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Flashpoint Activism: The War on Terrorism and Ending Racism


In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, this article attempts to explore how people who dislike racism and hate can be more effective at eliminating those and other undesirable views. Samantha Bee posted a video (below) stating “Punching Nazis doesn’t help. But you can put that energy somewhere that does. Life After Hate is the only organization dedicated to bringing people out of the white supremacist movement.” The article below explores why ‘Punching Nazis” is not an effective strategy to end racism and hate.

Effective Activism

This video illustrates the vortex of effectiveness in activism where ‘cooler heads’ prevail, and call for discourse rather than violence.

Impermeable News Cycles

As it becomes more difficult to break into a news cycles, some activists believe that increasingly violent demonstrations and clashes with the opposition are necessary to get attention and gain ground. When violence erupts, that usually gets the attention of national news media. This approach to grabbing the national megaphone can be referred to as “Flashpoint Activism” where the goal is to push the opposition to the point of violence and possible retaliation.

Flashpoint Activism is usually effective in the short term to get attention for your cause and views. The events that transpire can usually be blamed on the opposition, making them look bad and by comparison your group will look good.

Note: If there is no opposition present, you can work up a crowd into a frenzy until a riot ensues, store windows are broken, there’s looting in the streets, buildings are in flames (essential for news helicopter flyovers), and police cars are smashed and overturned (helping to convey a sense of anarchy in the streets). Eventually the news cameras will come. Then pick some eloquent and seemingly level-headed leader among the group to share the message and talking points while condemning the violence, saying something like, “It’s sad. It makes you wonder how things like this get started.”

Drawbacks of Flashpoint Activism

The danger of Flashpoint Activism is that people can physically get hurt or killed. The collateral damage and non-peaceful demonstration actions can result in negative PR for your group and movement. Additionally, such actions tend to embolden the opposition because they will feel their movement is under attack and their very lives are threatened — which was the exact reason most of them joined in the first place. Now they’ll just buy more guns and recruit more members — having the actual proof needed in photos and videos that show the ‘urgency of the hour’ which serves to be the tipping point for others to join.

Charlottesville Outcomes

On 12 Aug 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia a massive white nationalist rally and march was scheduled to take place. Such an event would be a tinderbox and present an easy opportunity for Flashpoint Activism. Some would call it an ideal opportunity because a ‘victory’ would almost be guaranteed and when one is protesting Nazis, regardless of what the outcome is, nobody is going to defend the Nazis. Essentially, it’s a free ticket to do whatever you want because by comparison, you’ll be considered ‘in the right’ to be protesting such a horrible thing as Naziism. Any violence that ensues can be easily blamed on the Nazis. Furthermore, those criticizing your own group’s actions can easily be labeled and vilified as Nazi sympathizers.

For this reason, Charlottesville is an example of the best possible outcome for Flashpoint Activism. What was the outcome? The outcome was that one person was killed, two police died, and many others were seriously injured. The additional outcome was that it emboldened the entire united national network of White Nationalist-aligned groups. It was an historic pivotal moment and turning point for their movement. It gave them photos and video footage to use as recruiting materials. They can use news footage to bolster claims that ‘even the news reports are biased against us’ which helps activate their base to greater levels of commitment, financial giving, and recruiting. People ‘at risk’ of racist thinking will be pushed further toward the fringe of racial hatred. The violence resulted in the equivalent of millions of dollars in free advertising for these extremist groups by way of news coverage. If a lawsuit is filed against the city for failing to protect the groups’ freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, then large sums of money will transfer to the groups. These combined factors have helped launch a domestic terrorist organization. That’s the outcome. Completely counterproductive.

In other words, the Charlottesville outcome was similar to the predictable outcome of our ‘war on terrorism’ that only breeds more terrorists. All of the undesirable outcomes described above could have been avoided by a more effective, more peaceful, more transformative, and more disarming form of protest.

Resistance to Calls for Peaceful Protest

Even so, calls for a more creative, peaceful, and effective forms of social action will likely be criticized harshly by the aggressive alpha-dog ego-inflated self-righteous militant leaders trying to justify and defend violent (yet ineffective) forms of protest. They believe so strongly in violent and confrontational protest that they won’t listen to any other suggestions, and any outcome will be analyzed and framed so as to prove that violence is the best most justified approach. Sadly, nothing can be said to dissuade them. So they become, unwittingly, the greatest forces to build up the groups they claim to hate. Any criticism, suggestions, or commentary will be met with name vilification and calling.

We can’t control what Nazis do. We can control how we respond to what Nazis do, and we have choices of behavior that will result in better outcomes.

Violence Simply Isn’t Effective

Whether or not you ‘like’ violence, or believe it’s justified in some situations, it’s important to consider what your ultimate goals and desired outcomes are, and then make an honest assessment about whether violence is helping to result in those long-term outcomes.

Ending Racism and Hate

With regard to ‘ending racism’ one’s immediate inclination would be to think that engaging in violent clashes with groups of racists might be the best way to end racism. Yet, it’s unlikely that a racist would get punched in the face by someone at a rally, and then immediately decide to stop being racist because of that. Fighting racism and hatred, like fighting terrorism, is an idealogical war over hearts and minds. It’s won with words, not firebombs.

More Effective Forms of Activism

There are numerous examples of effective activism that don’t include violent counter protests. Anyone genuinely interested in outcomes-based, data-driven, engaging and effective activism that has short-term and long-term beneficial results can read further on the topic at ResourcesForLife.com/Activism.

It’s easy to focus all the attention and blame of racism in society on white nationalists at rallies, but the problems are a bit deeper than a few outspoken racists. In the article “Unlearning Hared,” Nicholas Johnson states:

“It is the less visible, systemic racism, the racism embedded in virtually every American institution, that is even more difficult to identify and acknowledge than the alt-right folks who dress up as Nazis, shout offensive slogans, and parade with torches.” [More…]

Impactful Effective Activism

Samantha Bee posted the video below with the following statement: “Punching Nazis doesn’t help. But you can put that energy somewhere that does. Life After Hate is the only organization dedicated to bringing people out of the white supremacist movement. … Visit lifeafterhate.org, make a donation and help fight racism and hate.”

Below is a message from Life After Hate co-founder Christian Picciolini.

Further Reading

Here are two additional articles on the topic of how violence is often ineffective at achieving positive outcomes:

Video Coverage of Charlottesville Events

Vice Media. This is a documentary from Vice Media posted on 14 Aug 2017. Warning, the video contains disturbing images and harsh language.

Conservative Commentary

“The people that provoked this, yeah, I’ll agree, they were the white supremacists. They are the ones that are most responsible… Let me say this about some of the protestors. They came out for all the right reasons. This brings out a morally justifiable anger in people [to see] people that are that ignorant. [Source: Fox News Video @ 2m7s on 15 Aug 2017]


Note: Because apparently, according to some people, these days there’s some ambiguity or confusion on the matter, it needs to be explicitly stated that Neo-Nazi White-Nationalist KKK Alt-Right organizations and movements are bad.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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