Opinion: The Long Road to Charlottesville

By now you’ve heard the news. On Saturday, August 12, a day of tension and clashes over white nationalists protesting the removal of Confederate monuments ended in tragedy as a member of the far-right protest group drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters. The event began as a Unite the Right rally attempting to dissuade the city from removing a statue of Robert E. Lee which stood in the local Emancipation Park. A counter-protest developed, as Charlottesville citizens and students of the nearby University of Virginia showed up to vocally reject the racist ideals those statues represent. When these counter-protesters took the street, they were viciously attacked when 20-year-old James Fields drove his vehicle into the group. Fields, who had been sighted earlier at the rally standing with members of Vanguard America, sped up the road and struck counter-protesters from behind. 19 people were injured in this assault and Heather Heyer, a local paralegal, was killed. Fields quickly reversed and drove away. He was later arrested by Charlottesville Police. Despite this act of terrorism and the circumstances surrounding it, that day the President refused to name white supremacy as the culprit.

It would be easy to believe that the death of Heather Heyer is an isolated incident; that the rally was a once in a lifetime coincidence; that the President’s statements were an honest mistake with no deeper meaning and no lasting consequences. But those things simply aren’t true. The fact is, although the explosion in Charlottesville happened last weekend, the fuse was lit a long time ago. The one that will touch off the next Charlottesville is burning now.

1: Hate, Not Heritage

For more than 150 years, Confederate iconography in America went largely unchallenged. Statues and other monuments lionizing the political and military leadership of a group of states who fought the United States with the intent of securing the institution of slavery exist throughout the South. Many were constructed in the 1920s and 1960s as a form of social control, funded and raised in reaction to black agitation for civil rights and increased participation in American society, and meant to demonstrate the superiority of whites and the nobility of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Even as race relations in America transformed over the course of subsequent decades, few questioned whether these statues deserved to remain.

That changed, at least for Charlottesville, in 2012, when local councilwoman Kristin Szakos asked during a speech by historian and author Edward Ayres if the Confederate monuments in her city ought to be removed. The response was quick and heated. Szakos received hateful calls and messages, insults and threats. Even simply asking the question resulted in the demonstration of a deep resistance to anything that might threaten what some see as the heritage of the South.

Over the following years, contentious racial issues grew in number and visibility. From the slaying of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the protests that followed, and the many unfair or unexplained deaths of minority individuals at police hands that have drawn national attention since then. Stories of inequality and injustice spread through the news, sparking outrage among the left at the lack of action to combat them. As movements against voter discrimination and police brutality grew, citizens and activists began to connect present disparities to the place the Confederacy and its monuments hold in our society. They argued that statues to Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate leaders across the country were in actuality oppressive symbols of white supremacy. At the same time, politicians playing to Southern senses of nobility, as well as far right white nationalists like Richard Spencer, defended the statues as integral threads of the nation’s past that they felt should be honored and remembered. This contentious issue reached a new zenith in 2015, after nine members of an African-American church in South Carolina were slain in a brazen, racially-motivated attack by Dylann Roof. Roof posed with many monuments and icons related to the Confederate states, and his attraction to the rebel cause, combined with a hate-filled manifesto on his website, helped push a conversation about the value of the Confederate flag and other monuments in modern America.

The debate was not an easy one, with many leaders in former Confederate states opposing removing the flags and monuments. In June of this year, when New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu (acting on pressure from local activist group Take ‘Em Down NOLA) began a push to remove the Confederate monuments in his city, the effort was met at every turn by protests and rallies in defense of the statues from people quick to claim they were parts of history that should not be forgotten. These were countered by NOLA, who worked with local politicians to achieve their goal. In 2017, New Orleans and NOLA, along with Mayor Landrieu, succeeded in their push, and three of the four statues were removed in the middle of the night–in order, the city said, to protect the safety of the removal crews. Those crews had suffered threats not unlike the ones aimed at the Charlottesville congresswoman five years earlier, culminating in an arson attack as unknown assailants set fire to the personal vehicle of David Mahler, whose company was assigned to the removal, in the parking lot of his business. The final statue, one of General Robert E. Lee, was removed in May of this year.

The defense of these monuments to a shameful part of American history hang on the idea that their existence is required to properly remember the past. During the removal of the final statue in New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu rejected this reasoning, with his words very explicit in their intention:

“The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

2: “…while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”

While New Orleans was in the midst of taking action, Charlottesville was in the process of deciding what to do with its own Confederate memorials. The city council voted in February to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Lee Park, which was renamed Emancipation Park. Opponents resisted this decision in court and in protests, arguing the city did not have a right to remove the statue.

Jason Kessler led this charge. No stranger to anti-bigotry advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kessler is an American fiction author who started a blog in late December of 2015. What began as mostly idle musings quickly transformed into something else entirely, with Kessler asking why we should really care about large scale attacks against people, and bemoaning women manipulating men into relationships with sex. The evolution continued with posts about “rape culture hysteria and weaponization of male sexuality” until it became the typical white supremacist blog. The relative newcomer to the white supremacist movement has written many posts for various far right outlets (here is a direct link to one of them), warning of a “White Genocide” and speaking against what he called a “demographic displacement.”

A resident of Charlottesville, Kessler has put great effort into fighting local progressive movements. He organized efforts to oust the Vice Mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, over what Kessler called Bellamy’s “Afrocentric racial agenda,” including the city’s decision to move the Lee statue, by presenting homophobic tweets that Bellamy posted years earlier and claiming they amounted to an abuse of office. These efforts proved fruitless, as the petition was dismissed. Kessler has also fought against the Confederate statues’ removal. When Corey Stewart, emboldened by Trump’s surprise victory in the presidential race, began openly supporting and defending Confederate ideology during his bid for nomination to the Virginia governor’s seat, Kessler stood by him. Kessler appeared at many of Stewart’s campaign stops, along with members of the (warning: direct link) League of the South, an organization that concerns itself with a South that ”is a true constitutional confederation of sovereign, independent States who separately order and control their own internal affairs while working in unity with their sister States to conduct foreign affairs.”

It was Kessler who sought to organize the Unite the Right rally this past weekend as a protest of the planned removal of the Charlottesville statues. On Friday, August 11th, this group marched through the University of Virginia campus, wielding tiki torches as they chanted hateful slogans, including “White Lives Matter,” “Jew will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” In a scene reminiscent of Klan rallies from the early 1900s, torch-wielding ralliers shouting white nationalist jargon surrounded counter-protesters at the statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus.

On Saturday the 12th, as organizers prepared for the Unite the Right rally, tensions rose as supporters of the rally began to clash with counter-protesters. Those attending the rally wielded both Confederate flags and the swastika of Nazi Germany, and were seen raising what is recognizable the world over as the Nazi salute, chanting “Heil Trump.” Charlottesville police, who as of their 2016 report numbered just 165 total positions, found themselves unable to control the situation; they declared the assembly unlawful and ordered a dispersal. As the rally attendees left Emancipation Park, the counter-protesters took instead to the streets, marching against the white supremacists and outright Nazis that had gathered in Charlottesville for the rally. It was during this march that James Fields used his car to injure and kill counter-protesters in an act of terrorism. White nationalists and Nazis have clashed with counter-protesters numerous times this year already, but the events of Charlottesville were a dark new turn. For the first time, a clear and violent murder took place as the direct result of the actions and rhetoric of men like Jason Kessler. This tide of open white supremacy had radicalized Jason Kessler and swept dog-whistling Republican politicians into office for decades. What, then, would be the response of those Republicans’ chief?

3: “…on many sides.”

During a statement about the tragic event on Saturday, President Trump was quick to condemn hate “on many sides.” He was equally quick to leave the room without answering further questions from reporters. As he left, they shouted for clarification, one asking if Trump had anything to say to those white nationalists who support him and openly commit acts of violence. Despite this being exactly what happened in Charlottesville, an act which cost a woman her life, Trump did not attempt to respond.

The President is a man whose supporters touted him for “saying it like it is.” Many were pleased at the idea of a president willing to call a spade a spade, who speaks in clear terms and is not afraid to break with politeness and norms. In almost every instance, Trump has shown no fear of speaking exactly what is on his mind. Whether it is to defend his image from a slight, or to complain about perceived unfairness, his tirades and name calling have become well known.

Yet in the immediate wake of Charlottesville he stopped short of naming the enemy. He did not belittle those who committed violence for racist reasons. He did not condemn the men carrying flags emblazoned with swastikas through the streets of Virginia. He had not a single word to say directly about the man who murdered a woman–the man who attended, by his own admission, a rally for the alt-right, the same group that has championed Trump since his race for president began. The man who tells it like it is said nothing specific about the hatred that led Saturday to violence and death. When a terrorist attack in Manchester left 22 British citizens dead, he called the men responsible “evil losers.” When a terrorist attack in Virginia left an American citizen dead, he said nothing. Rather than condemn the actions of the man that murdered Heather Heyer, Trump chose instead only to condemn the abstract concepts of hate and violence.

This vague wording immediately resulted in confusion, as well-known white nationalist Richard Spencer responded to a twitter post by the president by asking if he had just condemned antifa and the counter-protesters. Spencer then suggested it was a condemnation of the police and the actions they took in declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly. The President’s mealy-mouthed phrasing allowed Spencer to assume Trump was condemning anyone but the swastika-wielding marchers.

The Daily Stormer, a racist Nazi so-called ‘newsletter’ promoting white supremacy, was ecstatic over Trump’s statement. They were pleased he did not single out white nationalists or Nazis, that he instead chose to imply that both sides were at fault. They followed this up with a horrendous smear article against the victim of the car crash, while claiming her killing was an act of road rage.

These are the people Trump had trouble getting angry at. People that dismiss a woman violently killed during a protest as a “fat, childless, 32 year-old slut.” Somehow these people stir Trump to a less intense anger than a political rival, or a woman asking him questions.

In his Saturday statement, Trump said “This has been going on for a long, long time.” What he means by “this” is never made clear. It has enough leeway to mean whatever the listener wants it to mean. It could be the insidious spreading of racist ideals that have permeated American culture for centuries, as more liberal listeners might assume. It could also be violence perpetrated by anti-fascist organizations, as far-right supporters like Kessler and Spencer continue to shout to all who will listen. It was a carefully worded statement that said nothing.

Apparently, however, even that was too much for Trump to bear; in a press conference Monday, the President exploded in a series of inaccurate and incoherent justifications for blaming Saturday’s terrorist attack on both the Nazis and the so-called “alt-left” protesters. Trump falsely claimed that, unlike the Unite the Right rally, the counter-protesters had had no permits (they did); that the Founding Fathers (who owned slaves but founded a nation dedicated to the idea of freedom) were morally equivalent to Confederate leaders (who founded a nation dedicated to the idea of slavery); and that the current state of American race relations is a product of the unemployment rate. Trump also mentioned that he had not yet bothered to reach out to speak with Heather Heyer’s family. (Heyer’s mother has since said that she will not speak with Trump.)

Once again, the familiar pattern recurred, with white supremacists taking heart at Trump’s barely-disguised support for their violent actions. David Duke, for example, thanked Trump on Twitter for his “honesty & courage”. Even the condemnations of a handful of Trump’s fellow Republicans, including Senators like Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, feel hollow, as they and their party have spent years pandering to the very same type of people who committed this act. Their rhetoric has painted Muslims as extremists who only want to kill Americans, immigrants as a plague endangering true citizens, African-American as criminals. They have helped foster this ideology. Despite some of the GOP speaking out against white supremacists and their ideology, they still voted without reservation to appoint Jeff Sessions to the office of Attorney General. From voter suppression laws that disproportionately impact minorities to their continued support of Trump even after he failed to condemn Nazis during his campaign, their words, as always, are at odds with their actions. Actions that have helped this hate and bigotry grow and ultimately kill.

4: “…love comes more naturally to the human heart…”

Unlike President Trump, most of America was quick to tell the Nazis they had no place in this country. They did so by name, without restraint or ambiguity–and on the same day a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer in cold blood. While the President did finally put a name to the target of his condemnation, it took him two days and a swell of backlash from political rivals, allies, and the public at large. Unsurprisingly, this delay gave enough cover that the groups he finally named saw this as nothing but a cave to political pressure.

On the day of the attack, former President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden gave statements of their own. Obama chose to recite the words of Nelson Mandela, while Biden stated simply, “There is only one side.” The Mayor of Charlottesville, as well as the Virginia Governor, both had clear messages. Mayor Michael Signer admonished Trump, and pointed out that the promises and rhetoric used by the President in his campaign helped pave the way for these actions to be seen as acceptable by their perpetrators. Governor Terry McAuliffe bluntly told the Nazis and racists to “Go home. You are not welcome.” At another event, he also pointed to the increasingly extreme political rhetoric as a factor in normalizing the views of these groups. Neither man wavered, or held back in ensuring they spoke directly to the hate groups they addressed.

Even the counter-protest itself was a statement, as Charlottesville citizens and students of UVA quickly showed how little they thought of Nazi ideology and white nationalist rhetoric.

Most heartening, Heyer’s death stirred many more to action across the nation, with cities removing Confederate monuments across the country and others protesting or speaking out against Nazis and white supremacists.

5: The Only Possible Conclusion

These students and citizens, these protesters, and Heather herself, are fighting a war that never really ended. In the 1860s it was a war against slavery; in the 1940s it was a war against genocide. Today it remains a war against all those who believe in racial disparity, bigotry, and hate. Trump and the GOP have positioned themselves on the wrong side of that conflict, and their rhetoric has inspired people like Kessler and Fields to place the existence of monuments to hate over the lives of actual human beings.

On August 12, 2017, Heather Heyer died fighting Nazis on American soil. Somebody should raise a statue of her, maybe right where Lee’s stands now. The plaque could feature the message Heather posted to her Facebook page shortly before her death. In the wake of these events, it is the only proper response.

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