The Tiki Torches of White Supremacy in Charlottesville

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On Friday night August 11, 2017, a group of 100 white nationalists marched onto the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia. The marchers carried tiki torches, chanted Nazi slogans like “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil,” and gave Nazi salutes. They also chanted other slogans like “White Lives Matter,” “You will not replace us,” and alluded to the white-nationalist idea that diversity as “white genocide.” This march was a vigil for the larger planned, “Unite the Right” rally for Saturday to protest a Robert E. Lee statue removal in a local park. Alt-Right leaders were scheduled to speak before an audience comprising hundreds of far-right activists. During the rally, a fight broke out when demonstrators (nearly all white and male) surrounded some counter-protestors peacefully grouped around a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the middle of the campus. A local activist told the Guardian, “They completely surrounded us and wouldn’t let us out.” Counter-protestors reported being pepper sprayed. The police eventually intervened, declaring an “unlawful assembly” and separating the groups. But the violence persisted well into the next morning with a series of confrontations. The groups beat each other with flagpoles and bats, chanted slogans, and used chemical sprays on each other. Some even reported being doused in raw sewage. At least two people were treated for serious but non-threatening emergencies from the fights by 10:30 a.m. Police deployed tear gas against the crowd shortly before 11:30. And by noon, the group of alt-right nationalists grew to include neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, and a heavily armed militia. Police dispersed the rally minutes after its scheduled start at and were in full riot gear to clear the area. But the violence didn’t die down. As some counter-protestors started to leave, a silver Dodge Challenger plowed through them. A 32-year-old woman was killed while nine others were injured as the car fled the scene. A helicopter crash near the protests killed two police officers while twenty-five others were also treated for injuries.

As you can recall, the alt-right is a movement that strongly rejects “diversity,” “political correctness, and identity politics as well as disturbingly engages in white nationalist, fascist, and Nazi rhetoric and regalia. And I’m sure it’s clear that they’re not using white nationalist tropes just to be “ironic” as some alt-righters claim. Because you don’t just wear a swastika to a “Unite the Right” rally with irony. Nevertheless, the alt right is a key part of a broader cultural backlash that helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Many white Americans felt that they’re losing their ground to nonwhites or that America is losing its identity. And many believe that political, economic, and media elites are either uninterested in defending their heritage or actively trying to eradicate it. Of course, such concepts are the result of white people feeling nostalgic for an America that never existed. Members of the alt right number among Trump’s staunchest supporters with members of his administration among its ranks like Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and Steve Bannon. Thanks to Trump’s election, the alt right’s leaders have become increasingly willing to dabble in white nationalist rhetoric and tropes while trying to avoid being accused of white nationalism themselves. Sure they didn’t start out explicitly aligning themselves with white supremacists but racist rhetoric has always been a hallmark of the movement even during the 2016 Election. But Trump’s election has emboldened the alt right to come out of the white nationalist closet and show the world the kind of racist shits they actually are. Trump’s election has made racist rhetoric more acceptable among his supporters who feel they don’t need to conceal their contempt for the kinds of people they don’t like. Yet, it has also led to a resurgence of right-wing extremism with hate incidents on the rise.

But why Charlottesville? Well, many cities in the South still have public spaces and monuments celebrating key Confederate figures. Many of these weren’t erected until the 20th century with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow laws coming under attack. Thus, it is clear these landmarks weren’t created to celebrate Southern “heritage” but to remind black people of their subservience to whites. In other words, the Lee statue exists in the city as a symbol of white supremacy and racism. After all, Lee’s devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country embodying the white nationalist ethos. Since the 2015 Emmanuel AME Church shooting, there’s been a renewed push to remove Confederate monuments and rename streets and squares named after them. But wherever these campaigns succeeded, there’s often been backlash from white Southern conservatives who consider the Confederacy as part of their “heritage” and outright white nationalists. In Charlottesville, the target was a statue of Robert E. Lee in a park called Lee Park. As City Council members pointed out, Lee had no connection to Charlottesville and his commemoration was just an indirect way to celebrate the Confederacy. The city council later voted to sell the statue and rename the park as Emancipation Park (even though it’s currently still in place). This decision made the Charlottesville a target for far-right activism and shows of strength along with those keen to stand up to them and demonstrate that their ideas weren’t welcome. On July 8, 30 Klu Klux Klan members held a small rally in the city though hundreds of counter-protestors outnumbered them.

Which brings us to today. “Alt-Right” luminaries planned a large “Unite the Right” rally for Saturday. While originally intended to attract a broad coalition of “patriot” groups, it had become increasingly Nazified, some refused to sign on. Instead, explicitly fascist and white supremacist groups like the National Socialist Movement, the Klu Klux Klan, and Neo-Nazis got on board, which reflected the march’s Nazified tone. Hundreds of protestors descended upon Charlottesville for the rally which Vox called, “a belated coming-out party for an emboldened white nationalist movement in the United States.” Speakers included some alt-right personalities who’ve flirted most openly with white nationalism and self-identified white nationalists like Richard Spencer. Yet, the arc of the “Unite the Right” rally from a demonstration to bring conservative groups together to protest a controversial statue removal to a “Nazified” rally for “the pro-white movement of America,” reflects what’s been happening to the alt right as a whole.

Numerous public officials of both parties have condemned the violence along with the white supremacists who perpetuated it. However, Donald Trump tweeted 14 hours after the clashes began with, “We ALL must be united and condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” He later released a statement condemning the violence “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He didn’t explicitly identify who was to blame and only used the vaguest possible terms. Trump’s response to Charlottesville is notable. After all, he didn’t wait for 14 hours to denounce Islamist terror outside the US. Nor did he let his vacation get in the way of threatening war with North Korea. Yet, Trump refused to actively condemn the white nationalists responsible for the initial violence, most of the violence and disorder, and the most serious violence in Charlottesville in the strongest possible terms. His refusal provides a misleading account of what happened as well as erroneously implies that both rally goers and counter-protestors were equally to blame. Such implication leaves it wide open for Trump supporters to assume “the left” started it. His remarks suggest that the “hate and division” are equally distributed and that the counter-protestors seeking to stand up to the rallygoers are every bit as hateful. His calling for the “swift restoration of law and order,” implies that the real problem is disrespect for police. But all Trumps statements regarding Charlottesville encourage his supporters to misinterpret the events as anyone else’s fault but the white nationalists themselves.

In context, Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville is an insult to Americans who’ve felt unsafe since his election and whose acknowledgement of their fears has been tepid at best. What he’s said that “many sides” must put aside their own prejudices just as much as anyone else and come together as Americans and everything will be all right. But Trump’s unwillingness to understand the rise of the “alt right,” overt racism, and street violence as anything other than a need for “both sides do it” leads him to say things that may signal white supremacists that he’s on their side, inadvertently or otherwise. When Trump calls for Americans to unite because “We love our country. We love our God. We love our flag. We’re proud of our country. We’re proud of who we are,” he’s using the same language these people use to justify trying to “protect” American “identity” from their non-white and non-Christian countrymen. When he declares “we must cherish our history” in response to a rally initially convened to protest a Robert E. Lee statue removal, he sure sounds like he’s siding with the very white supremacists wanting to keep it. Such remarks would come across as deliberate dog whistles in a more deliberate president. We all know Trump loves his base that he’s very careful about doing anything that could upset them. He also acts as if there’s any connection between the “alt-right” and Nazis. Then there’s the fact he has known white nationalists in his administration like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. Any case where white supremacists engage in unprovoked violence against the left would do just that. Yet, it’s not clear whether Trump is deliberately sending signals to the alt-right that he’s still on their team or that thought that much about it. And that’s exactly the problem. In the last six months of his presidency, Trump has shown less concern for governing on behalf of “the haters and losers” who didn’t support him than any president in recent memory (which would include most Americans in general). Nor does he seem to care about the white supremacist threat to US citizens to understand or name it. It’s an ideology history buffs like myself are very familiar with in American history that has been used to justify slavery, segregation, lynching, hate crimes, and terrorism. And it’s one threatening not only extremist violence but American democracy as well.

It is precisely on moments like Charlottesville that an American president should speak directly on behalf of the American creed, Americans rejecting tribalism and seeking pluralism, and the idea that alt-right nationalism is antiethical to the American idea itself. At a moment when the US needs its leadership to take a unified stand against hatred, Trump’s refusal to call radical white terrorism for what it is might mark the lowest point of his presidency to date. Nevertheless, it’s not unexpected in a man like Donald Trump. Trump has a long history of racism and doesn’t see any problem with white nationalists openly supporting him or working in the White House. Nor does he see anything wrong with promoting inherently racist and xenophobic policies or running a racist, xenophobic campaign that energized the radical right. Whenever Trump has a chance to condemn white supremacists, he’s clearly and repeatedly refused to denounce them in terms that would alienate them. In fact, he continues pandering to them which very unlike what he does with nearly any people or group he dislikes (which he isn’t shy about condemning on Twitter to sabotaging their lives). His election further emboldened these white supremacists who see him as their champion. The day after Trump’s election, hate incidents soared with many carried out in his name. David Duke’s response to Charlottesville clearly reflects this noting, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” Seven months into his presidency, Trump has fostered an environment in which people who might’ve been ashamed of their shameful beliefs are now utterly unafraid to show their faces in broad daylight. And as long as white supremacists feel they can no longer hide their hate and bigotry, expect more domestic terror incidents like Charlottesville and other hate crimes.

While much of the country is confused on how the violence in Charlottesville came to be, the answer is blatantly obvious. What happened in Emancipation Park and the streets of Charlottesville didn’t just suddenly spring forth all by itself. White supremacy runs deeper than rogues in hooded robes and has always influenced politics and political violence. White supremacist policy and rhetoric is still being fostered and widely enabled. And it doesn’t take long for such mere sentiments erupt into of overt violence. When white supremacy turns violent America is less safe, especially for people of color and religious minorities. Now I know that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is an unapologetic racist who’d gleefully march alongside fellow Neo-Nazis and Klansmen in the White Pride parade. But all Trump voters who saw him speak, heard his inflammatory rhetoric, believed in his vision for the future knew exactly what they were aligning themselves with. For millions of Americans, the fact their candidate unashamedly pandered to voters by appealing to the most despicable impulses among us wasn’t a deal-breaker. And the violence possibly resulting from Trump’s decision to give these white supremacists a voice was a risk they were willing to take. Yet, white supremacy can and will flourish when given fuel. History has shown from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement that such transformations can spread like wildfire relatively fast and destroy decades of progress in flashes. All that white racial resentment toward minorities that propelled Trump to the presidency was just that. It may be easier to see white supremacists as people wearing white robes with cone hoods and swastika arm bands then a group of white men (along with some white women) with tiki torches, bad haircuts, wrinkled khakis, and a love of memes camping out in a park. Yet, keep in mind that even the most feared white supremacists during Jim Crow were just regular white men transformed from their lives as politicians, farmers, mechanics, and layabouts by sheer ideological power. White supremacist movements could often considered as “fringe” and marginal until they weren’t. So if you think that a bunch of young white guys with tiki torches aren’t capable of blood-curdling horror that destroyed countless black families, I honestly urge you to reconsider.

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