Sarah Illingworth: Time to act, Charlottesville could be a town near you

In 2005, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d just resigned from a job promoting volunteer work on college campuses that turned out to be more of a Ponzi scheme and scam than anything else, and lasted a month before we mutually agreed I go my own way. While giving cult-like entities the benefit of the doubt is something I need to periodically be reminded is not a good thing to do, it has meant I’ve had my fair share of up close and personal encounters with (usually well-intentioned) fundamentalists, and witnessed the power of rhetoric to motivate otherwise intelligent and compassionate people to involve themselves in situations many others would easily reject as dubious.

Anyway, I have a strong memory of leaving my hotel in Charlottesville to go for a walk and ponder my next move, and walking straight into a sea of people wearing orange shirts, moving as a body in the same direction. I had headphones in, listening to music, and the whole thing was really surreal. I let myself be carried along with them for a while, enjoying the weirdness of it, then took my headphones out and realised that a big football game had just finished and orange was UVA’s colour.

“I’d felt a measure of dis-ease at the number of American flags I’d seen hanging out front of people’s houses, crowning their patios and porches.”

Despite the intensity of that moment, Charlottesville struck me as a fairly chilled out college town, although on reflection that may simply have been in comparison to the rest of Virginia. I was less politically aware then than I am now, but VA as a whole was the most conservative US state I’d been to, and I’d felt a measure of dis-ease at the number of American flags I’d seen hanging out front of people’s houses, crowning their patios and porches. As well as Charlottesville I’d also spent a week each in Norfolk, a dry and dusty navy town, and Lynchburg (Lynchburg!), where a friendly older black man told me I spoke really good English when I said I was from New Zealand. I just accepted the compliment.

To watch as Charlottesville reels in the wake of this latest outbreak of white supremacist violence summons all the expected emotions: shock, anger, sadness, fear, but it also doesn’t surprise me. Fascist and neo-Nazi movements have been flourishing globally over the course of the last decade, and their rhetoric is getting louder not diminishing. I can’t imagine how defeating it must feel to be a non-white person in the US – of which there are many – watching hatred be expressed simply because of skin colour and cultural difference. I hope though that it also serves to motivate.

Image source.

That it motivates movements like Black Lives Matter to rally and respond, rather than retreat. That it inspires other activist movements to set aside their own priorities to speak out in support of those currently under attack. In the absence of strong leadership, prepared to at the very least firmly denounce the racist violence on display in Charlottesville, the US – and the rest of the world – needs socially-minded individuals and communities to work together. Not only to march in the streets, although visibly rejecting fascism can be a powerful element of protest, but to resist in meaningful ways. To adjust, and maybe even for a period abandon their own agendas to collectively reject and resist the physical, psychological and economic violence being experienced by ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups.

The fact that white supremacists can still walk America’s streets with flaming torches – and without masks to hide their identity – should worry you. It should make you feel uncomfortable, it should move you to act.

I published a piece about my experience of visiting the site of the Sandy Hook school shooting right after the 2015 Charleston shooting, both on Impolitikal and my Huffington Post blog. I – fairly gently I thought – suggested the US should rethink its gun laws, but the reaction to the Huffington Post version was like nothing I’ve seen. I manage to dodge trolls most of the time, but there were more than 100 abusive comments posted in a very short space of time (they’ve since been removed) from people who entirely rejected my position, and who very strongly felt that the right to own and carry a firearm was one of their inherent rights as citizens of the USA.

Members of the alt-right in Charlottesville on Saturday. Image source.

It didn’t upset me on a personal level because it was clear we were operating from two entirely different paradigms, but it did shock and unsettle me. It made me very aware of the fact that my own ideas about how the world should work are in no way universal. It led me to do this interview with one of the commentors, who had challenged me to interview someone who didn’t think like me, and who actually sounded like he could construct a good argument. Discussing it with him didn’t change the fact that I think guns are shit, and shouldn’t be freely available, but it did push me to think more broadly about the issue.

Trying to stay open to other perspectives can lead to a weakening of your own position, and that can be confusing. As the cliché goes, it can be easier to think in black and white than to muddle around in the grey. I’m in no way saying that we should entertain or accept supremacist rhetoric, but that we need to be pragmatic about the fact that it exists and that it is very powerful and very violent. And it’s catching.

Many of us are wary of joining politically charged groups and movements because blinkered commitment to a cause often leads to very blurred vision. Passion can strike as admirable at first blush, but it has a worrying capacity to distort and turn into something like the alt-right. Fundamentalist groups of all kinds forget that there are billions more people and perspectives in the world than those that constitute their tiny number. Truth is a complex notion, and as globalisation and the internet have allowed us to engage with a wider range of realities than those geographically and culturally close to our own, morality is becoming increasingly harder to box and define.

“Blinkered commitment to a cause often leads to very blurred vision.”

Most people who read this won’t be in a position to physically go to Charlottesville to support protestors there – nor would it likely be helpful if they did – but as this article outlines, there are a number of US-based organisations who are doing the work that you can support financially, or in other ways. You can also identify similar situations of injustice in your own community or country, and of course support people like us who are trying to draw attention to the silencing of others.

There are ways to actively and non-violently respond to this sort of shit. Educating yourself should be the first step; not taking the time to understand the issues properly will mean you just add to the cacophony, and that’s how brawls escalate. Address injustice and ‘isms’ via available ‘official’ government and community channel. Offer your support to existing groups, who are already working to address the issues. Here are some more of my thoughts on that.

In short, be thoughtful but don’t overthink. Try to understand what drives hatred, but don’t accept it. Avoid petty division within your own communities, and work with other groups who share similar priorities, even if you’re competing for things like the public ear and the private dollar. Accommodating hatred will only lead it to thrive and grow, and what you’re currently watching play out on social media is happening IRL. There’s a very real chance you could at some point soon see it live, in a street near you.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

Header image source.