious wounding, and hit and run with attendant failure to stop with injury. The US Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation. The US Attorney General has characterized Fields’ actions as terrorism.

The aggressive violence used by antifascists to silence white nationalism was unjustified. It is never appropriate to use violence against persons exercising their right to express an opinion, whatever that opinion it is, in whatever non-violent manner that opinion is expressed. Violence in these instances is a means to illiberal ends: the suppression of the rights to speech and assembly. Government’s duty is protect these rights. The fact that a person expresses hatred towards other people is not physical aggression. Expressing an opinion does not physically harm a person or others, nor does it represent an actual moment of oppression or tyranny. Ideas and words are not violence in themselves.

The potential for white nationalist violence is a perennial problem and there are indications that it is increasing. The government must act decisively to quell this threat through surveillance, education, and policing where violence occurs. Control over weapons is key to reducing the risk of death and injury. We already have models to deal with the potential for white nationalist violence (e.g. the tactics used to deal with the problem of Islamism). 

However, wrongful violence committed by anti-fascists is a growing problem, as well, and the state has a duty to protect people from this form of aggressive violence. Education is an important step in reducing the problem of anti-fascist violence (for example, emphasizing the morality of violence and the ethics surrounding its use). In the meantime, a larger police presence where anti-fascist violence is likely could reduce harm to persons and damage to property.

Two cases illustrate the problem of anti-fascist violence. In May, 2017, a teacher at Diablo Valley College in Berkeley, Eric Clanton, attacked and injured seven Trump supporters in the head with a U-lock bike lock. Some of the injuries were severe. A police search of his home turned up anti-fascist flags, indicia, pamphlets, and patches.   Clanton was charged with several felonies. In July 2017, Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley public school teacher and organizer of the pro-violence anti-fascist organization “By Any Means Necessary,” or “Bamn,” was arrested for attacking a man in June in Sacramento in June 2016 and for inciting a riot. Just as with the assaults by Clanton, Felarca’s violent actions were captured on videotape. In early August, 2017, she was arraigned on counts of assault, participating in an illegal riot, and causing a riot.

We condemn these actions, not because we disagree with the motivation behind them, but because the unjustified use of violence is wrong. The appropriateness of violence is not determined by the opinions or ideology people hold or express; the correct use of violence is determined on objective moral grounds that transcend politics and ideology. Action is governed by the universal and transhistorical logic of civil and human rights, the core of which is the right of all people, regardless of their attitudes and beliefs, to be free of suffering and safe from violence. 

The images, video, and eyewitness accounts of anti-fascists punching, kicking, bludgeoning, and pepper spraying white nationalists are particularly disturbing to those of us who operate with strict ethics in the use of violence because anti-fascists share so many of our values. We, too, condemn racial hatred and bigotry. We, too, are opposed to ethnic nationalism and white supremacy. We, too, protest injustice and prejudice and demand an end to discrimination. But we also observe the moral and ethical use of violence (and nonviolence).

Also disturbing is the ideological defense of aggressive violence and the shaming of those who object to it on moral grounds. If we are going to have moral authority in condemning the unjustified and unnecessary use of force and violence, then we must put aside ideology and hold all parties accountable for wrongful action. If it is wrong for one side, then it is wrong for the other side. This is a basic and timeless moral rule. Moreover, the ideological defense of aggressive violence sanctions violent action for those who share progressive values. Mainstreaming aggressive violence expands the risk of harm not only to white nationalists, but to peaceful protesters and bystanders. Not all, but a very active minority of antifascists believe they have a special right and moral authority to endanger people’s lives and wellbeing. They don’t.

Anti-fascist violence is counterproductive. As we have seen in previous events (for example, in Berkeley, in early February 2017, over the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos), antifascists are eager to use violence. As in other places, they went to Charlottesville looking to rumble. Without violence, the world would have hardly been moved to think about a small group of white men (a crowd size of 100-200, even after widespread promotion of the event) gathered to proclaim support for a Civil War memorial and chant the atavistic desires of moral imbeciles who never went away (obnoxious white supremacy is not a new thing) but remain few in number. Now the racists enjoy a larger audience. And, for some observers, they look a bit like martyrs; antifascist violence created an opportunity for white nationalists to claim that their legal exercise of assembly and the free expression of their opinions was violently suppressed by those who do not have a legal or moral right to restrict their speech or to physically engage them.

The moral substance of the far right and the far left couldn’t be more different. It’s the difference between those who crave belligerence, rationalize inequality, oppress women, persecute gays, and wreck the environment versus those who seek peace, equality, and justice, and work to preserve the biosphere. Peacemaking expresses love of humanity. It’s the far right who deems members of certain groups unworthy of human consideration. The far left works with a different morality. This is why left-wing violence must be held to a higher standard. 

If violent antifascists and anarchists are actually agent provocateurs, then this needs to be exposed with hard evidence. Otherwise the claim will be dismissed as a manifestation of conspiracism. But there’s a problem here. Even if right-wing machinations could be shown to be true for some cases, is it plausible that this could be true for every case? If violent leftists are not agents of the state or right-wing groups, and it seems more likely they are not than they are, then the complaints about the media creating a false balance, while in substance true, is not only made possible by antifascist and anarchist violence, but by those who support it or fail to criticize it. Perception counts for a lot. Politics is about changing the public mind. If you don’t want the media focusing on left-wing violence, and using it to diminish the significance of growing white nationalism, then condemn it. 

Here are two basic rules to follow: (1) be out front in your support of free speech, association, and assembly; (2) be clear in your opposition to the use of aggressive violence from every side—the police, white nationalists, left-wing activists. 
There is a straw man being floated by those supporting violent confrontation that goes something like this: those who oppose aggressive or violent confrontation of persons exercising their First Amendment rights want to have a dialogue with white nationalists. Protecting First Amendment rights has nothing necessarily to do with the particular content of speech or the desire to engage in particular acts of dialogue. It has to do with the protecting the right of every individual to hold and express opinions, freely associate with others, and assemble publicly to share opinions—and that means seeing, hearing, and reading opinions as much as uttering and writing them.

What about defensive violence? Even defensive violence is problematic when persons using it put themselves in a position that makes resort to it more likely. Peacefully walking into a gathering of KKK members does not justify their use of violence against their opponents. But knowing that the resulting riot will be used by the media to paint both sides as problematic, perhaps it is unwise to make it possible for others to claim that the left is provoking an altercation with their presence. What is to be gained by showing the world that the KKK is violent? Is there anybody who doesn’t already know this? You can try to change the media frame by protesting it. Has that worked? Or you can avoid providing the media with material to frame. It’s not as if the media will explain to the public the difference between aggressive and defensive violence. 

Of course, law enforcement should protect the community from white nationalism, not from left-wing activism. Efforts must be directed at pushing the police in that direction. This is not helped by enabling situations where the police have reason to turn their attention to the left. The left should to set the peaceful example of public politics. The left should show the public why it is different from far right-wing protestors. Aggressive and violent confrontation, even if it reduces the frequency and size of white nationalist gatherings, is counterproductive to the goal of building a mass movement because it alienates potential participants. It reinforces the commitment of the passive majority to not get involved with popular action—or, worse, to support repressive police control of protests. Violent protests suggest to the majority that the left does not have a viable agenda for solving their problems (and, frankly, at this time, does it?). Remember, the left isn’t trying to help the far right. How are riots going to solve the difficulties families face in America? How will costumed street fighting help them pay their mortgage, hospital bills, and for college?

We need to be better teachers. Teachers who teach the people that speech is not violence, that violence is not an appropriate means to silence the opinions of others, and to respect the moral ground and consistently observe the ethical rules that govern the justifiable use of violence. We need a united front against the threat of white nationalism. This means enlisting members of the majority in moral concern about the risks to democracy and freedom extreme right-wing ideology presents. We need them to see the extreme right as the source of belligerence. The left should be the nonviolent and rational alternative. We aren’t trying to persuade Nazis. We’re trying to persuade the persuadable. They’re our audience.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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