Charlottesville and healing the racial divide

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”

By Marty Rochester

Charlottesville. It now takes its place with other iconic names in the history of American social movements, such as Selma, Stonewall, Kent State and Berkeley.  Weeks after the event, the story continues to consume us, even spilling into sportscasts, with an ESPN anchor recently calling Donald Trump “a white supremacist.”

But does Charlottesville deserve such lofty status as a major historical happening? I would argue no. I put it in the category of Ferguson, which gained outsized significance based on the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative that was promoted by the mass media — and unsupported by the blood trail and shell casing evidence. Likewise, Charlottesville has taken on mythical importance based on a false narrative.

How so? Let’s deconstruct the sequence of events.

In February, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Robert E. Lee Park (since renamed Emancipation Park). Assorted alt-right groups, including white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, received a permit to meet in the park in August to protest the statue’s removal. A group of counter-protestors, including Black Lives Matter militants, communists and anarchists associated with the “Antifa” (anti-fascist) resistance movement, got a permit to hold a demonstration around the same time.

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On Aug. 11, the night before the Unite the Right rally was to convene in the park, some rightists held a torch-lit procession on the University of Virginia campus and skirmishes between them and counter-protestors occurred. The former could be heard chanting ugly racist and anti-Semitic slogans, with the latter offering their own taunts.

On Aug. 12, larger violence broke out in Emancipation Park between the protestors and counter-protestors, with a Nazi sympathizer driving his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring several others.

The violence subsided within 24 hours, but the aftermath continued for days, including much criticism of President Donald Trump for his failure to immediately, explicitly and unequivocally condemn the alt-right groups, as he suggested a “moral equivalence” in blaming both the protestors and counter-protestors.

What should one make of this?

Let me be crystal clear that there is no more despicable group in America than the white nationalist/supremacist, neo-Nazi thugs. Still, we must acknowledge that they had a legal permit as well as a First Amendment right to free speech, however repugnant they might be. Recall, even the ACLU had defended the rights of Nazis to march in Skokie in 1977, and the ACLU defended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. 

While the “Unite the Right” rally pushed the free speech envelope, violence (including the tragic death of Heather Heyer) might well not have occurred had the counter-protestors not joined in the provocations.

Many commentators have noted that the Antifa movement is hardly a peaceful, moderate bunch (see “The Rise of the Violent Left” in The Atlantic September 2017). Alan Dershowitz has stated that “the extreme right and the extreme left both pose a danger” (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10). The left also had a right to be in Charlottesville. However, had they not been present, adding to the crowds and hostilities, the media would have given the episode far less coverage, rendering it a footnote.

A double standard appeared to apply toward Donald Trump over the president’s seeming failure to adequately chastise the alt-right in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. As Jason Riley noted in the Wall Street Journal, when President Trump on Aug. 12 condemned the violence “on many sides” and the White House on Aug. 13 condemned “all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred” and said “of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis, and all extremist groups,” he was essentially “following Obama’s example of moral equivalency.”

Riley was referring to President Barack Obama out of one side of his mouth condemning the racially inspired murderer of five Dallas policemen while out of the other explaining black frustration over police brutality. Even when Trump was more emphatic in singling out the alt-right racists on Aug. 14, he was blasted in the media the next day when he reverted to his “both sides” rhetoric.

True, it took Trump more than 24 hours to name the alt-right as a villain. Never mind it took Obama years before he finally named radical Islamic terrorism as a problem as opposed to calling it “workplace violence” (at Fort Hood) and other euphemisms. Even when Attorney General Jeff Sessions instantly followed the death of Heyer with a statement that “when such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated,” the administration was accused of not speaking clearly enough against racism.

Donald Trump may be inarticulate, scatterbrained, and unpresidential, but there is no evidence he is a racist or condones racism.

Yet the media continue to push this narrative, reflected in an Aug. 20 New York Times op-ed by Roxane Gay, “Hate That Doesn’t Hide,” where she wrote “I live in a country where the president does not disavow racism.”

I am not sure what country, or planet, she inhabits. I live in a country filled with hate across the political spectrum. The right certainly is frightening. But what is happening on the left post-Charlottesville is also scary.

When Donald Trump asked “What’s next?” after Confederate statues are taken down, it was not an idle question. In short order, for starters, the University of Maryland suspended the playing of the century-old state song “Maryland My Maryland” over its pro-Confederate roots; a Memphis movie theatre canceled a planned screening of “Gone With the Wind,” and the Southern Poverty Law Center called for “taking down” Fort Hood and other major U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals.

A ban on “Blazing Saddles” cannot be far behind. Book burning may follow, with “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” a prime candidate.   

Then there was the goofy PC decision by ESPN executives to reassign sports announcer Robert Lee (who is Asian) from doing a UVa football game to another game, since viewers might be “uncomfortable” after Charlottesville. Taking their cue from ESPN, UVa students uneasy with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson shrouded his campus statue in black, with signs reading “rapist” and “racist.”

Vandalism is the new discourse. Note the bricks thrown through the windows of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home, the public library branch in the Central West End, and Delmar Loop establishments following the Sept. 15 Stockley verdict. On the subject of “moral equivalence,” how about those rabbis who failed to loudly condemn the violence committed by some protesters, implicitly equating the St. Louis police with the criminals who did harm to people and property? 

I understand concerns about racial justice and sensitivity. If any of the recent historical handwringing might improve race relations and the condition of marginalized people, one could even grudgingly approve of such stuff. But it likely will only breed further racial divide and polarization.

Since the vast majority of Americans do not want to see history obliterated or rewritten—only about 25 percent approve of tearing down statues according to a Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll last month—it will only add to Donald Trump’s base of supporters. So will the brick-throwing militants and their apologists. And that should truly make lots of readers “uncomfortable.”