It's Insane We're Having A 'Debate' Over Whether It's Acceptable To Assault A Journalist

Awful awful awful awful

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It’s insane that in this, the Year of Our Lord 2019, there is any controversy over whether or not it is acceptable to physically assault a journalist, sending him to the emergency room. But that’s where we are!

The journalist in question is Andy Ngo. He’s an editor at Quillette who has written, from a right-of-center perspective, for a bunch of other outlets too. He has focused on what he sees as the violent threat posted by antifa, and has written stuff about migrant communities in Europe and multiculturalism I deeply, deeply disagree with. I went on a podcast with him where we talked about some of these disagreements, which you can listen to here.

Ngo likes to film antifa, particularly in Portland, Oregon, an activist hotbed where there are regular physical altercations between that group and far-right demonstrators. Antifa, as a rule, does not like being filmed (more on that soon), and particularly does not like being called the things Ngo frequently calls them. But he keeps filming them, and things have been escalating for a long time — it appears he’d already been assaulted filming a May Day protest in Portland.

Over the weekend, Ngo was assaulted again, this time by vigilantes in masks, during a demonstration in Portland. An Oregonian journalist caught video of it. The video shows the antifa goons kicking and punching him, and (less seriously, of course) someone else spraying what appears to be silly string on him. He ended up in the emergency room. 

The reaction online from a disturbingly big subset of the left was glee, rationalization, or both. Endless memes, endless jokes. Plus a lot of silence from those too scared to weigh in on the apparently controversial question of how one should react to masked vigilantes assaulting a journalist.

This extended pretty high up the progressive hierarchy. Here’s Charlotte Clymer, a very well-known communications staffer at Human Rights Campaign, an organization devoted to LGBT rights (while Ngo wasn’t attacked because he is gay, he is gay, which adds a certain… something to this), with some deep thoughts on the incident:

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Ngo is a conservative journalist whose goal is to document what he claims are the violent excesses of antifa — an argument progressives tend to reject. In the course of filming antifa, which he does regularly, some members of antifa physically assaulted him, and not for the first time, which would certainly seem to lend credence to his claim.

To respond to this with “He was asking for it,” which is what a lot of fairly big-name progressives and leftists did, is insane. Insane! Ngo is allowed to film people in public! This has to be an ironclad principle, or I’m not sure how anyone will ever be able to summon good-faith defenses of journalists just trying to do their jobs in the future. It can simultaneously be true that Ngo has a bone to pick with antifa, or even that he has been somehow unfair to antifa (and I am not familiar enough with his work on the subject to weigh in), and that he has a right to film them when they demonstrate in public. You really, really can’t go down the road of attempting to adjudicate, on a per-incident basis, when it’s simply bad, full-stop, to assault a journalist, and when we should keep in mind that Really, wasn’t he kind of asking for it?

Imagine taking this approach in any other situation. Some of the major turning points in what certainly feels like a recent weakening of anti-political-violence norms have occurred at Donald Trump rallies. He’s said horrible, scary things that certainly seem to give a green light to roughing up protesters, attacking the press, and so on. Let’s say a journalist gets assaulted at a Trump rally for the ‘sin’ of filming angry Trumpkins reacting to Trump’s anti-journalist rhetoric, even after they ask him to stop. Would Charlotte Clymer or any of the other people yeah-but-ing Ngo’s attack explain that really you need to put this in context — for you see, the journalist was just asking to be attacked by filming a riled-up group responding to authoritarian rhetoric?

Maybe my reaction to this event is biased by the fact that antifa protesters, and other lefty demonstrators, seem to have physically attacked many journalists lately. Let’s look at a handful of incidents written up by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. 

One of them involves Taylor Lorenz, a highly regarded journalist now at The Atlantic:

Taylor Lorenz, a journalist for The Hill, was punched in the side of the head while live-streaming the aftermath of a fatal attack on anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

On August 12, Lorenz was covering an anti-fascist march in downtown Charlottesville. While using her phone to live-stream the peaceful march, she caught footage of a man driving a car at high speed into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters. The car attack killed one protester and left dozens injured. 

In an interview with the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Lorenz said that as she documented the aftermath of the attack, a shirtless man came up to her and repeatedly ordered her to stop recording. According to Lorenz, she showed the man her press pass and said that she was a journalist, at which point the man walked behind her and then punched her hard in the side of her face. She fell down and dropped her phone. As she reached for her phone, she said, the man tried to kick it away from her.

Or Dave Minsky:

Dave Minsky — an independent journalist and photographer who freelances for Reuters, Vice, the Miami New Times and the Santa Barbara News-Press — was beaten by masked protesters on August 27, 2017, while covering an anti-fascist protest in Berkeley, California. [...] Minsky said that he tried to flee the scene, but a group of protesters chased him down. One of the masked protesters swung a pipe at him.

Or this guy:

A CBS 6 photojournalist had to be taken to the emergency room after he was struck in the back of the head by an anti-fascist protester, the channel reported on August 13, 2017.

The photojournalist, whose name has not been released, was using his phone to film a peaceful anti-fascist protest march in Richmond, Virginia.

He told CBS 6 that a group of people came up to him and told him to stop filming the march. When he continued to record, he said, people started putting flags in front of his phone to block him from recording.

“That’s when then I extended my arm above the flags to try to get a better shot of the protest,” he told CBS 6. “One member of the group hit the phone out of my hand and my natural reaction was to push them out of my personal space. Immediately following I was hit in the back of the head with a some type of blunt object.”

Then there’s this:

A reporter for local North Carolina TV station WLOS was assaulted while live-streaming a peaceful anti-racist demonstration in Asheville, North Carolina, on August 13, 2017.

And Mike Kessler:

Mike Kessler was covering a demonstration in Berkeley, California, when a group of protesters stole his camera and phone and attempted to break them. His phone was not damaged, but his camera was completely destroyed.

And Leigh Martinez:

Leigh Martinez, a freelance reporter for KTVU, was covering an anti-fascist protest in Berkeley, California, on August 27, 2017, when a protester knocked her phone out of her hand.

In a video of the altercation shared by KTVU on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, one protester is shown attempting to block Martinez’s ability to film the march with a poster. A second protester approaches Martinez, saying, “Hey, can you not film this right now?” The protester then knocks Martinez’s phone out of her hand. The protester was later arrested on suspicion of battery.

Was Taylor Lorenz asking for it? Was Dave Minsky? Was Mike Kessler? Leigh Martinez? When some violent idiot accosts them and demands they stop filming in public — something they have every right to do — should they stop? 

Of course, no one ideological group has a monopoly on physical attacks on journalistsmembers of far-right groups absolutely commit these acts, as do cops (if you scroll down here you will see  a disturbing number of stories involving law enforcement), as does, well, everyone. People like to beat up journalists. It’s terrible but true, even if the United States is, by any reasonable metric, one of the safest places to be a journalist.

But the point here is that antifa types have, ever since “punch Nazis” became a hip and troubling catch phrase, been given something of a pass and not treated by progressives with the same scrutiny that (say) an alt-right protester would if he attacked a journalist, even as there has been a steady stream of incidents all following the same general script, usually involving antifa protesters attempting to establish, by fiat, a right to not be filmed in public. So to frame this as some crazy outlier incident having to do with Ngo’s conduct and the history between he and local leftist activists is to really miss the point and let some violent people off the hook.

Part of the problem is that relatively big-microphoned enablers on the left have either been ignoring these attacks, or, when the target is unsympathetic, outright defending or laughing about them. Some of this is a sniveling, pathetic defensive move on the part of online-lefty personalities who might not actually be in favor of violence against journalists but can’t afford, brand-wise, to broadcast opposition to it, either. The idea, forged in the mewlingly infantile fires of Twitter, seems to be that if you criticize antifa, someone could accuse you of having fascist sympathies.

This is completely. Goddamn. Insane. Antifa is a big, broad, noisy, intentionally-loosely-organized group consisting of countless subgroups. Surely a large swath of its members are reasonable and would only engage in violence for self-defense purposes. Also surely, any group that entails a lot of masked marching around, looking for fascists to beat up, will also attract some of the sorts of people who are just looking for an ideological fig leaf allowing them to do what they most desire in their heart, which is to beat the hell out of someone, somewhere. If I assault a journalist while screaming “I am fighting fascism! I am fighting fascism!,” that doesn’t mean the act is justified or genuinely anti-fascistic, any more than when a cop presses his knee into the back of a hapless, nonviolent subject while screaming, “Stop resisting arrest! Stop resisting arrest!,” it means that use of force was justified because the subject was actually resisting arrest.

It’s pathetic I had to devote a newsletter to this. There really is bigger, more important stuff going on. But many members of my political tribe really are celebrating and normalizing violence in a manner that’s morally execrable, and this isn’t going to lead anywhere good. Just stop.

Questions? Comments? Violent threats? I’m at or on Twitter at @jessesingal.