We’ll honor Richard by standing up to the right

June 5, 2017

The murder of African American college student Richard Collins III on the campus of the University of Maryland (UMD) by a known white supremacist shocked and horrified people around the country. But it was another example in the wave of racist violence that has gathered strength in cities across the U.S.

The time to respond is now, and around the country, opponents of the right's hate and violence are organizing. SocialistWorker.org talked to three anti-racists in the Maryland-D.C. area about Collins' murder and the steps we need to take to challenge the far right. Brendan Sullivan and Zakariya Uddin are students at UMD and participants in the Protect UMD coalition on campus. Dave Zirin is an author and columnist for the Nation who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for many years--his article for TheNation.com was one of the first reports on Collins' murder in any media, independent or mainstream.

All three will be attending a town hall meeting on the fight against the "alt-right" on June 6 at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., with featured speakers to include Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, anti-death penalty activist Shujaa Graham, and author and activist Brian Jones.

WHAT DID you first think of when you heard about the stabbing of Richard Collins III?

Dave: It says something about the times we're living in that when I first heard that a Bowie State student was killed at the UMD campus, and knowing about all the hate that has occurred on campus this year, and that Bowie State is a historically Black college, my first thought was "I think that we're going to hear that this was a racist killing."

Obviously, any loss of life--particularly someone who was going to graduate from college that week--is beyond tragic. But I can tell you that in previous years, if I'd heard such a thing, my first response would have been "My god, what happened?" But now, it was "Oh my god, I bet there was a racist murder." All I needed to hear was Bowie State, UMD, and a student killed, and every fear just exploded in my brain. It says so much about the current situation.

Brendan: We get e-mail alerts from the UMPD whenever there's an incident on campus. So the first thing we heard was that there was a stabbing, and then that it was a murder, and then we found out that it was a murder of a Black man by a white man.

Hundreds attend a vigil for Richard Collins III at Bowie State University
Hundreds attend a vigil for Richard Collins III at Bowie State University (Jay Reed | The Diamondback)

The UMPD said initially that this wasn't racially motivated, but we were all skeptical. Then a friend of mine, Chris BD, looked at Seth Urbanski's Facebook page and found that he was a member of this Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation." Then we knew beyond doubt that this was racially motivated, and the university was trying to save face.

When the fact that Urbanski was a part of Alt-Reich leaked to the press, the university started to do damage control. And that's basically all the university does--damage control, not intervening proactively on behalf of students.

Zakariya: That was order of events for me, too: finding out first that it was a stabbing, then that it was a murder, and at a bus stop that's very close to me. Then, when we learned it was racially motivated, I found out the victim was someone I knew. I'm close friends with one of Richard's close friends. I didn't know him very well, but that was another big shock that just made it more real.

HAS THERE been a climate of racism at UMD that could have contributed to this?

Zakariya: During the school year, there were racist posters put up on campus by a group called American Vanguard. Apparently two students who went to UMD were a part of the group and put up the posters.

There was a noose found in the kitchen of a frat house on campus, where the staff is African American. The university didn't say anything about this for several days, which goes along with what Brendan was saying about damage control. The university knew about this immediately, but kept it under wraps for a significant amount of time before notifying students, as a way to try to squelch bad press.

Brendan: Also in the noose incident, the school talked about the investigation and there was a statement that they found no usable surveillance camera imagery of anyone coming into the frat house to hang the noose. But they haven't said publicly that the logical conclusion of that is somebody in the fraternity house did this. They have no surveillance camera footage of people going in to hang the noose. Again, this is a damage control measure to not expose racists in that frat house.

This atmosphere started bubbling up when Trump became a serious contender in the primaries last year. Terps for Trump became really vocal and prominent with chalkings and coded racist shit. Their chalkings would talk about building a wall, and because Trump had become a serious contender, this racism was more or less excused in the mainstream.

Zakariya: We've also seen chalkings calling for the deportation of DREAM students, so that definitely added to this political climate.

DAVE, IN your article for the Nation, you pointed out that this atmosphere goes beyond UMD.

Dave: We're living in a time where Nazism and white supremacy is being rebranded, expanded and sanctioned across the U.S. It's not to say that these people and movements haven't existed before, but people worked for decades to push them to the margins, where they were scared to even lift up their heads. But now they feel like this is their time.

They've used social media and private Facebook groups in the same manner that the Klan used to use cross burnings--to build community, where they come together and egg each other on, spreading racist and bigoted filth in the name of free speech.

When you have this coming together of forces, with a social media community coming together at the same time that the ideological backbone of the Trump presidency is directly connected to the far right, the result will inevitably end in violence and death. And the people at the top don't have the courage to stop it because this is part of their agenda, actually.

People are surprised that the Trump administration hasn't condemned the killing of Richard Collins III or the killings of the Samaritans in Portland--although Trump did say something about Portland days afterward, while assiduously avoiding any mention of Islamophobia.

But this isn't limited to the Trump administration. I think we make the mistake sometimes of fixating on Trump and what he's saying and not saying--but there's been no condemnation from anybody in the Republican Party that I can find, either about what happened in Portland or of what happened to Richard Collins.

Remember, Richard Collins III was a lieutenant in the Army. That's not a small part of this story. We're talking here on Memorial Day weekend, and a soldier was lynched a 20-minute drive from U.S. Army headquarters. This happened to a soldier of the U.S. Army and there's no mention? On Memorial Day?

It reminds you of the stories of Black soldiers returning home after the Second World War to the Jim Crow South. It says a lot about how the armed forces in this country view Black soldiers--and the fact the U.S. government, with all its military bombast, doesn't give a damn about Black soldiers. Any other attitude would run counter to the other narrative they're pushing--that of bigotry and division and cozying up to the most reactionary refuse in our society.

YOU ALSO pointed out that this case is a contrast to the media's association of violence and terrorism with foreigners or outsiders, but Seth Urbanski "is a homegrown terrorist who grew out of the soil of this college campus."

Dave: I think the statistics speak for themselves. The risk of coming to violent harm from a white supremacist terrorist--whether from the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys or whatever else they're choosing to rebrand themselves as--is so much greater than any other ethnicity or religion that they try to get us to be scared of.

Think of the collectivization of punishment on the shoulders of Arabs and Muslims, of Mexicans, and certainly of African Americans historically--these communities are somehow expected to take collective responsibility for the crimes of a few.

But where's the collective burden on these communities of white supremacists? Where are the calls for white people to report on their own "communities"?

I think the danger is that these racist crimes are written off as individual problems, committed by a guy who needs psychological help over here and maybe this guy over there was drunk. That doesn't look at the collective way the far right is organizing online, the collective way they're egging each other on, the collective way that they see this as their moment.

WHAT CAN the left do to challenge the spread of the alt right and turn the tide against this political climate?

Brendan: Actively confronting and outing white supremacists, and reclaiming spaces for everyone--that's the bottom line. Confronting and protesting white supremacists and reclaiming spaces for everyone. We have to openly confront these hateful people, wherever they may be.

Zakariya: On campus, a number of groups--including the NAACP, Asian American Student Union, International Socialist Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, and others--formed a coalition called Protect UMD. There's organizing going on there--mainly just meetings so far, to discuss steps moving forward, especially after the summer, when students come back onto campus.

Another question is the response to President [Wallace] Loh's letter stating some of the steps that the university is going to take. The attitude of Protect UMD is that what Loh put forward is not enough.

I think a lot of students feel that the university isn't proactive or involved enough in making an environment where racism isn't tolerated. Instead of that, they're washing away chalkings calling for the deportation of students and there's no consequences or penalties for someone hanging a noose in their own frat house to inspire terror.

Brendan: The measures that Loh has proposed publicly aren't going to be enough. They call for actions from offices that are already overtaxed, beyond that, there's little more than lip service toward the concerns of students who are outraged. It's too little and far too late.

Dave: We know the way to turn this around, because we've done it before--and when I say "we," I mean anybody who's considered themselves anti-Nazi or anti-fascist, dating back over the last century.

We know how to do this--by amassing the largest numbers of people possible and showing in practice that we won't be afraid. These are terror-based movements, based on dividing and intimidating people. The public display of strength in the face of terror--whether it's a vigil or a demonstration or something else--is the way to turn them back. We need it to be put right in their face that they can't divide us.

I think we can run into trouble when we think that the right can be defeated through violence--the one-on-one violence that you see glorified by some anti-fascists. I think the right-wingers are in this for the one-on-one violence. They don't care if they get beat up or do the beating up--they want those expressions of violence that look frightening and intimidate people from coming out.

I think what the right fears more than anything is being swamped--swamped by white people, Black people, Brown people all moving in on their space and occupying it, and they're not being able to do anything but scatter.

That's where our strength lies. This is definitely one of those moments right now--if we're not trying to amass the largest number of people to demonstrate to them we won't be divided and we won't be moved, then we're going to pay for that down the line.

There's an urgency around this right now that I think anybody can see. There are masses and masses of people who are repelled by the right, repelled by the murder of Richard Collins III, repelled by the murder of the two Samaritans in Portland. This is the time to not merely be upset, but to put our bodies out there and stand up.

People need to remember Richard Collins III. Just like we've never forgotten Emmett Till's name, we should never forget Lt. Collins. We must say his name.

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