During the weekend of Aug. 11, 2017, tragedy struck in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. Approximately 250 white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members gathered at the University of Virginia. In their hands, they carried lit tiki torches and chanted phrases such as, “White Lives Matter,” and “You will not replace us.” The rally was in response to the city’s council decision to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, formally known as Lee Park.
Terry McAuliffe, the Governor of Virginia, declared a state of emergency the following morning when the interaction between these social movement groups and counter-protesters grew violent. Around noon, white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a group of pedestrians killing a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others.
Two days after the violence in Charlottesville and the growth of public outrage against President Donald Trump for not publicly denouncing white supremacists, the President gave a statement condemning neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. However, just a day later, President Trump backtracked on his previous statement.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” President Trump expressed to a crowd of reporters at Trump Tower in New York City. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”
Dr. Arnaud Kurze, an Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, specializes in transitional justice, social movements and human rights. He is known for writing several academic journals and reporting on foreign affairs for government and international organizations. When approached about the recent events in Charlottesville and the aftermath of President Trump’s response to it, Professor Kurze spared time from his vacation to help answer a few questions.
Q: What is a social movement?
A: Social movement organizations are informal or formal groups of individuals that come together to advocate for a particular political or social reason. They tend to serve three specific purposes in society. First, and the most common perception, they are able to serve as a catalyst for a social change. Second, they can resist any change of an existing social context. Third, they can undo any social change that has previously occurred in society.
Q: A social movement composed of white nationalists organized the rallies in Charlottesville. Should we still consider it a social movement, although it is only supported by a minority of people and based on unpopular views?
A: Social movements occur across a wide range of ideological issues and causes. These include, but are not limited to extreme left-wing movements, civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, animal rights movements, environmentalist movements, anti-war movements, white supremacist movements, and sexual minority movements (LGBTQIA). In a healthy democracy based on constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble (our First Amendment), citizens have the opportunity to voice their concerns outside the political and judicial institutions like Congress or the court system. Even this summer, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that hate speech is no exception to the First Amendment. In a unanimous decision on Matal v. Tam, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’
Q: White supremacy has existed since the Atlantic slave trade and was further consolidated by Jim Crow laws in the United States, though recently these extreme right-wing ideologies have become mainstream media. Do you believe that President Trump is to blame for this current rise? Does his lack of discouragement towards white nationalist groups in Charlottesville help invoke these right-wing ideologies in the United States?
A: First, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, equal rights were far from being established and white supremacists continued to dominate in the country. Jim Crow laws (racial segregation laws) passed during the Reconstruction Era remained in place until the height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s. Consequently, the structural violence that African Americans have faced and are still facing today is deeply grounded in our society. This injustice needs to stop, and we as a society need to work together to achieve this goal. Regrettably, the President’s recent public remarks on political violence and race are conveying the opposite message. Instead of providing a common platform for dialogue, the President has deepened the fault line that continues to fuel conflict in our society.
Second, in times of economic hardship, white nationalist leaders promote a discourse on an economic vulnerability that hits the nerve of many members, supporters and those individuals who sympathize with their ideological beliefs. Blaming others for their hardship and misery and labeling non-members as “the other” strengthen this victimhood mentality. In this context, by putting the blame on both sides for the violent incidents that occurred in Charlottesville, President [Trump] salvaged an extreme right-wing and nationalist agenda. By acknowledging the movement and introducing its members to Washington’s political circles, the President [assists] their cause and helps the previously marginalized movement to gain political capital. In fact, the populism that our President relies on to sustain his electoral base is inherently anti-pluralist and perilously undermines our democracy.
Q: President Trump did not condemn the alt-right for the violence in Charlottesville and instead blamed both sides. Should both sides be blamed for the violence that occurred on the weekend of Aug. 11?
A: Violence produces counter-violence and often results in a downward spiral of hatred and violence that is difficult to stop. In his remarks, the President has shown that white nationalists lie close to his heart. Since taking office, he has allowed white supremacists and supporters of white nationalist ideology access to his administration. However, the ties already date back to his election campaign. In this past year, the alt-right has organized several rallies under “Unite the Right” and benefits from media support, such as Breitbart news. Within a short period, the movement has become increasingly visible and accessible to the political mainstream. On the contrary, the anti-fascist movement is less organized compared to them and mostly emerges as a reactionary force to the protests organized by the extreme right. While this shouldn’t excuse any forms of violence committed by the extreme left, nevertheless it provides a clear picture of the latter’s motives, strength, and capacity to mobilize the better-funded alt-right.
Q: White nationalists are opposed to the removal of Confederate statues. What has caused this to arise in the United States?
A: The monuments that have more recently been fought over in public encounters between antagonistic social actors, including debates over the Confederate flag, have become proxy wars based on deeper-lying sociopolitical issues in society. They have become the symbols of a much-needed discussion of social change on a number of issues including particularly race and justice in our society. We should seize this opportunity for a dialogue and tackle these deeper-lying causes of present injustice and racism in the US.
Q: Given the recent spike of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the United States, do you believe that our country may be heading in a dangerous direction?
A: The political struggle and power imbalance between Democrats and Republicans, which has often led to a stalemate in the legislative process, is a phenomenon that dates back to the 1990s. Hence, the political machinery in Washington has been broken for some time already. The real danger now lies in the toxic combination of populism and extremism. Both these factors help extremist movements, such as the alt-right, fuel sufficient support from the political mainstream. Steve Bannon was one of the closest alt-right allies that influenced the President’s domestic policies on race and immigration, among others. Despite Bannon’s dismissal from the administration, the network of populist, alt-right supporters within the President’s circle remains intact. If this trend continues, the US President and those in charge of governing our nation will further hollow out our political institutions and jeopardize our core democratic values.