When white supremacist It Boy Richard Spencer got punched in the face on camera Saturday, the footage was instantly everywhere. A sudden act of violence is always a shock, but when it’s a public figure it really gets our attention, reminding us that celebrity, despite its many perks, isn’t physical armor and that there’s a frighteningly thin line dividing modern society from the plot of The Purge: Election Year. We can’t help but watch.
The insta-meme — a surprise right hook delivered by an anonymous perpetrator — spread quickly, set to soundtracks by Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen. The New York Times asked, earnestly, “Is it O.K. to Punch a Nazi?” as Twitter debated whether unrepentant glee in the face of violence was acceptable, so long as the victim was a racist piece of shit. (Pretty much everyone but Sarah Silverman said yes, and even she changed her mind eventually.)
Spread the word around. pic.twitter.com/pacj1K7Xl3— Peter Nygaard (@RetepAdam) January 21, 2017
But will it ultimately matter that Richard Spencer got hit? A brief survey of history teaches us that while we love a good fight, public pummeling rarely results in a change of heart on either side.
Victim: Sen. Charles Sumner
Assailant: Rep. Preston Brooks
Location: Senate floor
Attack: South Carolina Rep. Brooks mercilessly beat Massachusetts Sen. Sumner with a metal cane after the abolitionist Sumner taunted Brooks’s slaveholder relative, fellow Sen. Andrew Butler, in a speech (referring to Butler’s “mistress” as “the harlot, Slavery.”)
Aftermath: Brooks got fined and became a Southern hero (people sent him canes as gifts!). Sumner survived and became a Northern martyr (thousands marched in a rally to support him!). The Civil War still happened.
Public opinion: “The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife.” —Cincinnati Gazette
“We are rejoiced. The only regret we feel is that Mr. Brooks did not employ a slave whip instead of a stick.” —Richmond Whig
Victim: Dan Rather
Assailants: Security guards
Location: Democratic National Convention, Chicago
Attack: While attempting to interview a Georgia delegate being escorted out of the building, Rather — wearing a comically large headset — was pushed to the ground by security; a scuffle ensued. Breathing heavily and visibly shaken, he told Walter Cronkite on-air that someone had punched him in the stomach.
Aftermath: Since the 1968 Democratic Convention was by all accounts a complete shitshow, this incident doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent, although it does have its own section in the Convention’s Wikipedia entry, and Cronkite called the perpetrators “a bunch of thugs” on-air.
Public opinion: “I guess even white people can be called thugs! LOL” —YouTube commenter Caroline Garity
Victim: Gore Vidal
Assailant: Norman Mailer
Location: Green room, The Dick Cavett Show
Attack: Angry at fellow author Vidal for writing a bad review of his book Prisoner of Sex (Vidal compared Mailer to Charles Manson and opined that some parts “read like three days of menstrual flow”), Mailer allegedly headbutted Vidal before they both went on the air (alongside journalist Janet Flanner) to be interviewed by Cavett.
During the talk show Mailer refrained from further physical violence, although his verbal barbs flew freely.
Aftermath: Everyone, including audience members, thought Mailer was a dick. Mailer hit Vidal again at a cocktail party not long after, allowing Vidal to utter the sickest literary burn of all time: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”
Public opinion: Norman Mailer was a dick.
Victim: Rev. Al Sharpton
Assailant: Congress of Racial Equality Chairman Roy Innis
Location: Live taping of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, Apollo Theater, New York
Attack: During an argument about the Tawana Brawley rape case (Brawley claimed to have been assaulted by four white men, including a police officer; Sharpton defended her account while Innis believed the case was a hoax designed to stoke racial tensions), Innis shoved Sharpton to the floor.
Aftermath: Sharpton and Innis requested a boxing match, which sadly never appears to have happened. “I can lose weight, but he can't lose years,” Sharpton said at the time. “If he goes one round with me it will be the biggest accomplishment of his civil rights career.” Innis went on to throttle a Nazi youth a few months later, again on live television (see below).
Public opinion: “Roy Innis dead at 82 - May he RIP - He ripped Al Sharpton a new asshole.” —Obituary, True News USA
Victim: Geraldo Rivera
Assailants: Skinhead teenagers
Location: Set of Geraldo
Attack: On an episode titled “Teen Hatemongers,” a fight broke out after one such hatemonger called guest Roy Innis (see above!) “Uncle Tom.” Innis began to choke the racist youth, and somehow Geraldo’s nose was broken in the fracas.
Aftermath: Geraldo declined to press charges. Teens proceeded with hatemongering.
Public opinion: “Everybody got what they wanted here. The Nazis got to spout their rubbish on TV. The other guests got a chance to lash out at them. The producers got their ratings. The audience got their violence. And one lucky person got to take a swing at Geraldo Rivera.” —Reddit user Baldricks_Trousers
Victim: Tila Tequila
Assailants: Insane Clown Posse fans
Location: “Gathering of the Juggalos,” Cave-In-Rock, Illinois
Attack: Singer and reality star Tequila (also a semi-professional troll who once tweeted — before being banned from the site — to “bring my boo Hitler back”) performed at an annual festival for ICP fans, who pelted her with bottles, rocks, firecrackers, and, reportedly, human feces.
Aftermath: Tequila threatened to sue the Juggalos, but a lawsuit never materialized. The annual Gathering relocated to Ohio.
Public opinion: “I was torn between my natural horror at seeing a tiny, solitary woman being abused by a massive, enraged crowd and my not wholly insupportable belief that Tequila may in fact, be the worst woman in the world.” —Witness Nathan Rabin on The A.V. Club blog
Victim: Brad Pitt
Assailant: Ukrainian TV reporter Vitalii Sediuk
Location: Maleficent premiere, Hollywood
Attack: On the red carpet, “prank”-loving Sediuk, who has also put his face in Leonardo DiCaprio’s crotch, jumped a velvet rope and punched Pitt while he signed autographs.
Aftermath: Sediuk was arrested and sentenced to 20 days of community service and court-ordered psychological counseling. Twitter alighted with Fight Club references.
Public opinion: “When people tell me that Brad Pitt is old as fuck, I just want to punch them hard in the face. No one asked for your damn opinion [Face With Steam From Nose Emoji]” —Twitter user @AlexWithAnX1
“Who ever threw dog shit in Martin Shkreli’s face, you are s [sic] true hero”
Victim: Martin Shkreli
Location: UC Davis
Attack: Visiting the college to speak at an event on Friday the 13th (“Shkrelopoulos,” also headlined by Milo Yiannopoulos and billed as “a Twitter villain extravaganza”), the reviled pharmaceutical exec got hit in the face with an unknown substance as a protester called him a “piece of shit.” Someone at the scene tweeted that it “looked like dog poop.”
in which martin shkreli gets poop thrown at his face pic.twitter.com/lBLljnMuep— Kris Hooks (@Captain_Hooks) January 14, 2017
As a bonus, another protester smashed something into Shkreli's face on camera.
Aftermath: Shkreli called the allegations “fake news,” claiming that the perpetrator threw leaves.
Public opinion: “Who ever threw dog shit in Martin Shkreli's face, you are s [sic] true hero” —Twitter user @uglyposterboy
And so it goes. The zeitgeist and its media of choice may change, but violent acts on public figures have always been used to promote agendas. Ironically, the 24-hour news cycle and live video feeds are probably the only things stopping our current Senate from beating each other to death during a vote. Which is a good thing. Right?