Violence erupted again in protests at the University of California Berkeley April 16. A pro-Trump male protester was caught on video assaulting an anti-Trump female protester, punching her in the face. She was wearing the red-and-black gear typical of anti-fascist activists. He, apparently, was a fascist.
Multiple witnesses identified the aggressor as a local white supremacist leader, a young man named Nathan Damigo. As more information about the perpetrator emerged, it became clear that he was part of a disturbing trend — the promotion of “alt right” views by the supposedly liberal media, ultimately enabling their ascent and their violence.
By an unlikely coincidence, Damigo was already in the news that day. He was the subject of a profile in the Los Angeles Times, centering around an appearance Damigo made in an ethnic studies class at his own university; he was invited by the professor to discuss his views on race.
While the students in the class vociferously disagreed with him, according to the profile, they heard him out. They gave him their time and respect.
The video shows that Damigo clearly does not extend those on the left the same courtesy.
What emboldened Damigo to meet the protests in Berkeley with violence? It seems he should have been happy with what he was already getting. He was welcomed into a space where he was allowed to debate, in an academic setting, whether his fellow students had the right to live in the United States because of their race. He was profiled in one of the nation’s top newspapers, and not in unflattering terms.
The LA Times reporter dwells on Damigo’s military experience and his time in prison (where, in what seems like a poor choice of the U.S. prison system, he discovered the writings of a prominent Ku Klux Klan member). She lavishes detail on the nuances of the alt right. She humanizes her subject as much as possible, but does not ask how the other students in that ethnic studies class felt about his presence there.
“On Twitter, where he uses the name ‘Fashy Haircut’ (as in fascist), he regularly posts photos in front of his bookcase, which includes titles by the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly, books about genetics, race and evolution — and books from the ‘Twilight’ vampire series,” the LA Times reporter writes. Her tone is marvelling. “You mean this man has other interests, and he’s still a racist? I can’t believe it!” she seems to be asking.
There’s an undercurrent to the article that is present in a lot of reporting about white supremacists, an air of incredulity. The professor who invited Damigo to his ethnic studies class seems to come from a similar place.
“What happened to this person?” These reporters and professors seem to be asking themselves. “What could we do to change their minds?”
It’s a question worth asking, but in many cases white supremacists have made us aware of the answer already. They have arrived at their conclusions because they benefit them. They justify walking into a protest and doing exactly what you want to the people you despise. They make it seem noble to punch a woman in the face.
Nathan Damigo was shown all the sympathy in the world by the liberal establishment. They wanted to understand him, to make sense of how he became this person and what could be done to help him. He had no interest in reciprocating. Fascists don’t want to understand the people they hate. They want to exterminate them.
But people like Nathan Damigo aren’t interested in getting help. They don’t perceive themselves as the ones with the problem. They have structured an entire world view around permitting themselves to hate people and to hurt people, and those kinds of views don’t tend to fade through rational debate and friendly, understanding discourse.
This isn’t a case where we can love the sinner but hate the sin, as nice as that might be. In order to fully condemn these violent ideologies, we need to condemn the people who hold them as well. We need to stop allowing them to enter community spaces and participate in community debates. They should have no venues to victimize minorities or attempt to convert other white people. And for the love of God, we have to stop writing lovingly detailed profiles about them.
If that doesn’t happen, many understanding, pluralist, liberal believers in free speech and hearing all sides of the story are going to wake up in a world that wants them dead. And they will have helped create it.