In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I have found myself in conversation with many different people. The clash between those gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally and the counter-protestors has brought a number of issues currently facing our country to the surface, and lots of questions and opinions have been fired back and forth. I have tried to puzzle some of them out in the following dialogue.
“While there may have been Neo-Nazis, members of the KKK, and other white supremacist groups in attendance, the issue at hand in Charlottesville was the removal of a statue. These statues are strong symbols of southern heritage, a reminder of the valor of people’s ancestors, and taking them down is an attempt to rewrite history. How can we allow part of our history to be erased?”
To begin, it is important to understand the nature of history. It is not a stable, empirical thing; rather it can change depending on who is telling it and what lens that person is using. Does that mean that there is no such thing as hard-evidence fact or truth of events that can be uncovered? No. Although accounts can vary, as with a scientific reality such as gravity, there are certain immutable facts that can be determined about an historical event. However, depending on how a person or a group views an event, it can change how they feel about it as well. In turn, emotions can lead to differing interpretations of events, and the omission or addition of parts of the story.
Statues are not built to tell a story. Statues are built to elicit an emotion from the person standing beneath them.
I recently spent a week in Berlin with a friend, and enjoyed an afternoon in the German history museum. This giant two story building tells the story of over 2,000 years of Germanic history, from Roman conquests to the Hapsburgs to the World Wars and finally the Cold War. What struck me was the full half a floor devoted to recounting the history of the Weimar Republic and the rise and control of the Nazis. The depth of detail was hard to process and more than I could absorb in a few hours, and no holds were barred in the gruesome story-telling. One could easily imagine how the Germans would want to forget such an ugly piece of their past. But rather than shy away, they have done their best to teach young and old what happened, and how not to have it happen again. What you do not see are statues or flags from the Third Reich, as these symbols were quickly removed from public display. Removal of public symbols did not remove them from history; instead they have been moved to museums and books, where students can learn from the past.
The removal of the confederate flag and confederate statues does not erase the history of the Civil War, neither does it change past events. Their absence removes an emotive symbol of a positive view of the Civil War, where slave-holders become heroic defenders of state’s rights. Were there Confederates who died defending their homes and livelihoods from perceived aggression? Yes, of course, which is the heritage wished to be preserved by those who protest the removal of statues. Are people entitled to hold these views? Yes, in a free society people must be allowed to see history how they wish. But the soldiers who died defending their homes and livelihoods died to defend an institution that used the forced free labor of black people.
History is not being erased. But keeping symbols of the confederacy in public spaces validates their actions in defense of slavery, and allows for a history where white supremacy was justified to be publicly legitimized. As long as we continue to idolize these individuals, how can we ever hope to claim that racism and racial division are a thing of the past? Best to keep such things in museums.
“But Lee wasn’t the only slaveholder in American history. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, as did George Washington. If we begin pulling down statues of anyone involved with slavery then many of the public ‘symbols’ of our founding fathers will be removed. It is a slippery slope.”
Unlike Robert E. Lee, Jefferson and Washington both had important roles in the founding of the country that had nothing to do directly with slavery. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and an important framer of the Constitution. Washington not only led the colonists against the British, but was the first person in a modern government to hand over the reigns of power voluntarily under the laws of the Constitution. It is important to understand and learn from the cognitive dissonance inherent in owning human chattel while writing the words, “All men are created equal”, especially appreciating that Jefferson and Washington were flawed men who helped start a good yet improvable system. However, their historical significance is altogether different than Lee’s, who’s only legacy is being a leader in the defense of slavery.
“Well, regardless of the morality of their protest, people with any point of view are allowed free speech in this country. They should have been allowed to speak their point of view, even if you claim it is wrong.”
Free speech is a tricky issue, and must be looked at both from a civic and a governmental viewpoint. When freedom of press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion were written into the First Amendment, they were freedoms protected from government interference. For all of European history, negative speech against the monarch or the ruling religion would guarantee you jail time, if not death. The Founders recognized the need to protect criticism of one’s government in order for it to function democratically, otherwise someone criticizing the Catholic church and the Kennedy’s would have had the Secret Service arriving at their house to arrest them. What is not protected under the First Amendment is the freedom to force other people to listen to you. Neo-Nazis, confederate flag carrying Ku Klux Klan members, and other types of white supremacists are free to gather and scream their bigotry all they like, but they are not constitutionally protected from people opposed to hate and racism joining together and yelling louder than them. Further, in a fun twist of logic, since neo-Nazis are fascists and a fascist government is intolerant, we as a tolerant society must be intolerant of intolerance. Allowing neo-Nazis unbridled free speech jeopardizes everyone else’s right to the same.
“But the anti-fascist protestors were not simply yelling at the other side, they were attacking them with pepper spray, fists and sticks. As Trump said, there was violence on both sides.”
Yes, they were; and that is, in my opinion, both wrong and unhelpful to their cause. Although Antifa aligned groups believe violence is justified, it only deepens neo-Nazi and KKK convictions that violence is the answer and there can only be one group victorious from the bloody struggle. But I also recognize why Antifa groups use violence. Since one could make a logical conclusion that a tolerant society must be intolerant to intolerance, then preserving that tolerance may require resorting to violence. I still condemn it as wrong, but thinking along their lines of logic can be helpful in understanding their actions.
“So therefore, Trump isn’t wrong in condemning both sides. Overblown charges of racism towards the president are dishonest, as he has condemned white supremacist groups in the past. He is simply stating what you just said – violence is wrong.”
Yes, the president has made comments condemning racism in the past and present. They are in existence and irrefutable. I can think of no instances where Trump has been aggressively, outright racist in calling for an ethno-genocide or declaring all black people inferior. But the point isn’t that he is racist; it is his comfortability with racists. It is hard to believe that he isn’t worried about the support of these fascist groups, considering his mysterious and sudden quiet in condemning them. Maybe he was away from Twitter? Except that on Sunday morning he Tweeted about the resignation of the Merck CEO, Ken Frazier (a man of color no less), a full 24 hours before he made a peep specifically condemning fascists. His silence is odd considering the president has much to say on many other topics that he is quick to respond to, without the level-headed air he has shown in regard to Charlottesville. Does this make him an outright racist? No, I don’t believe it does. Does it bring into question his ability to make critical decisions about the good of America in the face of his voting base? I absolutely think it does. All of this after asking the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus only on Islamist extremism.
“Why should Trump have to call out those groups in particular? Besides the young man who drove his car into counter-protestors, the anti-fascist groups were just as violent towards the fascists as the other way around. Antifa is especially bad. They’re a neo-communist group who want to put anyone that disagrees with them in a gulag. Stalin was responsible for the death’s of twice as many people as Hitler. They’re both equally bad.”
A few thoughts. While Antifa members may have used violence against these neo-Nazi groups, there are several important differences that distinguish Nazis from anti-fascists. First, Antifa are not communists. In fact, anarcho-communist websites have denounced Antifa groups as not communist. Rather, they operate along anarchist principles, meaning (simply put) that they oppose totalitarian government and operate horizontally, without any formal leadership. Their focus is on disrupting racism and fascism where they see it publicly rear its ugly head. They feel that their use of violence is justified, since the rhetoric of Nazis and white supremacists calls for violence against those who are different. Claiming that they want to throw anyone that disagrees with them into a gulag is simply ridiculous, as a gulag would be representative of a totalitarian state, the very thing which they are trying to resist against.
It is for this reason that it is completely disingenuous to posit that Antifa groups and white supremacist groups “are equally bad”. One of these groups is striving to eliminate Blacks, Jews, and others from existing in our society, and the other is trying to stop them, albeit with clubs and pepper spray. That is why Trump should be calling out white supremacist groups in person, instead of creating a false equalization placing these two organizations on equal sides of the spectrum. Further, when you watch the videos and hear the stories from Charlottesville, much of the violence which involved Antifa members were in moments where militarily armed neo-Nazis tried to beat unarmed, peaceful protestors.
These two sides are not equal. All violence does the same damage, but not all violence has the same origin.
“You never answered my other point from earlier, that Trump is simply calling out all violence. Obama never called out violence committed by Black Lives Matter and other black supremacy hate groups, even making the inference that it was white people’s fault that these attacks were happening. BLM and Antifa are not fringe groups, as white supremacist groups are. BLM and Antifa represent the heart of the left. Why is there no outrage from leftist leaders over their actions?”
In response to the first point, Obama has condemned violence, decrying the Dallas police shootings in 2016 as an act of “racial hatred”. Although the shooter claimed to align himself with the BLM movement, the movement itself did not claim responsibility, and likewise condemned the violence wrought upon the police officers. But we need to unpack a bit further the other claims made in that sentence. First, Black Lives Matter is neither a black supremacy group, nor is it a hate group. Groups like the New Black Panther Party, which is a black supremacy group do exist, and have been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups. The BLM movement has been specifically defined as a non-hate, equality focused group. They work closely with non-black groups and people, and encourage white people to attend their marches, protests and rallies. Be careful to not equate criticism of white people and white America with black supremacy. If you are uncomfortable with harsh criticisms of white people, allow me to quickly remind you of the past 500 years of racial history in the Western Hemisphere.
Around 1500, a whole host of European countries began realizing that native slave labor in the “New World” was going to run out (do to disease, rape, execution and general inhuman treatment). Their brilliant solution was to begin shipping millions of western Africans kidnapped from their homeland to the “New World” plantations, because white people were superior (ergo, white supremacy). Treated as disposable workhorses, these people created vast amounts of wealth for Spain, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Germany (through trade with these countries) via free labor, allowing the societies to grow, flourish, and head further around the world to abuse and kill perceived inferior beings. This went on for far too long (~300 years) until the Brits decided to give it up in 1807. The Americans didn’t catch on until 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln.
The abolition of slavery and a civil war did not magically heal 350 years of wounds. During the Reconstruction Era in the south, the newly minted black Americans created a labor shortage on southern plantations, so plantation owners began renting off parts of their land to farmers, and demanding payment in the form of grown goods and money. There was no need to care for the workers at all, incredibly low wages could be paid, and “sharecroppers” could be fired at the slightest provocation. In conjunction, soon after the war groups of freed families began to wander the South. Vagrancy laws were put in place whereby anyone without a job or anyone walking at night could be arrested and made to work on a chain-gang, essentially placing loads of black people back into slavery. Jail time often carried fines, and because the prisoners could never pay off their fines they became stuck in a cycle of perpetual servitude.
Jim Crow laws and lynchings during the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries made it nearly impossible (and terrifying) for blacks in the south to even attempt to improve their position in life. Neither was the north blameless for harm caused during this period; northern industrial towns reacted to the flood of black Americans seeking jobs by red-lining them into ghettos (creating the foundation for today’s inner cities), and few black vets returning from WWII reaped the benefits their fellow white vets received (like a house or a college education).
The modern drug war, begun in the 1980’s, has been waged primarily in communities of color despite higher drug use in white communities. Crack cocaine, a form of cocaine no more or less dangerous than its powder counterpart and associated with black communities, up until a few years ago carried penalties 100 times greater than powder cocaine (a drug associated with white communities). Discriminatory policing allowed and allows cops to search, arrest and have convicted many black and brown people for even the smallest infraction of drugs, thus eliminating them from future jobs or public service, pushing them back into the only thing they have left; crime. Our prison population is currently at 2.2 million people, with African Americans 5 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Large populations of people of color in the criminal justice system allows politicians and civilians to conclude that black people must be criminal, despite clear statistics showing almost the exact same rates of drug use and crimes committed by whites and blacks.
This is the legacy against which Black Lives Matter is marching and protesting. Have we eliminated slavery? Yes. Have we passed Civil Rights? Yes we have. Have they been upheld? Sort of. But have we neared a society in which white people can be justly offended for criticisms of themselves and their society? Absolutely not.
We cannot, because even after laws are passed, racists convicted, and lawsuits won, black people are STILL rejected from jobs and housing for no reason other than their skin color, they are STILL subject to indiscriminate beatings under the legal auspices of the drug war, and they are STILL subject to be shot by police while unarmed, and almost always passive and non-threatening.
Criticism is not only warranted; not criticizing white people would be intellectually and morally dishonest, as long as these inequalities continue.
Yes, BLM and some groups aligned with Antifa are part of the leftist movement whether people choose to align themselves with them or not. But they are part of the leftist movement because they are opposed to denials of the above history, because they are opposed to the ongoing oppression and policing of black and brown bodies, and because they are actively trying to use word and deed to dismantle a system which keeps oppression in place.
Further, the left has overwhelmingly decried the actions of the violent few. After the Dallas shootings, after the violence at Berkeley, and after the attack on several Republican senators, many, many liberals at all levels of the public and private sectors were quick to speak up and speak out in condemnations of violence, as well as share expressions of sadness and pain for those who suffered.
I have heard many people expressing sadness or frustration at the Charlottesville events and the removal of confederate statues from the public sphere. More than once I’ve heard people say, “Why can’t we just let go and move on?” My answer is that conflict resolution never functions by sweeping issues under the rug. Ask any long-term married couple about how to resolve problems and they will probably not advise you to ignore them. Instead, they’ll advise you to try and understand where the other is coming from, to learn to listen, and to learn to admit your faults. I can’t make anyone agree with what I have written, but I can ask you to engage with and seriously think about what I have said. I can’t make anyone agree with what I have written, but I can illustrate a point of view spoken by myself and many others and hope that it is heard. It is only when all of us can wrestle with issues together that we can find a way through.