The far-right assembly in Charlottesville, Virginia, represented a social and political crisis of consciousness for many people. Between Jimmy Fallon’s uncharacteristically morose words on the gravity of the event (despite playfully ruffling President Trump’s hair on his show just months before), growing criticisms about free speech absolutism (with the ACLU slightly modifying its defense of the “Unite the Right” with a new refusal to defend armed hate groups), a slowly growing mainstream acceptance of anti-fascist confrontation, and accelerating removals of Confederate statues, the value and values of liberalism in the face of increasingly publicly articulated fascistic politics are being more frequently and loudly contested.
The American liberal democracy that is constantly cited as providing a framework for safeguarding our rights and liberties also provides a constitutionally defensible framework for legal expressions of violent white nationalism and racial supremacism. Many people, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have pointed to “real” patriots — in contrast to “pseudo-patriotic” white nationalists — in Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other “founding fathers.” But white nationalism is intrinsic to US statecrafting and the liberal mythologies around what it means to be patriotic. Pledging allegiance to the US state necessarily means an alignment with the ideological edifices born out of centuries of settler colonial violence, namely enslavement and Indigenous genocide.
If Washington was a true patriot standing for “American” ideas of equality and egalitarianism, why did a godlike portrait of the slave-owning first president flank Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the German American Bund (a 20th-century German-American Nazi organization), as he sang the praises of both Washington and Adolf Hitler at the party’s 1939 convention in Madison Square Garden? If the Union’s father, Washington, is distinctly different from the Confederate hero General Robert E. Lee, then how are their legacies and names linked in the name of a Lexington, Virginia, institution, Washington & Lee University, beyond both having been benefactors of the school? While President Trump asked in horror whether statues of Washington would be toppled next, the removal of all statues of the white nationalists that laid the ideological and material frameworks for centuries of racial violence and socioeconomic inequity is a politically consistent notion rather than an incredible one. Within this vein of consistency, the US government should also return the Black Hills land housing the Mount Rushmore National Memorial to the Lakota people.
If the United States’ political foundation allows for the emergence of fascistic and authoritarian governance, does it not behoove us to interrogate the state’s foundation and the definition of democracy in the past 241 years of the United States’ existence rather than idealizing an ethos of “equality” and “liberty” that has never come to be? Rather than grasping at, and attempting to reclaim and revive a nonexistent democracy, can we not confidently acknowledge that “democracy” as we have come to understand it is incapable of delivering the rights-related promises made by its founding documents?
The United States’ liberal democratic political framework was created to maximize liberties in resistance to British monarchial impositions, and also, quite explicitly, around notions of empowerments and citizenship rights afforded only to white, landowning men. Even within the 1776 declaration of the apparently self-evident equality of all men, a declaration that in no way contradicted the flourishing institution of slavery, the universally assured unalienable rights were not applicable to everyone: Blacks — then categorized as chattel — were neither citizens nor recognized as fully human, and Native peoples were enduring a genocide that is still ongoing.
This outright exclusion and conditional inclusion of individuals from the social contract facilitated the creation of a society wherein rights could be denied to communities as swiftly as they were extended. The free speech absolutism inherent to the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and other liberal organizations’ insistence that violent white supremacists have the right to speech and assembly (however indignantly these groups might condemn white supremacist politics) is a part of this social order that insulates and protects whiteness.
Protection of First Amendment rights should not entail an extension of constitutional protections for hate speech, demonstrably violent assemblies or incitements to future violence: Free speech, arguably, is supposed to protect individuals from government censure and censorship, though these purported protections have been inadequate where rights and liberties can be suspended according to the state’s will to protect “order” and “public safety.”
Following the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and in anticipation of white nationalist events in San Francisco and Berkeley on August 26 and 27 respectively, the Berkeley City Council passed an emergency ordinance that empowers the city manager to selectively disband permit-less gatherings within city limits. The city, thus, has criminalized gatherings of all natures in a legislative move that was as much to prevent the assembly of white nationalists as well as reactive community protest and self-defense. This step may increase the likelihood of violence from white nationalists against a far smaller turnout of counter-protesters; we have seen white supremacist gatherings effectively disbanded by overwhelming displays of community resistance (as was the case in Boston). In light of historical white supremacist participation in law enforcement and police departments’ historical tendency to crack down on leftist protesters and/or fail to respond to outbreaks of violence by white nationalists, the refusal of the state (in this case, the Berkeley municipal government) to intervene is indicative of its non-disagreement with white nationalist politics, particularly given President Trump’s own politics and response to Charlottesville, which was widely praised by white supremacists.
First Amendment rights entail protection from government retribution, but counter-protesting communities are not the government. The construction of social-political engagement between white supremacist rally-holders and the anti-fascists and community members countering them is that of a debate where each position — one of violence and community annihilation, and the other of community defense and support — holds equitable merit.
In calling for a defense against white supremacy, William C. Anderson writes that an individual or community that “defends themselves by any means necessary when they are being attacked is not the one bringing violence into the world. There is nothing violent about defending your life or the life of your loved ones.” Yet in a liberal imaginary where all speech or uses of force are equal and equally protectable regardless of content or the subject position of the speaker, white supremacists’ desire for community-extinguishing violence and the forms of violence they enacted were functionally equivalent to the resistive forced used by anarchists, anti-fascist coalitions and community protestors — despite clergy and community leaders in Charlottesville, most notably Dr. Cornel West, acknowledging that antifa saved their lives. If the state existed to protect minoritized communities, uses of force to defend communities would not be necessary. However, because the function of this state is to protect capitalist interests, coalitions of community groups and political organizations are forced to protect themselves from existential threats.
The murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville will likely be the first of many homicides if these violent white nationalists are not contained. While white people standing in solidarity with ethno-racial minority communities have also historically been targeted by white supremacists, the primary targets of white supremacist violence are not white and are not similarly mourned, as was stated by a chorus of non-white activists and commentators, as well as Heyer’s cousin Diana Ratcliffe. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, called for the murder of her daughter to be met with “righteous anger“: a call to action for so many Americans still mired in liberal complacency.
It is glaringly apparent that cautious proposals such as “dialogue” and piecemeal reforms brought about by elected officials (whose elections remain suspect, due to voter suppression and disenfranchisement) will not stem the surge of fascistic politics sweeping through this country. The only question is how much more violence marginalized communities will endure before neo-fascisms are confronted with the urgency and decisiveness they warrant.