One blue-eyed, baby-faced demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia tells you all you need to know about what drives the alt-right haters, the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and their ilk. Said Sean Patrick Nielsen, “I’m here because our Republican values are: standing up for our local white identity…which is under threat; the free market; and killing Jews.”
Time was when those who held such sentiments felt they had to sneak around. The KKK hid beneath their sheets and pointy hats. Lynchings occurred under dark of night. No one is tiptoeing around these days. The intensity of hatred has exploded into the open, the shame of such anti-American attitudes has disappeared, and the level of civil discourse has hit rock bottom. These scumbags (yes, Hillary was right to call them deplorables, though she did so inartfully and painted with too broad a brush) have been issued a standing invitation by our President, Donald J. Trump, to give full throat to their basest impulses and animosities.
If you doubt that, just listen to the words of David Duke , former KKK leader, who views Charlottesville as a turning point. He sees the event as the fulfillment of Donald Trump’s promise to the people and said “that’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back, and that’s what we gotta do.”
Trump’s response decrying violence was as convincing as a hostage tape. Worse, he decried violence “on all sides,” creating a false equivalency between the heavily armed and military-garbed right-wing protesters and the anti-fascist demonstrators, including Black Lives Matter participants. He failed even to name neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Klansmen, an omission that rightfully provoked outrage from Democrats and Republicans alike. However much Trump may back and fill, finally being pushed into naming the white supremacist perpetrators, his initial utterances reflect who he is at his core.
Duke, for his part, was angered that Trump’s first statement even mentioned the violence. He told Trump to “look in the mirror and remember that” “it was white Americans who put you in the Presidency.”
So where do we go from here? Other potential Southern hot spots loom as cities and states set about removing statues and other symbols of slavery. In many cases, those memorials were created under the guise of preserving the storied heritage of southern life but were actually inspired by 20th century protests of gains for blacks in civil rights and education. Today, the Confederate memorials speak more to the treason of those who were willing to destroy the nation to preserve the violent and inhumane practice of slavery. Our political leaders have to exercise their moral authority and denounce those groups who wish to return to those “good old days.”
But the North will not be immune to such violent confrontations. Under the banner of the “New Free Speech Movement,” a group of right-wing activists plans a rally on Boston Common this coming Saturday. Its members disavow connection with the Charlottesville rally or its organizer, white nationalist blogger Jason Kessler. Members of Black Lives Matter and others will organize a counter-protest. It could be a recipe for disaster.
This will be a test for Boston, not just for its police, whose professionalism will be paramount. It will also test whether we are capable of protecting the Free Speech rights of everyone, no matter how execrable their message, while not resorting to violence and chaos. This is a challenge that, I hope, no one is taking lightly.