But it’s Nazi flags.
Of all the images coming out of Charlottesville, VA, August-12-weekend protests, that is the predominate one as I try to understand the events. I also see the confederate flag in amongst these demonstrators, but at least there is some clever argument on what the bars and stars means with some historical context. (Note: I disagree with it.) However, there is not much wiggle room on what the swastika-emblazoned flag means.
But one of the things that make this country great, is our First Amendment rights to Free Speech. Even if we disagree with them, they have the right to say what they think. But that’s been qualified. We can advocate for violence as long as we don’t incite violence (Brandenburg vs Ohio, 1969). We can’t incite someone to suicide (Massachusetts, 2017 although it is under appeal). “Fighting Words” are not protected by our First Amendment if they are commonly understood to incite an immediate fight (Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire, 1942). The right of the “heckler” is also protected, although specific definitions are hard to come by. A general consensus is as long as the heckler does not stop the speaker, both are protected.
Jason Kessler, the organizer for the Unite the Right protest, claimed to object to the proposed removal of the Statue of Robert E Lee in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). He applied for the permits, which the city granted on condition that he move his protest to McIntire Park, some two miles away, where the city felt the police could better protect the community. Kessler objected. To protest the removal of the statue and then not be at the statue in question, was an infringement of his First Amendment rights to free speech. The ACLU represented Kessler and Friday before the event, won his case (Federal Judge Sides With Kessler).
Stand Up for Racial Justice also applied for a permit to protest the Unite to Right protests. They also obtained a permit to protest in McGuffey and Justice Parks. Justice Park is formally known as Jackson Park, where a statue of Stonewall Jackson is also slated to be removed. McGuffey and Justice Parks flank Emancipation Park. All three are all within 4 blocks of each other. It is interesting to note that the city did not ask SURJ to move two miles to McIntire Park.
Are both of these protestor groups about the removal of a statue? Is the Stand Up for Racial Justice about removing images celebrating a general that fought against the United States? Is Unite the Right about preserving American heritage? Are we in danger of revising our history, forgetting the tragic past?
The base of a statue is called a pedestal. We have an idiom about pedestals. What we put on a pedestal is glorified, idealized and perfect. Statues on pedestals have symbolic meaning. Placing heroes of the Confederacy has a specific meaning. Are we idolizing the heroism and bravery, or the slaveholding and white supremacy? Granted both can be true within the same man. General Lee was complex in a Jeffersonian way. A slaveholder that decried slavery yet felt it was the only natural relationship between Whites and Blacks. He agonized over his decision to join the succession; his final reasoning was not to uphold the institution of slavery but to remain loyal to his State of Virginia. In letters after the Civil War he appeared glad that the war he lost had ended slavery. When asked, he specifically requested people not to build statues of him. Reminders of a war lost was an impediment to healing a nation, he wrote. Unlike many Confederate Generals honored in statues, General Lee did not become the leader of a local KKK. Out of such complexity, when we put General Lee or any of the other heroes of the Confederacy, on a pedestal, which value are we upholding? (Republican Vindicator, September 1869 and Robert E Lee’s “Severest Struggle”)
Roughly 80 to 90% of monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers were built during the Jim Crow Laws, with a huge flurry around 1910, about when the NAACP was formed. The bulk of schools named after Confederate Heroes happened during the 1960’s, when the Civil Rights movement started gaining traction (Southern Poverty Law Center timeline). Many of these monuments are a protest against the civil rights of Blacks. Interestingly enough the Monumental Bronze Co, in Bridgeport Connecticut made a lot of money selling identical statues commemorating the fallen soldier to both Northern and Southern states (Why Confederate Soldiers Statues look a lot like their Union Counterparts).
There is a surprising lack of historical restoration groups in this protest. Even the local Confederate Keepers, a group dedicated to preserving Confederate monuments, publicly announced their non-attendance (Groups speak out against Unite the Right). What do the organizers of the Unite the Right and the Stand Up for Racial Justice say their motives for the protest are? It’s hard to find anything that Jason Kessler said or any of the Alt-Right groups involved because after the events of August 12th, their blogs and websites have been taken down. Depending on your viewpoint, this may or may not be a good thing. However, Solidarity Cville documented several online chats between Alt-Right groups planning to go to the Unite the Right protest. They sent the documentation to the Charlottesville’s City Council in an attempt to have the Unite the Rights permits revoked, citing public safety concerns. In the chat sessions, there is little mention of saving a historical monument but a lot of talk of arming, preparing and a chance to “take out” and “crush” their opponents. The posts waver between apprehension over the presence of the Nazi and White Supremacy groups, however glad for the numbers, to others gleeful that certain groups known for starting fights would be showing up (Solidarity Cvill Documents). Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia, cautioned students not to attend for fear of physical confrontation, quoting an unnamed Unite the Right organizer saying, “We should aim to draw the SJWs [social justice warriors] out in Charlottesville and create a massive polarizing spectacle in order to draw as huge a contrast as possible. They will reveal themselves to be violent, intolerant, opposed to free speech, the insane enforcers of political correctness, etc.” (Sullivan asks members of UVA community to avoid Aug. 12 rally).
Specific reasons that Stand up for Racial Justice organized the counter protest are found in their website Show up for Racial Justice. Primarily they are organized to fight white supremacy. And they will go where ever the Alt-Right goes. Solidarity Cville appears to be another organizer for the counter demonstrations. Their site advocated non-violent confrontation, advised to expect violence from either the police or the Alt-Right and focused heavily on organized medical and legal help. No weapons were mentioned (How to prepare for Aug. 12).
Ultra-conservative militant groups, like the Oath Keepers, who are willing to take up arms to protect Confederate monuments refused to show up. Navy Jack of the Oath Keepers mustered more specific condemnation of the White Supremacist groups than our President Donald Trump did when he penned a critic saying, “If you truly are a patriot, you must stand against and condemn NPI, Identity Evropa and Vanguard America as organizations that seek to divide us”. The groups that showed up vied with each other in their extreme views from outright adulation of Hitler like Jeff Sheop of the National Socialist Movement and Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Workers Party, both heavily influenced by Nazism, to Richard Spencer’s whole hearted embrace of 1861 Alexanders Stephen’s cornerstone speech declaring that Jefferson was wrong and restated the Declaration of Independence quote with “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created unequal”. (read more on the groups that showed up). They showed up bearing the swastika and fasces symbols for German and Italian fascism and the Confederate symbol of slavery.
The counter-protesters were made up of university students, clergy, local citizens, SURJ, Solidarity Cville, BLM, and Antifa. All with the singular goal of stopping White Supremacy and Fascism. The Antifa are considered an extreme militant leftist group. However, many of the counter protesters expressed gratitude for their presence to counter the prepared violence of the Alt-right (yes but what about the alt-left).
One segment of the national dialog insists that this is about removing Confederate monuments, losing our national heritage and revising history to suit some liberal agenda. The groups that specifically organized to protect Confederate monuments and groups willing to arm themselves to protect Confederate monuments were not present. The rhetoric of the people in the Unite the Right did not talk about the historical context of the Confederate monuments. The rhetoric of the counter demonstrators did not touch on the historical context of the monuments nor advocated for their removal. Both groups where there for one reasons; to voice their opinions on White Supremacy and Fascism. Both topics we as Americans fought to defeat.
We can argue the belligerence of both sides. Both sides did plan for it. One group planned to incite violence, the other planned to resist it. One side told its members to arm themselves, the other told its members how to call for medical attention. One side fought righteously for a cause that history has declared evil, the other fought righteously for a cause that history has declared good.
They flew a Nazi flag. It doesn’t get any more black and white than that.