No More Water
I am a pacifist. A talker. Someone who likes to understand others whenever I can. But it's time we spoke frankly about violence.
First and foremost, the implication that blame for this weekend’s violence belongs anywhere but on the armed neo-nazis and racists that flooded Charlottesville to defend a statue of a white supremacist icon is complete bullshit. White supremacists came armed with assault weapons. Counter-protesters did not. White supremacists threw lit torches at unarmed college students. Counter protesters did not. A white supremacist drove a car through a crowd of civilians killing one and injuring nineteen; white supremacists continue to make excuses for him. Counter protesters did not and do not. But the core difference between the neo-nazis and klansmen who converged on Charlottesville and the throngs who came out to confront them lies not in their conduct but in the ideology that motivates them.
Neo-nazis and klansmen and white nationalists advocate an ideology rooted in and inseparable from violence. The subjugation or removal of undesirable races is a fundamentally abhorrent and violent ideology. Those who advocate for it without personally killing or attacking others are no less blameless for the implications of the ideals they espouse. Advocates for social justice fight for equality and for opportunity for people who have been marginalized. There are excesses but the ideal they fight for is good.
Anyone who argues that their fight is not worth fighting or that their grievances are illegitimate is willfully blind and ignorant of history. History mired by slavery, Jim Crow, suppression of the franchise, school segregation, intentional harm, Klan terrorism and murder, exclusion from progressive social programs, housing discrimination, rampant and blatant disparities in rates of arrest and in sentencing, and egregious income and wealth inequality.
Into that history walked a presidential candidate who rose to fame bombastically defending his father's company from allegations of race discrimination, settled lawsuits that alleged the same of his own company, publicly called for the execution of a Central Park Five later found wrongfully accused, and berated and insulted the first black president of the United States by claiming for years that he was not an American citizen.
He refused to distance himself from the KKK, launched xenophobic insults at the parents of a Muslim serviceman, insulted a judge for his Mexican descent, and proposed Muslim bans, restrictions, and registries. But still we voted for him. There is no world in which we can be surprised by the violence done in his name and ignoring it does not make us less culpable for that violence. And that is where we must come to terms with an unpleasant reality.
Martin Luther King Jr once said that a riot was the language of the unheard. In the absence of any political options whatsoever, those whose dignity is stripped, whose lives are in danger, whose communities aren't valued, and whose voices are dismissed will resort to whatever options remain.
In his landmark essay on the race question in America, James Baldwin based his entire argument around a line from a spiritual:
"God gave Noah the rainbow sign.
No more water, the fire next time."
In 1963, James Baldwin saw the easing of racial tensions in the form of a push for civil rights legislation, but he also saw a white America retreating from the issue. Failing to pursue it further, refusing to examine hard truths and put the spirit of the law into practice. He saw that white America was disengaging and predicted “a fire next time.” Not a march toward equality but a violent reaction against oppression provoked by relentless apathy on the part of even well-meaning white Americans.
Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. Refusing to answer a question doesn't make the question irrelevant. Failing to participate in a solution doesn't make the solution unimportant, it makes others feel that our participation is moot.
Violence is not only wrong, it's counterproductive. But we make allowances for the defense of self and others and it's hard to ask anyone to remain passive in the face of a confederate impersonator marching with an assault rifle or when neo-nazis are shouting “blood and soil” and hurling torches. It's hard to ask anyone to participate in a political system where torches were carried by leaders of one party's college chapters. Its hard to ask anyone to surrender their community in the name of “not encouraging them” to white supremacists who come armed to the teeth and espouse an ideology that would see them forcibly removed (or eliminated) from their country. It's hard to make the case that non violence is effective when Colin Kaepernick is met with more vitriol than gun toting neo-nazis. In that environment violent reaction will evoke in me a thousand emotions - sadness, fear, anger, regret - but surprise will not be among them.