Every American should know the names of Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. All four were civil rights volunteers who made the ultimate sacrifice, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s while answering Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for social justice.
Now we have to add another name to that roll call of sad honor: Heather Heyer, murdered while marching in an anti-white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into the crowd of demonstrators. I fear that her death heralds a wave of terrorist violence that’s just beginning.
When I wrote “Cleansing the Stain of the Confederacy” in May, I mentioned the effort to remove a statue of famous traitor Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville and how it had drawn a mob of torch-wielding white supremacists. They showed up again this past weekend, in a so-called “Unite the Right” rally to demand that the statue be left alone. Reportedly, they’re also angry that the name of the park where the statue stands was changed to “Emancipation Park”, which they perceive as a slap in the face – something that should only be true if you’re against emancipation.
The media tends to describe these people as “alt-right” or, a little less charitably, “white nationalists”. The better, more explicit terms would be “white supremacist” and “Nazi”. And when I say Nazi, I mean it literally: swastika flags and armbands, shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes, and the Nazi salute were very much in evidence at the rally. They also chanted Nazi slogans such as “Blood and Soil” and yelled, “Jews won’t replace us”.
Counterprotesters from anti-fascist groups showed up in force, and there were brawls throughout the weekend. The police response was timid at best. They did little to keep the two sides apart, and in some cases they stood by and watched violent clashes without intervening. A more vigorous effort might have prevented the car-ramming attack that killed Heather Heyer. (The obvious contrast is Ferguson, where militarized police wielding heavy weapons and armored vehicles met peaceful protests with mayhem, but we’ve seen over and over that this level of force is almost never deployed against white people.)
It’s tempting to say that this is all Trump’s fault – and there were plenty of white supremacists at the rally wearing Make America Great Again gear to prove the point – but the truth is we just don’t know. Even if the election had gone differently, we might be having this same conversation, only for different reasons. The Malheur wildlife refuge occupation took place under President Obama, after all, and there was plenty of trouble from militias and gun nuts under Bill Clinton. White supremacy has proven to be a durable force in America, no matter who’s in office.
But what can’t be denied is that Trump’s election has acted as an accelerant to white supremacists. It’s given them a sense of legitimacy and, worse, impunity: that public opinion is on their side and that they don’t have to fear consequences for anything they do. I don’t agree with that – after all, he lost the popular vote by a large margin – but what matters is whether they believe it. It will spur them on to heights of violence and aggressiveness they might not have reached otherwise.
Even at the height of its power, the KKK went on the march in hoods and masks. These modern racists made no attempt to disguise their identities – in an era of social media and face-recognition searches, no less. I’m sure that sense of impunity was a factor in this, although we can’t rule out that another part is simple stupidity. Most racists are deeply unintelligent and seem not to have thought about the potential repercussions (no surprise, many have been identified and at least one was fired from a job).
As Erika Wilson and Khaled Beydoun write for Al Jazeera:
A great American myth holds that racism erodes as time passes. However, reality consistently reveals that racism fluidly adapts to prevailing political norms, demystifying the idea that it is perpetually diminishing and declining. Events in Charlottesville, and the swelling movement of explicit and unabashed white supremacy that it represents, illustrate that modern racism is mutating back to its original out-in-the-open form.
To underscore this point, one thing I learned is that in spite of grassroots efforts to take them down, there are also new Confederate war memorials, some in states that didn’t even exist at the time of the Civil War:
For example, USA Today noted that there is the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena, Montana. But Montana wasn’t even a state at the time of the Civil War.
In addition, many of the monuments aren’t that old. University of North Carolina survey found that 35 monuments in the state have been built since 2000. (source)
There’s no reason to erect a brand-new memorial to the Confederacy except to promote the lost-cause myth and look back fondly on an era of racial subjugation. In the past, white supremacists would hide behind the cover story that they cared about “history”, but, more and more, they’re dropping the pretense.
I still believe that outright racists like the Charlottesville murderer are a minority in America, especially among the up-and-coming generations. But they’re more numerous than I had thought, and American politics is structured to allow a minority to rule indefinitely. I’d like to believe that there are enough decent people to rise up against them and cast them out of power, but I have no idea how long it might take, or how many more white terrorist killings and civil rights martyrs there will be first.