This past weekend’s headlines have seen the American people bear witness to a firestorm of hate, intolerance, and failure by our country’s leadership to condemn violence perpetrated by white supremacist organizations.
These organized hate groups descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday morning for a “Unite The Right” rally designed to protest the removal of a Confederate monument paying tribute to General Robert E. Lee. Banners displaying a litany of Nazi iconography and Confederate flags flew over the crowds of white nationalists as they chanted anti-Semitic and anti-Black sentiments.
As the violence escalated, a 20-year-old Ohio man drove his car through a group of counterprotesters, an action that cost one woman her life and injured as many as 34 others.
32-year-old Heather D. Heyer lived in Charlottesville and worked as a paralegal. Described by friends as a strong woman, she was a passionate advocate for social justice who detested inequality and took a stand that day against discrimination—only to fall victim to the hate-fueled violence she sought to eradicate in her community. The suspect, James Alex Fields, Jr., has been arrested and denied bail. Fields’ former high school classmates reported that he was a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, and when questioned, his mother said she was aware that he was attending the demonstration, which she believed was a support rally for President Donald Trump. “I don’t really talk to him about his political views,” his mother told The Associated Press.
Since the President was on his “working vacation” in New Jersey at the time of the incidents, his initial statement was vague and desperately undercut the severity of the violence that took place. By denouncing violence “from many sides”, his first statement failed to hold white supremacists directly responsible for the violence perpetrated in Charlottesville on Saturday. Public outrage ensued, and in response to public pressure, the President issued a second statement two days after the attacks. This time, he read from a carefully-prepared statement which directly named the KKK, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and “other hate groups” as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
Still, pro-Trump white supremacists consider the weekend’s demonstration a success. Some even believe that the President plans to hold organizations like Black Lives Matter and Antifa accountable in addition to the white supremacist groups responsible for the weekend’s violence. Remember Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who was punched in the face by anti-fascist protesters in a video that went viral earlier this year? He was partially responsible for organizing the rally and has since publicly blamed the mayor of Charlottesville for the violence that ensued. Far from dissuaded by the events of the past weekend and the President’s two statements, Spencer has vowed to carry on with his bigoted agenda.
This agenda, mind you, is focused on keeping the monument of Robert E. Lee in its place in Charlottesville, despite the efforts of city officials and organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. to have the constant reminder of our country’s racist past removed. Following a petition written by a high school girl named Zyahna Bryant, who collected hundreds of signatures on the grounds that the statue was offensive and made her and her peers uncomfortable, City Council voted to remove it but was sued in March of 2017 by those who wanted the statue to remain standing. The legal proceedings are still ongoing; meanwhile, the statue remains in the same location where it has stood since 1924. This outdated adoration for the Confederacy is widely viewed as racist, but those who maintain this ideology cite concerns over “erasing history” despite the fact that it is not customary to celebrate the losing side of a war.
For example, displaying the swastika or performing a Nazi salute is a violation of Germany's criminal code. The argument has been made that the United States should regard the Confederate flag in the same way, seeing as it is a reminder of a dark chapter in our country’s history—a chapter defined by a war fought to preserve white Americans’ “rights” to enslave African people. To this day, it is still legal to display the swastika, perform the Nazi salute, and fly the flag of the Confederacy in the United States.
This type of racially-motivated violence is a culmination of mounting tensions being brought to a chaotic climax by the President’s past refusals to condemn violence in the name of white supremacy. Prior to the “Super Tuesday” primary election in the spring of 2016, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump as a candidate on the grounds that Trump’s stances on the Muslim community and immigrants helped bring Duke’s white supremacist ideology into the mainstream. In response, Trump insisted that he wasn’t familiar with the KKK and would “have to look at the group” before disavowing support from the notoriously violent hate group. Later, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon, a former publisher of the far-right publication Breitbart News, to the position of White House Chief Strategist. Breitbart News has infamously likened Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust and frequently distributes white supremacist ideology disguised as news to its conservative audience. The very fact that Saturday’s protesters felt justified in marching the streets heavily armed is a testament to the current administration’s failure to disassociate their political platform from the racism and bigotry they’ve exploited to win the votes of our nation’s most hateful citizens.
But we can still choose to learn from this cataclysmic series of events. First, it is important that we examine history, lest we be doomed to repeat it. An administration that incites or fails to disallow racist violence is a key element of fascism, and white supremacist ideology is directly responsible for many of the darkest chapters of our planet’s history. Second, it is absolutely imperative that you regard these white nationalists and neo-Nazis as domestic terrorists, even when the media and our leaders refuse to do so. In addition to actively rejecting their ideology, this means regarding them as dangerous. Finally, self-care should always be a primary concern for all young people. If you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious about the state of the world, it’s okay to take a break from the news cycle. This information can be traumatic, and if we are to have any hope of sustaining the resistance, it is imperative that you take care of yourself so that you have the energy to continue the fight for peace and equality in your world.