When a masked man in black punched outspoken alt-right leader Richard Spencer in the side of the head on Friday, recorded on video, it launched not just an assault investigation, but a rigorous online debate: Is it ever ok to punch a Nazi in the face?
Spencer denies being a Neo-Nazi (in fact, he does so just before getting sucker-punched in the recording). But his brand of white nationalist politics and his recorded “Hail Trump” salute from November have undercut that argument, and before the weekend was over, the framing of his attack as a physical response to Nazi-style views was largely set.
Comments on the most-viewed YouTube video of the assault were largely supportive of Spencer’s attacker; as was the tone of most online commentary about the incident.
At pop-up bar The Green Zone inside Zebabar in Northwest, the bartender renamed a mezcal and rum-based cocktail “Richard Spencer Punch” on Tuesday.
“I thought he had it coming,” Green Zone bartender Chris Francke said.
But the use of physical violence to temporarily silence Spencer gave others pause. Ironically, a tweet by one of the current writers of Captain America comic books, Nick Spencer (no relation), has drawn considerable attention for its defense of Richard Spencer’s right to speak.
Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well.— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) January 20, 2017
Free speech advocates, including many journalists, also pointed out that Spencer’s views, however odious, are protected by the US constitution. Punching someone is not considered protected speech.
In interviews, faith leaders too pushed back against the idea that punching a Nazi could be appropriate for anything other than self-defense.
“We can only respond physically by defending ourselves,” Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Northwest Washington told WUSA9. “We want a peaceful society. We want a society where the public square will be a place of vigorous debate. But the public square can’t be a place of violence. Because then we live in simply chaos and there’s no civility in our world.”
Spencer’s case remains open, and there have been no arrests made, according to an MPD spokesman.