The right runs into a fight in Charlottesville

July 18, 2017

Anti-racists in a Virginia city 100 miles from the nation's capital showed they won't be intimidated by the far right. Danny Katch draws out the lessons of their struggle.

THE SMALL city of Charlottesville, Virginia, has become a prime target for a range of far-right racists--from the "alt-right" forces of Richard Spencer to the more "traditional" fascists of the Ku Klux Klan, along with more mainstream forces of reaction inside the Republican Party and the local police department.

But when a few dozen Klan members tried to march through town on July 8, they were dwarfed by over 1,000 protesters, who defied both the far right and the pleas from Charlottesville's liberal establishment to let the KKK go unopposed.

The successful counterprotest is a hopeful sign of the growing awareness on the left that we need to confront the far right with our much larger numbers.

Charlottesville, a city of under 50,000 people that is home to the University of Virginia (UVA), entered the crosshairs of organized racists earlier this year when its city council voted to stop honoring pro-slavery Southern leaders of the Confederacy.

Council members voted to take down the statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and to change the names of Lee Park and Jackson Park to Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively. The parks' names were changed, but a legal challenge has halted the removal of the statues until November.

Protesters stand up to the the far right in Charlottesville, Virginia
Protesters stand up to the the far right in Charlottesville, Virginia

Like other cities that have recently decided to take down Confederate statues, Charlottesville quickly attracted a range of right-wingers who absurdly claimed that renouncing slavery was a violation of freedom.

Corey Stewart, a hard-right candidate for the Republican Party nomination for Virginia governor, made the statues a centerpiece of his nearly successful primary campaign. Stewart gave speeches in front of the Lee statue and called the city council decision "political correctness gone mad" and "historical vandalism."

In May, the white supremacist and self-proclaimed "alt-right" leader Richard Spencer invaded Justice Park with a nighttime rally of torch-wielding racists, who cheered as he proclaimed, "We [whites] are a people! We will not be replaced!"

Stewart and Spencer gave the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan the confidence to call a Charlottesville hate march of its own for Justice Park on July 8.

"The liberals are taking away our heritage," declared KKK member James Moore. "By taking these monuments away, that's what they're working on. They're trying to erase the white culture right out of the history books."

HERE'S AN obvious point that would be unnecessary to make if the corporate media did their job when covering protests over such symbols: The Confederacy is and always has been a symbol of anti-Black racism, period.

If you don't trust the opinion of socialists on this question, take it from Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, who declared in his famous "Corner Stone" speech:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from the "equality of races"]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Here's another obvious point about people who organize protests in defense of the Confederacy: They are hate-fueled racists whose actions quickly reveal that the only freedom they're interested in protecting is their own freedom to oppress and intimidate others.

"In 2012," the Washington Post reported, "when a city council member first proposed removing the statue, she received death threats, and her car was covered in Confederate stickers.

And when Charlottesville's Democratic Mayor Mike Signer, who is Jewish, denounced Spencer's nighttime rally, he was hit with a wave of anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter.

"You're seeing anti-Semitism in these crazy tweets I'm getting, and you're seeing a display of torches at night, which is reminiscent of the KKK," Signer told Reuters. "They're sort of a last gasp of the bigotry that this country has systematically overcome."

Unfortunately, Signer is wrong about his last point: Bigotry was never at its last breath in a country whose intense racism only a few years ago inspired a movement organized around the poignant call "Black Lives Matter." And now, there is a bright orange bat signal coming up from the White House to encourage bigots of every stripe--Islamophobes and anti-Semites unite!--to emerge from their secret lairs and online sewers.

To halt this growing menace will require people coming together in large numbers to directly confront the hate-mongers before they can grow into a truly threatening force.

Which is why it's a good thing that so many people in Charlottesville didn't listen to the mayor. After denouncing Spencer by comparing him to the KKK, Signer responded to the call for a protest by the actual Klan by urging residents not to protest them.

Instead, the city worked with businesses, churches and UVA to organize a range of activities in other parts of the city to encourage anti-racists to go anywhere other than Justice Park on July 8.

"Our approach all the way through, from our police chief on down, has been to urge people not to take this totally discredited fringe organization's putrid bait at all," the mayor told the Washington Post.

"The only thing they seem to want is division and confrontation and a twisted kind of celebrity. The most successful defiance will be to refuse to take their bait and continue to tell our story. Then their memory of Charlottesville will be of a community that repudiated them by not getting drawn into their pathetic drama."

BUT MANY residents understood that challenging the leading white terrorist organization in American history is a far more serious matter than Signer seemed to think.

"They say to ignore them, and that they're just a small group," said Grace Aheron, a member of Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ), to the Washington Post, "but we've watched the rise of many people, including our current president, who hold many similar views. It's enraging that the city would give a permit to a known terrorist organization."

SURJ, along with Charlottesville Black Lives Matter, Cville Solidarity and a number of other groups, organized a counterprotest that drew over 1,000 people. The anti-racists mobilized to Justice Park hours ahead of the Klan's 3 p.m. scheduled start time.

The KKK didn't show up until around 3:45 and only stayed for 45 minutes. The racists were quickly escorted into and out of the park by police, a sight that enraged many counterprotesters.

As the Klan tried to leave, counterprotesters attempted to block their path, which triggered an immediate and disproportionate police reaction. Fifteen minutes after escorting the Klan away, cops declared the counterprotest an "unlawful assembly" and moved in on the crowd with riot gear and tear gas, arresting 22 people--four on felony charges. (Click here to donate to their legal defense fund.)

"It's truly sad," Don Gathers, former chair of the city's Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, said to the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. "The police, I was so proud of them up until this point, and now this. They treated the Klan members one way: with respect. But then, the folks who came out to stand up to oppression, this is what you do to them?"

THERE ARE a number of lessons to learn from the way Charlottesville residents defended themselves and one another from the far right. These lessons will be important to apply in preparation for the next racist invasion on August 12, when a number of groups are gathering in Charlottesville for a Unite the Right rally.

The first lesson is that while new hate groups have been fueled by more recent hatreds like Islamophobia and anti-Mexican xenophobia, the fight over the contested legacy of the Civil War and the Confederacy is still one of their potent rallying points.

Republican politicians like Corey Stewart can try to ignore Richard Spencer, and Spencer in turn can distance himself from the Klan, but they're all drawing from the same deep well of anti-Black racism that's in the DNA of every American reactionary.

The second lesson is that directly confronting hate groups with large numbers works. Far fewer Klan supporters showed up than their announced expectation of 80 to 100 marchers. As activist Laura Goldblatt told Sarah Jaffe of Truthout:

We delayed the Klan. They showed up. Their permit was from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and they didn't even get into the park until like 3:55 p.m...We could not completely prevent them from entering...It would have been a bigger victory, but yes, we delayed them. There were like eight of them and thousands of us. We are stronger than them; there [were] more of us than them, and the state and the threat of racist terrorism can't keep us away.

On the flip side, there's no evidence and never has been that the strategy of ignoring hate groups or holding pro-diversity events in another part of town is effective in slowing the growth of hate groups that use these events to recruit new followers.

Finally, Mayor Signer and his administration demonstrated that government officials may personally dislike far-right racists, but that they are instinctively hostile to the type of grassroots protest and confrontation that we need to protect our communities from them.

The liberal city of Charlottesville protected racists and attacked anti-racists, and defended the Klan's right to protest but argued that people against the Klan shouldn't exercise their right to counterprotest.

As activists are preparing to mobilize against the August 12 "Unite the Right" rally, they are trying to get the city to revoke the bigots' permit for the event. But the racists are growing, whether they have a permit or not, because they feed on the racism that permeates U.S. society, from the anti-Muslim "war on terror" to the daily anti-Black racist practices of police departments across the country--including in Charlottesville.

To confront the far right, activists will have to build on and expand the successful organizing that chased the Klan out of Justice Park on July 8. And everyone across the country with an interest in fighting racism should look for ways we can show our support for those in Charlottesville fighting on the front line.

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