The power of symbols, the importance of words.
On the 11th of August, alt-right protesters marched through the University of Virginia with torches led by Richard Spencer, as part of a rally they called ‘Unite the Right’. Amongst the crowd were Neo Nazis, KKK members and, perhaps some white supremacists that belonged to neither group. Racists and bigots united, whether they were under the same banner or something entirely different, they were one and the same. The group were yelling Nazi phrases such as ‘Blood and Soil’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’, whether they choose to call themselves Nazi’s or not, each and every one of them is essentially a Nazi sympathiser. Each and every one of them had the intention of inciting fear in the groups that they disdained, or maybe even those that scared them.
The following day, on the 12th of August, this perplexing crowd marched through Charlottesville Emancipation Park with Nazi and Confederate flags, this time resulting in the murder of a young woman Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer was mowed down by 20-year-old James Alex Field Jr, as she was counter protesting the rage filled crowd. Three days after the horrific event, Donald Trump blamed “both sides” and praised some of the “fine people” on the white supremacist side – the side that killed a young woman. The side that chanted Nazi salutes and carried flags that represented genocide during the holocaust; as well as flags that represented the preservation of slavery during the American civil war; the capture, chaining, bloodshed and rape of African American people just a few generations ago. This symbol of confederacy remains in bronze and stone across many American cities, boasting the ownership of people’s great grandparents.
Trump’s comments resulted in Condemnation from many republicans and compliments from David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The group had gathered to protest a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army of Northern Virginia. He left the United States army to fight with the Confederate side so that he could keep slaves. If he had won the war, African Americans might not have been emancipated. But he is honoured across the U.S, despite the grotesque reality behind what is being celebrated. Slavery, lynching, murder and ownership of black Americans should be remembered so that their stories aren’t forgotten or ignored, but the figures behind this history of confederacy and violence should not be respected, nor should the paraphernalia that celebrates or preserves this history. In present day Germany, places that were once used for torture during the Holocaust are now used to educate and remember the atrocities, such as the Topography of Terror museum.
In the wake of the attack in Charlottesville, statues are now in the process of being removed across several cities. Baltimore removed 4 statues in the middle of the night after a unanimous decision was made by the city council. They were removed in the dark, “quickly and quietly” according to Baltimore mayor, Ms. Pugh, who was a witness. “For me, the statues represented pain, and not only did I want to protect my city from any more of that pain, I also wanted to protect my city from any of that violence that was occurring around the nation.” Also Included in the list of monuments was an 1887 statue of Roger B Taney, a Supreme Court Justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision, which was held that even free African American’s had no claim to citizenship. Protesters in North Carolina took the matter into their own hands, toppling the statues with a rope. The city of Alabama worked around a law passed earlier this year prohibiting the removal of such structures by covering up a 52-foot-tall confederate monument with wooden panels. Religious leaders in Brooklyn removed a plaque dedicated to Robert E Lee from a maple tree the general planted over 100 years ago. A bishop from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, Lawrence Provenzano said the decision didn’t take more than a minute to make. “I think it was the right thing to do, because (the plaque) just being there was offensive to the African-American community”.
Trump decided to chime in on the subject. “This week its Robert E Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
We all know Donald Trump doesn’t have the greatest handle on facts and history. So here are some facts for you, Trump. Yes, George Washington and Stonewall Jackson were slave owners. As was essentially every other political figure at the time. But they were also known for their influence and leadership outside of the battle to keep their slaves. That’s why these monuments are being taken down. What else could they represent to Americans beside division of the states and ownership of black people?
Why are these symbols so important?
With a mix of different symbols, flags and groups, these people have made it difficult to pin them down. Some of these people differentiate themselves based on the group’s they hate the most. The image is important, because without the Klan uniform, its makes it easier to identify with them. To see them as individuals. To demand tolerance for them. Don’t let it fool you, they’re all just racists packaged in different ways on a surface level. With different dress codes. Same old fascists, this time in cargo shorts.
In 2015, nine innocent black people were murdered in a historic black Charleston church as part of a mass shooting by a white supremacist who posed for photos with a Confederate flag. This attack reunited a debate around confederate symbols and monuments in the South and across the nation. Debates have stirred some to claim that one should tolerate them in the name of free speech. Free speech applies to difference in opinion. Republicans have free speech. Trump supporters have free speech. Nazis don’t have the right to be heard, to be tolerated, to be treated the same as any of these other relatively harmless groups. That’s a right you give up the moment you chose to spew nonsense about the inferiority of black people and Jewish people and Muslims; the moment you advocate violence towards innocent people merely based on race or religion. Now the hoods are off, we can see their faces. See that many of these Neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists are college students. They could be our colleagues, our classmates, our children. Is that what makes it harder for us to see them for what they really are? One man that took part in the display later said: “I’m sorta glad that them people got hit and I’m glad that girl died. They were a bunch of communists out there protesting against somebody’s freedom of speech, so it doesn’t bother me that they got hurt at all.”
Tolerance is unacceptable.
Along with the resurgence of white supremacist activity, comes retaliation, and with retaliation comes cries of “don’t fight fire with fire”, “fight with love”. As if these idealistic mantras ever solved anything. Peter Tefft, a man who took part in the ‘Unite the Right’ protest, was disowned by his family. His father, Pearce Tefft, posted a statement online addressing the matter. “It was the silence of good people that allowed the Nazis to flourish the first time around, and it is the silence of good people that is allowing them to flourish now.” If a Father can disown his son, we can disavow this movement. Nazis by default are unconcerned about what others have to say, and they’re certainly not worried about offending anyone. They’re not going to be won over by love. In cases like this, love and tolerance are inaction. The kind of inaction that allows people with extremely bigoted and violent views to feel safe and supported in our society. In fact, it’s the tolerance of people like Trump that is fuelling them, as evidenced by David Duke’s comments. The white supremacists, the Nazis, the KKK, they literally believe the president of the U.S is on their side. Lady Gaga tweeted a poll with two options in which we could respond. ‘How do you think it’s best to solve the world’s problems?’ Option 1: To #BeKind. Option 2: To #BeViolent. As if it’s really that simple. As if the Nazis were defeated with love and kindness. Are we supposed to tolerate monuments of racism and slavery? Would we tolerate swastikas? This is the kind of moment that people look back at the history books and think: would I have done something? Would I have spoken up? If you’re silent now. If you’re tolerating bigotry to this extent, you’re probably the kind of person who would have done the in the 1940’s, during the American civil war, and during the American civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s.
Why is Trump’s relative silence so telling?
With his words, as with his silence, Trump has made himself a Nazi sympathiser in the eyes of the world. But maybe it’s not that much of a surprise. After all, this is the party of Steve Bannon (who, it was just, announced has been removed from the administration), who’s vision of the world derives from a fascist novel about a migrant invasion that threatened white culture, called ‘The Camp of the Saints’, which he cites frequently during debate on modern day American politics.
After the events at Charlottesville, Members of Trump’s administration had to choose between denouncing his words or defending them, and being forever linked to Nazi Sympathy in the eyes of history. Individuals such as Pence chose to defend Trump and back up his ‘both sides’ statements. But other republicans revolted against Trump’s ignorant words. Such as Paul Ryan, who tweeted: ‘We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” And Marco Rubio. “Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of the blame. They support an idea which costs the nation and the world so much pain.”