Is punching Richard Spencer inciting violence or 'American as apple pie'?

The attack on the prominent ‘alt-right’ figure was turned into a meme and sparked debate over the use of violence in political discourse

Richard Spencer, a prominent figure in the “alt-right” movement, was punched in the face while giving an interview in Washington on Friday. The punch spawned debate and a number of memes.

In a video widely circulated online, Spencer spoke on camera amid protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration. Voices off camera asked him questions such as “Are you a neo-Nazi?” Spencer – who at a post-election conference in Washington famously led shouts of “Hail Trump” while audience members gave straight-arm salutes – replied that he is not.

At one point, someone asked Spencer about what appeared to be a pin on his lapel. He began to explain that it showed Pepe the Frog, a cartoon adopted by white supremacists and labelled a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Suddenly, a figure dressed in black entered the frame to punch Spencer in the face.

On Twitter, Spencer said there was “no serious damage” and that he can “take a punch”. He also put a video on Periscope in which he said he was with documentary film-makers and had walked into a “serious demonstration in Franklin Square” and said he was later spat on. He later posted a longer video to YouTube.

According to Spencer’s video and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which filmed the encounter, that was the second time Spencer had been punched in public.

Spencer is president of the National Policy Institute, which hosted the post-election event, where Spencer said, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” A December appearance at Texas A&M University was met with protests. His Twitter account was once suspended but has been reinstated.

Spencer tweeted that he had filed a police report on Saturday; a Metropolitan police department spokesperson confirmed that a report was filed. The police department said no one has been arrested in Spencer’s case.

Meanwhile, edited versions of the video of Spencer being punched were shared on Twitter, including videos set to songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.

Others compared the act of punching Spencer to punching Nazis, which occurred in Indiana Jones films and in Marvel Comics’ Captain America. The first issue of Captain America, in 1941, featured the red, white and blue-clad superhero punching Hitler in the face.

On Twitter on Friday, writer Gerry Duggan said such punches were “as American as apple pie”; the blow that hit Spencer, he said, was actually an “alt-highfive”.

As American as apple pie.

— Gerry Duggan (@GerryDuggan) January 21, 2017

The attack sparked debate over the use of violence in political discourse, including a column from the Spectator. The New York Times summarized the debate in a piece headlined: “Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?”

Others denounced those who were “cheering” the punch, including Nick Spencer, current writer of the Captain America series – an intervention that created debate on what the superhero’s take would be.

Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well.

— Nick Spencer (@nickspencer) January 20, 2017

“Something I hope we can all agree on,” Nick Spencer later wrote, calling for donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. “Freedom of speech is worth protecting.”

Guardian staff

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