UPDATE October 13, 2017: 3 Alt-Right Leaders Found Guilty in Charlottesville Riots
For the last few weeks, I have been trying to wrap my head around the events and controversy surrounding the deadly attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. I went out looking for answers and found myself attending a Commonwealth Club Roundtable discussion in San Francisco. This is what I learned.
First, the important backstory. On August 11, 2017, a group of white nationalists held a march and rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They were met by a large number of counter-protesters and in the next morning, at this normally liberal-leaning, white college town, a man drove into that group of people, killing a woman and injuring dozens of others. The event and aftermath became what's being called a "self-inflicted political injury" to President Trump, and reaction nationwide has been dramatic on both sides of the aisle.
"We are in a historically significant moment," said Dr. James Taylor, Director of African American Studies and Professor of Political Science, University of San Francisco. “There are things young people are experiencing on the streets now that MLK and his generation could not deal with and never had to deal with that require new narratives to address these issues," according to Taylor.
"The selection of Charlottesville was intentional because it’s a smaller college town and there was an expectation that other people they would run into would be other, white liberals," said Martin G. Reynolds, Co-executive Director of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and Director of Reveal Investigative Fellowships, The Center for Investigative Reporting. White nationalists didn't go to other cities like Dallas and New Orleans where other Confederate monuments were taken down.
“Had they gone (to those cities), the reality is they probably would have faced more African Americans in that protest. They were seeking to deracialize the conflict and make it seem this is about patriotism, not racism,” Reynolds said.
Now it's polo shirts and chinos
“Clearly we’re seeing they’ve become much more sophisticated. The days of the robes are gone for the most part," said Dan Borenstein, Columnist and Editorial Writer for the East Bay Times/Bay Area News Group. "We’ve seen it in Berkeley and now San Francisco. The question is how do you react to it? How do most people react to this abhorrent message?", Borenstein asked.
“What (the white nationalists) got was what they wanted. They got media attention. They got engagement. They got conflict which raises a much bigger question, how do you react to that?”, he said. The answer is "Don’t engage. What they want more than anything else is to have an engagement that generates publicity. They control the message and that’s the best recruiting tool they could hope for. I think falling into that trap would be horrible and what I fear will happen this weekend in SF,” said Borenstein. As of this writing, there are several counter-demonstrations planned in light of what's being billed as an event to promote free speech by the group "Patriot Prayer" at Alamo Square in San Francisco. More on the founder here. You can also find a list of rallies, counter-demonstrations, and alternatives to protesting here!
"The key is to keep (these events) peaceful. To me, if you engage it and it becomes a violent protest, it plays right into the Trump (ideology)," Borenstein said.
Life After Hate
Others are not quite so sure about what to do, especially those whose job it is to present the story to the public in an unbiased manner.
“Looking at it from the perspective of a journalist, as I watch (President Trump) say what he said about how racism is bad and putting it in very simple terms, the actions of this administration have been counter to that,” Reynolds points out. Reynolds talked about one of the guests on Al Letson's Peabody award-winning podcast and radio program called Reveal. On it, one of the co-founders of the organization known as "Life After Hate", Christian Picciolini, shared his story and how life as a skinhead that started when he was just 16 years old ultimately changed him forever after one violent confrontation with a young African American man in Chicago.
“While kicking him and beating him, (the man) looked up into (Christian's) eyes and had a connection for that one moment. He realized he needed to get out of that,” Reynolds said.
“You rarely change someone’s mind when you punch em’ in the face so this notion we have to look at racists sort of angrily is problematic,” Reynolds explained.
Reynolds said "Life After Hate" was one of the groups awarded a $400,000 Homeland Security grant to continue their work before President Obama left office. "Lo and behold, when Trump went into office, that grant was rescinded," Reynolds said. Additionally, "Out of all the groups who applied and had their grants rescinded, they were the only organization that focused on white extremism," Reynolds said. "When (President Trump) goes from these speeches, from teleprompter to real Trump and back again, the reality is journalists have to call that because the actions of the administration are running counter to the very claims that he is making.”
“After listening to Trump’s description of white nationalists/nazis and you quickly realize the difficulty of getting out (of it) is like a gang, "according to Borenstein. "Once in, it’s almost impossible to get out. The last thing we want to do is put up physical barriers or walls that drive them deeper into this,” Borenstein said.
The Power of Presence
So how should people in the Bay Area react?
"(Through) the numbers, the demonstrations, the outpouring (of support)," said Taylor. "What we’ve seen Donald Trump do very forcefully and effectively is unify and democratize elements of this society that had not been mobilized for a long time. Many women responded and have stayed engaged since January that had not been engaged in the political process before," according to Taylor.
He pointed out the mass show of solidarity in Boston shortly after the Charlottesville attack. "Just showing up as 20,000 silent observers in Boston who didn’t know exactly how to deal with this issue before us. We are here to say this is wrong and that had a powerful effect," Taylor said.
To understand the Future, look at the Past
"Racial polarization is deeply ingrained in American politics in terms of our party system alone," Taylor said. "Nothing else explains American (political) parties better than race. Not gender, not sexuality, not income, not region, not wealth. They’ve changed their names over the years, but both are shaped by 'where is the Negro', 'where is the working class white?'", said Taylor.
He went on to say that the National Football League made a choice by bringing back country singer and songwriter Hank Williams on Monday night football. "We are ignoring the African Americans who are concerned about what (people like) Colin Kaepernick are trying to articulate," explained Taylor. "Through the specific stanzas in the National Anthem, (Kaepernick) exposed the racism and black defeat in this pledge. What Williams represents is an appeal to Nascar (fans) and the working class element of whites that our political system has had a hard time bringing together," Taylor said.
“To think that we’re going to get some new religion suddenly, to change this after 150 years where these people identify themselves based on the hate of blacks specifically... polls show Trump support has a strong anti-black effect.”
The Notion of Terror
Reynolds said another problem is the lack and unwillingness from law enforcement and public officials to call what happened in Charlottesville an act of domestic terrorism, especially when you combine this with the increase in hate crimes since President Trump took office.
"The authorities are reticent to call it (domestic terrorism)," Reynolds said. "So then, as journalists, we’re often reticent to call this domestic terrorism. That needs to change. We need to take a hard look at what terrorism (is)," Reynolds said.
"I don’t know that people of color can tell white folks what to do to stop being racist. And frankly, it’s not our job," Reynolds explained. "To me, the real racism is the systemic and institutional racism that we need to address. It’s what we’re taught. (We need to) train journalists to recognize their own bias. It’s going to take time."
Up in the Air
Another hot topic is talking about what to do to next with those controversial Confederate statues.
"The Confederate monuments had very little to do with the 1860s and the Civil War and had more to do with the assertion of Jim Crow terror,” Taylor explained. "These monuments served as a warning to African Americans in the 1920s in and outside the South that a certain sentiment is supported here. The beauty of today is people are starting to bring up these ghosts from the past," according to Taylor.
"Instead of dismantling them, put a statue of Frederick Douglass in place wherever there’s a Confederate monument like Jackie Robinson at baseball stadiums to contextualize history so we can learn more," Taylor said.
Special thanks to Riki Rafner and John Zipperer with the Commonwealth Club for giving me access to attend the event and provide this coverage.