I watched the Vice coverage of the recent alt-right protests in Charlottesville and felt a toxic mixture of disbelief, fear and disgust. The conviction of the protesters was so harrowing that acid rose in my stomach. As I continued to watch and witness their conviction progress into amusement, excitement, and then victory, I was ashamed. Why do humans continue to repeat hateful mistakes that destroy lives and communities?
My next thoughts were of my friend Helen Faller, a US citizen who lives in Berlin. Helen is a leftist ex-punk anthropologist who shares her life with her African-American daughter, and I felt afraid for both of them. I can’t imagine how it must feel to watch your country imploding, or to feel like your bi-racial family is under attack.
I decided that perhaps Helen could offer us some insight into her feelings about the Charlottesville rally and growing momentum of alt-right gatherings in the US.
E: The world feels like it is in a very dangerous place right now, and the US is displaying horrifying signs that the political situation is going to become even more violent, and racially divisive. Where were when you heard about Charlottesville and what were your reactions?
H: I was in Taos, New Mexico at my parents’ house. Taos is high in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It’s a place where Native people have the cultural cache, Hispanos have the political power and the Anglos, as we’re called, are compelled to abide by local social norms. Because of that, it feels very far from the white power lunacy of America.
My reactions were horror and disbelief. Though, like Montae Taylor, the African American student activist said in the Vice piece, I am appalled, but not surprised. America is a violent country, founded on slavery and genocide, and there are a lot of white people afraid that, once they become a minority, they will be treated as badly as they have treated people of color.
E: You’ve been very active in protesting the election of Donald Trump via online petitions and phone calls, and I know part of your reason for living in Berlin is to provide a better sense of security for you and your daughter. Can you tell me how knowing that this hate exists in your country feels for you?
H: I am not afraid for myself when I’m in America. Racists perceive me as one of their own, until I tell them otherwise. But even when I was pregnant, I wanted my child to live outside the States in order to experience other paradigms of race, so that s/he wouldn’t feel trapped within US identity categories. In answer to your question, it feels awful to know that my country, which is full of wonderful people working for social good has to endure the tyranny of such a hateful, frightened minority. However, the hatred is nothing new; it’s the same thing that has allowed the police officers and vigilantes who murder black children to not be punished; it’s the same hatred that caused Emmet Till to be murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
E: I noticed during the documentary that derogatory terms used to describe non-white people were used in both the chants and dialogue by the alt-right. Terms such as ‘savages’, ‘animals’, ‘imbeciles’ and ‘niggers’ are labels I more commonly associate with the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, and to hear them again made me cringe. Is this really 2017? Are these terms still used widely in white communities to describe the “others”?
H: Those terms make me cringe as well, although I think that the events in Charlottesville makes it pretty clear who the savages and animals and imbeciles are. Using racial epithets is not acceptable in ordinary American society, though racists do use them. I can’t say how often because I won’t let people use them around me.
E: In the documentary the speaker of the “Unite the White” group argues that it was the white forefathers that built the country and that the blood and soil of the US rightly belong to them. What is the Native American response to this? Do these sections of the US population really believe that colonisation didn’t occur and that they are the only group of people who have a legitimate claim on the country?
H: I am not in a position to speak for Native Americans, since I’m not Native. However, in my opinion all of America’s soil belongs to Native people. One thing that is widely acknowledged, although probably not by neo-Nazis, is that the country was mostly built by African American slave labor, including the White House. White power activists tend to be post-factual. If they think about indigenous people in America, it’s probably from the mistaken perspective that they deserved to have their land taken away because they weren’t tough enough.
E: There was another point which I found really confusing – in the US, are Jewish people considered synonymous with corporations and capitalism? There was also slippage between hating both the capitalists (Jews) and the Communists. Can you shed a bit of light on this? Or are these just enormous crevasses in an incredibly ignorant argument?
H: I believe that that rhetoric was borrowed from the original National Socialists, and then thrown in the hopper with a lot of garbled garbage.
E: You’re in the US right now, but returning to Germany at the end of the month. Can you tell us about your forms of protests while in the US, and what you will be doing when you are back in Berlin? None of us can be sure, but what do you expect is going to happen over the next few months in the US?
H: At first, I signed the usual online petitions and grieved. Which is not terribly effective. But then the events in Boston on August 20 gave me hope. An estimated 15-30 thousand anti-racism protestors marched to speak up against a gathering of 75-100 Nazis. There was no violence. On Sunday, I attended an anti-racism multi-faith vigil here in Taos. Approximately 150 people gathered, which isn’t bad for a town of 5,000. There were Presbyterians and Catholics, Jews and an elder from the Taos Pueblo. The messages were about creating light out of darkness and loving those who have darkness within them.
Then yesterday, I learned that the white power nationalists have cancelled 67 rallies, originally to be held on September 9, because they are afraid of discrimination. Just like Chris Cantrell, the starring Nazi in the Vice video, started crying when he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest. He was also banned for life from online dating site OK Cupid. The right’s alternate plan is to hold a day of online action. So my next step is to draft a petition to try to get the nonprofit organizing that effort booted by its web-hosting company, Godaddy.com. Here’s a link from the organizers of the day of action. Would you like to help me get rid of them?
Helen Faller is a Berlin-based anthropologist and writer. She also produces international cultural events. Read more by Helen.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.