First it was a handful of people, then about five minutes later there were two more worming through a police line, lying down on the ground and forcing the police to drag them away in flexi-cuffs as hundreds of fellow protesters crushed up against the line chanted, “What do we do when black lives are under attack? Stand up, fight back!”
By the end of the day, 23 people had been arrested — all in service of impeding an appearance by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most extreme and violent white supremacist groups in the United States.
These acts of people literally throwing their bodies in the path of white supremacy delayed the entrance of the roughly 40 Klan members to Justice Park in Charlottesville, Va. by 45 minutes on July 8. When they finally appeared — a garish assortment of damaged humanity in red and white robes, black paramilitary uniforms, jean shorts and executioner hoods, several bearing side arms — they required a protective corridor of riot police as the jeers of protesters rose like a Biblical plague of locusts on either side of them. The chorus of outrage and indignation focused on the Klan like a laser ray of hate, and the Klan refracted it right back with defiant swagger.
Once ensconced in a makeshift pen assembled from a double row of metal barricades patrolled by police and roaming journalists, the imperial kommander plugged in a humble amp and two robed officiants gamely made speeches that were barely heard above the constant roar of the protesters.
It made for a laughable spectacle, from the crude, anti-Semitic and spelling-challenged sign held by one of the Klanners reading “Jews are Satan’s children/ Talmud is a child molester’s Biblel” to the pistol-packing white dude with dreadlocks piled under a cap inscribed with the words “white power.”
The danger of focusing too much on the spectacle is that it enables us to pretend that white supremacy is an antiquated relic limited to a few eccentric hicks clinging to a fading past. The photo album I posted on Facebook with images of the rally is studded with comments from credulous liberals expressing astonishment that the Klan is still around in 2017. Why wouldn’t they be? We live in a country that elected a president whose campaign brazenly exploited fear of black urban crime, defamation of Mexicans as “rapists” and drug dealers, and promises to ban Muslims. These are stock tropes of the Ku Klux Klan. What is remarkable is that the Loyal White Knights didn’t attract thousands of supporters.
In one sense, the rally provides a heartening narrative: By showing up in overwhelming numbers and willingly going to jail for their beliefs, the anti-racists made themselves the protagonists. In another sense, we really haven’t gotten it yet: The Klan is treated as an embarrassment by people who have no problem making excuses for Donald Trump. Historically, the Klan’s masks helped them instill fear by raising the specter that the man underneath the hood might be a police officer or powerful businessman, but one of the points of pride for the Loyal White Knights is that they’re not afraid to show their faces. In a metaphorical sense, the Klan is un-masking Trump.
Two days before the Klan rallied in Charlottesville, Trump spoke in Poland, warning of threats from the south — an unmistakably reference to immigrants from Latin America to the United States, and from Africa to Europe — and the east — which could mean either Russia or the Muslim world, in the context of his earlier comments — “that threaten over time to undermine these values and erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”
Speaking of blood and soil, and extolling “symphonies” and “ancient heroes,” Trump posited, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Chris Barker, the imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights — who was not in Charlottesville because he is not allowed to leave the state of North Carolina as a condition of release on bond for a pending attempted murder charge — no doubt approved.
“We’re in the end of times, and it’s going to be a racial war, not just in America, but it’s going on in Europe right now,” he said in a recent interview posted on the group’s website. “In Europe, right now the white race is getting upset with what their politicians is doing to them, too. We’re getting the Mexican immigrants; they’re getting the Muslim immigrants. They’re getting a lot of Africans dropped straight off the boats with spears and the bones still in their noses [sic]; that’s how bad it is in Europe. But the whites in Europe are different from America; they’re not docile like we are. They’re actually getting out and fighting in the streets. There are real fistfights, fire-bombings; they’re pushing the mud races back to their own homelands.”
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