After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, WBRU News’ Emily Wooldridge talked with local community organizers about free speech, and what Charlottesville means for anti-racist organizing in Rhode Island.
The panelists are Lindsay Paiva, Marco McWilliams, and Mike Araujo. Lindsay is a 4th grade teacher in Providence and organizes with Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). SURJ educates and organizes white people to take part in anti-racist work, while following people of color’s leadership. Marco McWilliams is a scholar, activist, and the Director of the Black Studies program at DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality). The Black Studies program offers people of color and their allies political education to prepare them for organizing. Mike Araujo is the Executive Director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice (RIJWJ), a coalition of local organizations that fight for economic and social justice. Lindsay and Mike joined us in the studio, while Marco joined us via phone.
The organizations Lindsay, Marco, and Mike are part came together on August 14th, the Monday after the weekend events in Charlottesville, for a meeting facilitated by RIJWJ. Among other actions, at this meeting about 200 people, both individuals and representatives of local groups, started organizing an anti-racist march for Labor’s Day, and pledged to devote energy and resources to educating their members about intersectional feminism, and the history of race and racism. You can read more about their pledge here.
Emily: So if we could first talk a little bit about just how you and other people around you responded to what happened in Charlottesville, and why you think people in your community responded the way that they did?
Marco: Well the events there in Charlottesville were a powerful reminder, particularly for a older generation who can remember the kind of violence that those things evoke. But to see, you know, young white males marching through the streets with Nazi flags and torches and things of this nature, kind of like let folks know that man, this kind of thinking, this kind of ideology, it continues to recreate itself. And it was interesting to see so many black folks and white folks looking at that with horror that was in some ways of a kindred spirit. It was equally shocking to a lot of different folks. And so the nation sort of had to hit a pause button for about a week to step back and regroup, not because that was new and novel, but because perhaps not since 1915 when Birth of a Nation was shown in the White House with I think Woodrow Wilson have we seen the White House sanction this kind of violence, you the know the both sides now infamous comment. So this is the moment that we’re in.
Note: In this discussion, Marco refers to the Birth of a Nation, which was a film by D. W. Griffith in 1915 that gave an inaccurate depiction of the South after the Civil War. In the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is depicted as heroic, defeating black people who are portrayed as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white people, particularly white women. Despite its inaccuracies and racist depictions, the film was a commercial success and even played in the White House. The film triggered white violence against black people.
Marco also refers to President Donald Trump’s comments after the recent violence in Charlottesville. One woman was murdered, and 19 others injured (many seriously) allegedly by a man who attended the rally, and drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters. Trump said “both sides” were to blame for the violence — the white supremacists on one side, and the “alt-left” on the other.
Mike: It’s very very easy to focus on like this kind of spectacular, you know, torch bearing scumbags marching in the street, which is easy is relatively easy. But you know with Jobs with Justice and EPI (the Economic Progress Institute), we completed a study of black families in Rhode Island, and we saw indications that were bloodcurdling. We have the highest rates of maternal mortality among black women. We have the highest rates of infant mortality among black women, highest rates of asthma among black youth.That’s violence. That is deadly, grinding violence, and it’s easy for us to be really kind of focused on the spectacular displays of hatred when we have this like ongoing banality of pain that just goes on that we’re just really kind of suffering through. And that’s where like with Marco and with SURJ and all these folks we’ve been working with, that’s where our focus has been. So in some way when these things happen, it’s a huge distraction to the ongoing work, but it what it does do is it kind of bolsters our solidarity with each other.
Lindsay: Part of my learning and my journey in my organizing has been to really deeply understand the ways that white supremacy is embedded in my own life and so there are a lot of values that we may be posit as “American” values or things that we take for granted that are actually really tied to capitalism and white supremacy. So for example, perfectionism may seem like a personality trait, but it’s actually really embedded in a culture of white supremacy, or also the idea that there isn’t enough for everyone, so the scarcity myth is another component, competition. So some of these values that we posit as American or as natural are actually really lethal and embedded in this harmful culture that we perpetuate and that separates us.
Marco: It’s all around us, it’s everything that Mike Araujo has been saying. When you drive down the highway or you’re somewhere and you see those guys working on the side of the road and they’re from the ACI. When you just see a prison. When you see a failing public school in Providence with all students of color in there. When you see anybody hungry, when you see homelessness, these are all the products of racial capitalism. I love the example that you gave about this idea of like culture of lack, this notion that we don’t have enough, we don’t have enough resources. That’s white supremacist culture. We have more than enough resources, for everything. I just think that, Mike has been saying, it’s like people look to these like sensationalized things like no, I need to see the body hanging from the tree. I need to see the black body hanging from the tree, or else I’m not going to believe it. And its like, really? Like is that what it takes? I just get so frustrated. Like we’ve been dying for 400 years. Like how much more violence on my black body do you need to see for you to be convinced that white supremacy is like a real thing. I don’t know, that’s all I have to say, I’m sorry.
Emily: No, thank you for saying that. Another thing that I think would be valuable for us to talk about is just how this event in Charlottesville has brought up a lot of conversations about free speech and as you all probably know the ACLU they went to court to defend the white supremacist right to hold the rally in Charlottesville. And one thing that the ACLU said about why they did this, I’m going to read a quote from a statement that they had, it says, “We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views. Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground. Equality and justice will only be achieved if society look such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it. Not all speech is morally equivalent, but the airing of hateful speech allows people of goodwill to confront the implications of such speech and reject bigotry, discrimination and hate.” So that was a big quote, you can take a moment to think about that. I’m just curious what your reactions are to this statement and also just the ACLU’s stance of supporting the white supremacist to speak in Charlottesville.
Mike: You know the ACLU actually does have a history of defending Nazis. But of course, the ACLU’s roots were in the labor movement and the right of union organizers to speak freely on the platform, and that’s their foundation. I think they have to go back and re-examine their core values. White supremacist speech is not under threat at any point in the United States. The Klan marched openly and there were members inside the Congress who were members of the Klan and they weren’t considered terrorists on any level. So to pretend all the sudden that white supremacist speech is being threatened because people are confronting it publicly is laughable.
Marco: In moments like these with our friends at the ACLU, I always have to remind folks that the ACLU, for all of the good that they are capable of, have no commitment to black liberation. That’s not what they do. That’s what we do. That’s what I’m about. That’s not what the ACLU is about.
Mike: A good thing about what they’ve done is that it does illustrate the difference between what a partner is and what an ally is. right, like A partner is somebody you can plan with who you strategize with, and an ally is someone who you can occasionally ask to do a very specific thing, but can’t be trusted to do the things that actually make the movement work.
Lindsay: I would echo what Mike and Marco are saying. The ACLU is not the authority on this issue, and although there are sort of like legitimized as a source of the law or truth, they are not the authority on this issue.They are one piece of the system that like Mike is saying we can leverage and use if we need them. However, this is a moment where we need to just rally together and do the work ourselves in community and in organizing spaces.
Mike: And the fact that the ALCU is taking this position is not only is it unfortunate, but it actually goes against the speech that actually is threatened, which tends to be the speech of black and brown people, the queer community, women, working class people in particular, and marginalized communities. I don’t hear those voices when I turn on TV. Right? I don’t hear them when I turn on the radio. So for them to say these poor Klan’s members didn’t get the chance to talk is utterly false when they’re standing under monument of a Klansman that literally is aping the words of what they’re saying, carved in granite.
Note: The Associated Press reports that though Robert E Lee was not a KKK Member, he was a Confederate Army General, fighting to maintain slavery. Lee also owned enslaved people. His legacy got intertwined with the KKK when the used Lee to promote their ideologies and interpretation of history, especially around the Civil War. They erected monuments of Lee and other Confederate figures.
Marco: I will simply say that I’m not even interested in that civic conversation. My agenda is to work for the freedom of black people. I don’t care about the free speech of the plantation owner any more than Harriet Tubman cared about the free speech of her master, why he ought to be able to say what he needed to say and why he thinks she should stay on that plantation and stop stealing his other human chattel property. I have a friend who has two family members that were very seriously injured in Charlottesville, had to be hospitalized. You think they trying to have a debate about somebody’s, some damn white supremacist’s nationalists’ free speech. No.
Mike: There’s a history of the speech. We know what these organizations do. Like it’s not like the Klan woke up and said we are a debate team, and it’s not like the Nazi party ever came around and said all we’re here to do is publish a couple op-eds and go home. They have a literal track record where you can go back and say wow, that was a pretty amazing mass lynching that the Klan pulled off. There’s a record of that. So we know what their motivation is which is the elimination of people who look like me. The confusion between what is protection and what is violent is very, very slim. They would have you think that they were literally standing underneath a plinth, a monument just talking like having one speech after another. But they were armed and fighting people, and they were using free speech as a cover for a race riot. And they (the organizers of the Unite the Right rally) know that that’s going to appeal to liberal sensibilities who are going to do hand-wringing about the loss of civil liberties. This is a strategic position that they took and they’re exploiting it and watching the more moderate liberal sections of our country really get into this thing about well, everyone has a right, its the marketplace of ideas is false on its face, and they know that and it tends to be people who are not going to be affected by that, and it’s unfortunate.
Emily: Another question that I have is, I have heard a lot of people say like since Donald Trump got elected that a lot of people would be motivated to get involved in social movements on the left. And so I’m curious from what you’ve all observed, especially with your work in community organizing. If you think that this has been the case, what kind of involvement have you seen like happening?
Lindsay: Something that I’ve noticed, at least from SURJ’s perspective I think that the great challenge that we have is to support white people who have not fully or have not done a lot of work on understanding how to move and act in especially multiracial organizing spaces, because what I witnessed right after the election was a lot of flooding of organizing spaces that had been maintained for a really long time and had a core set of shared values, there had been relationships over time that were meaningful. Sometimes people are like, I want to do something, and doing something to them means like marching or knocking on doors or phone banking but sometimes with white supremacy culture, and it’s just like embedded in our lives. So some of the work has to happen in pushing back on some of those white supremacist values that are really like, deep within us like perfectionism and individualism. There’s a lot of self-education that needs to happen which can happen in community, so a lot of the work that we’ve been trying to do around educating the white community is like supporting people to explore their understanding of white supremacy culture in a space that’s not going to inhabit or call upon the energy of people of color who are trying to organize and do the work they’ve been doing for centuries, while sort of like supporting people to then build relationships and be in community and be in those spaces.
Mike: So it’s been a mixed bag since that’s happened. We’ve seen fundraising is significantly easier, but we also have to deal with competing for funds at the same time. And we see like really motivated, mostly white folks who are coming from economically advantaged areas who like suddenly realized that other people’s lifestyles are at threat or some aspect of their lifestyle is at threat and because of that that’s activated them. And so we’re building good alliances with new folks, and there’s some great new leaders that are emerging because of this, but at the same time there is a certain aspect of, I’m not sure that we share values all the time right. If your housing policy puts you on the East Side and excludes black people from living in it, that’s an aspect of white supremacy. If you afford to send your kids to a private school that costs $40,000 a year, and taking out the resources from the public school at the same time that is also violence against a community right? So when we look at something like Charlottesville, we’re like looking at the most visceral version of kind of a grinding violence against black people and people of color in general. And it’s really really hard with newly activated people because that becomes the challenge right like they have to suddenly find themselves working in solidarity with a position that they may actually be culpable of some of the violence in it. And without real examination of that, that places our values at conflict and until we can address, find our root core values, and organize around that, they can be good allies, but they can’t really be co-creative partners in the process of liberation. So that’s where I am.
Marco: We have to do movement-based work, movement-based organizing. It’s long-term. It’s going to take time. We have to cultivate ideas. It involves political education. We have to create an ecosystem in which change can happen. You know, a lot of folks want to jump in and do something right away, and there’s a lot of things you can plug into and do right away. It’s not that those aren’t important, but they have to understand that doesn’t like fix the problem. That’s a band-aid or something that stops the bleeding, that gives you a little room to breathe, but the actual systemic work is going to take longer, and it’s going to involve more than just you just giving a donation. It’s going to actually involve you getting involved in something in a substantial way. for critical mass of people that builds and grows, you’ve gotta have a base. And that can be a hard conversation for some folks, because we don’t want to be uncomfortable. There’s a way in which it’s kind of not rocket science also, go out, get involved, there’s plenty of groups and folks out there doing things and learn, just educate ourselves, and do the kind of work we need to do to make the space look a little more like something we call freedom.