*For a less critical summary of the day’s events, read David Graham’s piece in The Atlantic.
Last Friday (the 18th of August), hundreds of Durham area residents descended on the old county courthouse to confront a KKK rally that never materialized. This came on the heels of the events of August 14th when a group of protesters tore down a monument to Confederate dead located on the small lawn in front of the courthouse building. The monument had been erected in 1924, in large part, to reinforce white supremacy in the Jim Crow south. On the 17th, scores of people attempted to turn themselves in after eight people were charged for having toppled the statue.
I had arrived the previous Thursday to spend the weekend with my girlfriend. In planning my visit, I had made up my mind that I wanted to go to the old courthouse. As a high school history teacher, I wanted to see for myself the area which so recently had been in national headlines. When, on Monday morning I saw speculative tweets that the KKK was going to march on the town, I decided I would head there to watch events unfold. Originally predicted to arrive at noon, the forecast was amended throughout the day. The racists were going to arrive at 4:00, then 5:00. Ultimately the white-supremacists never came and the protest ultimately wasn’t countering anything. A number of people were quick to claim victory, we had scared the KKK off. I think that assessment is dubious.
Before I go on, I should point out. Even the whiff of a rumor that racists are organizing a march is not something to take lightly in North Carolina. We all know the state experienced the realities of Jim Crow, but North Carolina also has the unenviable distinction of having experienced the only coup d’etat ever in U.S. history. In 1898, after a hotly contested and controversial state election campaign, a white mob descended on Wilmington to forcibly remove the liberal officeholders. In what would become known as the Wilmington Race Riot, dozens of black citizens were gunned down, even more were banished, and the town’s thriving black business community was decimated (1, 2, 3). It stands to reason, therefore, that North Carolinians are especially sensitive to threats from racist groups.
It came as no surprise that this well-intentioned action received positive coverage from the mostly left-leaning sources that I tend to read. While my spirits were lifted by a few things I experienced, I was mostly left feeling ashamed and disgusted with what I saw. This relatively minor event can serve to highlight three important lessons the left should contemplate carefully:
- Appearances matter. The left needs to be more mindful of how we appear to centrists and the moderate right (rational people who could be receptive to some of our ideas if they were more thoughtfully packaged)
- The left is pushing culture wars to extremes that border on the absurd. This is damaging our image externally and it is leading to unnecessary internal divisions.
- Simply being on the left does not make what we say and do morally righteous by nature and it’s incredibly arrogant and dangerous to think that way.
1 Appearances matter
The left needs to take more care in cultivating their outward appearance. I haven’t seen as much written on this point, so I will explain this one in the most depth. We on the left want the world to accept us. Accept us without any judgement otherwise you are racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/etc. Well, whether we on the left like it or not, humans judge one another based on outward appearance. We are all judged to some degree regardless of sexual identity, skin tone, or brand of clothes we choose to wear. We liberals are not immune to this, either. No matter how much we like to think we are beyond such petty behavior. In fact, on Friday I witnessed liberals passing judgement on others in two pretty remarkable ways.
Throughout the day there were two men atop the roof of a building opposite the court house. They appeared to be wearing bullet-proof vests and wore sunglasses. One had binoculars that were glued to his face and there was a tripod set up next to him. Protesters around me speculated about the two mysterious figures. They had a martial appearance about them. Was that tripod for a sniper rifle? It was clear to me at the time that the two men were law enforcement helping to coordinate crowd control but those around me would rather fuel speculation that they had some nefarious designs against us.
The second example of protesters judging people by their appearance was most evident during what I consider to be the lowest point of the protest.
A red truck approached an intersection near the courthouse which had been barricaded off by two police cars as well as protesters holding large parade banners emblazoned with defiant slogans. It was a large red pickup with hefty off-road tires and a lift kit, giving it an imposing appearance. Being at the intersection they stopped in front of, I was able to see the bed of the truck had a few black counter protesters appropriately decked out in protest garb. The driver revved the engine, I think, as a way to salute the crowd that had gathered – to cheer them on. The crowd acted differently, however. They saw the truck at a distance and deemed it was something a racist would drive. Without a moments hesitation someone shouted “There they are!” and the command “Get ’em!” was heard. Within a span of a few seconds the peaceful gathering where people were playing drums and burning incense turned into a mob rushing the police barricade cursing and shouting antagonizing remarks. The two officers in the intersection remained calm. Shaking their heads in disbelief at the stupidity of the crowd, they held up their arms and shouted “It’s not the KKK!” The crowd slowed. A stampede was averted and the wave of angry peace activists ebbed back to the courthouse lawn.
The point is everyone passes judgement based on external appearance. It doesn’t matter how morally righteous your cause is, you can still look like a total idiot and that will do damage to people’s perception of what you are fighting for.
We need to fight fire with fire, I understand that. Police have brutalized peaceful activists and the far right goes around brandishing deadly weapons. We need to look out for our safety and be prepared to deal with all dangers from dehydration and hunger to teargas, batons, and worse. That said, we could be a lot more clever about it. We don’t have to be constantly flaunting these instruments we bring for protection. We need to cultivate our outward appearance more carefully.
You could tell who the seasoned and level-headed activists were. They were the organizers dressed in comfortable but practical clothes, having considered the weather, and they were wearing bright orange pinnies. They exuded calm and looking as non-threatening as can be.
You could also tell who the people were who showed up for a fight and/or to look cool while they mug for the camera. We liberals are aghast at images of hate-filled white men bearing torches and firearms. Then at this “counter-protest” with no “bad guys” in sight there were at least two armed with guns (I took a photo of one, video of the other) one in a ghillie suit, a couple carrying shields and cudgels, some wearing gas masks, impact goggles, fatigues, a bullet-proof vest, and others with faces swathed in black cloth so they look like insurgents plucked from a Middle East conflict. They clamored over scaffolding erected outside the courthouse entrance and struck poses while standing on the plinth where the statue one stood. At no point during the 4 1/2 hours I was there did I feel a level of threat that merited the donning of any of this battledress. Also, if we think we are so righteous in what we are doing, even willing to turn ourselves in when we deface a monument, why are so many of us hiding our identities?
Looking beyond our clothing, I was very impressed with people’s generosity bringing supplies. With incredibly short notice, dozens of people had arrived to donate food and snacks (anticipating a drawn-out standoff). That said, my feelings turned from happiness to worry then dismay as the day went on. First it was water. Then granola bars. Then followed Goldfish, Doritos, Babybel cheeses, crackers, tubs of ice cream, and pizza. Soon the lawn of the courthouse was strewn with cases of water and boxes of snacks exploding onto the grass. This was all great and, who’s to say you can’t protest and enjoy yourself at the same time (shout out to the volunteers who patrolled the streets collecting recycling). However, we want to be taken seriously and we all agree these are very serious issues we are dealing with. I look back at one picture I took late in the day where a group of people had formed a circle and started knitting while others licked ice cream cones. In contrast, I came with a copy of a local liberal paper so, if there was down time, I could read up on the issues behind the recent events. I don’t propose we all come with civil rights literature to read but, by the afternoon, our protest of neo-Nazi and fascist ideology was starting to look like a ridiculous block party. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.
What should we do about it?
I propose that when we attend a protest or rally we dress sharp while still coming prepared. Clearly people have time to put together color-coordinated outfits, make signs, and carefully tie scarves into shemagh-like facial coverings. We should pour that energy into dressing in a respectable and inoffensive way. Before you accuse me of whitesplaining how to dress for protest, or blast me for telling POC to put away their own clothes and “dress white,” that isn’t where I’m going. My point is that when a self-described peaceful demonstration is peppered with people donning gear that is widely seen as having some kind of military application, it harms our image. When we demand to be taken seriously then are seen stuffing our faces with granola bars and ice cream, it weakens our position. I think we should dress comfortable but dress to impress. Think more on the lines of religious function or job interview rather than reporting to the forward base camp of a SJW insurgency. This is because ultimately we want to project an image that we are benign and compassionate because, I hope, that is what we are. I think that if we dress sharp and hide the safety gear and snacks in our backpacks it will advance that goal.
2 Culture War & offensive symbols
A great deal of ink has already been spilled about how the far left is waging a culture war into increasingly remote sectors of public discourse. I don’t have as much to say about this topic, but I will add this. Most of these articles play on people’s fears (including my own) by pondering what liberals will go after next (the Washington Monument?). Rather than ask that, I would like to point out that groups among us on the left are already using plenty of images and symbols that are pretty offensive to many people.
The Workers World Party has played an important role in organizing the toppling of the statue and at least a few of them were present with flags at the rally I attended. It is an organization with a long history of fighting injustice.
They also defend the actions of North Korea’s regime (1, 2, 3). As it is for members of the WWP, my blood boils when people make light of the North Korean people’s struggle. I hate The Interview. I’ve worked on behalf of LiNK. I have a robust unit about North Korea I teach to my students every year. I understand the United States played a major role in shaping the fate of the Korean peninsula. That said, to defend the North Korean regime and pin blame for their litany of human right’s violations on “evil American imperialism” is absurd.
A far more concise example. The left suddenly has an aneurysm over person’s name because they deem their legacy offensive. Take a look at the history of the Democratic party then tell me the word “Democrat” isn’t absolutely loaded with controversy. Should we abolish that word? No. That is ridiculous. But we need to remember that no entity, no person has a completely clean record.
Okay, okay. What does this have to do with the culture war? We can’t be running around demanding that offensive symbols get torn down while simultaneously using offensive symbols and imagery and experiencing historical amnesia about our own checkered past. Go ahead, tear down the statue. But when otherwise rational people see a statue being illegally torn down by a communist worker’s party, it is going to create strong negative associations in people’s minds whether you like it or not. That is because in American’s collective memory, we have seen communist political groups run roughshod over their own countries (Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Red Guard in China, Workers Party in North Korea) in the recent past with disastrous consequences. It’s scary.
These facts give off mixed messages about what we are doing. When the left become enraged overnight over a word or statue that no-one gave two hoots about a month before, level-headed people are left scratching their heads because its illogical.
What should we do about it?
We need to have a serious conversation about the contradictions within our own groups. I’m aware that sounds Maoist. That’s not where I’m going. That is to say, I don’t mean to suggest we should adopt some Leninist structure with a small number of cadres shaping the direction of the left.
What I mean is we need to be aware that there is a huge double standard in our actions. What can we do? Well maybe instead of the WWP tearing down the statue (which is literally what the Red Guard did across China in 1966) they could have draped it in a blood-stained cloth, a black sheet, or surrounded it in Plexiglas to imply it should be in a museum, relegated to the dustbin of history. I know, this is not as sexy as tearing it down and posing for a photo with the head of the solider under your boot. But it would avoid the conundrum I described above.
3 Being on the right side of history
Just labeling something a “counter-protest” doesn’t make it righteous. What occurred was an unsanctioned rally. It boosted the morale of liberals and gave us a sense of solidarity but it also had negative consequences. A number of protesters were quick to claim victory, as this headline purports. We had scared off the KKK, our work was justified! The notion we scared anyone off is doubtful in my mind. For all we know the rally was a feint to draw out a raucous mob and make the left look bad. More importantly, this highlights a flaw in our clouded judgement. We are quick to be self-congratulatory with our own actions and we express that in writing. We award ourselves a figurative trophy for showing up. Attending this demonstration was a meaningful exercise for me because I got to observe what happened unfiltered then read the left-leaning coverage of it to see how things get polished up by the liberal press. I think we are self-congratulatory because we feel what we do is always righteous. However this event, while very small, had some negative consequences.
These displays of solidarity do not need to shut down city streets and deprive businesses of revenue. They do not need to disrupt social services and civic building operation. Hundreds of people occupied public property without any permit, disrupted commerce, and scrawled on an already defaced monument. There was also a tense standoff with police by a small offshoot group, an event which I didn’t witness. Again, these are a arguably drop in the bucket. Businesses on main street won’t be shuttered because of this counter protest. But draw this out onto a larger scale and I think there is a problem.
Articles, infographics, and memes abound explaining how ANTIFA cannot be equated to fascists. My social media is full of photos and memes encouraging people to punch fascists. Rational minds agree that fascism is a terrible thing and the two groups are not equal. However when mobs of people disrupt city life to counter a non-existant force, it looks ridiculous. Then, when that group decides to take their anger out on inanimate objects to feel some redeeming sense of purpose, it descends into the absurd.
What should we do about it?
Play by the rules. Yes, I know, the white patriarchy wrote the rules so we can never win if we follow them. Well then, at the very least, don’t set a double standard whereby the right is strongly condemned for legal demonstrations, public appearances, and speeches while we congratulate ourselves for everything we do – whether it was done legally or not.