Why Charlottesville?

With the help of Donald Trump, a few hundred white nationalists captured national attention this weekend, eclipsing for the moment growing international dangers as well as the much larger sustained mobilization of the anti-Trump Resistance. Weapons, provocative symbols, counterprotest, and a death were all part of an awful and unfolding story.

Start: Racism in America long predates the Trump presidency and even the Trump family residency. It’s deeply entrenched in American history–along with organized efforts to move the country to something better. Over hundreds of years, antiracists have been winning, but bending the arc of the moral universe take a lot of hard work, and progress is uneven. And there are always people trying, sometimes successfully, to bend it back.

White nationalism is now mostly marginal. American Nazis, Klansmen, and their allies get attention by provoking larger numbers of their opponents to show up to oppose them. Brandishing the Confederate battle flag, the swastika, and quotes from Adolf Hitler are good ways to call out the opposition. Picking sites where the racists won’t be tolerated and will be greatly outnumbered, like Skokie, Illinois or Berkeley, California is another.

Charlottesville, Virginia is such a place. Focusing on the plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the white nationalists started last by marching on the campus of the University of Virginia (designed by Thomas Jefferson, ironically, a particularly difficult character in the commemoration battles), carrying torches. It was a lead-up to the Unite the Right march scheduled for the next day.

The Unite the Right charlottesville-militia.jpgcrowd assembled in the morning, some conspicuously armed and outfitted like a paramilitary unit. The anti-racists were out in force as well, in much larger numbers. The nationalists chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, announced their support for Trump, and clashed with counterdemonstrators. Local police, aided by National Guardsmen, ordered the demonstration to disperse before it was to start.

Police and Guardsmen worked20170709_MET_KLAN_JM01 to disperse the planned demonstration before it was to start, and tried to keep the two sides apart. Despite all the visible guns, the critical weapon this time was a Dodge Challenger; someone drove the car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators, hitting two other cars, wounding 19 demonstrators and killing one.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has declared a state of emergency, the injured have been hospitalized, and presumably the outsiders are leaving Charlottesville.

So, how do we make sense of all of this?

Although racism and violence are not new, the number of hate incidents, including vandalism, rallies, and attacks on individuals, has increased since the Trump campaign, 

Oddly, despite desperately seeking accomplishments to brag about, Trump won’t claim credit for this one.

He has, however, promoted an environment where members of a marginal tendency in American life gets continual support for their view of the world. In just the past few weeks, the Trump administration has announced plans to fight affirmative action, build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out, further restrict immigration for Muslims, and purge transgender servicemen and women from the armed forces–as a “favor” to the the military. “Making America Great Again” means advancing a narrower vision of America, returning to an imaginary past in which the others don’t have to be seen, and certainly don’t get jobs and benefits to which they are not entitled.

Whatever Trump says, these demonstrators are clear that they think he’s on their side.  And this fragile president is extremely reluctant to question the judgment of those who support him. Activists respond to signals, and the president of the United States is waving them on. Condemning violence on “many sides,” refusing to mention race, Nazis, or the KKK, the president offers no suggestion that he wants them to stop.

People pay attention.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Why Charlottesville?

  1. sherkat says:

    I disagree. I think this is more like the Birmingham question that Morris and McAdam wrestled with. I think the fascists went to Charlottesville because that is where their resources were. There weren’t simply a few hundred, minimal reports were over a thousand from police sources, and that seems evident from the rather shocking footage from the pre-protest fire march. They were in Charlottesville because it was a good target and they had strong organizational footing and strong regional support. After Dylan Roof murdered a bunch of people in a church, pro-confederate protests were waged throughout the South, hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, we don’t know because sociologists ignore right wing movements… Were they seeking violence, yes! Was it like Skokie, no. They wanted violence because they wanted to kill people. And they knew they would win, and would likely get away with it. They came prepared for violence. Violence works for dominant groups, as Gamson pointed out long ago.

    • Thanks for the comment. James Fields lives in Maumee, Ohio, about eight hours driving to Charlottesville. Apparently, lots of the racist marchers were out-of-towners. Jason Kessler, who called for the Unite the Right rally, is a Charlottesville resident, and is angry about the City Council’s decision to take down the Confederate statues and rename the parks. There are many many many places in America that would provide a more congenial reception to racists than Charlottesville.

      On the numbers: Most reports I’ve seen estimate the Nazi/KKK/white racist turnout at 500, though I saw one estimate of 1500. Even 500 represents large growth for the racist right, which generally turnout out marches that number in the dozens. But all of the reporting emphasizes that the racist right was overwhelmingly outnumbered.

      And I have no doubt that the white nationalists were looking for violence.

      Will all of this inspire their allies to come out across the country? I don’t know. So far, what’s most visible are hundreds of rallies in opposition across the country.

  2. sherkat says:

    The individual successful terrorist doesn’t matter. What matters is that nearly 2000 white supremacists engaged in high risk and high cost collective action for this event. Your numbers are way low. Look at the video. They are not simply looking to provoke violence, they are seeking to solidify their control of the political system. Donald Trump is President of the USA…..and recognized what supremacists are key members of his administration. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco….This ain’t no foolin’ around….

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