In the wake of the unrest in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, where a sizable contingent of white supremacists, Nazis, and other self-described “alt-right” provocateurs gathered to “Unite the Right” and to promote their agenda of hate, President Trump had an opportunity to demonstrate some much-needed moral leadership. Unsurprisingly, he once again failed to do so. Instead of immediately denouncing white supremacist ideology in clear and unequivocal terms (as, to their credit, many prominent conservatives and Republicans did), he took two days to produce a half- hearted statement that alt-right leader Richard Spencer deemed “not serious.” Proving Spencer correctly, it only took the president one more day to backpedal, once again claiming that “both sides” were to blame for the troubles in Virginia, and even suggesting that there were “very fine people” among the people leading the racist gathering, people who counted among their supporters the man who, in what can only be described as a terror attack, murdered with his car a young woman, Heather Heyer, who was counter-protesting in Charlottesville.
This past week, Trump further provided proof of his willingness to abuse his power and to give aid and comfort to white supremacists, human rights abusers, and other right wing extremists by pardoning the notoriously cruel Maricopa (AZ) County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for, among other things, targeting and profiling U.S. citizens suspected of being undocumented immigrants based on their ethnic appearance.
Since then, much of the focus has been, not on the president’s abuse of power or the alt-right’s growing campaign of terror, but on “antifa,” or antifascist organizations. In a sign of the times, antifascist organizations have come under considerable scrutiny in a country that once waged a world war against fascism and executed Nazis for being. Conservative commentators, who before antifascists became the new boogeyman, never had much of an issue with armed militias, suddenly became preoccupied with the threat of political violence and began to worry about guns and who had them. Even those outside the radical right have begun attacking antifascists, with Washington Post columnist Marc E. Thiessen going as far as equating antifa with neo-Nazis and the liberal host of the Daily Show, comedian Trevor Noah, calling them “vegan ISIS.”
But to compare hate groups and terrorists to the people attempting to protect vulnerable people from them is not just illogical, is also dangerously and irresponsible. To assert that “both sides” are essentially the same is to blindly ignore the imbalance of power that exists in American society. Anti-fascists groups and armed leftist organizations like Redneck Revolt (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member) exist to counter right-wing extremism and to protect the most vulnerable among us, including immigrants, African Americans, women, transgender and non-binary people, religious minorities, the poor, and the disabled (all of whom are well represented in antifascist circles).
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One need only examine cases like Charlottesville, where police did nothing to protect unarmed counter-protesters from violent fascists, alt-right extremists, and neo-Nazis (one such man, now identified as Richard Preston, a KKK leader, even discharged a weapon in the direction of counter-protesters, who were lucky to be unharmed), while antifascist groups held the line, protecting vulnerable people there. As Dr. Cornel West, who was there counter-protesting the rally alongside clergy (many elderly) noted, “We would have been crushed like cockroaches were it not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists.” These antifascist and anti-racist groups encourage cross-racial, intersectional alliances and work to provide mutual aid and community defense. The “alt-right” and its fellow travelers, by contrast, seek to divide people along racial, ethnic, and class lines and to encourage hate and violence. There is no moral equivalence to be made.
It is also important to recognize how we came to even entertain these irresponsible and dangerous false equivalencies. In many ways, this is the natural conclusion of decades of corporate media’s obsession with “objectivity” rather than truth. In an effort to appease critics who considered harsh truths “liberal bias,” corporate new outlets have, for decades, invited and offered a platform to reactionary voices, giving the appearance and indeed reinforcing the notion that all opinions are equally valid, logically or morally. Rather than seeking truth and holding those in power accountable, news media outlets have become inadvertent apologists for the some of the most ominous and extreme factions of society, factions which once hid their faces behind masks, but who, with a president in the White house sympathetic to their cause, no longer have much to fear; factions which, in what should be an insult to every person who, unlike the president, served their country’s flag, revere swastikas and Confederate symbols; and factions which, on account of their newfound power, refute truth as “fake news” and expect provocation and intimidation to be protected as free speech.
As a historian, as a teacher, as a veteran, and as a human being experiencing perhaps the most tumultuous time since the Civil Right Era, I am compelled to speak out and to act against those who threaten the most vulnerable among us, alongside other like-minded individuals willing to resist, in every and any way they can, those threats, from the president himself to the groups of racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and oligarchs he has enabled and emboldened.
We are living in an extraordinary moment in history, and this is no time to blame “both sides” for the chaos that has engulfed our country. Americans, during this crucial time, must be willing to recognize the difference between the nefarious, hateful, and violent agenda of the radical right and the working class, multi-racial grassroots efforts of antifascists—and yes, to choose sides.