Last Friday, shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, a thirty-eight-year-old white supremacist, and Trump supporter, named Richard Spencer was giving an interview in downtown Washington. As Spencer, who has recently come to prominence for coining the term “alt-right,” tried to speak above an audience that seemed largely composed of hecklers, a man dressed in black rushed forward, landed a glancing blow on the side of Spencer’s face, and disappeared into the crowd. The next day, a video of the incident “went viral” on social media.
Watching the now famous video of “the punch,” I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Richard Spencer should have taken a page from the career of Teddy Roosevelt, who managed to finish a stump speech, even after he got shot. Instead of using the attack as an opportunity to do a little grandstanding, Spencer quickly ended the interview, and walked off, rubbing his head, wondering what had just happened to him. His political opponents on social media, smelling blood in the air, piled on, editing, and reediting the video, setting it to music, doing everything they could to keep it in the public eye as long as possible. When conspiracy theories started to appear that the punch was fake, it was obvious that the anti-racist left had won the battle of public relations. Spencer, who had been been the subject of an oddly flattering profile in the liberal Mother Jones, now looked cowardly and weak.
Predictably, many conservatives, and some liberals, stepped up to defend Richard Spencer, trying to shift the discourse from a discussion about the sobering reality of an openly white supremacist President to an abstract debate about “free speech.” Invoking the legendary Skokie affair from the 1970s, where the ACLU defended the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, they argued that “free speech” means nothing unless it applies to racist propagandists like Spencer. The anti-racist left, in turn, argued that “free speech,” far from being an abstract right, is part of a social contract. Since a white supremacist like Richard Spencer would deny even basic human rights to blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, he must not be given a platform to spread his genocidal views in public.
I don’t look forward to a physical confrontation with the far right. Not only are they heavily armed, they almost always have the support of the police, and the military. The humiliation of Richard Spencer, an Ivy League Nazi better at conducting interviews with Mother Jones magazine than at winning street fights, was a lucky accident, not likely to be repeated. Another recent incident, this one at the University of Washington, where a supporter of Milo Yiannopoulos, another alt-right celebrity, shot an anti-racist protester, only to be released by the Seattle police without being charged with a crime, will almost certainly be more common in Donald Trump’s America.
Nevertheless, what I might be able to avoid by remaining apolitical is already the everyday reality for most black and brown Americans, who come face to face with a heavily armed representative of the white supremacist state every time they meet a police officer. It’s precisely because the anti-racist left is so desperately weak that we cannot afford to indulge ourselves in illusions about men like Richard Spencer and Donald Trump, whose political allies are determined to drive us out of the public square by any means necessary. “Free speech” is not only the abstract right to speak. It is the ability to make oneself heard. Right now, the far right controls all the branches of the federal government. The corporations control TV, the newspapers, and the Internet. The police control the streets. The anonymous black bloc member, who destroyed with one punch the reputation of a man the media had been grooming for weeks as a “respectable” spokesman for the white nationalist regime of Donald Trump, managed, if ever so briefly, to be a voice crying in the wilderness.