The Brexit Party has just done extremely well for itself in the EU elections, though it should be noted that it and the Tories got less than half the total votes. If I had to describe the whole affair, it would be as such: the whole thing became, essentially, a second Brexit referendum. The “remainers” won, though they won as a fractured coalition. A new party captured the vast majority of the pro-brexit vote, as the Tory’s base had so utterly lost faith in it that they were eager to vote for someone to the right of them.
All that aside, there was an interesting political fad, something of an offline meme: people threw milkshakes at right-wing politicians, and centrists/conservatives/fash were all Very Mad about it.
The fad started on May 2nd of this year, when Tommy Robinson (a British candidate for EU parliament) approached a Pakistani-British man (Danyaal Mahmud) on the street, and started harassing him. Tommy followed after Danyaal as he tried to leave, with left-wingers escorting Danyaal and right-wingers trailing after Tommy. Things grew heated, and Danyaal found himself cornered. Scared and out of other options, Danyaal threw the remains (a milkshake) of his lunch in Tommy’s face. Tommy grabbed Danyaal’s head and savagely rained blows down upon him, until Tommy was pulled off by police and civilians. The video of this went viral, with 5.7 million views as of this writing.
This was actually the second-time someone had thrown a milkshake on Tommy, though I cannot find details on the first, nor can I find any evidence of a connection between Danyaal’s act of desperation and whatever happened the first time. As far as I can tell, Danyaal had no intention of becoming a political icon and really just wishes people would leave him alone.
Regardless, the video has inspired others. Carl Benjamin, another British candidate for EU parliament, has had milkshakes thrown on him many times.
First off, some historical context. Throwing food at politicians isn’t a new idea, nor is it something only done to the far-right. Here’s Schwarzenegger talking about getting hit with an egg in 2003. Here are two French presidential candidates getting pelted with flour in 2012 and 2017. The Australian prime minister just got hit with an egg, and the police arrested the egg-thrower for it.
So, the basic concept isn’t terribly new or exciting. What is exceptional about throwing milkshakes at far-right figures, though, is how goddamn mad it makes them. Schwarzenegger, when asked about his egging, joked that the guy owed him bacon, and said that the ability to protest him like that was part of what he loved about America. The French candidates mostly just hurried off. The Australian prime minister was a bit closer in his reaction (he called the woman a thug and had his goons arrest her) but even that managed to appear more dignified than the far-right’s reaction of bizarre fear.
Nigel Farage has been trying to tour Britain by bus, to promote his (far-right) Brexit Party. In the past, he’s said that he’ll:
“don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if Theresa May fails to deliver Brexit in the fashion he wants.
This now feels like a very unconvincing statement, given that he refused to get off his bus in Kent, because a couple of dudes were standing around it, holding milkshakes. Before that, in Newcastle, Nigel got pelted with a milkshake and responded by… fleeing the scene and losing his shit at his bodyguards. He later referred to the milkshake as “an affront to democracy”. The milkshaker was arrested. There are rumors of him being ‘menaced’ (to stretch the definition of that word to the breaking point) by larger groups with milkshakes, but I cannot confirm those at this time.
The far-right’s establishment allies have their backs on this, too. Both the “centrist” politicians:
Tim Farron, the leader of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, said, “I’m not laughing along with the attack on Farage. Violence and intimidation are wrong no matter who they’re aimed at. On top of that, it just makes the man a martyr, it’s playing into his hands.”
And the police, who made McDonald’s in Edinburgh stop selling milkshakes for several hours around a Farage rally.
Burger King, meanwhile, responded by tweeting out that they were still selling milkshakes. There are plenty of commentaries on this, but making them would be beside the point of this article.
There are some rumors of people doing this to fash in the US, though I can only find tweets about it. That doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is how much they over-react to this. They call it political violence. In addition to Tim Farron, we have Sam Harris, who once wrote an article advocating the use of torture, now whining about it. He even called them “mock assassinations”. More on that in a bit, because he’s actually correct, and it’s great.
They’re calling it “political violence”, which suggests that political violence is now as meaningless of a term as terrorism. These people will call anything “political violence”. Meanwhile, actual political violence barely breaks the news cycle.
Matt Ford, at The New Republic, put it best when he said:
…milkshaking is so potent against Farage and his brethren… [because] it humiliates them. Nothing animates the far right or shapes its worldview quite so much as the desire to humiliate others—and the fear of being humiliated themselves. It’s why alt-right trolls, projecting their own sexual insecurities, enjoy calling their opponents “cucks.” It’s why they rally around blustery authoritarian figures like Donald Trump who cast themselves as beyond embarrassment, shame, or ridicule. They brandish humiliation like a weapon while craving release from it.
Getting doused in a milkshake robs far-right figures of the air of chauvinistic invulnerability that they spend so much time cultivating. They hunger to be taken seriously despite their racist views. They want to be described as dapper, to be interviewed on evening news broadcasts and weekend talk-show panels, and to be seen as a legitimate participant in the democratic process. Most politicians to the left of Enoch Powell would brush off milkshaking as a harmless stunt. For those seeking mainstream legitimacy, it’s another searing reminder that they don’t belong.
…What the far right fears more than anything else isn’t a defeat at the ballot box or a temporary setback in policymaking. It’s the sting of shame that comes from being humiliated in public. I personally oppose violence in all forms, so I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to throw a milkshake at the nearest racist I encounter. But I don’t need to believe in it to recognize how effective it is at shaming the far right.
Even beyond this, though, we have to understand the profoundness of the dichotomy at play here.
These guys have consistently called for horrible violence, in numerous ways, against numerous targets. But the actual reality of milkshake “violence” is that it’s actually quite light and mocking. It’s milkshakes. It’s nothing. No one is going to die because they got hit with a milkshake. But they will run and hide from it.
More than that, though, liberals are extremely comfortable with these guys getting milkshaked — comfortable in a way that they aren’t with them getting punched. It’s just a bit of fun to them, and even they aren’t dumb enough to really believe the fash and “centrists” when they start whining about political violence. We can use that. As Huck Magazine put it:
Our screens and feeds are filled with coverage documenting, and sometimes assisting, the rise of the far-right, in a way that feels incredibly overwhelming and disempowering. Now, we see an islamophobic figurehead in the running to be an MEP for the seat previously held by Nick Griffin, and although a milkshake being thrown is a viral joke on the face of it, the comic relief is timely. While I don’t think anyone is seriously conceptualising isolated, one-on-one confrontations (which may result in the confronters being done for assault) as the most viable means of tackling the terrifying problem of fascism, these incidents of virality say something about how we’re all feeling.
It is, obviously, not a realistic course of action. I doubt anyone thinks it is. But there’s a tiny sliver of joy to be salvaged as we see our frustrations exemplified by someone who, when given the chance, won’t nod along to the sentiments of fascists. Someone who will throw an egg. Someone who will throw a milkshake.
This is an “anti-fascism” (to stretch that word to hell and back) that the liberals can actually see themselves doing. This can escalate further — though, of course, in practice this is actually a de-escalation. Milkshaking is something of a training game, in that it can get liberals comfortable with doing harder stuff in a fairly safe-feeling environment. It’s like Avery Alder’s Brave Sparrow in its effects — though a little bit harder core, and aimed at adults. It teacheshow to think in terms of strategy, tactics, and asymmetric warfare. This is all fantastic stuff.
When Sam Harris says:
All these assaults are mock assassinations (whether the perpetrators know it or not). Pies, milkshakes, glitter, etc. reveal unavoidable weaknesses in the security of their targets and advertise their vulnerability to the whole world. The result is worse than it appears.
He’s right. While throwing milkshakes is good optically and in terms of building political alliances, because it isn’t dangerous and shows restraint, it also serves as an effective threat to for fascists, just as Sam Harris describes.
One might argue that this gives the fash and/or the state the opportunity to patch exposed security holes, but I disagree. I think that we have always had more power than we realized, and that proving this to everyone is fantastic.
These are mostly candidates or members of legislatures, not heads of state — who are already beyond the reach of the public. These sorts of lower-level guys can only really patch these security holes by either radically reducing their exposure to the public or radically increasing their hired security. Both options serve only to broadcast that they’re actually very unpopular — you can’t really credibly claim a mandate from “the people” while also hiding from “the people”.
Further, I don’t think that they can actually reduce their risk (by doing either, or both, of these options) enough to effectively eliminate it — you can only avoid the public so much, and hiring 24/7 armed guards for every candidate and representative is very expensive. Either they’re going to bear that expense privately or that’s going to be borne publicly. The first seems more likely, but the second one would be mean more expense for the taxpayers, and thus be even less popular.
This is all part of a global trend — the far-right is rising. Even though the Brexit Party lost, they still did very well for themselves. Le Pen’s National Rally, in France, also just did very well — and the Conservatives, in Australia, just had a shocking victory. We need more effort, and more tactics, against these people. We need to humiliate them, destroy their tough-guy images, and leave them afraid. We need to train, to get ready to defend ourselves and to strike back. These people are coming for us. The Trump administration is stripping trans protections in the US, as well as undermining judicial checks and balances. Sex worker protections have already been undermined. There are immigrants in cages. Abortion is being made illegal. I don’t care how white, how comfortable, how male, how straight, how cis, or how anything you are — fascism is coming, and it’s coming for you. There will be no hiding place, in the end, no systems to save you — as always, everything is heading towards a grand showdown, and everyone will have to pick a side.
The liberals are throwing milkshakes because, like Danyaal, they are afraid. They don’t know what to do. They’re lashing out with whatever they know. Our job isn’t to tell them that they’re bad for using milkshakes and not bricks. It’s to help them make the transition from milkshakes to bullets, to knives, to sabotage, to subversion. Milkshakes are but the first brick in the long road of radicalization. Every step needs to feel comfortable, accessible, and reasonable. In the end, they may never say that they’re one of us — and that is okay. They may serve anarchist causes in the name of democracy, of tradition, of civility, or even in the name of property. It doesn’t matter, as long as they are fighting back — all resistance, taken far enough, leads to the same place.