As street violence between white supremacist brawlers and anti-fascist counterparts has become a staple of modern U.S. political discord, the commentariat has repeatedly been reduced to asking a first-grader’s question: Who started it?
Blame for initiating physical scraps at such events is often a murky thing. But it’s been assigned substantial importance ever since the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in murder.
And now, videos published Sunday by the New York Times help recast the who-hit-who-first answers for this year’s most significant such street clash: An October fight between members of the so-called “Proud Boys” and a handful of antifascist counter-protesters outside Manhattan’s Metropolitan Republican Club. The brawl was sparked after Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes reenacted the assassination of a Japanese leftist leader inside the club.
The Proud Boys are one of the more prominent organizational faces of the so-called “alt-right,” as the United States’ old strain of white nationalism has rebranded itself for the social media age, thanks in no small part to their oddness.
Though the group’s leadership has insisted it has no truck with racism — they prefer to be distinguished, however dubiously, as mere “western chauvinists” — it has popped up again and again alongside avowed neo-Nazis whose ideology and historical exegesis look almost identical. The group’s tenets famously include a rigorous prohibition on masturbation and a ready willingness to punch people who disagree indiscreetly.
McInnes, who has since quit the group he started and joined Glenn Beck’s media company, has insisted theManhattan fight was a result of his boys finishing what their opponents initiated. One of them had thrown a bottle, he said, prompting members of his race-hate-adjacent org to stomp them out in self-defense. Police seemed to agree, judging by who they arrested on the scene.
But the Times’ videos offers fresh evidence of how things got started. They show two of the Proud Boys charging at an antifascist cohort to initiate the violence. The antifascists had sought the right-wingers out near a back exit from the GOP meeting hall, but the video shows the bottle getting launched only as the charging Proud Boys get in range and start throwing fists.
Several of McInnes’ followers have since been charged with crimes by New York authorities, who have signaled their case relies on videos like these according to the newspaper. Bystander and security camera videos seem to have forced a reversal from law enforcement, which had initially made arrests only of the antifascists who were left bloodied at the scene while allowing McInnes’s crew to walk away.
Seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the murder of Heather Heyer capped off a day of open, semi-tolerated violence in Charlottesville. Since then, President Donald Trump has insisted that blame lay with leftist anti-facism protesters there. They had been the first to throw punches, he said, suggesting responsibility for the bulk of what followed therefore laid at their feet.
The president’s words seem to have inspired a rise in open, broad-day activity from self-proclaimed white supremacists and other friendly groups who claim not to subscribe to race-hate ideology like the Proud Boys.
At the same time, longstanding cultural norms against political violence — upheld primarily but not exclusively by older generations of Americans whose 20th century experiences taught them that mocking and ignoring U.S. neo-nazi groups was effective — have frayed.
A video of someone sucker-punching prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer and knocking him to the ground in Washington D.C. over Trump’s inauguration weekend went viral. “Anytime, any place, punch a Nazi in the face” is a common chant that captures the new way some have chosen to respond to the rise of groups like the Proud Boys.
Even those on the left who have been most vocally insistent that such physical confrontations are warranted and valuable, are sensitive to the importance public opinion places on the who-started-it analysis.
In these street activists’ view, the open expression of white nationalist views is itself a form of violence. The harm those race-hate practitioners do to racial and other minority residents’ ability to feel safe in the their communities is, to many in these groups’ number, the actual instigating blow. When they take the conflict physical in response, they see it as consistent with traditional self-defense arguments.
That argument doesn’t yet appear to have much traction in the court of public opinion. It certainly has none in courts of law. And in each, for now, the meaningful questions still involve who initiates a specific physical fight.