The Feel-Good Witch Hunt

With all the talk in the last few days about British neo-Nazis it was—in a weird sense—fulfilling to actually meet one.

Mid-way through today’s anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, someone in the back of the crowd began shouting “rubbish” in response to a speaker assailing the War in Afghanistan as an imperialist and racist ploy. I turned around to see a fat, beefy middle-aged skinhead wearing all black waving the backwards peace sign—the British equivalent of flipping someone off—towards the crowd. A few participants in the protest were clustering around him. I sensed that something was brewing, and, obeying my interests both as an activist and a social scientist, I weaved towards them through the crowd.

By the time I got there, there was already a small mob forming around the skinhead. All of them were young, radical looking-folk, wearing black hoodies and keffiyehs; the demographics made me think I was back at a freegan event or a critical mass bike ride in New York. Someone starting shouting “Nazi scum, off our streets!” and we all joined in. Sensing that his time was up—but definitely not appearing scared—the skinhead started casually walking off, joined by another nearly-identical compatriot. Even though they quickly left the square, about fifty of us followed, reciting a litany of reasonably clever anti-Nazi chants. The fact that everyone seemed to know the words made me think that these kinds of confrontations are not particularly uncommon here.

Things started to get a little bit tenser. A few in our group started throwing bottles and rubbish at the skinheads. A handful of police started surrounding the two men, which of course only led the anti-fascists to escalate, which in turn summoned more police. By the time we had gone a few blocks, there were probably twenty police encircling the skinheads, who were now backed up against a wall. The skinheads were silent, but looked smug, while we were screaming our heads off. I’m not entirely sure what precipitated it (as if they needed a reason), but a few police pulled out their truncheons and started whacking the protesters nearby.

A police van pulled up. The officers formed a cordon around the two men and shuttled them through the crowd. They got in the van and drove off. We paraded back to the rally, cheering “Who beat the Nazis? We beat the Nazis!” and “Smash the BNP [British National Party]!”

A few things occur to me as I reflect on what is, I think, my first ever encounter with a Nazi. The first is that I have no idea whether or not the two men were actually Nazis (or BNP members, or fascists, for that matter). And I doubt anyone in our crowd did either. Perhaps someone in our ad hoc posse had seen this guy before, or heard him say something that indicated his true colors. But as far as I—and I assume most of us—knew, he was just someone who happened to disagree with the speaker’s claim that the Afghanistan War is “pointless” and responsible for the deaths of “thousands of innocent Afghanis” (which are, to be fair, quite contentious claims). And yet, despite our ignorance, when someone started chanting “Nazi,” we joined in.

Secondly, our confrontation likely only strengthened the worldviews of both parties. In the eyes of us lefty radicals, we confirmed that there are Nazis everywhere and as such we have to be both vigilant and militant. Moreover, we witnessed with our very own eyes the true sympathies of the police, as they protected a fascist from getting his rightful comeuppance. As for the putative Nazis, I’m sure that the experience only confirmed that they—patriotic white males—are now a persecuted minority in their own country.

My final observation is that, at least at the time, chasing Nazis felt great. For five minutes, we had a scapegoat. Deep down, we all knew that the problems of the war—and the world—have many causes and many dimensions. But right then, we could point and chant “Nazis fuck off” and tell ourselves that this one random bloke was responsible for all the combined ills of the world. He was the embodiment of racism and fascism, homophobia and xenophobia. And so, when we “beat” him, we won a glorious metaphorical victory for peace, justice, and tolerance. It was cathartic.

Witch hunting is fun. So is having someone to blame. But I can’t help but think that’s the exact mentality that led the Nazis to kill six million innocent people.

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