The events in Charlottesville last weekend were appalling, and I share the outrage and grief many people have expressed. That said, it seems clear to me that the white supremacists failed to realize their agenda in Charlottesville. I want to talk about that in failure in this post. In part II, I will talk about our response to white supremacy more generally.
The goal of this event was to “Unite the Right”, and the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville have a story they want to tell about the subjugation and extermination of white people and white culture in American society. Their goal in this rally was to show that story, to act it out: to have a bloody confrontation in which Black Lives Matter or Antifa or even the Charlottesville police were attacking and injuring peaceful white demonstrators trying to defend their ‘heritage’. If they had to use guns to defend themselves, so much the better for their narrative.
Clearly, this story did not happen. The rally failed, making the organizers look like the underpants gnomes of popular uprising: there’s a bunch of empty question marks on the flowchart from “rally” to “white hegemony”. In this case, their failure stems from two factors: the restraint of the police, and the murder of Heather Heyer.
The seductive elegance of racism is that you don’t have to think about it: whatever you feel is the answer is the answer. You don’t have to read history or politics or learn anything real about any other person. You can read up on fantastical history to buttress the way you feel about things, but that history is right because you feel it’s right — not for empirical or factual reasons.
The downside of this navel-gazing is that you end up with a silly view of how the world works. Most of these guys think protesting — showing up, chanting, waving tiki torches around like drunk Alpha Sigs — is an intrinsic theory of change. It is not. The rest — the ones who showed up armed — seemed to think that once the counter-protestors got violent (e.g. Antifa, also no theory of change) the police would step aside and let them defend themselves and their proud Aryan heritage with lethal force.
I suppose they hoped a deep blue city in a blue state would give them the visuals of government repression. But Michael Signer, the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville, and Terry McCaulliffe, New-York-born Democratic governor of Virginia, were never going to be baited into a bloodbath. These are not people at all invested in Confederate ‘heritage’ or advancing white supremacy. Not only that, but Signer clearly understood the supremacists’ script and was having none of it.
It’s counter-intuitive, but Signer’s best move here was to prevent the counter-protestors from causing violence that might give the armed protestors any grounds to open fire. So the police had the appearance of protecting the protestors and permitting some scuffles. They received lots of criticism for that, and entirely fair comparisons to the responses to BLM marches and Standing Rock, but it was the appropriate response here.
As a general principle, it is a bad idea to give terrorist and hate groups exactly what they want. To the extent they are looking for violent confrontation, avoiding that confrontation is resistance. Joining that confrontation is cooperation. If you are looking for ways to take a public and visible stand against white supremacist terror, consider carefully whether your plans align with the goals of the people you intend to stand against. There is an extra burden on groups like Antifa to articulate a theory of change in which giving white supremacists what they want somehow ends in justice.
The only visual I have seen that really fits the supremacists’ frame was the photo of Corey Long — a Black man — using a spray can as a flamethrower against a group of white people. I know he was only defending himself because I read his account of the event, but that is not how it plays in white supremacist media. In their version of events, Corey Long is the symbol of Black violence against white people. His engagement with the protestors, however well intended, is now evidence to legitimize their narrative.
Fortunately, the police in Charlottesville did not give them more such evidence, and largely prevented counter-protestors from doing so as well. So one part of the white supremacist’s failure in Charlottesville was that the police refused to follow their script — not violently repressing them, and not letting counter-protestors do it, either.
The second part of their failure was the murder of Heather Heyer. Yes, the police might have done more to prevent her killing, and it was also their failure. But Heyer’s murder is a serious problem for the white supremacists: it completely inverts their narrative, making them clearly the bad guys. You can see this in how much energy they are spending trying to discredit Heyer and distance themselves from her killer.
Worse yet for them, the Commonwealth now has a pretext to intervene against not only her killer, but every person who helped organize or promote the demonstration. There’s at least three ways to charge this, as far as I can tell, but here’s one:
§ 18.2-42.1 Acts of violence by mob. Any and every person composing a mob which commits an act of violence as defined in § 19.2-297.1 shall be guilty of that act of violence and, upon conviction, shall be punished as provided in the section of this title which makes that act of violence unlawful.”
This is an anti-lynching law, by the way. The criminal conspiracy that led to Heyer’s death is drawn pretty clearly across the Internet, and preserved in a million retweets and screen caps. Against the ‘lone wolf’ argument, let me point out that it is well established that vanguard violence like this is fueled by the audience effect of a sympathetic crowd behind the perpetrator. The guy driving was indeed driven by all his dude-brüder giving him the mental energy to commit this act. Those people are also culpable for the murder of Ms. Heyer.
If that’s a compelling argument for you, Virginia Attorney Mark Herring needs to hear as much; his number is (804) 786-2071. You might also call and leave a voicemail for Commonwealth Attorney for Charlottesville (i.e. state prosecutor), Dave Chapman, at (434) 970-3176 — also a Democrat, retiring this year and with nothing left to lose.
If you are angry that the police did not do more in Charlottesville — and that anger is justified — the police and mayor and prosecutors for the city and the Commonwealth now owe you a vigorous and thorough prosecution of these crimes. Bring your anger to bear: pressure them to conduct a comprehensive and thorough prosecution of the people involved in Heyer’s murder.
It is important the Commonwealth do so, because the Federal government is not likely do it instead. The FBI might be itching to investigate, but Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department can’t be seen as a reliable partner here. Both the state and the Federal government could prosecute simultaneously, so the Commonwealth’s prosecution does not prevent the Federal government from acting (nor vice verse).
The death of the two state police officers in a helicopter was probably just bad luck, but the fact that it was associated with this event will work against the white supremacists. Those deaths will be an albatross for the organizers, in the eyes of most law enforcement agencies.
To be clear: Heather Heyer’s murder was a failure for the white supremacists, but not because of anything the counter-protestors did deliberately. I wish there was a more sensitive way to describe her murder than ‘own goal’, but there it is. I don’t think anybody quite gets how narrow that failure was: if Heyer was not murdered, Corey Long would be the visual for the rally, and the narrative would tilt way more in the white supremacists’ favor.* The counter-protestors accomplished little else against that narrative, especially compared to the restraint of Boston rally the following weekend.
Everybody knew the white supremacists were eager to commit violence in Charlottesville. Yet many counter-protestors seemed to think that meeting that violence with anger and outrage — or worse, more violence — would somehow prevent the white supremacists from doing harm. Instead, that only amplified the violence, and so everybody engaged in anything other than strict non-violent protest helped build to the climax of Heyer’s murder. I do not blame counter-protestors for Heyer’s death, but I 100% think they could have done more to prevent it. It does not take a murder to demonstrate that white supremacy is wrong.
I am especially troubled by the clergy who claim to have been protected by Antifa. By accepting and endorsing that protection, they both legitimized the white supremacists’ narrative and encouraged more violence. Christian clergy especially should feel guilty that they may have traded Heyer’s life for theirs. My humble request to clergy and other counter-protestors is that they just take the beating, or run away.
For anybody who can’t take the beating, the good news is that there are still lots of ways you can work against white supremacy. In the next post, I will talk about how we understand white power and white supremacy, and what we can do about it.
*As I was finishing these posts, I saw this poll from Politico, in which only 15% of GOP respondents blame the white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville:
According to a poll by The MassINC Polling Group, 40 percent of registered Virginia voters surveyed blame the white nationalist marchers for the violence in Virginia.
Another 41 percent, however, think the blame falls equally on the white nationalist marchers and the counterprotesters.
Just 6 percent think the counterprotesters should be blamed for the incidents earlier this month.
Only 15 percent of Republican respondents blame the white nationalist marchers for the violence, compared to 65 percent who think both the white nationalist marchers and counterprotesters are equally to blame.
Is that a win for the counter-protestors? Note that ten percent of GOP voter blame the violence solely on the counter-protestors, and another 10% declined to answer the question. I blame the white supremacists for the violence, but that 41% number is not acceptable: it means white supremacists were successful enough at telling their story that they murdered a woman and still more than half of Virginia voters equivocate on whether they are to blame for it.