Being on the right side of history: Reflections from Charlottesville

Published 24th August 2017

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA earlier this month, stunned and shocked us all. The rising levels of intolerance and racism in America, coupled with the initially wanting and inadequate response from the Trump administration are grave causes for concern. American history has no shortage of struggle stories founded on the quest for equality and tolerance, yet the same hatred, bigotry and intolerance that taints America’s past continues to exist and thrive today. Thankfully there are people who provide hope, even if just a glimmer, that discrimination will not go unchecked.

The tension in Charlottesville came to a head when the decision was made by the city council to remove the statue of Robert Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, in February 2017 and rename the park in which it stands, Lee Park, to Emancipation Park. Of the opinion that an important part of their heritage and history was under threat several far right movements organised protests including one entitled “Unite the Right”. These protests featured the likes of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK),the epitome of white supremacy groups, neo-nazis and other white nationalist groups.

On Saturday the 12 of August, the far right protesters were met with peaceful counter protesters. The two groups clashed and a member of the far right protesters drove his car into the crowd of counter protesters, killing a young lady, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others. The driver of this car has been identified as James Alex Fields Jr. and he has been charged with second-degree murder.

The tragic criminal act of taking a persons life and injuring others will hopefully be dealt with swiftly by the justice system but an additional and fundamental concern is the fact that extremist groups who propagate hate and intolerance continue to exist. This is a major threat to the very fabric of society. To make matters worse, the response from President Trump who at first, could do no more than speak against the violence from “many sides” also constitutes a major threat to attempts to develop cohesive, open and tolerant societies.

Trump generally seems to be averse to criticising any of the extremist right wing groups that supported his election and continue to support him during his tenure in office. It was only after mounting pressure that he decided, on Monday 14th of August to condemn racism and publically denounce the KKK and other neo-nazis groups.

The growing right wing extremism and populism paints a very grim picture, however, the existence of those who seek to counter such extremism in anyway possible must not go unnoticed. For example the counter protesters in Charlottesville, their actions and presence at the “Unite the Right” protest represents the diversity of views in Virginia and suggests that it is not all doom and gloom.

Earlier this year in Virginia on 8 July, 50 members of the KKK Loyal White Knights held a rally in Lee Park and they ended up face to face with roughly 1000 counter protesters. Even though the event unfortunately deteriorated into violence and the use of tear gas by the police, it remains a poignant example of how there are those unafraid to stand against the proliferation of racism and white nationalism.

The same can be said about those who have spread a positive message in other ways, such as Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant, Merck Pharmaceuticals. He resigned from the President’s Manufacturing Council in protest of Trump’s weak response to the racism. Chief executives from other major companies such as Intel and Under Armour also resigned in protest from the Council, issuing impactful statements and taking a stand against Trump’s initial indifference to the blatant and unabashed racism.

Webhost service GoDaddy Inc, stopped hosting the website belonging to The Daily Stormer, a neo-nazi and white supremacist organisation after they allegedly mocked the death of Heather Heyer. Google also distanced itself from the neo-nazi group by cancelling its registration.

In addition, thousands gathered the day after the Charlottesville event in cities across the US protesting against fascism and white supremacy, events included candlelight vigils and public rallies.

It is the continued resistance to extremism and intolerance that provides hope that open tolerant societies can exist. Without those who are willing to speak up and oppose extremism- we are lost. As stated by Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke “ The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Whilst history is littered with bigots and racists, it thankfully has had many advocates for tolerance and equality.

For as long as every generation has a Martin Luther King Jr, a Ruby Bridges, a Rosa Parks, or -anyone willing to take a stand even in ways that may seem miniscule- racism and intolerance will not triumph.

**This article appeared in the Star on 24 August 2017 under the title” Advocate Tolerance and Equality”

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