When alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer’s face ended up on the receiving end of the punch memed around the world on Inauguration Day, it raised questions among liberals and leftists about the role of violence in politics.
The debate quickly intensified following reports that an anti-fascist protestor was shot at the University of Washington as Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos gave a speech there on the night of the inauguration. Then on Feb. 1, 2017, violent protests at the University of California Berkley shut down a scheduled appearance by Yiannopoulos.
The recent discussions of political violence, particularly as it relates to punching neo-Nazis, tend to center on ethical concerns and skepticism over whether or not it’s an effective tactic.
I’m not going to attempt to address the ethical question. There are reasonable arguments for both nonviolence and the use of force.
But I will say this — punching Nazis is absolutely an effective tactic. In fact, it’s been proved time and time again to be the most effective means of simply communicating with Nazis.
Violence between anti-fascist and neo-Nazis is nothing new. It’s been getting more attention since the rise of the alt-right and Pres. Donald Trump’s inauguration, but it’s been going on for decades.
Recent incidents include anti-fascist protest at a white supremacist rally in Sacramento in 2016. Several people were beaten and stabbed at the rally. Likewise, protestors at a November 2016 conference for the National Policy Institute, which Spencer heads, attacked one attendee and harassed several others.
In the 1980s and ’90s, much of the violence between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis occurred in the hardcore and punk music scenes.
I started listening to metal, punk and hardcore when I was 12 years old in 1988. The first show I ever went to was DRI, Sick of It All and Nasty Savage at the Cuban Club in Tampa on March 3, 1990. I was 13 at the time.
That night, there were several hundred people, maybe a thousand, in the enclosed courtyard behind the club where the bands played. Most of the people at the show were metal heads there to see DRI and Nasty Savage, but around 50 neo-Nazi skinheads were also there to see Sick of It All.
Vicious fights broke out almost as soon as the music started.
The skinheads targeted random metal-heads for no reason — just picked one or two of them out of the crowd, isolated them and ganged up on them. Any time one of the metal-heads dropped to the ground, they were immediately swarmed by a bunch of skins who kicked and stomped them.
Eventually several police cars and a few ambulances showed up and things calmed down for the rest of the night.
It was a terrifying introduction to the hardcore/punk scene, especially since I was a scrawny teen with long hair and was probably wearing a sleeveless Sacred Reich shirt. I looked like a metal-head, and Nazi skinheads have no qualms about beating up kids.
Several months later, my friends and I witnessed a similar situation unfold at a Social Distortion and Gang Green show at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg, Florida. And in July 1990, six skinheads attacked an old homeless black man who wondered into a Judge show at the Star Club in Ybor City during the Bringing It Down tour.
I had just turned 14. I was still scared of everything. But when some older guys started breaking up the fight and ushering the man out the back door to safety, a couple of friends and I timidly helped them, basically by trying to clumsily stand between the man and the skinheads so they couldn’t get to him.
It was a frightening moment. But I think it also made us realize the skinheads weren’t as tough as we had thought they were. There was something about seeing these guys, who were all in their 20s, 30s and 40s, attacking a helpless old man that stirred something inside of us.
We didn’t start fighting the Nazis right away. For a while, we just helped otherpeople break up fights — again, very timidly. I can’t recall when we quit just breaking up fights and started fighting, but we did.
Early on, most of us were kids. We were 14, 15 and 16 years old, throwing down with guys who were several years older than us. A lot of them were in their late teens or early 20s, but some of them were grown-ass men who had been fighting long enough to be fearless. Those were the truly intimidating ones.
There were rumors that years earlier some of the older skins had severely beaten a man and then killed him by setting him on fire as he lay battered in the street. One of them supposedly had a penchant for biting off people’s ears. There was one nicknamed Bam Bam who was known for dishing out knockout punches.
Several had stabbed people. There were other stories.
In other words, the skinheads we were fighting were often way bigger and stronger and meaner than we were, and we knew what would happen if they ever got us down or caught us alone. But we fought them anyway, and eventually linked up with a couple more of the older hardcore kids and a few SHARPS — Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice — who had been fighting them for years. New kids coming into the scene started joining in, too.
The scene still was not a safe space for anyone for some time. We knew we could be targeted on any given night if some Nazi skinhead decided he didn’t like the t-shirt one of us was wearing or if one of us looked at somebody the wrong way. People of color, women, members of the LGBT community or basically anyone who appeared vulnerable to the Nazis were at the greatest risk.
“Shows were fucking brutal for me as woman,” recalled Angela Art, who grew up in Tampa. “ I got groped, punched, and kicked all the time. I remember there always being skins at the Stone Lounge. Every damn show they’d be there fucking with people.”
Gerald Williams remembers being targeted by Nazi skinheads because of his race. “The Macabre show, I think, might have been the first show were I actually got fucked with or the first show where I really saw the skinhead presence,” Williams told Defiant.
“There were these five skinheads and one of them kept trying to start a circle pit but he would run into me in particular, five times in all,” Williams continued. “I remember after the third hit, Toby and Charlie ended up standing next to me because they noticed it too. After the fifth time, I remember turning around and he did the Nazi salute and Charlie punched him and we all started fighting.”
On another occasion Charlie got arrested after punching a skinhead in Ybor City and then chasing him down the street. The skinhead ran to a cop on patrol in the area for protection.
This was around 1993. By then we pretty much fought Nazi skinheads on sight. Charlie had seen a Nazi walking down the street, so he ran up and hit him. That’s what you did. It had become reflexive. The Nazis treated us the same way.
It was a bizarre sort of turf war. The skinheads had some loose hierarchy, but we never had any sort of organization or anything like that. We were just friends looking out for each other, and trying to help those in our community to do the same.
Jose and Ian, two Puerto Rican brothers, were the closest thing we had to leaders when it came to fighting Nazis. Those two were always at the front when things went down.
In those unsettling moments when a dozen or so of us would square off with a dozen or so Nazis, it felt a whole lot better if Jose and Ian were there. They were physically and personally unassuming, but they were also two of the best brawlers around.
“Ian never said shit, but man he could clear a room,” an old friend of theirs told me.
There were periods when we fought almost every time we went out, then the violence would ebb for weeks or even months at a time, usually because the skinheads grew tired of getting their asses kicked and stayed home for a while.
We lost sometimes — sometimes badly. In one brawl at the Ritz Theater, when I was around 16, I was beating on a skinhead my age when one of the older ones popped me with a quick one-two sucker-punch combo. One of the punches landed on the left side of my face and immediately clamped my eye shut. I couldn’t open it at all. It felt like the socket was packed with sand.
By the time I got to the bathroom to check it out, that whole side of my face had swelled up so badly that I looked like a Madball. It stayed like that for a week.
We usually won, though. At one point it got so bad for the Nazi skins that they imported a bunch of Confederate Hammers — 12 or 15 — from Alabama and Texas as reinforcements. That didn’t work out well for them.
The reinforcements were younger kids in their late teens and early 20s. After a while, we almost felt sorry for them. They got it bad every time we caught them for around a year. People would steal their bomber jackets. Somebody knocked one of them out one time and cut the red laces out of his boots.
A friend of mine kept one of their bombers in the trunk of his car and would put it on whenever he saw that group of skins at a show or out on the streets of Ybor to taunt them. Then he’d fight them while wearing their own bomber jacket.
Eventually that group of Hammers packed up and went right back home.
Things came to a head in 1995. A friend of ours went to see The Business, a supposedly non-racist skinhead band, play at the Ritz. We told him it was a bad idea, that every skinhead in Florida would be there and that none of uswould be.
He didn’t listen. He really wanted to see them play. He went by himself. He was a large and formidable man. He could handle himself.
Photo via Kieran Walsh
I lived in Ybor at the time, just a few blocks from the Ritz.
The friend showed up at my door later that night bleeding all over the place, his face swollen and busted open in several places.
Bam Bam and several other skins had jumped him.
None of us had been beaten by them like that for a long time. We knew it would embolden them.
A few weeks later Snapcase and Doughnuts played at the Stone Lounge. Tension had been building since The Business show. There were rumors.
“I remember we all showed up knowing in advance that it was going down that night,” VamanaBhava Ruse, a philosophy PhD who lived in Tampa at the time and played in bands like The End of the Century Party, told Defiant. “I forget the details, but it was understood on both sides that this particular show was when we were gonna settle the score.”
Around a dozen Nazi skins came out to the Snapcase show. We had them grossly outnumbered. When Jose, Ian and the friend who got mobbed at The Business arrived, they asked me if I was down to fight that night. I told them that I didn’t think they were going to need me, but that I’d be there if they did.
I wasn’t really interested in the opening bands, so I played foosball in a little room where the main entrance was.
Some 30 minutes into the show, one of the skinheads came out of the room where the bands were playing, walked up to me with his arms crossed in front of him and said, “Call 9–1–1.”
I turned to him, thinking we were going to fight.
He moved his arms away from his body and a flap of his chest folded down over his ribs. He had been slashed from above his left nipple down across the opposite side of his belly.
Even though he was muscular and lean, you could still see fat or something yellowish-white mixed in with the muscle. It reminded me of cleaning chickens, the yellow globs of fat you tear off.
I got the door guy to call 9–1–1 while I administered first aid as best as I could.
The skinhead in question. Facebook photo
He was crying and shaking. He grabbed my hand at one point and asked me if he was going to die. I had no idea, but I lied and told him that I had seen far worse and that he’d be fine.
I thought he was going to bleed out before an ambulance could arrive.
Everyone of his friends fled, getting punched and kicked all the way to their cars. They knew what had happened to him, but they left him there with us.
My friend who got jumped at The Business show is the one who cut him. He went to prison for it.
The Nazi skins quit coming out for the most part after that. They wouldn’t show up in significant numbers or try to impose their will, anyway. Two or three would come around now and then, but they kept to themselves and didn’t start any trouble. They weren’t attacking people or seig heiling anymore. A couple of the older dudes lingered, but would say they were “retired” and never fought anymore.
It took several years of fighting, but we had created a safer — though still not perfect — space for our community. Yes, we used violence, but that violence was already there. We simply redirected it back at the source until the source relented and the violence dissipated.
Again, this isn’t an argument over what is right or wrong. It’s simply a statement of what worked for us, and others in similar situations, at the time.
The same scenario played out in the punk and hardcore scenes across the country. I’ve heard similar stories from Columbia, South Carolina, Denver, Dallas, Cincinnati and several other cities and towns.
In every scenario, the basic plot is the same. The scene was unsafe for marginalized peoples because of neo-Nazi skinheads who bullied everyone, eventually people started fighting back, the Nazis didn’t like that so the Nazis went home.
If you don’t want to take our word for it that violence can be effective in stopping the spread of fascism, take it from Richard Spencer. He should know a thing or two about the neo-Nazi mindset.
After he got punched — twice, by two different people, for the record — on inauguration day, he posted a video to YouTube in which he discusses the implications of the assaults. In it he basically says that if alt-right, neo-Nazis keep getting punched every time they go out, their movement will fail.
“We are going to need to have people volunteer to step up to — they’re going to risk something — they need to step up to offer some kind of protection or we can’t have a public movement, and we if we don’t have a public movement, we are not going to win,” Spencer says. “Period. End of statement.”
So there you have it. Even Nazis know that punching Nazis works.
This article originally appeared at Defiant on February 7, 2017. Featured image is a screen grab of Richard Spencer getting punched from Australian Broadcasting Corporation video.