Charlottesville: fighting white supremacists

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President Trump’s defence of white supremacists following the 11 August confrontation between racist neo-fascist groups and anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, continues to create divisions within the US ruling class. While Trump seeks to reassure his reactionary electoral base that he remains committed to their interests, major sections of the ruling class are horrified that his stance will merely stoke the fires of class opposition. They do not care about the daily racism experienced by people of colour: their concern is to restore conditions of profitability on the backs of the working class with the minimum of resistance. AMY LIU reports from Phoenix, Arizona.

The spark for the events in Charlottesville was a decision by the local council to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War and a renowned racist and slave owner. Like most statues of Confederate leaders in the southern US states, it was put up in the early years of the last century as a symbol of white supremacy in the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws. White supremacist and neo-fascist organisations announced their intention to congregate at the statue to defend it as part of their goal ‘to take America back’. On 11 August, 200 of them marched in downtown Charlottesville wearing Nazi armbands, waving Confederate flags, carrying the tiki torches long associated with the Ku Klux Klan, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ and other racist slogans. The Confederacy, which fought to maintain slavery, still lives in the hearts of the 'alt-right' to this day, although it claims that it is only a matter of preserving an important heritage.

Anti-fascist and socialist organisations mobilised alongside local community groups and Black Lives Matter to oppose the racists. There were running battles with the fascists which continued even after one of them drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing Heather Heyer, a local paralegal and IWW member, and injuring 20 other anti-fascists. In a separate incident, a 20-year-old black man, Deandre Harris, was beaten by white supremacists with metal poles, leaving him in the hospital with severe head injuries. Eyewitness Taryn Fivek of Workers World Party recounts: ‘We were also facing 1,500 cops and National Guard who were mobilised against us, not there for our protection. And there were heavily armed militia forces... They were on the same side as the police and the state.’ Police also used armoured vehicles to control the anti-fascists. However, Jason Kessler, the organiser of the far-right rally, was chased off by protesters when he tried to hold a press conference after the rally, and Richard Spencer, a renowned Neo-Nazi who was scheduled to hold another rally at Texas A&M University, had to cancel the event for fear of counter-protests. 

However, it was Trump’s response to the events that turned it into a major political embarrassment for the US ruling class. Firstly, it took him 48 hours to make any statement, and when it came, he blamed both sides for the events, condemning what he called ‘hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides’, repeating the phrase ‘on many sides’ for emphasis. This refusal to directly criticise the white supremacists proved too much for chief executives on his business advisory councils who started to announce their resignations from 14 August. After claiming that there were queues of CEOs wanting to serve on these committees, Trump was forced to disband them as replacement volunteers failed to materialise. Pushed to denounce the neo-Nazis, Trump almost immediately back-tracked at a press conference on 16 August where he again blamed both sides, and claimed that ‘not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch’, and that what he called ‘alt-left’ groups were ‘very, very violent’ in Charlottesville. He then emphasised that in his view there were ‘many fine people’ among the white supremacist protesters.

Applause for Trump’s stance from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke merely added to the dismay of Republican leaders: one by one they sought to distance themselves from the president. Among them were Attorney General Jeff Sessions who called Heyer’s murder a terrorist act, as well as former Presidents Bush senior and junior, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney who wanted Trump to apologise for ‘making racists rejoice’ and Senate leader Mitch McConnell who declared ‘there are no good neo-Nazis’. The Democrats also weighed in, sensing an opportunity to further undermine Trump’s position. Even AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had to distance himself from Trump: the self-serving and reactionary union leader ($300,000 annual salary) had also been a member of a Trump advisory committee. Burnishing anti-racist credentials is simple for bourgeois politicians when it comes to condemning openly racist neo-Nazis or white supremacists – but that does not extend to attacking brutal racist policing, or the appalling treatment of migrant workers let alone US imperialism’s wars abroad. The record of the Obama administration was one of intensifying repression against migrants crossing the Mexican borders and an accelerating rate of deportations of undocumented people.

The explosion of anger at Heyer’s murder among working class people is sowing the seeds for the development of a real anti-racist movement. Three days after Charlottesville, protesters took down a Confederate statue in Durham, capital of North Carolina, a state fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After eight people were arrested, more than 100 people turned themselves over to the police as an act of solidarity, supported by hundreds more. The action was led by members of the Workers World Party: Lamont Lilly, vice presidential candidate of the party, said: ‘It was a community all together who did that — which was responsible for that toppling of racism. But it takes a movement, it takes a mass of people to support that and keep the movement sustainable.’

Meetings and rallies in support of Charlottesville have taken place throughout the US, and have started to reveal the divisions that exist within the movement. Some 600 people attended one in Phoenix. It frequently seemed no more than a feel-good event. When a black woman urged white people ‘to put their bodies and careers on the line in every space, and their life on the line’, because this was the daily experience of black people faced with police brutality, another participant argued ‘I encourage them [the left] to speak out and be peaceful, come up with a strategy and attack the problem at its root, and that's government. If we're not going out to vote and putting ourselves in position of government to make change, you can protest all you want but you won't change the system.’ A local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People said ‘more incidents like Charlottesville will happen again, so we have to educate and organise and show more people are against the alt right and the Trump administration’ as if the Democrats were not part of the problem. By contrast, Antifa leader Eric Holden said there needed to be a class war: ‘People are dying because they are indiscriminately killing people left and right with the use of police terrorism’; yet when he called for a mobilisation to stop an alt-right Make America Great Again Fest planned for 7 October, someone shouted ‘We have to be peaceful, though!’

The fact is that the strategy of liberals and their methods of defeating fascism through voter turnout and peaceful discussion reveals more about the privilege of middle class white people. Their desire to stay peaceful even in the face of thugs who want to systematically erase parts of the population based on skin colour, gender, sexuality, shows that the working class must find independent means to create change. Liberal politics is not enough. The situation is changing. Trump’s support is at an all-time low; even before Charlottesville it was only 22% amongst millennials (those who came of age from the turn of the century) whereas 62% opposed him. Organisations like the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation are showing that campaigning out on the streets and taking a resolute working class standpoint is the way forward.