Is It OK To Punch a Nazi? We Asked Berkeley Students

A year after fiery political protests erupted on campus, we visited to find out when students think it's OK to respond to words with violence.


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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

It was a hotly debated question for months after video of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the middle of an interview on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration went viral and inspired countless remixes.

But the question was never really just about Nazis. It is about the acceptability of political violence. And in the following year the question came up and again and again as several high-profile political protests turn violent, including at UC Berkeley, often considered the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 60s.

On February 1, 2017, the nation watched the University of California Berkeley burn as masked members of the far-left group Antifa lit fires, threw safety barriers through store windows, physically attacked people, and threw rocks at the police.

The riots were sparked by the arrival of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who was invited to speak by a conservative student group. President Trump helped ignite the controversy by tweeting a threat to pull federal funding from Berkeley, and the event was ultimately canceled. Protests continued throughout the rest of the year as more conservative speakers were drawn to the Berkeley campus.

We visited Berkeley about a year after that protest-turned-riot to ask students whether punching Nazis, or other deplorables, is ever OK.

The students we talked to said that the violence was carried out almost entirely by outsiders. Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is a decentralized movement that rejects nonviolence and vows to fight whatever or whomever it identifies as fascist by any means necessary.

Most of the students with whom we spoke condemned the group and its tactics, but many also sympathized with their aims and said they wouldn't blame those engaging in violence against people they deemed Nazis.

But if the use of violence to counter certain ideas is acceptable, it becomes difficult to avoid a slide down the slippery slope into advocating violence against a broad array of political opponents. The response to the assault on Richard Spencer was hardly the only instance of a blase reaction to violence among the media, politicians, and celebrities.

The brutal attack on Senator Rand Paul, which left him with bruised lungs and six broken ribs, was met with suggestions that he had it coming because of his libertarian views. And they haven't stopped.

Putting aside the question of whether or not preemptive political violence is moral, is it actually effective?

In Why Civil Resistance Works, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan compared nonviolent and violent movements through history and found that the nonviolent ones were more than twice as effective at achieving their goals.

Princeton researcher Omar Wasow found that the nonviolent protests of the early civil rights movement changed minds, while the left-wing riots in the late 60s likely tipped the presidential election in favor of Richard Nixon.

And if Antifa members still want to punch so-called Nazis, they should pay attention to the work of historian Laurie Marhoefer, who studies real Nazis and says the party often rallied close to its adversaries in order to provoke them, drawing a violent reaction that swayed public opinion in its favor.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello.
Camera by Paul Detrick and Monticello.
Music by Krackatoa, Kai Engel, and Teehoteeho available at
Licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

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