The sweat pools on my hands and threatens to erase the jail support number written on my thigh. The air is thick as cotton. I can still feel the teargas stinging my tongue and lips, can still see the white t-shirts and hip hair-cuts of the hundreds of Nazis marching through downtown Charlottesville. The governor of Virginia has just announced a State of Emergency, effectively cancelling the Unite the Right rally before it officially begins. Confederate flags battle with a banner that reads “SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY” in the flat blue August sky of the Shenandoah. Scattered empty water bottles and respirator masks litter the streets. I can still hear them shouting “We Will Not be Replaced” over and over in horrific chorus, can still see the heads of black clergy bowed in prayer, can still see their white knuckles burning into the bodies of my screaming friends.
For a moment though, we are not running or screaming. We catch a reluctant breath. Local organizers lead a march past Justice Park, and community members honk in solidarity as we chant “Charlottesville We got Your Back We Got Your Back We Got Your Back!” To our surprise, at an intersection we are met by hundreds of other counter-protesters carrying Black Lives Matter and IWW flags, a welcome contrast to the seas of white nationalists who poured down these same roads just hours before. For a moment, it feels like we’re winning. I catch myself spitting out a laugh as we talk about how well we blend in with the UVA preppy-chic in our strategic “Chad and Becky” bloc. The rally is shut down. White supremacists have lost a platform, once again. The pavement trembles against our feet and my bones relax. This ritual feels familiar, this march like every other march I’ve ever been on, feels almost comforting in comparison to the anachronistic nightmare of the morning.
Then there is a sound that is something like gunfire, something like limbs cracking. I happen to be on the sidewalk of the intersection. I run into a side street. The chants and singing collapse again into screams and confusion. I see a scattering of empty shoes, tattered banners. The sun shines like a belt buckle.
“Someone got hit” my friend from East Kentucky says, face plastic and panicked with tears. The cops cars role in, the sirens begin their low persistent moan.
My friend rushes to provide medical support for Heather Heyer. The police pull him away from her as he is doing chest compressions, despite the fact that no EMTS are nearby. My hands grow hot and sticky and the air smells like rust. My friend from Kentucky is crying on the sidewalk, her leg twisted and broken from the trampling crowd. This moment feels like loss.
But what I realize, in the days afterward, when my world becomes a flurry of anxious text messages and the country erupts into stormy rhetoric, is that this was in fact a victory. That the Left was attacked that day in Charlottesville not in a moment of weakness but a moment of strength. That the politics of the neo-confederate, white supremacist alt-right are at their core reactionary, regressive, envious even.
At the moment James Fields hit Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville, we were singing. There were masses of us. Despite our ideological and tactical diversity, on the street we supported each other, praying clergy working in tandem with militant black-blocs, medics and legal observers ensuring our safety when the police would not. Blind to the institutional power whiteness already affords and eager to claim victimhood, the far-right craves the comradery and collective resilience we have built for ourselves on the left, despite centuries of oppression and violence. Naming multiculturalism rather than capitalism or state oppression as the enemy of freedom, neo-nazis parrot and distort ‘identity politics’ to fetishize heritages of whiteness. They want our solidarity. They want our power.
These reactionary politics parallel and are informed by Trump’s rise following both the Obama administration and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blaming both the neoliberal elite and racial demographic changes for the weakening white American middle class, white nationalists and Trump supporters locate hope in an autocratic return to 1950s, neo-confederate populism.
But there is only so much power in reaction, in nostalgia for a history both brutal and imaginary. True power rests not in nostalgia, but in faith. In a vision for the future that presents something better than what this fucked up, extractive, colonial world offers us. We gain strength not by pacifying our radicals and catering to the center, not by the Hilary Clinton-esque “unity” preached by mainstream Democrats, but through solidarity. Solidarity means collective struggle that respects a diversity of tactics, from punching Nazis to prayer to potlucks. Solidarity means honoring the leadership of people of color and the legacies of our ancestors who fought fascism in America and the world over. Solidarity doesn’t mean erasing our political differences, but strategically acting in coalition as the moment calls for it. Solidarity means addressing the economic conditions exploited by the Nazis and developing our own anti-racist/anti-capitalist movements for the social redistribution of wealth. Solidarity means recognizing the power that is inherent in standing on the right side of history, in sacrificing personal comfort for the survival of our fellow human beings.
The left tends to wallow in a narrative of weakness, of loss. I’ve even heard friends become so nihilistic as to say that winning isn’t even the goal, that going for wins in these times is to promise the impossible. But what I realized from the horror in Charlottesville is that neo-nazis have nothing on the gravitational pull and power of Black Lives Matter and Queer liberation activists, of antifa and DSAers, of indigenous and immigrant-led struggle. In the words of Assata Shakur, repeated like a prayer by activists in the shivering twilight of the blue hills of Virginia: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom—It is our duty to Win. “
This past week, at the annual Highlander Homecoming at the center in New Market, Tennessee, we remembered how to sing. I was honored and privileged to gather and break bread with organizers, healers, radical educators and revolutionary artists from across the various landscapes of the South. After leading us to braid our hands together in the same holy, powerful chain our movement ancestors have woven together for centuries, we sang “Which Side Our You On” with some of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, our voices echoing in the glittery twilight of the Smoky mountains. This felt like liberation to me. This felt like power.
Although I grew up in the northeast, for most of my adult life I have lived in rural towns in the Rust Belt and Central Appalachia. Confederate flags spring up on car decals and bay windows all over the towns I live and work in—but so do “No Hate in my Holler” t-shirts and ‘Goodnight White Pride’ stickers. The Traditional Worker’s Party, the KKK, and other neo-fascist organizations are actively trying to recruit working class white Appalachian people into their organizations, promoting white nationalism as the answer to crippling de-industrialization and systemic poverty. While much noise is made in the media about “backwards hillbillies” and “Trumps supporters who deserve to die if Medicaid gets cut”, I don’t often read about the everyday work community members are doing to uproot racism in the mountains. Or the fact that very few members of the local community in Pikeville, KY where the TWP hosted a rally this April, showed any kind of enthusiasm for the Nazis coming to town and in fact organized their own counter-event. The narrative that working class Appalachian communities are responsible for the current rise in white nationalism, or even the ascension of Donald Trump, reflects a misguided and factually inaccurate narrative with long historical roots. (https://www.nationofchange.org/2017/07/10/notion-white-workers-elected-trump-myth-suits-ruling-class/)
Coastal elites have consistently scapegoated Appalachian people for the racism that pervades every corner of American society and geography. While neo-confederate and white nationalist sentiment certainly exist in Appalachia, so to do movements to abolish prisons, challenge the police, and create democratic and inclusive communities. Where I live in Eastern Kentucky, we host a weekly radio show connecting the families of prisoners to inmates, run an active campaign to prevent a prison from being built on a mountain-top removal site, and host rallies and dinner table conversations centered on challenging racism and upholding the movement for black lives. Additionally, the narrative of “white racist hillbillies” erases the many communities of color that have made their home in the mountains for centuries. Affrilachian (or African American Appalachians) were in fact the first non-native people to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. (Check out Will Isom’s research on Blacks in Appalachia to learn more!)
While confederates, the KKK, and neo-nazi groups have always tried to recruit from the rural working class, it is important to recognize that these groups maintain their centers of power elsewhere, and that Appalachia has a long history of defecting from both confederate and white supremacist causes. During the Civil War, West Virginia split from Virginia in rejection of the confederacy and many counties in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina voted against secession. During the dramatic “mine wars” of the turn of the century, the UMWA was one of the first unions in America to demand that black workers be paid the same wages as white workers. This is not to absolve Appalachian communities from responsibility for the pervasive, ugly, systemic and interpersonal racism that does exist in the mountains, but to challenge the national narrative that explicit white supremacist groups are solely organized by the southern, rural working class. Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute (which sponsors the white supremacist American Renaissance policy think-tank) are slick, white collar, wealthy politicians. The “western chauvinist” Proud Boys draw on upper-middle class frat culture to build their racist base. Even the purportedly “socialist” Traditionalist Workers Party has roots in Indiana and the upper Midwest. And let us not forget that Trump himself hails from the urban-northeast megalopolis of New York City.
Most importantly, resistance to white supremacy exists and is powerful in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. Counter-protesters overwhelmed Nazis not only in my home state of Massachusetts but deep in the coalfields of Pikeville, Kentucky. The question that remains in the aftermath of these demonstrations is how do we use these impressive displays of solidarity to leverage actual power?
In the everyday, long-haul, economic transition work I do in Hazard, Kentucky, community leaders are working to build bridges between diverse populations of black, immigrant, and white working class folks to develop a collective vision of what we want our future to look like in the mountains. This means hosting celebratory potlucks that highlight the cuisines of Syrian, Indian, Mexican and other populations that are an essential piece of Hazard’s community fabric, while spurring discussion about the complexities of Appalachian identity and what we can do to make Hazard a more welcoming place for all people. This means hosting poetry workshops with black community leaders centered on defining and re-envisioning home. This means ensuring that city development ideas must recognize and respect the economic and infrastructural needs of everyone up and down the holler, regardless of class or race.
In Appalachia, I believe that we need to draw strength from traditions of militant direct action and multiracial struggle against corporate enemies, from coal mines to Walmarts. We need to build a locally owned, dynamic solidarity economy that values the health of workers and the environment. We also need to do the slow, intentional, long-haul work of unseating centuries of structural and institutional racism. The work to resist prison expansion as a form of economic development, to advocate for single-payer healthcare, to fight gentrification and address environmental racism. That work has been happening for years before this most recent display of white brutality and it will continue now. If we are to actually prevent white nationalism from taking root in the mountains, the urban left must support and respect these ongoing campaigns and struggles in the rural south.
As Highlander Director and fierce change-maker Ash-Lee Henderson so often says, “The South’s Got Something to Say!” It is high time that everyone across the country