Last Friday night, political violence came to New York City. Outside the Metropolitan Republican Club on the Upper East Side, members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group whose founder Gavin McInnes had just completed an appearance at the club, clashed with masked, black-clad protesters who call themselves anti-fascist, or Antifa. A shocking viral video showed several Proud Boys pummeling and kicking their opponents. The next evening, crowds of right-wing and left-wing demonstrators — some wielding pepper spray, others armed with clubs, knives and even firearms — brawled in the streets of Portland, Oregon.
If this is a preview of things to come, we are in for some dark days.
When violence breaks out, finger-pointing on both sides inevitably follows. Responses to the New York incident mostly split along predictable lines. On Fox News, it was all about Antifa violence, with a focus on the fact that the club building had been vandalized before the McInnes event. For Democrats, this was a story of brazen right-wing thuggery and irresponsible behavior by mainstream Republicans who had invited a provocateur like McInnes. There were also accusations of police inaction and bias, since the only initial arrests were of three left-wing protesters. (Apparently, the reason no Proud Boys were arrested is that their victims refused to cooperate with the cops; nine “Proud Boy” assailants identified through surveillance videos are now being sought by the police.)
As is often the case, there is plenty of blame to go around. That includes the Metropolitan Republican Club. McInnes has a known history of bigoted comments and an equally well-known rowdy following; his Saturday appearance featured a comedic re-enactment of the assassination of a Japanese socialist politician by a far-right terrorist. That does not excuse vandalism or violence, but it certainly contributes to a toxic climate.
While the early video clips showed several Proud Boys rushing the protesters, seemingly without provocation, new surveillance footage shows one of the Antifa protesters had thrown a plastic bottle in their direction. But it’s also clear that the Proud Boys were waiting for any excuse to start punching. And throwing a plastic bottle is hardly the kind of provocation that justifies kicking people who are down on the ground.
Supporters of the Proud Boys claim that the group is being smeared as white supremacist and fascist even though it has nonwhite members. But racist or not, it is clearly extremist, with an ideology centered around male dominance, hatred toward perceived enemies of patriotic values, and a “fight club” ethos. McInnes has stated that getting arrested or being “in a serious violent fight for the cause” confers status within the group.
On its part, Antifa romanticizes violent “resistance” and vows to shut down any activity it considers fascist. Their left-wing sympathizers wax enthusiastic about Nazi-punching — rhetoric that is especially disturbing when anyone who questions progressive views can be labeled a Nazi.
In Portland, it appears that Antifa protesters started the violence by pepper-spraying a group of right-wing marchers. The right-wing demonstration itself was a response to events a week earlier in which left-wing activists protesting a police shooting of a black man took over several street blocks and harassed drivers.
Each side sees its use of force as righteous self-defense against an aggressive and evil enemy. That way lies a terrifying escalation of violence. Before it’s too late, people of good will on the left and the right must take a firm stand against violent extremists and their enablers — particularly in their own camp.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.