July 20, 2017

Here’s What Happened When I Debated Nazi Richard Spencer

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We are not going to reach common ground, and I’ll try not to punch him. By Lacy MacAuley.

“Antifa never take showers,” was one of the first things that Richard Spencer, the country’s most notorious Nazi, said to insult me. He was facing the interviewer, Chris Kilmer of the ABC National News program, 20/20. The on-camera debate had just begun.*

“So, if antifascist activists only took showers more frequently, you would respect them more?” I interrupted. He said yes. “This is the most ridiculous ad hominem attack,” I laughed.

“Yes, it is an ad hominem attack,” said Spencer.

“You do realize that the cultures that you idolize — feudal England, feudal Germany — you know that they didn’t have showers, right?” I said.

Then Spencer smiled, and I wished I hadn’t said anything remotely funny. It was the sinister, creepy smile of someone with dark thoughts of murdering people, or at least denying people the right to exist. Spencer is, after all, a white supremacist who promotes genocide. Depending on who you ask, he is a rich white boy who is most famous either for coining the term “Alt Right,” or for getting sucker punched by a black-mask-wearing protester in Washington DC at Donald Trump’s Inauguration, a punch celebrated around the world. Facing him down for a debate felt necessary, but the proximity was unsettling.

Antifascist activists, or “antifa,” stand against fascist, totalitarian, authoritarian regimes and systems. That’s why we protest things like capitalism, the police, oppressive governments, and global institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the G20. Anyone who stands against oppression, anyone who thinks power should rest with the people, is probably antifascist. That includes people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, trans youth, indigenous people, and anyone who wants to bring power back to everyday people.

Lately, many of us have been increasingly concerned about the fascist right-wing movements that promote white supremacy, white nationalism, police violence, racism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-migration, anti-feminism, gender normativity, and other hateful things. You’ve seen more antifa in the streets lately, protesting the far right, mobilizing to protect people’s right to exist.

The debate with Spencer had been arranged by the 20/20 news program. The news producers had been looking for someone who identifies as “antifa” to debate the unsavory character. I am one of a small number of antifascist activists who have been “doxed,” and have been subjected to a constant droll of online right-wing harassment. (People wonder why we wear masks, but look what happens when we don’t. Constant harassment. Plus the risk that police will decide to arrest you simply for being an activist, and find something to charge you with. Yep, that happens.) Since I’ve also been a media activist, my contact information is available. The producers called me up.

As a member of the DC Antifascist Coalition who has helped to organize protests outside of Spencer’s conference events, I decided I was prepared to debate the guy, but was conflicted about whether this would give him a platform. It was apparent, however, that the news program would be showing Spencer extensively anyway, whether there was someone to counter him or not. I mentioned the debate request to a few local antifascist activists and to Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the One People’s Project. “Break legs everywhere. You’re gonna be great,” said one fellow organizer. So, I said yes. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if the news producers were searching for someone who could face him down in words or the hard currency of knuckle sandwiches. Several friends asked if I wanted company, but I declined. I wanted to focus. I went alone.

I arrived on time, at a picnic table in Rock Creek Park, Washington DC, on Thursday, June 22, 2017. It was a hot day and the gnats were a small issue. Spencer was almost half an hour late. After he arrived, I continued to wait and chat with the producers, since apparently Spencer needed makeup due to some sort of welts on his neck. (Fight club training, I wondered?) By the time everyone was assembled, a five-person news crew was present with two giant news cameras. Spencer had brought a young flunkee with a “fashy” haircut and a sneer.

Spencer reached out to shake the interviewer’s hand, then turned to me. I declined the handshake: “I agreed to speak with you, not shake your hand.”

Early in the debate, I was of course asked about the time that Spencer was punched. I’d helped to organize the protests where the punch took place but hadn’t witnessed it myself. “Don’t you think that was violent?” asked the interviewer.

“In certain circumstances,” I said, “I believe that a sucker punch can be a symbolic act.” The way I see it, It’s like breaking a bank window or burning an American flag. This is the “propaganda of the deed,” an act that does not permanently damage anyone but sends a clear message. After all, it isn’t just activists who bounced around whether the act was right or not. It was The New York Times and a large body of the general public, some of whom enthusiastically made meme after meme of the punch. People understand that it is satisfying to punch a bully, such as a man who seeks to crush people of color, or anyone he declares unfit, under his heel. Our US military spent World War II fighting Nazis. Fighting Nazis has been canonized by everyone from Captain American to Wonder Woman to Indiana Jones. So how is this one punch wrong?

“So punching me is a symbolic act?” snorted Spencer incredulously. I turned to him. What I said next was even more satisfying.

“You have called for actual genocide. Actual genocide. When it comes to whether someone does or does not sucker punch you, you have no moral credibility,” I said. After all, if Spencer’s violent agenda calls for genocide, it’s clearly hypocritical to cry about being punched.

“Oh, I don’t support genocide,” he blurted out. I looked hard at him. I couldn’t tell if he actually believed that or if it was just a survival mechanism to get him through the debate. Here he was, denying his most controversial views. He hasn’t just called for genocide once, he’s supported it publicly many times throughout his career as a white supremacist.

“I have never called for genocide,” he said again.

Luckily, legal experts have defined what genocide actually means. The United Nations has defined genocide as acts perpetrated against a group, such as a racial group. This was codified in the Genocide Convention of 1948. These acts include: “Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” That treaty, by the way, also makes illegal “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” Just saying.

Spencer supports government programs of forced sterilization, or at least forced contraception, to prevent births among people of color. Here is what he said to Salon reporter Lauren M. Fox in 2013 on the topic of genetics:

“We are undergoing a sad process of degeneration… We will need to reverse it using the state and the government. You incentivize people with higher intelligence, you incentivize people who are healthy to have children. And it sounds terrible and nasty, but there would be a great use of contraception.”

So, he believes that “the state and the government” should reverse genetic “degeneration.” Spencer believes in the same tired eugenics of Nazi Germany. He believes in the genetic “inferiority” of certain people. Followers of the “Alt Right” movement believe in the debunked science of IQ tests as predictors of intelligence. (IQ tests tend to more accurately measure how uncreatively young minds have assimilated into the capitalist system.) So when Spencer says that he wants to preserve people with “higher intelligence,” he means he wants people of color to use “contraception” as part of a government program. That’s forced sterilization based on race, which is a form of genocide.

Also, “peaceful ethnic cleansing” isn’t a thing. No, ethnic cleansing is always violent — at best as violent as a concentration camp, or as violent as forcing someone to wear a straightjacket in a white rubber room. But Spencer called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in a 2013 speech at the American Renaissance conference. Guess what? That too is genocide.

It doesn’t matter whether Spencer has ever used the word “genocide.” What matters is that his support for forced sterilization and “ethnic cleansing” is defined as support for genocide. And yes, forced sterilization is cruel and horrible and all of those things, and he would like to use it against people he deems genetically unfit. To him, that means people of color.

But to make his support for genocide painfully obvious, Spencer’s website AlternativeRight.com actually published an article entitled “Is Black Genocide Right?” that tries to make the case for killing people of color. Making a delusional “it’s us or them” argument, the author, who is presumably white, clearly suggests that all black people should perish. And to be honest, does it surprise anyone that Spencer, who has led Nazi salutes and said, “Let’s party like it’s 1933” (the year Hitler came to power) when Trump was elected, supports genocide? Nope.

So yes, he has supported genocide. Actual genocide.

Of course, in the real world, people who write vile hate speech must absolutely be made to defend their words. You can’t just deny that you said things. Hate has consequences.

Somewhere uphill of the picnic table, a woodpecker was calling a wavering alarm call. Children were riding bicycles through the park. I took a deep breath.

“Everyone here is capable of doing research on what you have said,” I smiled. “So, for the sake of this debate, I am going to have to just assume that you are not being truthful. Yes, you have called for genocide.”

“So you think that punching me is just a symbolic act?” asked Spencer. “Then why don’t you do it right now.” He actually smiled his creepy smile, and sort of wiggled his shoulders in a theatrical way. I guess his theatrical demeanor is not surprising for someone who studied music in college. Just like it took studying art to make Hitler a Hitler.

“Yeah. No. I am not going to do that,” I said. The thing is, wanting to punch him and wanting to be seen punching him are two different things. I’m sure he would have loved for me to take a swing, so that he could bolster his fame and also send me to jail. Maybe that’s what the news producers wanted too. But there I was using my real name in front of two massive cameras, not to mention Spencer’s young bodyguard sneering at me from behind the interviewer. The other thing standing behind Spencer and the entire far right is layers of privilege that allow them to receive favorable treatment from law enforcement, the news media, and onlookers. So yeah. I’m not going to take that swing.

During the debate, we easily traced the edges of the things that we will never, ever agree on. Spencer believes that you can deny some people their fundamental right to exist. Spencer doesn’t think it’s important that governments prioritize individual rights, but is willing to jump on the bandwagon of using the concept of free speech to promote his movement. Furthermore, I am an anarchist. And like many people who are anarchist or antifascist or both, I will never accept the “might makes right” philosophy that guides the lives of those who have given up hope. Individual respect and autonomy, community empowerment and embracing diversity, and the right to live with dignity — these are the things shape my worldview. I do not believe the people with the strongest use of force or the best guns win in the end, though everyone has a right to self defense and community defense. Power corrupts and the powerful perish, and the course history is guided by the people who create a way forward with love and courage, despite corrupt rulers and oppressive systems, even if we are not always the ones in their history books. So no. Big surprise: I will never agree with the Nazis.

A bizarre point of the interview came when I made the case for embracing diversity. “Some of the best elements of our society have come from different people coming together in the spirit of openness, of feeling out the edges of experience, of innovation. Humanity is at its best when we have open exchanges and learn from each other.”

“I agree with you,” said Spencer implausibly. “I think we need to stop spending money on equality and start spending money on space travel —“

“Whoa, now we’re taking about space travel?” I interrupted. I could not help laughing. I looked at the producer behind the cameraperson, who was also chuckling. “I think this conversation just went out of orbit,” I said.

Rather than double down on his extraterrestrial point, Spencer abruptly abandoned the topic and came back to multiculturalism. He doesn’t like diversity, and is threatened by babies that don’t bear his skin tone. Shocker.

In another point of the interview, the interviewer asked me whether antifascist activists were opposed to free speech, because we have protested at events with some of the least desirable characters on the far right — Milo Yiannopoulos, who has since fallen from grace for comments on sexual abuse of children, Ann Coulter, who by the way cancelled her own event in the end, and of course Spencer and his band of Nazi-saluting white boys — effectively getting those events shut down. These far right speakers claim their events have something to do with free speech, instead of what they are really doing, which is mobilizing support for denying people the right to exist. Now that they have a direct line into the White House, their threats are credible.

“We protest at their events precisely because we have listened, we have heard them, and we believe they pose a credible threat to our right to exist,” I said. “As such, it is our duty to oppose them.”

What did Spencer think of the protests outside of right wing events? And the idea of physical clashes with antifascist activists?

“I don’t think we should throw the first punch,” said Spencer adamantly, raising his voice and gesticulating wildly, “But when they punch us, we should punch back.”

I guess Spencer didn’t see the irony here. He was on the receiving end of perhaps the best-publicized punch that has occurred this year in the United States. Did he punch back? Nope. He held his chin in his hand and glanced behind him as he high-tailed it out of there.

I also think we need to punch back, so to speak.

“The thing is, when the far right is mobilizing against us, when our rights are under attack, we will fight back,” I said. “We will be in the streets.”

What did I think of the recent shooting of US Congressman Steve Scalise?

“I do not endorse this shooting,” I said. I then pontificated a bit, including on what the definition of violence was in a political context in which people are dying at the hands of the US government. “Just because you can outsource your violence, just because you are not the one holding the baton or forcing people out of their homes, doesn’t mean that [what Spencer supports] is not violence.”

“She is avoiding the issue,” said Spencer.

I guess the violence he endorses is the kind in which rich white boys like him do not have to get their hands dirty. No, he can mobilize for the most violent policies of genocide imaginable, while never doing anything but looking clean and sharp in a collared shirt, standing just far enough away from the violence to not get splattered with blood. There’s avoiding the issue. Spencer is avoiding the issue of his violence to the point of delusion.

A recurring theme of the debate was that Spencer kept accusing me of dodging questions. But the world is nuanced. It made me hyper aware that he saw the world in his simplistic, black-and-white terms, so to speak. He could not even sit still while I went more deeply into the issues at hand. Perhaps he was just waiting for me to repeat the watered-down talking points he expected an antifascist activist to say, thereby confirming his worldview. But when I did not play his confirmation bias game, he could not even comprehend what I was saying. Whenever I would more deeply address a topic in question, to suss out nuances, he would lose patience. In addition to wondering about his black-and-white worldview, I couldn’t help but wonder how often he actually sat and listened to the ideas of women, femmes, or trans people, in his whites-only, very male world. Probably not a lot.

“One thing that we haven’t hit on is the overlap between the ‘Alt Right’ movement and the so-called ‘manosphere,’” I said. Manosphere adherents such as Mike Cernovich hold that women need a strong man in their lives and claim that men’s rights are under attack, instead of being continually upheld by a global system that tends to value anyone who is male above women, femmes, or trans people. The far right group “Proud Boys,” whose followers are cut from the same cloth as Spencer’s, has said that “women should be feminine and polite.” Spencer, for his part, has made many rapey and misogynist comments, such as when he told Rolling Stone Magazine, “At some part of every woman’s soul, they want to be taken by a strong man.” He also tweeted, “Women should never be allowed to make foreign policy.”

So opposing Spencer and his movement is, to me, a matter of self defense. I am not shrinking back into a little gender role in his little gendered world. If he and his movement want women back in little subservient roles, they will have to use either violence or the threat of violence to make that happen. That didn’t stop him from repeating the tired mantra that it is antifascists, not the far right, that is violent.

“I’d like to bring this back to reality,” I said. “Their side has all of the guns. Their side has the police and the military. The only person who is antifa or ‘Alt Right’ who has ever been shot is on our side, when a MAGA-hat wearing guy shot a person who identified as an antifascist activist in Seattle in January.”

I was referring to antifascist activist Joshua Dukes, who was de-escalating at a protest outside a Milo Yiannopoulos event when he was shot by either Mark or Elizabeth Hokoana, a married couple and Trump supporters. The Hokoanas had come armed with mace and a handgun. Mark Hokoana had said on Facebook earlier that day, that he was going to be at the event armed and would look for an excuse to “wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.” Luckily, Dukes survived, minus a few organs, after a harrowing ordeal and multiple surgeries.

“See, she only cares about her fellow antifa,” said Spencer after I had mentioned the shooting, though I’d been referring again and again to protecting the right to exist for all of the marginalized groups who Spencer would like to see die. I read his response as him not having a decent point to conclude that antifa was more violent than his side.

At one point, near the very end of the debate, Spencer looked at me, probably seeing only a white woman, no more and no less, a package of genes, a white-baby machine, and said something to the effect of, “You need to find out who you are.” This was a reference to the “Alt Right” slogan, “become who you are,” the slogan that wants to reduce each one of us to our race like it’s a Slurpee flavor with no mixing allowed.

“Oh I know exactly who I am,” I put my hand down on the picnic table for emphasis. “I am someone who will never accept the idea that we need to be delineated and separated into little nation-states based upon our race. I don’t believe most people want to live in a little nation-state where everyone looks the same and everyone thinks the same. That is oppressive, it is a fascist state, and furthermore, it is exceptionally boring.”

He looked at me with a creepy look in his eyes. “Oh, it won’t be boring,” he said, complete with a little eyebrow raise as he said “boring.” I wasn’t sure if this was his attempt at sexual innuendo, but it did have the effect of making me want to punch him all over again.

“Yes, it will be very boring,” I said.

At some point, near the very end of the interview, he said, with a self-congratulating, masturbatory flourish, “I give your life meaning!”

I cringed. “Excuse me? I have been an activist for nearly all of my adult life, and I have been organizing as an anarchist for nearly a decade,” I said. “As an anarchist, I care about de-constructing power. Since your movement has been gaining power, and posing a credible threat, I have cared about opposing you.” I looked at the interviewer, Chris Kilmer. “If tomorrow, you were the one gaining power and posing a credible threat, I would be opposing you.” Kilmer nodded back in understanding. I spoke of the larger body of antifascist work, work that people are doing every day. Some people are opposing fascism just by surviving another day in a system that is stacked against them. I spoke of my own work to oppose the IMF, World Bank, G20, WTO, the government and oppression in general. I spoke of my early activism protesting the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and my support for global justice, and what it means to be an anarchist. I spoke of Steve Bannon and others in the administration who are influencing and who are influenced by the far right movement, which poses a danger to almost everyone who is not at the very top.

“So how do you actually see the government? Do you see it as Russian dolls?” asked Spencer. “Trump is one layer, Bannon is the next layer, and then I am the next layer? Is that how you see it? Yes or no!” he demanded.

“Well, I see you as being a figure in a movement, and you have a direct line —“

“Wow, she is incapable of even giving a straight answer,” he began to say, looking over at the interviewers for validation, “See, this is just her again incapable of answering a question.”

“If you want to hear my answer, you are going to have to listen,” I glared at him, with all of the many years of being a woman and not actually being heard burning out of my eyes like the counter-fire of a war. “Listen, the real world is just nuanced. The real world is complex. So my answers are going to be complex. If you want my answer to your question, you are going to have to actually listen.” I paused.

He looked back at me like a deer in headlights. “I’m listening,” he said.

“Alright. I see your movement as having a direct line to Bannon, to Miller, to the rest of the Trump Administration. What you say leads to real policy. The Trump Administration has been making real policy that is actually impacting real people. Already, awful policies have been made against Muslims, immigrants, trans youth, and now women if the health care bill goes through. You are one of the influential figures among many influential figures in your movement. As such, we will protest you.”

Not long after, we parted ways. After I’d insisted he stop and listen to my answer to his own question, he didn’t say much. He stopped smiling or looking half as cocky as he had earlier in the day. The news producers began leading each of us off to different sides of Rock Creek Park for post-debate interviews. “See you in the streets!” were my final words to him, which I shouted to him as he was walking away with his flunkee. He looked hot and deflated. A weak grunt was all that was offered in return. Is this the guy who wants to lead “his people” to their own “ethno-state?”

I think the news producers had hoped we would find points of agreement. Or maybe just a fist fight. What they got was two people who will never agree. Such is the drama of our time.

I was asked in the follow-up interview what I learned. I said, “I see Richard Spencer as the last gasp of those who wish to keep their white privilege at all costs.” But we cannot let him bring the rest of us down, too, just because they are throwing a temper tantrum as the world shifts gradually away from the imperialism that gave them their power. This is one we must win.

“If they win, there will be genocide, death, and untold suffering,” I said. “If we win, they will have to go back to their little worlds. And everyone lives.”

*I was unable to make a recording of this debate, which will be shown on the 20/20 news program in the coming months. All reconstructed dialog in this article is based upon my contemporaneous notes, made after the debate and to the best of my memory. Not every word may be accurate, but I have attempted to reconstruct the dialog to the best of my ability. 

Lacy MacAuley is a Program Director for One People’s Project, member of the DC Antifascist Coalition, member of the DC Resistance Media Collective, and an anarchist. Find her on Twitter @lacymacauley.

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