By Nathan James
“The remedy for hate speech,” said Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, writing in a landmark decision in June, “is more speech”. Adding “more speech” to the expression of white supremacist bigotry and homophobia, is exactly what hundreds of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia were doing on a bright, sunny summer Saturday afternoon. Exercising the First Amendment rights the judge wrote about so earnestly, they assembled peaceably, to voice their opposition to the blazing displays of hatred that had run rampant through the streets of this Blue Ridge city for two days. When torch-bearing neo-Nazis, “alt-right” racists, and Trump supporters—many of whom wore his trademark, red “Make America Great Again” hats—descended upon the University of Virginia’s campus on Friday night, it was but the opening salvo in a series of broadsides that would end in horrifying bloodshed, captured on video, in living color, for all the world to see.
Throughout our long, troubled history with race in America, we’ve seen the violence of those so frightened and dead-set against change, that they are willing to kill and maim, to defend their assertions of superiority and social ascendancy. We saw it in Chief Bull Connor’s Birmingham cops, we saw it in a Charleston, South Carolina church, we saw it on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where a TV news crew recorded scenes of such utter, wanton cruelty that a nation was (finally) galvanized to do something about it, and we saw it at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where homophobia spoke with a voice crafted in pure, unadulterated evil. We saw it again in the mountains of Virginia on Saturday.
This time, after escalating clashes between the white supremacists and the counter-demonstrators, who included Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ people, and outraged UVA students and faculty, one young man, filled with all the fire of ages past—the Axis, Jim Crow, the KKK—chose to climb into his automobile, depress the accelerator, and strike down as many of his perceived enemies as his weapon of choice made possible. He plowed into a crowd of defenseless human beings, then reversed back over them with as much force as he could muster. His name was James Fields, Jr., a 20-year-old man from Maumee, Ohio, who was photographed marching openly with Vanguard America, whose headquarters are in Charlottesville, and whose charter states that the United States is meant to be an “exclusively white nation”. Fields stood up to be counted with this group before he carried out his murderous rampage, which took the life of a 32-year-old woman, whose last Facebook post called the bigots out. “If you aren’t outraged,” wrote paralegal Heather Heyer, “you aren’t paying attention.” Heyer was brutally slaughtered as she and hundreds of other people walked the streets, adding “more speech”, as was their right, to the ugly chants of “F*ck you, fa**ots”, and “White power” hurled at them by the racists.
When Fields applied deadly force to his views, making the streets of Charlottesville run red with blood, he invoked all the terror and viciousness that have been imposed upon people of color, the LGBTQ community, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who does not fit into the strict, narrow definition of supremacy these hate groups so fervently espouse. Fields is just 20 years old. That’s awfully young to have built up such a repository of hatred, as to commit murder in its name. Where did he learn such things? Perhaps at home, perhaps in school, but certainly in the words and acts of our leadership, whose name and slogans were so prominently invoked by those who sought to shatter the tranquility of small-town America with their disgusting bigotry. President Trump himself was careful in his statements, to avoid upsetting his base—the very people who brought carnage to Charlottesville—by couching his statements with obligatory dog-whistles like “violence on many sides”. However, I fail to recall Black Lives Matter, gay people, or Jewish counter-demonstrators getting into a car, turning the ignition, flooring the accelerator, and slamming into a crowd of human beings with depraved indifference to their lives. I don’t recall these people encouraging cops to beat up their prisoners. I don’t recall these people enacting official White House policies targeting the LGBTQ community. I don’t recall these battered, broken victims of the hate Trump encourages, engaging in brazen hate crimes, of the type which have skyrocketed in our country since his election.
So, what, then, is the remedy for murder? Surely it isn’t, to paraphrase Alito, “more murder”. Yet, nothing people of good conscience and free speech have tried, has had any visible effect. We march, we write, we speak out, we sing, and all of it goes for naught. What do we say to Heather Heyer and her family? What do we say to all the people who have died just for being who they were? What remedy avails us, that can put a stop to the senseless violence and terrorism these hate groups perpetrate? There are those who suggest that the answer to violence is greater violence. In other words, the answer to evil is greater evil, and surely this will not obtain in a civilized society. To put a stop to the horror, will require something else, tried before, but never applied in its full measure.
Remember back in November, when some self-styled “hoteps”, or gurus, were telling people not to vote? That’s a big reason we have Trump, and the rise of white supremacy today. Too many people didn’t raise their voices at the ballot box, the one place it really can make a difference. Sixty-three million Americans voted for the country we now live in. Sixty-three million Americans said scenes like the ones we witnessed in Charlottesville were OK with them. Sixty-three million Americans approved of Trump’s bigoted, coded rhetoric. However, sixty-six million Americans voted against all of that. They just didn’t vote in the places where it would have made a critical difference.
That’s where our remedy lies. Yes, we need to march, and shout, and speak, and sing, and all the rest of it. Above all those things, however, we need to vote, and run for office, and let those in power know that they are accountable for the country they create. If we don’t use this remedy above all else, there will be more Charlottesvilles, more Selmas, more Orlandos, and more casualties in our future. It’s up to all of us. The bigots have prioven they’re willing to carry out uncivilized atrocities in furtherance of their goals. We must be ready to apply the remedies of civilized people, to stop them.