Policing Self-Defense

[CN: on top of all the Nazi stuff, talk about the threat of sexual assault]

Black-and-white photo of a large monument consisting of a stone fist atop a stone pedestal. An unreadable sign is taped to the fist.
“Fist of Freedom” (a monument to Nelson Mandela) by sacks08, CC BY 2.0

Yesterday I asked whether the people still telling me not to punch Nazis after Charlottesville were telling me to be martyred or to stand aside while someone else is.

Mostly I didn’t get any answers. I expected that. That’s what happens when “Just say ‘no’ to violence!” runs into situations where violence is inherent and inevitable. Ironically, the act of making an option unspeakable makes the pro-rational discussion with Nazis crowd unable to discuss current events rationally. Weird. (Not at all weird.)

I also ran into a couple of people yesterday who would prefer martyrdom to enacting any violence. That’s fine. I can’t relate to it in any way, but I don’t have to. It’s a personal choice. But it being a personal choice means you don’t get to impose it on me or anyone else. You don’t get to choose that someone else dies in the name of nonviolence.

I did get one response that boiled down to “Well, it’s okay in self-defense. No, I mean immediate self-defense.” This is how Maddy Love of A Minnesota Trans-Atheist podcast responded:

Curious; am I allowed to punch the Nazi if punched me first? How many punches must be thrown by said Nazi before it is appropriate for me to cease mulling over their arguments, and am allowed to come to the conclusion that I am in immediate physical danger…and coming to the conclusion; am I allowed to punch them?

When witnessing friends being punched by Nazi’s, is it ever acceptable to step in and punch? Or should politely ask for some clarification so I may weigh both sides lest I make a grievous error of trusting a close friend instead of a swastika’ed stranger.

When a Nazi asks to rent my speaking platform to recruit more Nazis to come and punch me, am I obligated to grant said platform, or am I allowed to tell the Nazi to get their own platform?

These are the questions I need answered lest anyone think I’m emotional, irrational and too hard on the Nazis of America.

I’m reminded of all the lectures a few years ago about how women avoiding being alone in an elevator with a man is an example of horrible prejudice. I’m reminded of “Why did he run?” when a black kid is shot in the back by a police officer. I’m reminded of stories where the baseball bat behind the counter of a store run by an old Jewish man or woman is played for laughs.

Policing the point at which people are allowed to take care of themselves, to defend themselves from ever-present threats is part of oppression. It is saying, “I’m not afraid [even when they are so, so afraid], so you’re not allowed to act afraid either, even though I won’t allow you to live in my safe world.” It’s used to keep us less safe and to paint us as too irrational for self-determination.

I remember back when other atheists were talking about me being too ugly to rape, which meant people in this movement I work in were talking about raping me, with very little outrage from the rest of the movement. I remember thinking about being determined to not be assaulted again and the way I’ve reacted the last couple of times someone tried (the guy who wouldn’t let me go when I was done kissing him, the guy who tried to grind on me on the dance floor). I thought about all the people telling me how irrational I was to think these things would ever happen.

I told a friend that if I ended up hurting someone who tried to assault me, I should probably make sure he ended up dead so he couldn’t show up in court looking all harmless and trying to charm a jury. I knew defending myself effectively would turn me into the criminal. He couldn’t really argue with me.

See also what Alix Jules has had to say this year (mostly on Facebook, unfortunately) about race and who is allowed to punch Nazis without becoming the “real danger”. Hint: It isn’t him.

So when you’re sitting back getting ready to lecture other people about violence, “real” threats, and fucking moral high ground, stop. Think about who you’re lecturing. Ask yourself why you think you know more about the threats they face than they do. Chances are good the answer isn’t pretty.

Then maybe go lecture a Nazi or other white supremacist instead. Did you know they’re scared of becoming a minority population and think that’s worthy of violent response?

Policing Self-Defense

6 thoughts on “Policing Self-Defense

  1. 1

    Practically speaking though what’s the purpose of the protest and when does fighting (even back) help advance that purpose?
    You’re right that no one is required to let themselves come to harm. I can see the downsides of ceding the fight and not showing up at all. On the other hand, if this is what protests end up being like.. then what?

  2. 2

    The worst take came from Michael Shermer, who claimed that the Charlottesville attack was the consequence of people punching Nazis.
    By his logic, if only the Nazis were allowed to do their thing, they wouldn’t be goaded into merely self-defensive actions, like running over anti-racism protesters. Stunningly ignorant.

  3. 3

    I’m not sure if I am capable of effectively fighting them physically, but that makes it more important that I stand up now, show that a lot of us are opposed to fascism, and maybe by just being out there shouting—which I know I can do—help deter them. I’m not going around armed, but I have some of that urban “don’t fuck with me” body language when I need it.

  4. 4

    The purpose of protest? Selma. Watts. Rodney King. Kent State. Occupy Wall Street. Women’s Marches. Black Lives Matter. If nobody protested, if no one were inconvenienced at least, if no blood got shed, what alternatives are there to really waking people up to needed changes? What’s going to spur the outcry when you can’t point out the tragedies? Without outcry, what’s the incentive for the powerful to start making changes?

    We humans are a stubbornly complacent lot. When it’s time for change, there will be damages, consequences. All must choose how to weigh self protection against the importance of the cause for themselves. I can’t tell any of you where to draw your lines, nor you me.

  5. 5

    Not all protests carry the same risks. If the organizers of one protest put a lot of emphasis on nonviolence and the organizers of another warn that you should be trained in nonviolent resistance if you want to stand close to the front, you can pick the risks you want to take better. Organizers should know that the more people attending, the more likely some people will not pay attention to the emphasis they want to set, and the more likely people will take it too far in either direction (where too far one direction is being a little more aware of the need to defend themself, and a little more punchy as a result; and the other direction is staying home and defending Nazis more than themself).

  6. 6

    “The worst take came from Michael Shermer,”

    Sorry to make an ad-hominem… but this behavior is what I’d expect from a repeat rapist and serial harasser.


    I’m not surprised he’s also defending white supremacists; it just seems to correlate. There’s probably some intersectional reason why rapists are often fascists and vice versa.

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