Terra Incognita: Charlottesville was more than a year in the making

The reality of course is that most poor white people in America are political moderates.

A demonstrator holds signs during a rally in response to the Charlottesville, Virginia (photo credit: REUTERS/STEPHEN LAM)
A demonstrator holds signs during a rally in response to the Charlottesville, Virginia
(photo credit: REUTERS/STEPHEN LAM)
‘No lives matter, kill them all”; “you’re all insignificant and stupid, stop breeding”; “losers”; “snowflakes”; “light the hippies on fire lol.”
Those were the comments left in real time on a video posted by “Rebelutionary_z” during the attack in Charlottesville.
He had been recording for 13 minutes up until the incident occurred, and the comments are a mix of support for documenting it, and a mass of bile and hatred.
After a car purposely drove into the crowd, killing one and wounding 19, the comments kept coming. “lol good, I wish they would have hit way more of them”; “block the road, this is what you get”; “oh please, it isn’t terrorism except for the idiot protesters, get out of the road if you don’t want to get run over.”
The hatred directed at victims on social media and the seething desire to see them killed is probably not a phenomenon of modern times, it is simply one that social media has allowed us to see in the open. Social media has also allowed these voices to come together in a virtual world and network together. The simmering violence that eventually erupted in Virginia on August 12 began more than a year ago. On the Right it coalesced in disparate groups that found a home circulating around Trump campaign events. During his events it became increasingly common for hecklers to be thrown out. Under calls of “get ‘em out,” by the then candidate, protesters were ejected from a rally in Burlington, Vermont in January of 2016. Similar incidents happened in Worcester, Massachusetts in November and Las Vegas in December.
Media has tended to portray all of those violent and racist groups that supported Trump as one monolith, termed sometimes “alt right” or “white nationalist.”
But they are not really a monolith. What they are is a large group of people that already existed. They have always existed, just like there are violent members of all groups waiting for their moment and waiting for society to give them the space that says violence is acceptable. Whether it is soccer hooliganism or Islamist hate preachers encouraging people to join Islamic State in Europe, there is always a pool of violence and hatred that can be drawn upon. In the US these groups felt a space open for them in 2015-2016. They were so visible that in November 2016 members of the National Policy Institute held a rally at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, where reports and video showed people shouting “hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.”
In the fall of 2016 mainstream media began to re-brand white supremacism as “white nationalism” and started giving a platform to its members who articulated concepts related to the need to support the “heritage, identity and future of people of European descent.”
But behind this “white nationalist” intellectualism was a group of hooligans, racists, antisemites and others. They portray themselves as marginalized and victims of diversity, multiculturalism and affirmative action. The media generally accepted this view in 2016, arguing that the reason for the rise of Trump was, as CNN Money put it, “[F]or many white men with no more than high school diplomas, the US economy has left them behind.” The Washington Post called it the “revenge of working class whites.” The Guardian called them “rust belt romantics.” The New Yorker ran a piece in September 2016 called “the lives of poor white people.” Foreign Affairs in October 2016 called them the “Great White Nope.” Politico asked in the same month “what’s going on with America’s white people?” It noted that they “feel left behind by globalization and immigration or resentful of an elite political class that seems to ignore them.”
Just to pause for a second, this narrative is all very cookie-cutter, portraying a mass of America as “left behind.” But aren’t black people without high school diplomas and immigrants who lack education also “left behind” by the very same issues of globalization and elite political classes? There is something a bit odd about all the headlines from 2016 “discovering” white people, written almost exclusively by other white people who happened to be wealthier and more privileged and more urban.
The reality of course is that most poor white people in America are political moderates. But there is an extremism that bubbled up last year. A symbol of it was the riots and clashes in Berkeley, California in March 2017. During one melee between right-wing activists and black-clad “Antifa” activists, one of the right-wing activists emerged from the crowd and smashed a stick over the head of an anti-fascist. The man became known as “based stickman.” Since then the man, also called “alt-knight,” has become a celebrity among the rightist hooligans.
In some ways the two groups of rioters, the anarchists in their black and the rightists, fed off each other in Berkeley. We are supposed to pretend that people who go to a protest to get in a fight are primarily ideological, but many of them are mostly into fighting. That’s why violence exists on the extremes of Left and Right: they provide the ideological cover for people whose natural tendency is to violence. They cultivate violence. Instead of putting a stop to this kind of violence, police have tended to let it play itself out. Antifa activists can run wild and so can these white nationalist types, many of whom claim they aren’t “racist,” just into “white lives matter.” But actually their own statements denigrating people of color, including Jews, betray the reality; most of them are racist white supremacists.
Online the adoration of attacking “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors” and other groups associated with the Left has become common among some on the Right. It’s not like America hasn’t seen this before.
There were the clashes between the Hell’s Angels and concert-goers at Altamont in 1969. There was the hardhat riot in New York City in 1970 when construction workers attacked leftist college students. In 1979 members of the Communist Party got in a shoot-out in Greensboro, North Carolina with members of the KKK and neo-Nazis. Five people were killed, four of them connected with the Communist activists.
It seems that what coalesced in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was a large group of strands from the extreme Right. Some claimed they were there to “show solidarity and peacefully protest Whites [sic] racial and cultural ethnic cleansing brought on by mass immigration and Globalism [sic].” There was already some low level violence on the night of August 11 when hundreds of men with torches rallied at the University of Virginia campus. Ostensibly these protesters were angry over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But their chants about “white lives matter” and “Jew will not replace us” betrayed a deeper racial animus. They felt no shame (despite Governor Terry McAuliffe saying “shame on you” on August 12), and paraded without hoods.
The extreme right-wing activists that continued their rallies on August 12 didn’t come out of nowhere. They had carefully prepared. They brought signs saying “the Goyim know” and shields bearing various right-wing imagery and iconography. There were Confederate and Nazi flags. There were men in fatigues with AR-15s, the civilian model of the M-16. Some had signs saying “pro-white, not hate.” Many had purchased riot control- style shields, one of which was emblazoned with the word “trade worker.” Many others brought homemade shields and sticks. They were ready for a fight. The anti-fascists that showed up were also ready for clashes.
One claimed they sought to “strategically use violent tactics to incite Nazis to violence” so the governor of the state would declare a state of emergency and disrupt the racist’s plans. One held a sign saying “killing Nazis is my heritage,” with an anarchist symbol.
Before the apparent terrorist attack in which a man drove into the crowd of anti-fascists, there had been riots all day in Charlottesville. It’s convenient to say that the white extremists were the sole cause of them, but most videos show both sides clashing. The police, although present, seem to have done little to separate the groups, despite prior warning of what would happen.
You’d think if hundreds of men show up with sticks and shields, many carrying pepper-spray (as both sides did), that law enforcement which “serves and protects” might serve the people by trying to stop a riot? In video of the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the first police on the scene were militarized police in camo fatigues driving an armored vehicle more appropriate to the deserts of Iraq than the streets of Virginia. The first responders were already waiting for an incident like what happened. So if they were waiting for that level of violence, why wasn’t more done to prevent it? The fact is that the fires of Charlottesville were lit more than a year ago. They represent a tragic underbelly of America that has bubbled to the surface. Social media has empowered people, not only because they can network, but because there is a collective feeling that white racism and white nationalism can throw off the need for political correctness. The first person who writes “kill them all” while watching a live video of hippies may feel he is breaking new ground. But when others see it, they feel emboldened. And then they don’t hold back.
To pretend that white nationalism in America is some kind of isolated, unique aspect of violent extremism would be wrong. If we talked about it the way mainstream media talked about violent extremism among Islamists, how would we talk? We would talk about the “white moderates” and how “marginalized” people have been “driven to terrorism.” But the reality is that Islamist supremacist hatred and white supremacist hatred are drawing power from the same pool of online social networks and feelings of “freedom” to hate.
Incitement leads to violence and violence makes people feel powerful and leads to terrorism. Once the constraints of decency, morality, moderation and political correctness are removed, violence occurs.
Unfortunately it is not clear if anything has been learned from Charlottesville. There is a public that is shocked by it. But even online after the attack, many supporters of the extreme Right were excusing it, or claiming the driver was actually a leftist. Isn’t this also what happens after Islamist terrorist vehicular attacks? First come the excuses and the claim “we don’t know his motives.” Then he is just a lone wolf “crazy” person, and then claims that his attack “serves Islamophobia” and he was “driven to terrorism.” Lessons are not learned and the faux-solidarity candlelight vigils of the 99% of society who are not extremists have no impact on the 1% who are and whose extremism and hate have bubbled to the surface.
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