By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
A year ago, our nation was introduced to “unite the right” when they gathered in Charlottesville. This August, the alt right is intending to be back! What did we learn from that encounter and how do we prepare for their return?
In June of this year, the National Park Service approved a permit request from Jason Kessler associated with the alt right movement for a “white civil rights rally” to be held in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on Sunday, August 12th. The alt right website has set the date and time for this gathering.
A May 8th application made to the city of Charlottesville requesting a permit for a rally on the anniversary of last year’s gathering was denied. According to the application, the purpose of this Virginia gathering involved “Protesting the civil rights abuse” experienced a year ago by its members. At this point in time, the alt right has withdrawn its appeal determining to concentrate on the Washington event.
It should be noted that currently there is a federal civil lawsuit filed by a group of counter-protesters who were injured during last summer’s rally, alleging the alt right demonstrators were responsible for the violence and their injuries. It is important to also understand that those who comprise the “Unite the Right” crowd are today far less unified or organized than they were a year ago. Reports from various sources suggest that internal policy disagreements and financial challenges have frayed the ties among groups and individuals associated with this movement. How this will be manifested on August 12th will be important to analyze.
In reading the reactions and comments in connection with what went down in Charlottesville last August, these diverse perspectives encapsulate the political divide within this country. Indeed, a number of prominent conservatives saw the attacks on Donald Trump in the aftermath of Charlottesville as a continued manifestation of the political left’s hostility toward this President. In their view, the threatening behavior and actions of the militant leftist forces that were present in Charlottesville provoked the violence that occurred. On the other hand, the political writers on the left came away from that August day concerned about the deep seeds of racism within this society and the abuse of white domination. For this sector, Charlottesville was merely the confirmation of their beliefs about race and power in this land.
Stepping away from the political rhetoric in search of some more practical learning outcomes, Ira Bashkow offered some helpful insights from the experience of Charlottesville.
Given people’s deeply held differences, calls for unity are themselves often divisive: unity on whose terms (white liberals’? civil libertarians’? the Black Lives Matter movement’s? antifa’s?)? Even when well-intentioned, such calls may be experienced by the groups that are expected to fall in line as bids to silence them. Calls for unity are often asserted by those in power and can serve as a substitute for actually listening to the voices of those at the margins.
The belief by some in Charlottesville, including the president of the University of Virginia, was to seed the stage to the alt right by not engaging them. In hindsight, Bashkow argues differently:
The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville not only sought publicity, they also wanted to directly intimidate people who they despise by aggressively staking an exclusionary white racist claim to public space.
Finally, Bashkow would posit, so what are the limits to free speech?
Is a show of deadly force “speech”? Do the terms of the First Amendment give license to abuse and intimidate others on the basis of their identity? We need to understand that while the First Amendment gives people the right to express unpopular ideas in public, it does not mean that they can do so and hold a weapon at the same time.
In moving forward how should we look at the events scheduled for next month?
1. No doubt, opposition groups will be on hand to challenge the “Unite the Right” crowd, including organizations on the extreme left! There will be individuals coming to DC who will be seeking to create acts of violence. In what ways will the National Park Service and DC Police be equipped to handle potential violence and to ensure the safety of the many individuals who will be in the area, including tourists to our nation’s capital?
2. Will officials around the country be prepared should there be “copy cat” demonstrations in other cities, designed to anger minority communities and generate publicity for the alt right? If the courts overturn the city of Charlottesville’s decision, will that community have learned any of the difficult lessons from last year’s events as they prepare to host “round two”?
3. Governmental bodies and key civic institutional players will need to be more proactive and prepared in response to this anniversary “celebration” than Virginia officials were a year ago. Will police and intelligence agencies be present in sufficient numbers to monitor these activities and to identify the various groups and provocateurs that will likely be present in Lafayette Square and elsewhere?
4. What might we expect of the President? No one should look to the President to set the tenor of the response this time around! Will the President’s Jewish friends, among others, call him to account should he fail to condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and holocaust deniers, among the other figures who will be present?
5. Hopefully, we will see an overwhelming and uniform push back from the news media, both political parties and their Congressional leaders, religious and ethnic organizations, and opinion leaders in the entertainment and sports worlds. If one of the goals is to isolate such hate movements and reject their messages, then mainstream leaders need to create a concerted public condemnation for the ideas and images that will be on display in Lafayette Park. This moment affords public policy groups, educational institutions, and civic organizations to educate Americans, especially school-age youngsters, on the destructive character of hate speech and bullying. Groups such as the NAACP, MALDEF and the ADL, will need to assist parents and teachers with educational materials and training tools.
These events remind us that the roots of the KKK and other hate movements are sadly part of the American story. Schools will need to prepare America’s students not only about the history of hate violence but also about the contemporary manifestations of these groups, their ideas and practices.
6. Background information on these extremist groups will need to be shared with key audiences and influential elites by such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, in advance of the weekend. Informed voices will need to drown out the messages of hate!
7. Can we look to the major networks and cable companies to provide exposes in connection with the “hate industry” that has been growing in America?
8. Will we see opinion writers from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal among other major publications producing essays and commentaries concerning this event and its meaning, pushing back at the messaging being offered by the “Unite the Right” crowd?
9. Are we likely to see the American corporate sector making statements, buying ads, or offering comments as they seek to offset these destructive voices coming out of Washington? Key business leaders have the opportunity to use the public airways, including the use of commercials similar to what the Marriott Corporation provided after Charlottesville as a way to emphasize inclusion and multiculturalism.
10. In the end will the Jewish community relations field, along with other groups, access the impact of such rallies on public opinion and social behavior? Are events such as these triggers to activate hidden racists and anti-Semites, or by their actions are these extremists turning off others?
A year ago on these pages I wrote about the events that had unfolded in Charlottesville. Some of my observations introduced in that piece certainly hold relevancy at this time.
Our society pays a price for such political theatre. The events in Charlottesville served as a metaphor for a broader battle over what is America and who are Americans. The alliance of alt-right groups that were present a year ago wanted to return this nation to a European-oriented culture of white superiority, where class and race matter. “Jews” served as the lightning rod for what would unfold on that Saturday. The language, threats, and intensions of these Gestapo-type units who came to “demonstrate” were on display. Their dress, their weapons, and their demeanor would convey their message of hate.
Rather than trying to heal the nation or to create a constructive dialogue around regionalism, racism, and responsibility, our President through his inconsistent rhetoric and his willingness to excuse the actions of his alt-right allies has served to further splinter America, giving license to anti-Semitism. Moral equivalency has no place amidst this debate over hate.
Charlottesville’s saga also symbolizes the larger cultural divide that defines the nation, and more immediately the American South. Indeed, the future of Confederate monuments, scattered across Dixie is sparking an intensive debate on the place of the Civil War in American history, while at the same time reopening the realities of slavery and the vestiges of racism.
A year ago we were reintroduced to the hate-filled rhetoric and threats of the extreme right. Examining the events surrounding Charlottesville, what did we learn from that moment in time that will prepare our nation and our community to effectively push back?
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. For additional articles, see www.thewindreport.com.