August 11, 2018
How much has this nation changed in one year? In the wake of the murderous rampage of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve seen an increase in hate crimes and a white supremacist administration who complains about “shit-hole” countries in Africa, puts brown kids in cages, deports asylum seekers, and threatens to revoke the green cards of legal immigrants. Oh, and white nationalists are marching on our capital. Are the racists winning?
A year later the same “Jews won’t replace us” thugs who marched in Charlottesville are on their way to the nation’s capital and the city is bracing itself for more right-wing violence.
I’m in Washington, DC, participating in some events in response to the second “Unite the Right” rally. Part of this was appearing at a teach-in to counter domestic extremism. It was organized by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Right-wing extremist expert Leonard Zeskind spoke about the roots of white nationalism. I was part of a panel entitled “Developing Effective Responses to Eliminate Hate,” featuring Dr. Wes Bellamy, Vice Mayor, Charlottesville, VA, Lecia Brooks from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Monica Hopkins, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, D.C., Tony McAleer, Board Chair of Life After Hate, and Chris Magyarics, Senior Investigative Researcher at the ADL. It all ended with a mighty 45-minute sermon from Rev. Dr. William Barber II that made me feel like I was sitting in the lap of God.
Teach-ins and sermons are great, but this one had the ears of members of Congress and you felt a shift.
The question is – What do you do when Nazis come to your town? This event is one response. You organize to educate and embolden the resistance. Sometimes the batteries of social justice needs to be recharged and there’s nothing like a few rousing political speeches and a sermon from on high to get folks back on track. Otherwise, what’s on TV? A body can waste precious hours scrolling through a Facebook feed when it could be engaging with minds in a room with other folks who have the same end goal. It’s so easy to be distracted these days but to be in a synagogue full of people bending the arc of history towards justice seemed a good way to spend a Friday afternoon.
We use these words now – build community capacity. By educating people to the threats present, both existential and physical, but also about what has been done and can be done, you build a resilience. A resilience to say no (again) and resilience to do what needs to be done (again). Fighting the forces of oppression is a marathon, not a street battle. (Sorry, Antifa.) As Rev. Barber said last night, if you really want to fight racism in America, get serious about fighting the voter suppression by Republicans that silences minority voters.
A point I made at the event (which made it out over the C-SPAN airwaves), is that I don’t want to play Wack-a-Mole with alt-right “Western chauvinists” (formerly known as neo-Nazis). I don’t want to have to plan my weekends around what they’re latest stunt. That lets them drive the narrative. It hands the power to organized racists. “Well, I was going to go hiking this weekend but the Patriot Prayer is having another rally so I have to go downtown and tell them they’re idiots.” Not gonna do it.
Instead, let’s do this work everyday in our communities, in our schools, in our places of worship, and our workplaces. And in our leisure time as well when our friends say something bigoted and think we won’t call them on it. Building community capacity is a full time job but it pays off in numerous ways.
First and foremost is food. What brings people together more than food? Last week in a Portland park their was an immigrant family having a picnic. Some uppity white lady told them that they didn’t belong in this country and to “Go back where you belong.” Another white lady told uppity lady to leave them alone. She shut the bigotry down. Then the community, an area called Rose City, came together in a unity rally to support the vulnerable in their community. There was music and food. Lots off food. I stuffed myself with tamales. A local ice cream truck rolled out and gave away free scoops. Community capacity is delicious.
Not in our town – strength for our neighbors
(For the next section of the blog, I’m writing at the Starbucks at the Trump International Hotel. You know, for irony. #Portlandrepresent)
The second; community gatherings build capacity by linking us together as neighbors, not in front of screens, but face to face. As much as I appreciate a live tweet, the hugs shared last night were more encouraging to keep up the fight than I might have guessed. This includes from veteran social justice warriors that were in the trenches when I was a wee pup to high school kids who earnestly asked, “How can we do this anti-racism work in our school?” More hugs would be a good place to start.
The truth is liberation work is hard. And it’s a thousand times harder for people of color than it is for me. I can “turn it off” and go back to my white privilege bubble and say, Yeah, I’m a gonna take that fight on next week. It’s hard because requires dedication to see the subtly of oppression, including our own internalized white supremacy. It’s hard because, at times, the Trump white nationalist march to make America 1850 again seems unstoppable. And it’s hard because some of your allies will try to pull you down, like crabs in a barrel trying to stop another crab from lifting itself out (to help free all the goddamn crabs).
I posted a link to C-SPAN feed to the teach-in on the Coalition Against Hate Crimes Facebook page and this was the first comment. You still hang out with Nazis on weekend to “create dialog”? A dismissive white dude as Chair of OCAHC is still a bad look, I could care less about your credentials. The average POC has far more expertise on this subject matter. I had to check my white fragility because my impulse was to fight. Instead, I replied, I’d love to buy you a coffee one day and tell you why I think my work is important. And you can tell me what you think I can best do to help the cause. (Still waiting for a response.)
This is a marathon. Let’s build each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Cut off their oxygen
The third benefit of the community building is it deprives the hate machine of fuel. The alt right is actively recruiting young white males who have no sense of connection. If you are alienated, you will join any group that says it will build you up, and that’s exactly what thuggish groups like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa do (and your traditional street gang or cult, for that matter). It’s not the racism that attracts whites to the groups. It’s not understanding the social and demographic shifts that they are living through and the only ones who are explaining the “whys” to them are “Western chauvinists.” It’s not surprising that they are attracting lots of white guys who think everything was better in a mythical past. “Again.”
If we have strong communities where neighbors know neighbors, including that new family from Syria or El Salvador, the alt right hate spin has less pull. Those targeted people, even older white men with beer bellies, are less alienated and less likely to fall for the simplistic rhetoric of the far-right. I think everyone wants the same thing, to live in a (tag Paul McCartney song) peaceful neighborhood. I don’t need to join an extremist group. I have friends and neighbors I care about and I’d rather defend them against the threat of your extremist group, thank you very much.
I won’t speak against the people who will show up to directly confront the alt right boys this weekend in Washington, DC, Charlottesville, and wherever else they are seeking photo ops. Those counter-protestors are willing to risk their necks to say that fascists are not welcome and don’t represent the true direction of this country’s future. I’ve spent plenty of time on the frontline. It’s both exhilarating and righteous. I hope they get lots of pictures of these “patriots” so they can be shamed back under their rocks. But I also want to reach out to these alienated folks, who seem so full of anger, and invite them to our side, where we are less alienated and there’s better food. Some of the most committed anti-racists I know are former members of the hate movement.
Tonight there is a vigil in front of the home of alt right godfather Richard Spencer in Arlington. Maybe someone will invite him out for some pho or tapas. Maybe Spencer will be a “former” on the second anniversary of the Unite the Right march that led to the death of Heather Heyer. Maybe he’ll be on a panel in a synagogue asking for forgiveness and permission to join our marathon.
How do we respond to Charlottesville? Some liberal hippie once said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Let’s start there.