Torch-wielding alt-right demonstrators took to the streets of Charlottesville shouting “all lives matter” this weekend — and got away with it.
I’ve lost count of the number of marches and street protests black citizens have planned and led in this Black Lives Matter era. Lets go with “a lot.” What isn’t lost on me is black people’s recurring fear that these protests will end horribly, in clouds of tear gas, a hail of bullets, screams, blood, tears and imprisonment.
So far, that has been the pattern — now and back in the day. The historical pattern, that is, for handling black protests.
On the flip side, when we look at white protests, at least regarding matters of race, this hasn’t been the case. A striking example of this occurred over the weekend, on Saturday, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
There, white nationalist Richard Spencer led a march aimed at halting the state’s intention to tear down a Confederate monument.
As previously reported in Wear Your Voice, Spencer — who is also the director of National Policy Institute — is credited with coining the controversial term “alt-right,” a concept that catalyzed an entire right-wing movement that’s ostensibly in the business of “making America white again.” To date, its greatest victory towards that goal has been the election of Donald Trump.
According to reports, the alt-right demonstrators last weekend not only chanted “all lives matter” — as one might expect — but also “Russia is our friend,” and carried torches as they marched Virginia streets to defend their “white heritage.” Torches, y’all. Lit on tiki bamboo.
Said Spencer, “I’m here to take part in this great celebration of our heritage and to say ‘no’ to the city of Charlottesville. You’re not going to tear down our statue and you’re not going to replace us.”
Unsurprisingly, the rally went off without a hitch — that is, until counter-protestors showed up and showed out. Only after this anti-alt-right group of marchers interrupted the event were local police prompted to intervene, ordering the crowd to disband.
No harm, no foul, right?
Except — if you’re accustomed to bracing yourself for news that a race-based protest in America’s streets has, yet again, attracted a strong police presence and protesters have or may, yet again, accrue injuries that range from mild to serious, the tamed and rather reserved response of the state to this white rally appears, to the naked eye, to almost be otherworldly.
If white culture is divinely sanctioned as some of the greatest minds in Western culture believed it to be, perhaps the outcome of this rally should be attributed to a god. Or perhaps we can attribute it to something much more terrestrial and human-made: the legacy of white supremacy.
That legacy, defined by the brutal reaction of (white) America to black protests, does not lend the impression that protests in general, no matter the demographic engaged in the act of protesting, is a prickly thorn in the side of the American polity. For without provocation, police officers outfitted in riot gear and military-grade weapons typically intervene to stifle black protests before they can gain any headway. Even though black protests are known to be nonviolent, something as inoffensive and harmless as a cold stare or snarky placards seems to be all the probable cause individual states need to step in.
However, Spencer and his merry band of torch-toting miscreants were permitted to carry flammable weapons, Ku Klux Klan-style, in broad daylight without attracting so much as a bullhorn warning.
One is led to ponder why. And, after pondering, it’s not difficult to surmise the reason.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., someone who was well-acquainted with the violent white backlash elicited by black protests and sought to ease the anxiety of America’s white population through encouraging nonviolence, said, “The greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” He was invoking history — specifically, the history of American protest.
However, that history must also be qualified, for the history of our nation is one of a governmental system, at the local and state level, that has never responded well or enthusiastically to black activism, to blacks embracing their “right to protest for rights.” At the same time, it has prioritized and celebrated white activists for these brave acts and nominated them as the saviors of American democracy.
Revisit those old black-and-white film reels that grade-school teachers show students when they cover the black freedom struggle, and what you’ll inevitably notice is the differential treatment of black and white protesters. It’s the same difference in approach we see today, particularly in how those white protesters were treated in Charlottesville compared to, say, the huge fallouts in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. And, like today, black activists were always behaving nonviolently at the mercy of the violence that law enforcement inflicted on them, while their white counterparts did the opposite.
What that should suggest to us is that, as a nation, we still have not reconned with that history, our history, our past and how it continues to exert an influence on our present. And while I continue to believe that we can, the more these blatant racial contradictions are spotted and teased out, the more difficult it is to ascertain when it’ll happen.