A day before the Charlottesville rally began, I finished watching I Am Not Your Negro; a film that poetically constructs a link between being black in America in the 1960s and being black in America today through the eyes of James Baldwin. This film reiterated an unsurprising reality; that the history of America is a history of hatred, domination and oppression. On 12 August, a “Unite the Right” rally erupted in Charlottesville. The rally was in response to the decision to take down the confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. White nationalists complained that the removal of this statue would threaten their white heritage, suggesting that they currently live in a world in which they are systematically oppressed. The rally quickly turned violent, with Alt-Right protesters clashing with counter-protesters. At 1.42pm a speeding car rammed into peaceful demonstrators, tragically killing civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, signalling the start of a local state of emergency. All while the police did very little, particularly in comparison to how quickly they responded to protests in Ferguson and Baltimore.
As I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I noticed people were surprised that a rally like this was happening in the 21st century. Many couldn’t believe that they were seeing images of the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville. I mean, hadn’t we had already defeated this level of hatred and anti-blackness in the mid-1960’s? While I understand that outrage is a natural reaction to such open anti-black hatred and violence, to say that what you’re witnessing is unbelievable in this era means that you have willfully ignored the realities of black people living in the United States.
“To say that what you’re witnessing is unbelievable in this era means that you have willfully ignored the realities of black people living in the United States”
As black Americans know all too well, the alt-right protesters in Charlottesville this week are not outliers of society. They are very much part of our society – they’re our neighbours, our colleagues and sometimes our friends – and they believe every last racist word screamed at the rally. What this event demonstrates is a continuation of a cycle of hatred that never actually disappeared. This is America in 2017. This is the same America that acquitted George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the same America that murdered Michael Brown and the same America that shot 8-year-old Aiyana Jones. Racism and hatred did not end when Martin Luther King marched through Selma and or when we inaugurated Barack Obama. America’s history of racism never disappeared, it has simply come back recast.
Although hatred and oppression have always been a part of American history, to pretend like this week’s rally had nothing to do with the election of Donald Trump would be to ignore the millions of Americans that stood by his racist rhetoric over the past year. It is not surprising that many of the men and women marching through Charlottesville this week were proudly wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. It is not shocking that ex-KKK leader David Duke gave a speech at the rally praising Trump for “fulfilling his promises”. The President’s narratives, centered around putting “America first” are the very narratives that have been used by these far right groups to masquerade their white supremacy as patriotism.
“What this event demonstrates is a continuation of a cycle of hatred that never actually disappeared. This is America 2017”
When asked to comment on the rally, President Trump said that he “condemned the violence on both sides.” The fact that the President was able to find some sort of moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and those fighting for equality and justice, demonstrates that the administration itself is broken and racist. This President’s late and insincere comments come as no surprise. How did we expect the man who hired white supremacist sympathisers as his presidential advisors to react? It is evident that since its creation, America has ignored the reality of what it means to be black. This is a nation that founded itself on the belief that “all men are created equal” but is systematically killing, imprisoning and oppressing black people. It is a nation that prides itself on the idea of civil liberties, but only for those white enough to be awarded those liberties. This is a paradox that existed when Africans first crossed the Atlantic, and still exists in the Trump administration’s version of 2017.
James Baldwin once famously said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What black people have always been able to do in times of oppression is to show tremendous resilience and hope. The resilience demonstrated in Charlottesville this week has played a unifying role in bringing entire communities together against racism.
“It is time for people to face the reality of what it means to be black in America…We need to bear witness and speak the truth”
It is time for people to face the reality of what it means to be black in America. To our non-black allies, reflect on your own prejudices and biases. Listen and follow the millions of black Americans who have been contributing a massive amount of emotional and physical labor to address issues of social justice and inclusion. If we want to progress, we need to stop being surprised. We need to bear witness and speak the truth. There is no safe space in silence.
If you’re thinking about ways to join the resistance, consider helping 22-year-old activist Takiyah Thompson who was arrested on August 15th for taking down a confederate statue in North Carolina. You can contribute to her legal fees here: http://durhamsolidaritycenter.org/bondfund/