There are times when just being appalled by bigotry isn’t enough, when just opposing racist words is no longer adequate, or only being a critic of hateful and violent rhetoric is morally insufficient. There are times when must find the courage to speak and to act — and to intervene in situations of violence and hate on behalf of those who are being attacked.
This is one of those times.
There’s a whole new generation of white supremacists out there, calling themselves white nationalists, and they are embracing public acts of violence in the age of Trump. A New York Times article last weekend examines the rise of far-right vigilante movements in the last couple of years and how these groups have “injected a new element of violence into street demonstrations across the country.”
While the Times does not hold left-wing protesters blameless — pointing out that militant, black-clad anti-fascists (often shortened to “antifa”) have at times used violent and destructive tactics of their own — the article goes deep in examining the way the “alt-right” has migrated from a mainly anonymous online presence to a visible and sometimes violent presence in the streets. The groups known as “Proud Boys” and “Alt-Knights,” among others, are described as hyper-masculine, dedicated to protecting Western culture (aka, white culture) from Muslims and immigrants, and see themselves as standing against a “war on whites.” The president’s long-time advisor Roger Stone is among those who has taken the Proud Boy oath.
Alarmingly, the last couple of weeks have seen an explosion of frightening hate crimes motivated by hatred of people of color and Muslims. Two men — 53-year-old Ricky John Best and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche — were killed on a light-rail train in Portland defending two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, who were being threatened by a white supremacist. A third man, 21-year-old Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was seriously wounded defending the women. His reaction to being called a hero was shifting the narrative to the young women who were being attacked: 16-year-old Destinee Mangum, and her 17-year-old friend who was wearing the hijab, who has not yet come forward publicly.
In Washington state that same weekend, a white man in a pickup truck intentionally ran over two young Native American men, killing 20-year-old Jimmy Kramer. In Maryland, a week before the Portland killings, Richard Collins III — a young black man who had just been commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army and was days away from graduating from Bowie State University — was murdered by a white supremacist student on the University of Maryland’s campus.
In another ugly and horrifying incident, a noose was found at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture last week, only five days after a noose was found hanging from a tree outside the Hirshhorn Museum less than a mile away. Other recent and well-documented examples of nooses being displayed in various places around the country are becoming acts of racial intimidation and threatened terror.
Since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, we’ve also seen a dangerous rise in anti-Semitic incidents, like bomb threats, swastika graffiti, and online threats and abuse. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents, especially at schools and synagogues, surged last year, especially in the final months of the year, and in the first quarter of 2017 incidents are up 86 percent compared to the first quarter of 2015. Within one week in late February, 150 gravestones were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery near St. Louis, and 100 more were desecrated in a cemetery in Philadelphia. It was well documented during the 2016 campaign that Jewish journalists received seriously increased amounts of anti-Semitic abuse and threats on Twitter from anonymous pro-Trump accounts who identify as “alt-right.”
All this goes to the larger and regular pattern of white supremacists, also frequently virulent anti-Semites, who seem to be emboldened by Trump’s win. It’s not that Trump is himself anti-Semitic or is promoting anti-Semitic policies (there’s little evidence for this, though he has been rather tone-deaf about the issue). But with his war on “political correctness,” used to justify so many outrageous statements, his persistent use of the racist birther conspiracy against Barack Obama, and his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump’s campaign and presidency has brought many white nationalists and neo-Nazis out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Richard B. Spencer, a white nationalist who coined the term alt-right, has become a celebrity, with extensive profiles of him appearing in the Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among others.
Another disturbing trend is the documented pattern of racially motivated bullying in schools across the country — bullying, moreover, using the president’s own words and views as inspiration and ammunition. White students are taunting and intimidating their Latino, African-American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Jewish classmates, saying things like “you are going to be deported.” “Now that Trump won, you’re going to have to go back to Africa, where you belong.” “Build the wall!” “Do you have your working papers?” “Tell your family goodbye!” “Make America Great Again! Adios!” Sometimes the white children have surrounded minority children and simply yelled “Trump, Trump. Trump.” This is heartbreaking behavior from our nation’s children — mimicking what they see and hear from their president. Some of the kids who have been targeted have told their parents they don’t feel safe and don’t want to go back to school.
Several writers have made the connection between the war on “political correctness” embodied by the rise of Trump and a climate in which white supremacists feel emboldened to speak and act in increasingly violent ways. One interesting way that Vox has looked at it is to draw the contrast between how Trump communicates publicly when a terrorist attack happens that’s perpetrated by someone who claims Islam as his or her justification — compared to how he acts when Muslims are the victims of terrorism and hate crimes. When terrorist attacks happened in London and Manchester, for example, Trump was tweeting immediately in support of his travel ban, and calling the attacks terrorism before the information was confirmed. In contrast, the he didn’t comment for three days after the Portland stabbings, finally issuing a tweet from the @POTUS handle — which is not the account he personally tweets from (in the intervening time, he tweeted 20 times from @realDonaldTrump).
Jamelle Bouie at Slate explained the link between Trump and racial violence as well as anyone in a recent article, writing, in part:
… racist violence isn’t spontaneous; it creeps up from fertile ground, feeding on hate and intolerance in the public sphere. The lynching epidemic exploded with the end of Reconstruction and the reconciliation of Northern and Southern whites under the banner of white supremacy, pogroms in towns like Tulsa occurred in an atmosphere of unimaginably virulent racism, and the killings and assassinations of the civil rights era were inseparable from the segregationist fire-eaters that governed states like Mississippi and Alabama. Today, the rising pace of hate crimes is tied to a political style that has harnessed and weaponized white resentment by way of an ethno-nationalist movement that sees America in narrow, racially exclusionary terms.
… In the right environment, under the right conditions, the call to remove “others” can become a drive to destroy them. We are living in an age of political racism and mainstreamed hate, where white supremacists act and organize in the open, so we are now also living in those conditions. Through our political choices, we have unleashed one of our deadliest legacies. We can already count the victims.
Many local faith leaders have spoken out about these hate crimes in their communities, but a national response from nationally known Christian leaders has been mostly lacking. The Interfaith Coalition for Dignity, which is based in Portland, issued a strong statement:
We recognize that wherever hate is present, no one is safe; that as a society, we must not stand idly by in the face of intolerance, bigotry, racism or xenophobia.
In the midst of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and in recognition that we are all created in the image of God, we lift up the commonality of our religious beliefs, we affirm our shared values, and we strive toward a future of hope and peace.
And local United Methodist Church Bishop for the Greater Northwest, Elaine J.W. Stanovsky wrote a powerful pastoral message, which reads in part:
“This week we saw what happens when societal norms seem to give permission for people who have wandered away from basic civil behavior, to speak and act on their hatred. Young women on a train are harassed, and three men who stand to protect them are stabbed, two to death.
People of faith know that we are given life as a gift to share, to protect, to nurture. If you don’t intervene when you hear someone say something hateful, disrespectful, harmful, then you’re letting hate become normal. You are giving it a place to fester. Followers of Jesus should always be ready to step in when someone spews hate toward another.”
It is time for the disciples of Christ to intervene in protection of those who come under verbal or physical attack. Followers of Jesus are everywhere in this country and will sometimes be present when and where such attacks occur. It’s time for us to speak and act with courage when that happens. What is at stake is not only the soul of the nation, but the integrity of our faith.