OP-ED: One year after Charlottesville, white supremacists have not faded away

Carlos Galindo-Elvira

On Aug. 12, 2017, the nation was gripped by the shocking scene of hundreds of white supremacists taking to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, bellowing racist and anti-Semitic chants. While some wore polo shirts and others waved Nazi flags, their message was clear: non-whites and minorities have no place in today’s America.

During Charlottesville, the so-called “alt right” showed the country that they were no longer just an internet nuisance, but a real-world movement that could bring together more than 600 extremists for an event where raw hatred was on full display. The streets rang out with the hateful, racist shouts of the neo-Nazis, Klan members and alt right agitators who put aside their differences to gather in an unprecedented show of unity.

For many unfamiliar with America’s dark underbelly, the rally was a moment of awakening to the hatred that many of us assumed was a relic of our past.

In Arizona, it would be easy to view the Charlottesville rally as an outlier, led by people who don’t exist in cities and towns like ours. This conclusion is not only naive, but dangerous. We now know that “Unite the Right” attracted participants from at least 36 states. So while Charlottesville was the geographic locus for protestors, the ideas behind the rally generated interest among people from across the country.

Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, white supremacist groups are more emboldened than ever, spreading their vitriol online, on college campuses and in our communities.

The data reflects this new reality: a recent ADL report shows incidents of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses more than tripling in the 2017-2018 school year from the previous academic year. Locally, there were seven incidents of racist fliers distributed in Arizona.

We also have documented a nationwide increase in incidents of anti-Semitism, including vandalism, harassment and assaults, which were up by nearly 60 percent in 2017 over the previous year. While white supremacists were not responsible for many of those incidents, we are concerned that the climate created by Charlottesville had an impact on those numbers last year. And the most recent FBI statistics show that hate crimes are up across the nation in virtually every category.

In recent weeks, much has been said and written about the fact that Charlottesville was not the kind of victory hoped for by the white supremacist groups who organized the event. Rather than serving as a unifying force, one year later it seems the white supremacist movement is in a state of perpetual disarray and still suffering from self-inflicted wounds. 

Let’s not forget that anti-racist counterprotestor Heather Heyer was killed after the protest quickly descended into violence and a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd — an unconscionable tragedy that should never have happened.  And there was other violence surrounding the event as well. These events, rather than galvanizing America around their racist ideas, only shocked
Americans and further alienated the alt right.

But the movement that organized Charlottesville is hardly on its last legs. In fact, while the backlash against the alt right hurt many of its leading spokespeople it has not resulted, as some have claimed, in a decline of the movement as a whole. Other white supremacists have picked up the banner and continued their activities.

There is good news: In the wake of “Unite the Right,” decent people in our community have shown a willingness to stand up and publicly reject hate groups and their messages. We were especially inspired by the words of Sen. John McCain, who after Charlottesville made clear that hate has no place in our nation: “White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors — Americans must unite against hatred and bigotry.”

In November 2017, ADL joined with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to announce a joint plan to fight extremism and bigotry in response to the hate and violence witnessed in Charlottesville.  More than 300 mayors from 45 states have joined this important initiative to work with public and private sectors to reject hate. We are so pleased that mayors like Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild signed on to our 10-point compact against hate, extremism and bigotry, agreeing to vigorously speak out against all acts of hate and punish bias-motivated violence.

There’s still much more work to be done to combat hate in this country. There are still five states without hate crime laws on the books. The federal government needs to make tracking hate groups and extremists a higher priority, devoting the same energy given to the threat of domestic Islamic extremists.  Internet and social media platforms can do more to prevent extremists and hatemongers from using their networks to recruit and spread hatred.

Charlottesville should be remembered as a warning to America: this is what happens when bigots unify under one banner. It will take an ongoing and coordinated effort by public officials, private industries, the corporate sector, and civic institutions to ensure that our society’s hateful elements are pushed back into the margins where they belong.

Carlos Galindo-Elvira is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Arizona region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AJP or its publisher, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.