Soldiers of Love?Karen Schiff (Lecturer, THAD, EFS, Graduate Commons)
I came to Cornel West’s MLK Series Keynote address on January 23, 2019, in which he reflected on Martin Luther King’s legacy of love, with a question in mind. I had heard West speak before, at two gatherings preparing for the awful “Unite the Right” rally that had taken over Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. And I knew that he had participated in a King-style, nonviolent protest there, as part of a group that confronted the alt-right organizers of that rally, at the event’s epicenter. Given the hatred he had witnessed there, and everything else that has happened since, I wanted to know: What did he think about the alt-right now? Just as important: Would he continue to be the same kind of love-soldier that he had been on that dreadful day?
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville had been called by Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right, supposedly to lobby for the preservation of a Confederate monument in a downtown park. The statue had long been a point of contention for local groups arguing over the legacy of the (slave-holding) South, and this latest rally became an excuse to demonstrate white supremacist hatred to a nationwide audience. Right-wingers, including the KKK and neo-Nazi groups, came from across the country. Many brought guns. Violence was very much in the air: the night before the scheduled rally, an unadvertised alt-right flaming-torchlight parade on the University of Virginia campus had ended in vicious attacks on students and faculty. Saturday turned deadly. One of the alt-right sped his car into a group of protesters, and the horrific crash killed 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer. Two police officers—Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates and Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen—died when their helicopter crashed that day, too, and many other people were injured. So at RISD, when West quoted to us a question from W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Flametrilogy—“What does courage, fortitude, do in the face of brute force?”—I knew that in Charlottesville he had answered it by risking his life.
I had decided to go to this rally, in part, to learn more about the alt-right. I had been worried about them since Richard Spencer had held a “Hail Trump” rally, complete with Nazi-style salutes, in Washington, DC, before the 2016 presidential election. I also went to Charlottesville to support friends who lived there. We all felt vulnerable. So now, a year and a half (and various mass murders by white supremacists) later, what might West say about the alt-right? What kinds of strength did we need? How could King’s philosophy of love still apply?
To understand the motivations behind my questions, you should know more about what happened to West in Charlottesville. He had been a keynote speaker there, too, to give his audiences strength before the “Unite the Right” rally. Saturday morning, speaking from the front of a small, crowded church, he startlingly reminded us that we could get “hit or shot” while “keep[ing] love at the center” and standing for “Truth” and “Goodness.”1
Trained nonviolent activists, including an interfaith group of clergy, on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by Steven Martin/National Council of Churches.
After that sunrise gathering, West and nonviolent protesters, including clergy of many faiths, formed a human chain and marched toward the park where the alt-right rally was due to take place. Untrained supporters were told to keep our distance. The group formed a line and offered individual prayers as the alt-right jeered.2 Then a subset of the original group, about twenty people, moved to block the entrance to the park. West and this smaller group aimed to demonstrate that the authority of love overruled the city’s legal permit for the rally. They would break what King would call an “unjust law” and try to physically prevent the alt-right from getting to the rally, so it couldn’t happen. As West later told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “We were there to get arrested” for interfering.3 In the tradition of King’s nonviolent civil rights protests, publicity from their arrests would expose the threat to civil society posed by the alt-right rally. If they got injured in the process, this would reveal the alt-right’s depravity. The protesters were “trained … to greet all acts of violence with love and concern,” said Steven Martin, from the National Council of Churches.4 But the protest did not go as planned.
Anti-fascist warriors, or “antifa,” also showed up. They had also assembled from around the country to prevent racist violence. Some brought weapons, though generally less deadly ones than the alt-right’s guns. On Saturday morning, I had asked a white antifa warrior from Chicago why he was carrying a long stick, given the Left’s emphasis on nonviolence. He greeted my surprise with sad patience. He said that he and his colleagues (of all races) “could not stand by while people of color were getting attacked without provocation.” This was, at root, a different logic of protest.
Events unfolded in a crescendo of tension. West’s group looked on as the alt-right and the antifa approached the park, then the nonviolent activists dispersed at 11:00 AM, amidst the danger of the other two groups facing off.5 After the subset of nonviolent activists reassembled to block the entrance to the park, the alt-right repeatedly and forcibly pushed through the human chain of this smaller group; the alt-right eventually got fought back by the antifa.6 West was afraid that if not for the antifa, his group would have been “crushed like cockroaches,” as he later told Goodman. Meanwhile, the police were “holding back” at the edges of the park and “allowing fellow citizens to go at each other.” Armed militiamen lined the park, but their role was opaque. Mainstream media focused on the antifa fighting the alt-right, and the moral issues posed by West and his group got drowned out. Or the entire scene became a glaring moral issue. The city declared a state of emergency and cancelled the rally about half an hour before it was due to start at noon. Officials finally took charge and cleared the park.
Did the violence of the confrontation render the peaceful protest moot? Speaking with Anderson Cooper on CNN, West attempted to answer this question: “There was no space for love and justice, given that vicious hatred.”7 On the ground and in the news, the “Unite the Right” event was focused on survival, not morality, not love. West told Goodman, “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.” He admitted to her his own impulses toward violence, as well: “[The neo-fascists] are lucky I didn’t lose my holy ghost, to tell you the truth, because I wanted to start swinging myself. I’m a Christian, but not a pacifist, you know. But I held back.
How would King have responded at Charlottesville? Could he have maintained the space for love and nonviolent protest? West suggested answers in his RISD speech. He reminded us of how King consistently stood for nonviolence during disagreements with Malcolm X about protest strategies. And he quoted King’s challenge to young protesters in Birmingham: “Do you have your cemetery clothes on?” King accepted that nonviolence carried mortal risks. West had reminded us of this in Charlottesville, too . . . but that was before he had faced that mortal danger. In the event, West had found hope in the antifa, and was grateful for their sometimes violent defenses.
Given all of this, you can see why I wanted to know: A year and a half after Charlottesville, did Cornel West think that love can overpower the alt-right’s violence? Or that violence can crowd out love? Considering the appetite for blood in the media as well as the country, could any nonviolent civil disobedience based on morality still hope to have any impact? Despite West’s ambivalence about nonviolence, I heard some deep chords resounding in his speech at RISD. He called insistently for spirited commitment to timeless values. In sum:
These are unalienable and right: stay true.
This message was fully aligned with the legacy of Martin Luther King, who held that such values would sustain nonviolent protest through any circumstances. West spoke of nourishing these noble principles through “deep education,” and implied that sticking to them would unravel today’s neo-fascism.
Dr. Cornel West and audience members at RISD for West’s MLK Series Keynote address, January 23, 2019. Photograph(s) by David O’Connor.
Though I was—and am—inspired by West’s message at RISD, I find it oblique and unsatisfying following the intense experience in Charlottesville. I wonder whether West might have been trying to inspire himself as much as us. Directly after Charlottesville, West’s declarations to Goodman sounded more relevant yet still unspecific: “We can’t just stay woke. We’ve got to stay fortified.” Did “fortified” mean “nourished” and strong in resolve, or strong and “fortified” as in “armed”? He continued with a prescription that turned abstract: “We need prophetic fightback, progressive fightback. It’s got to be multiracial, but it’s also got to be critical of capitalism and the empire, along with patriarchy and white supremacy. White supremacy certainly is at the center, but it can’t just be a matter of talking about race isolated from these other very ugly realities.” West’s vague messaging leaves me wanting more, especially now that the battles and the alt-right have changed.
One year after Charlottesville, “Unite the Right” organizer Richard Spencer admitted that the alt-right organization had fizzled, but he and reporter Jacob Siegel agreed that “white identity politics” had gotten stronger.8 And now, white nationalists are working undercover, online. A recent screenshot of 4chan, an alt-right networking website, showed people plotting to disrupt conversations about the next Democratic presidential nominee by posing as concerned leftists and questioning candidates’ progressive credentials. In this new scenario, how can West’s homilies translate into pragmatic, anti-fascist “fightback”?
Other people from West’s protest in Charlottesville offer concrete strategies. Political action: Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, who spoke at the gatherings, demands voting for progressive policies and candidates.9Community and online organizing: Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley (called “Smash,” as in “Smash the Patriarchy”) started Congregate C’ville to organize the formal protest, in the spirit of #LoveOverFear.10 Strengthening the social fabric: Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who was a key figure in the gatherings and the protest, calls for “building communities where there are no strangers” in his essay “The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters.”11 All of these clergy uphold the centrality of love, as did King.
To my mind, the most promise lies in blending abstract ideals with specific actions, boundless love with righteous rage. I think of artist E. J. Hill, who writes in “A Love Letter” about hearing news of Charlottesville when he was at a wedding, and who concludes that the love we need is not “a flowery, hugs-and-puppies kind of endeavor” but something edgier: “[a] love that vehemently demands respect.”12 We need tireless vigilance in vetting online postings, the courage to condemn hatred, and also the vision to shore up enduring truths. Lest that last part sound too lofty and vague, I’ll tie it to something else West talked about at RISD: strengthening moral priorities in artmaking. We can build the change we want to see in the world by using artwork to put new frameworks into concrete forms. This could mean making issue-oriented art, yet it could also mean having a sense of driving conviction behind whatever we do. Full-hearted art. Art with spine. The times call for applying the historically strong, terrified, determined love that West and his group were demonstrating in Charlottesville, so it can outshine and supercede violence.
Let’s get on task.
1. You can hear West’s speech in Charlottesville at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ82aD6n6zg.
2. You can watch West and others offering prayers at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaOFT4S9v8k.
3. Democracy Now! clip at, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeOZ2BKa1FQ.
4. Quoted in Celeste Kennel-Shank, “Faith Leaders on the Front Lines in Charlottesville,” at www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-leaders-front-lines-charlottesville.
5. See Martin’s blog post, “Reflections from Charlottesville,” at https://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/reflections-from-charlottesville.
6. See the testimony of Brandy Daniels, in Dahlia Lithwick, “Yes, What about the ‘Alt-Left,’” at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/08/what-the-alt-left-was-actually-doing-in-charlottesville.html.
7. Cornel West on CNN, with Anderson Cooper: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmCLuHK2lrs.
8. Jacob Siegel, “The Alt-Right One Year after Charlottesville,” www.tabletmag.com/scroll/268297/the-alt-right-one-year-after-charlottesville.
9. See Traci Blackmon, United Church of Christ News, www.ucc.org/news_rev_traci_blackmon_calling_for_action_against_white_supremacy_08182017.
10. Smash (Brittany Caine-Conley), quoted in Abbey White, “A Charlottesville Faith Leader to Unite the Right: ‘Love Has Already Won Here,’” www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/14/16140506/congregate-cville-charlottesville-rally-protest-interview.
11. Osagyefo Sekou, “The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters,” http://revsekou.tumblr.com/post/159679199437/the-task-of-the-artist-in-the-time-of-monsters.
12. E. J. Hill, “A Love Letter,” www.x-traonline.org/online/ej-hill-a-love-letter/.
Karen Schiff recently delivered a lecture, “Anti-Slavery, Pro-Dreyfus: Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ as Resistance to Prejudice,” at Kalamazoo College.