Sunday, August 12, 2018

Maybe hate won, after all.

You may have heard that we were anticipating a little dust-up here in DC today. Thank the gods that things didn't get out of hand in any way. But I don't believe we got off scot-free.

As you may know, this weekend is the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, just a few hours away from DC. The event was organized by a bunch of white nationalists and fellow travelers, ostensibly to protest plans to remove a statue of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park. Hundreds of people on both sides of the issue showed up to protest and to counter the protestors, sparking numerous violent incidents while police basically stood by and watched it all happen. Then on Saturday, August 12th, a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Police arrested James Fields, Jr., and eventually charged him with first-degree murder and several hate-crime-related counts. His trial is set to start in November.

Things have not gone all that well for white supremacists since then. Many of them lost their jobs back home after being identified as participants in the rally. One fellow, Christopher Cantwell (no relation, thank goodness), became known as the "crying Nazi" when he posted a video of himself freaking out after learning the police were after him for the trouble in Charlottesville. Cantwell turned himself in shortly thereafter and has been in jail ever since. Last month, he pleaded guilty to assault and battery, and the judge reduced his sentence to time served; however, he is barred from entering the commonwealth of Virginia for five years.

More infamous white supremacists have also had a rough year. Rally organizer Richard Spencer, who last year moved into Old Town Alexandria, VA, to the horror of his liberal neighbors, has apparently broken his lease and moved out. And the host of InfoWars, Alex Jones, lost the vast majority of his social media platform when Facebook, YouTube, and Apple banned his accounts for violating their terms of service.

But the other organizer of last year's Charlottesville rally decided to do it again anyway. So Jason Kessler applied for a permit for an anniversary rally in Charlottesville. When city officials there were less than accommodating, he decided instead to move the rally to Washington, DC. Perhaps he thought a big rally in Lafayette Park, in full view of the White House, was just the shot in the arm the movement needed (never mind that the President wasn't going to be home). At the same time, organizers went ahead with plans for a commemorative march in Charlottesville, and counter-protestors again made plans to show up and shout them down.

Here in DC, we have seen our share of protests over the years. Besides the big marquee events -- the Million Man March, the Women's March, and so many others -- rallies and protests are practically a daily occurrence in Lafayette Park. The city had to issue Kessler a permit -- and they had to issue a permit to the coalition of counter-protestors who intended to demonstrate against Kessler's group. And then they had to figure out how to keep the two sides from killing one another. Extra security was scheduled; road closures were announced from Foggy Bottom to the White House. A proposal by the board of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Agency to reserve a special train for the Unite the Right ralliers fizzled when the transit workers' union, whose membership is 80 percent people of color, refused to run it.

In the end, it was the rally that fizzled. Fewer than 30 people showed up. Facing a heavy police presence and thousands of counter-protestors, Kessler stayed just long enough to make a speech. Then, as rain began pouring down, they left -- half an hour before rally was originally scheduled to start. The counter-protestors gave them a hearty chorus of "Na na, hey hey, goodbye" as security officers loaded them into vans and drove them away.

It's tempting to be giddy over Nazis turning tail and running from a crowd of thousands arrayed against them. But I'm reminded of some of the cautionary comments made in the days after 9/11, when security measures were being ramped up all around the country: The point of terrorism is to terrorize -- not just to blow things up, but to make people afraid. One guy gets aboard an airliner with an explosive in his shoe, and suddenly all of us are unpacking and undressing in order to get on a plane -- or paying the government a hundred bucks for the privilege of not having to undress and unpack. The goal isn't the bomb. The bomb is only a means to an end. The goal is to make people afraid.

This weekend, in both DC and Charlottesville (where the police seemed more sympathetic to the Nazis than to the counter-protestors), city officials scrambled, platoons of police were mobilized, money was spent on security, and normal people rearranged their lives -- and in the end, it was for no good reason. Sure, we had to be prepared. But no matter how few white supremacists showed up, they still got what they wanted. Even before the event was over, the damage was done.

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These moments of bloggy incitement have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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