We shouldn’t look the other way with Antifa

An anti-fascist demonstrator during a free speech rally Sunday in Berkeley, Calif.
An anti-fascist demonstrator during a free speech rally Sunday in Berkeley, Calif. AP

Let’s start with a confession: When I first saw the video of white supremacist Richard Spencer getting slugged in the head on Inauguration Day this year, part of me liked it.

It was not a small part.

You might remember the video. Spencer was on a street corner in Washington, D.C., being interviewed on live television. He was wearing a Pepe the Frog pin. He was, as he often is, eminently sluggable.

Then, out of nowhere, someone did the deed, flashing into the frame to hit Spencer, who reeled in pain. It was ... satisfying.

It was satisfying because Spencer is so repugnant, and his words so vile, that mere words sometimes don’t seem adequate in response. It was satisfying because we had just elected a man who emboldened those who hate, and that made Spencer something a little closer to dangerous.

And also: He so had it coming.

Except that’s not a call that any one of us should get to make.

Now, seven months later, we have more videos with more violence. The most recent, from this past weekend, show members of Antifa attacking white nationalists in California. This isn’t new for Antifa, a loose coalition of groups that believe violence is a just response to the threat of white supremacy and neo-Nazis. But in the wake of Charlottesville, the response to that violence has begun to shift.

A growing number of people are wondering if Antifa has the right idea – or at least if it has become a somewhat necessary evil. Last week, a Dartmouth professor, Mark Bray, went on Meet the Press to argue that in some circumstances, violence might be justified against white supremacy. When Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon disavowed those remarks, more than 100 faculty signed a letter calling for Hanlon, not Bray, to retract his statements.

It’s not just academia. Social media is becoming increasingly populated with mainstream defenses of Antifa attacks – or at least a willingness to look the other way. The rationale? In the Trump era, we are waging a pitched battle for our country’s soul. Hate groups are no longer on the fringe – where they were ugly but mostly benign. Drawing a line against them is not an attack, but a defensive act to protect our freedoms.

Of course, when you declare yourself on the defensive, you can better justify fighting back. It’s the same kind of fuel that lights the outrage of white nationalists.

Let’s make something clear, however: There is no moral equivalency between white nationalists and Antifa, despite what our president and others might suggest. Only one of those groups is fighting for racism and bigotry. Only one traffics in swastikas and chants “Jews will not replace us.”

But at least for the moment, our freedoms are not being threatened by white supremacists. That was clear in our country’s overwhelming response to Charlottesville. It was a heartening revulsion from both progressives and conservatives, and it showed that while hate groups are bolder, they remain on the fringe.

Yes, we’re in a battle, but it’s not one we’re losing. And satisfying as it might initially feel – or tempting as it might become – it’s not a battle that violence will win.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com.