On Saturday, a group of between two and six thousand tiki-torch-baring white supremacists congregated in Charlottesville, Virginia to take part in the largest ever ‘Unite the Right’ rally of its kind.
This particular rally followed just one month on from a march organised by Ku Klux Klan members across the same area of Charlottesville, from Lee Park through to the University of Virginia grounds. Saturday’s gathering, organised by Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler, was said to be in protest of the same cause: the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, a commander of the pro-slavery confederacy during the civil war. Kessler, a well-known far right blogger had previously accused the state of Virginia of “anti-white hatred” and organised the rally in retaliation to recent changes, such as the renaming of nearby Lee Park (after the General Lee) to Emancipation Park. Speaking on the event, he described it as an “incredible moment for white people who’ve had it up to here and aren’t going to take it anymore”.
On the day, the crowd paraded across town shouting the usual kind of pseudo-grievances you’d come to expect from such an event (“we will not be replaced”, “white lives matter”). As nighttime fell, these chants soon turned more sinister: shouts of “one people, one nation – end immigration” filled the air, as well as the even more spine-chilling calls of “blood and soil,” a phrase made famous in Nazi Germany. The whole, grim scene looked far more like a re-enactment of the 1951 propaganda film Birth of a Nation, than a modern day protest – in a politically progressive city – in 2017.
The argument set forward by Kessler (who ironically, is a University of Virginia graduate) was that white people should be able to stand up for their own interests “just like any other identity group.” This statement is – putting it diplomatically – both frightening and laughable. It comes from the spokesman of a group consisting largely of heterosexual, white males between the ages of twenty and forty who are irrefutably the least oppressed group in American society, and almost definitely the world.
The monument of General Lee is a piece of American history – that is undeniable. But, I completely and wholeheartedly do not agree that the removal of the statue is the equivalent of the erasure of his story from the ‘history books’. The idea that people will somehow forget what happened all those years ago because they are no longer faced with General Lee’s effigy every day on their commute to university is, frankly, totally ridiculous. People will never forget. Native Americans, who are some of the most persecuted and understandably aggrieved people in America, don’t have the privilege of having statues of their tribal leaders and war heroes standing proudly in public spaces, despite the land being rightfully theirs. Monuments and statues by their nature are built to commemorate a person or event and stand as tribute to what happened in the past. The fact that such a large number of white men want to keep the statue of General Lee erected just shows that the values and belief that he held as a pro-slavery confederate, are the same values and beliefs that they hold dear to themselves. And if you don’t see what’s wrong with that then frankly, you are part of the problem.
The statue of General E. Lee is a commemoration of abused power. A commemoration of abused white power and dominion over black people and it represents nothing but the unearned privilege of one race to rule over, subjugate and enslave another. A wise man once said that to those who are privileged, equality can begin to feel like oppression and that is exactly what we witnessed last weekend in Charlottesville. Those far-right protestors weren’t actually worried that people would forget their great American history if the statue was taken down, they were just worried that certain people would eventually forget the authority they once had over them. The black people of Virginia have had to live in the shadow of that statue since it was first put up in 1887. Every day they have had to walk past General E. Lee’s image looking down at them from atop his war horse and everyday they’ve had to be reminded that there are people who once wanted them enslaved and now, some who never want them to forget that they were.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” And now, thanks to his initial reaction to the events, we all know just how much of a man Donald Trump really is. The fact of the matter is Trump was well aware that majority of those men marching in Virginia were his supporters and that’s why he tried his utmost not to condemn. Sure, yesterday’s statement was stronger – but it was too little too late. In the eyes of the far-right, they’d already been given their pass.
Sadly, racism is not a new phenomenon in America. Racism never died, they’ve just been concealing it, but now it seems to be rearing its ugly, unmasked, torch bearing head yet again and we must do all that we can to stop it. To quote the final words of Heather Heyer, who was murdered as she fought bravely for the rights of others in Charlottesville:
“If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.”