White supremacists are eminently punchable. It is difficult to watch and listen to someone spew ignorant, bigoted statements without feeling compelled to shut them up.
But just because white nationalists are puerile idiots who think the world belongs to the same race of people that invented ambrosia salad does not mean that it is okay to assault them. And it certainly doesn’t make it legal. But whether or not violence is a respectable or morally agreeable element of protest in today’s America, recent events have demonstrated that it is an element nonetheless, and it is best to be realistic about its application.
When, exactly, are you legally entitled to punch a Nazi? And if you punch a white supremacist or neo-Nazi, what should your immediate next steps be?
First, some context
This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and white nationalists showed up and marched in an event they dubbed “Unite the Right,” and leftist counter-protesters, including members of Antifa, showed up in response. A bloody clash ensued.
One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, and 19 others were injured. Deandre Harris was beaten by white supremacists right next to a police station, though Harris said no police officers came to his assistance.
And it’s no secret that in many parts of the country police departments and white nationalist groups are closely connected. Trump himself diverted funding from the study and dismantling of white supremacist organizations to focus on the threat of Islamic terror in June. So what can one do to combat the creeping tide of white supremacy when the foundations of our nation are steeped in it and our government is run by Nazi sympathizers, conspiracy theorists, and xenophobes?
Legally, there are a few self-defense options available. Civil rights lawyer and activist Dan Siegel spoke to Inverse about the legal parameters of self-defense, how to stay safe at a protest, and what to do if you are detained by the cops for your participation in demonstrations, violent or not.
Siegel, who practices in Oakland, California, said that it’s important to note that self-defense laws vary on a state-by-state basis, so what’s legal in one part of the country might not be in another. He spoke about the scenarios posed to him through the lens of California state law.
“But by and large … the law allows you to use ‘reasonable’ force to defend yourself or to defend other people from violence,” Siegel said.
This means that were you to come upon an individual like Harris being attacked by a group of white supremacists, “bystanders would be legally entitled to intervene and engage in force with their hands, or even with weapons to stop the assault on the individual who’s being attacked,” according to Siegel. Direct threats, especially if there is a weapon involved, are also in the clear, from a self-defense standpoint. “If someone’s pointing a gun at you, that is itself an assault, and you can defend yourself,” Siegel said.
But from there, the lines get blurrier. Verbal attacks, like the exchanging of slurs, do not justify escalation to a physical level. Escalating based on the mere presence of a weapon, like the guns displayed by militias in Charlottesville or during the Oregon wildlife refuge standoff, is also illegal. “I’m not sure if there are any particular rules about that in open carry states,” Siegel said. “But I imagine that the fact that someone is actually carrying the weapon would not be sufficient grounds for using force against that person.”
Even legal violence that results in a protest, however, can result in detention by police. Siegel warns against resisting arrest. “People should realize that if they put up physical resistance to a police officer, it’s probably not gonna go well for them,” he said. “They have all the legal right plus the advantage of force to do harm to you in these situations.”
From that point forward, it’s best to clam up and lawyer up. “One of the strongest pieces of advice I could give people who are detained by the police is never talk with them,” Siegel said. He also warned against revealing too much information over the phone while in custody, as cops are able to record those conversations and use them as evidence.
And for general safety during a demonstration, Siegel recommends making sure that friends or family know where you’re going to be, and that you have legal and medical support available in case something goes wrong.
“One of the things I believe is that we should always operate from a position of strength,” Siegel said. “If there’s ten of them, there should be a hundred of us. I think there’s a lot of safety in numbers, and I think they can be overcome and driven out of whatever they’re trying to do if we are smart tactically and strategically, and that includes having numbers and being prepared with self-defense tactics, including, when necessary, lawful weapons.”
It’s clear that white supremacists are willing to use physical force to further their ideology and frighten their opponents, and it’s clear that they have only been emboldened by the government. So do your civic duty, tuck your thumb in front of your second and third knuckles, and the next time you see someone in WWII cosplay issue a threat, please punch your local Nazi.
If you are interested in donating to white supremacist assault victim Deandre Harris, he has a GoFundMe page open for his medical expenses.