Malcolm Graham: Donald Trump has galvanized bigots to turn their hateful rhetoric into violent actions
The attack in Charlottesville is the latest example of that violence taking an innocent life, writes Graham
Editor’s Note: Malcolm Graham is a former Charlotte City Council member and Democratic N.C. state senator who has lived in Charlotte for more than 30 years. He is the brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, one of the Emanuel 9 killed on June 17, 2015. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Our nation is playing a deadly game of follow the leader.
Our highest elected leader won office on words of prejudice, exclusion and outright hate.
Like-minded bigots – whether simply ignorant or inherently evil – now feel emboldened to publicly express the same, with language and gestures intended to intimidate. I’d like to be able to talk only about how these sad, small men march for hate, then go home feeling like big, strong dudes and pat each other on the back in their online lovefests.
But this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, one of those bigots went further, deciding he had the right and the power to take lives. The tragic event shows that we can’t dismiss these racists as sad, small men. Not when it takes only one of them to graduate to terrorism and fatally wound us as individuals and as a country.
This weekend was not the first time racism has taken innocent lives. We saw this two years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, where my sister Cynthia and eight others were murdered in their church by someone who acted on his racist beliefs and had access to tools that inflict irreparable damage.
Forty years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that parading the swastika is protected under the First Amendment. But there’s a difference between carrying torches and pulling a trigger. If you want to march and let vile things roll off your tongue, fine. That’s your right to free speech, no matter how pathetic and revealing of white privilege that speech is.
When it spirals into violent action, whether it’s firing a gun in a church or plowing a car into a crowd, that’s terrorism. And as we’ve seen time and time again – from Oklahoma City to Aurora, Colo., to Sandy Hook Elementary – that terrorism is often committed by white American men.
Nazis have marched on our streets for years – long before people whitewashed their beliefs with terms like “nationalist,” “alt-right,” and “white supremacist.” (And let’s be honest, that last title is absurdly ironic, exposing the insecurity of those claiming it.)
So what’s new?
Whether it’s fudging facts about “crime-infested cities” – you know, where black people live – or painting immigrants as members of ISIS or drug cartels, Trump continues to light a fire under white men who want to believe they’re losing “their” country. Never mind that this country belongs to all of us. See “We, the people” and “liberty and justice for all.”
These words that our country was built upon are more important than ever when the president’s staff includes multiple flag-bearers of hate – Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller, not to mention Attorney General (for now), Jeff Sessions, who was once denied a federal judgeship amid charges of racism.
The acts of hatred and violence in Charlottesville are not eased by Trump’s too-late condemnation of them. On Saturday he denounced bigotry “on many sides,” adroitly avoiding calling out the groups responsible for it. Two days later, he declared that “racism is evil” as are the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups. Too little, too late. True character is shown in the moment, not days after the fact. It’s shown by the people leaders surround themselves with, and let’s not forget those advisers Trump has placed on the White House payroll.
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Make no mistake. President Trump is responsible for making America openly hate again and galvanizing white supremacists. But Trump’s poor initial response to the carnage in Charlottesville confirms he doesn’t care. The best case scenario is he’s just too scared to lose the support of racists. (Although, how someone could sleep at night knowing he’s backed by the Ku Klux Klan is beyond me. No wonder he’s always tweeting in the wee hours.)
I would give anything to not say “if there’s an upside” to what happened in Charlottesville and the rhetoric leading up to it. But here we are, so if there’s an upside, it’s this: The cockroaches are out in the light. So now, we can’t avoid them.
So much attention understandably has been given to attacks on our nation from abroad – from Russian meddling in last year’s election to a potential war with North Korea.
Charlottesville, like Charleston and other instances of terrorism before it, is an attack from within our borders by cowards who envision a United States that will never exist.
No more hiding in the shadows, you vermin. Inspired by your leader, you ran out into the middle of the room. We see you, and we’re bigger than you. We aren’t scared. We’re just disgusted.