Shia LaBeouf was arrested last week over what the Washington Post called “a pretty lame fight.” While performing his anti-Trump art installation in New York, the actor allegedly assaulted an unidentified 25-year-old man. Although unconfirmed, media reports suggest that the arrest may relate to an incident caught on video in which a man embraces LaBeouf and then shouts “Hitler did nothing wrong!” The star responds with a firm shove. LaBeouf faces a misdemeanor assault charge for his “lame fight.” Meanwhile, a few days earlier in Washington State, a Trump supporter put a bullet in the stomach of an anti-fascist protester, and walked away with no charges at all, while the case remains under investigation.
The shooting took place during a protest outside a talk given by Milo Yiannopolous at the University of Washington Seattle. The Breitbart editor and Twitter-banned troll spoke at the university as part of his Dangerous Faggot tour, hosted by college Republicans and drawing the ire of communities who would give no platform to intolerance and racism. Outside Yiannopolous’ Seattle speech, protesters gathered including self-described anarchists and anti-fascists, a few with paint and fireworks, leading to clashes with Milo supporters and campus police. At one point a gun shot rang out and a 34-year-old anti-racist organizer collapsed to the ground.
In the context of a week in which major news outlets debated whether it is or is not OK to even punch a neo-Nazi, the barely-reported shooting and its aftermath sent a chilling message about the risks protesters may face in Trump’s America.
“It's troubling times for all of us, but here in the Northwest a lot of us are feeling pretty shaken, and pretty concerned about the future of anti-fascism if there's barely a murmur when a comrade gets shot,” Seattle anarchist Alan Lethbridge, who was 20 feet from the shooting, told me.
Most every other person I spoke to for this story has asked to remain anonymous as a number of activists have been targeted and doxxed by members of the far right online since the incident. Accordingly, I will also not name the shooting victim (as is his preference), who is still recovering, although stable, in the hospital. While details of the shooting remain scarce, the impunity accorded the shooter in media and social media normalizes extremist far-right violence and demonizes anti-fascist resistance.
We know this much: The victim is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the IWW's General Defense Committee (GDC), an anti-racist and anti-fascist organization. According to the Seattle Times the shooter, unnamed (as he was not charged) but identified as a 29-year-old former UW student, regularly expressed support for Trump, Yiannopolous, and the National Rifle Association on his Facebook page. Early on the night of the shooting, the gunman sent Yiannopolous the following Facebook message: “I’m outside in line to your UW event. I got sucker punched (he was a bit limp wristed) and someone jacked my #MAGA hat. Anyway for me to get a replacement signed by you?”
The man and another woman surrendered themselves to the UW police at around midnight on January 20, and were released without charges just a few hours later, having claimed the shooting was an act of self-defense. The victim was unarmed and UW does not permit firearms on campus. Police Major Steve Rittereiser later stated: “I want to be clear that although they were released they were the only individuals/ suspects involved. They were cooperative with investigators and releasing them poses no threat to the community.” Police have also stated that they are studying videos of the incident.
The victim has since said he has "empathy" for the shooter and wishes to engage in “constructive dialogue” outside of state judicial intervention. This is not atypical for anarchists who oppose the state.
The UW shooting and the tepid response to it frames confrontational protesters as the instigators of violence, thus deserving of counter-violence. This misses the fact that the protesters at Yiannopolous’ events, for example, are responding to an already-violent state of affairs. Violence—even in discursive form—is the resting state of a new normal in which Donald Trump is president and the worst of his campaign promises are becoming realities at breakneck speed. Violence is the baseline when Yiannopolous opens his mouth in public, and his ability to do so is fiercely enforced. The anti-fascist response is an intervention.
A peaceful racist event is an oxymoron. It is inherently a site of violence; anti-fascists recognize this and act forcefully with disruptive protest. That they are blamed as the violent party, and can be shot without much public outrage, reveals a state of affairs that will privilege fascism over righteous dissent. Meanwhile, Donald Trump once told a campaign rally, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” It would be no surprise if he’d face fewer legal consequences than anarchists breaking windows.
The university’s response to the shooting echoes this double standard. In a statement, the administration offered well wishes to the victim and said the “right to peaceful protest is every bit as sacrosanct as the right to speak,” but also tacitly blames the anti-fascist protesters for the incident. Here’s what the university president Ann Mari Cauce said in defense of her decision to allow Yiannopolous to speak (emphasis mine):
In the weeks leading up to the event, I received calls and emails from many who wanted this event canceled, some of which cited the potential for disruption and conflict…So why did I allow the event to go on? First, there is the legal right of our student groups to invite speakers, even a controversial one whose message is anathema to many, including me. We are bound by the law. But beyond that, canceling the event would have sent the message that a risk of disruption or conflict can be used to overwhelm our rights. That would empower those on the extremes willing to resort to such tactics.
On its face this reads as a standard issue defense of free speech, but I interpret this as a subtle suggestion that disruption and conflict was initially instigated by the parties asking that Milo not be permitted to attend, and thus that protesters like the shooting victim were the root of "concerns."
College Republicans went further. In a statement following the shooting, the official club denounced anarchists and anti-fascists and wrote: “If you keep prodding the right you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome will be.” A UW faculty member who wished to remain anonymous told me in response: “Remember, this is the group that officially sponsored the Milo event that got an [anti-fascist] anarchist shot.”
I have received numerous messages from members of the UW community expressing concern about what they perceive as the College Republicans’ and other students’ permissive attitudes to white supremacy. A group calling itself the UW Wall Building Association hosted an anti-immigrant, pro-Trump event on Monday, during which they erected an eight-foot-tall plywood wall. The Latinx Student Law Association had written a letter to the university president urging that the event be banned. It pointed out that “The event page indicates this is a celebration for the new President and the upcoming deportation of ‘illegals.’ The event’s original Facebook invitation (now no longer online) invited attendees to “bring bricks to donate to President Daddy’s big beautiful wall.”
“Many of us feel unsafe and afraid. A grad student was doxxed and is receiving death threats,” another UW community member told me via email.
In the immediate days following Trump’s election, amidst a wave of hateful acts, swastikas were found spray painted on the walls of The New School, one New York’s most progressive universities. UW, too, is a liberal stronghold, with students participating in events like the national student walkout on Inauguration Day. White nationalism has never been the sole preserve of confederate flag-waving slave states. But now it’s unapologetic and enabled by alleged bastions of progress.
I’m reminded of Black Panther Assata Shakur’s warning about the slippery nature of liberals. “As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary,” she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. “When times get hard… they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler.” Or at least those who would have enabled Hitler. Our institutions will likely be no bulwark to fascism: Liberal senators will likely confirm Trump’s ghoulish cabinet; universities will subtly condemn anti-fascist protesters while giving white supremacists the benefit of the doubt.
The American left faces a particular and frightening challenge when facing up to fascism in America. Its enemies are armed. I don’t only refer to the enemies now in the highest positions of state power, although this grim fact means that confrontational dissent may be punished as treasonous. But the civilian shock troops of the far right have more guns than its left opposition, and are empowered by a legal infrastructure that has long buoyed white men’s privilege to stand their ground with lethal force.
The UW shooting highlights the risks entailed in confronting armed opponents with the law bent in the favor. This is compounded by the fact that when anti-fascists are confrontational or engage in minor acts of counter-violence against hatemongers, they are unfairly blamed as the violent instigators. The challenge is to remain unchilled by all this; the only other option is capitulation to Trumpist fascism through inaction or an ill-thought faith in the power of liberal democracy. I fear this will not, and cannot, be pretty.