What is happening in Charlottesville is frightening. It is not new. It is not even surprising. This brand of violent white supremacy simmers away beneath the surface of US society.
When I interned in Washington DC in the late 90s, I worked under a black Baptist Minister from Atlanta who was a veteran of the civil rights movement and grew up with the King family. He pointed me toward the speech Martin Luther King gave on 4th April 1967, a year to the day before he was killed. It was this speech , he said, that signed King’s death warrant. In the speech King warned:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
We are living this out today. The added dynamic is that the supremacist’s sentiments being demonstrated have been emboldened by the President that has courted fire on questions of what it means to be American, race and belonging, state violence and immigration.
It brings another issue to the fore for me and that is that elections matter. For all those who are disillusioned with electoral politics we are witnessing what happens when we enable the wrong people to take control. They set a tone that has real world implications.
An African American friend of mine once said to me “we don’t vote democrat because they’ll do anything for us, but we know they won’t do anything to us”. At the time I thought that was visionless and cynical. Today I find it more astute. Sometimes the job of politics is to do your limited best to hold back bad things. That is not glamorous, but it’s an approach born of lived experience of political marginalisation.
Let me say finally that this is an American problem, but it is also an international problem. The US sets a tone for the world. Marginalised people are internationally connected. “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, as Dr King once wrote. It’s critical that cities around the world support those US cities stepping up to lead where their national government has let them, and the world, down.