These demonstrators might look like mindless thugs, but fascism can exploit divisions

Published by The i paper (15th June, 2020)

Three years ago I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had found itself caught in the midst of a national struggle over race and history. One woman was murdered and a man viciously beaten in violent protests after the far-right held a hideous torchlit rally to exploit debate over removal of historical monuments. Now we see the same issues explode in this country, with fascist thugs reacting to Black Lives Matter protests by attacking police beside boarded up statues in central London.

At the centre of the Charlottesville storm was an imposing statue of the confederacy’s leading general, Robert E Lee, sitting on his horse in a park that was also named after him. It became a focus of fiery debate over hundreds of similar monuments following the Charleston church shooting in 2015, when a white supremacist murdered nine black people. The city council, after intense discussion, voted to remove the statue and rename Lee Park, leading to a court injunction to stop them.

As we have seen in Britain, statues can be deeply offensive to many people when linked to the atrocities of slave trading. Yet in Charlottsville, the far right saw a chance to unite extremist fringe groups – from uniformed militias, Klansmen and neo-Nazis through to smoother new nationalists in chinos – behind a cause with popular support. As counter-extremist analyst Julia Ebner discovered after going undercover, they promoted the event to moderate audiences around issues of identity and history while pushing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on extremist forums. They even told obese followers to stay away in a bid to look “respectable”.

In the end the murder, violence and footage of strutting armed goons brandishing swastikas sparked a backlash against their nasty creed. Yet the vile response of President Trump, talking about “very fine people on both sides”, was a watershed in his presidency. According to the journalist Bob Woodward, Trump viewed his earlier stance of damning racism as “the biggest f**king mistake I’ve made”. Thereafter, instead of pushing back when called a racist, he responded that it did not bother him “because many people agree with me” and became more overt. Yet the Republican Party  – with a few noble exceptions – has continued to back him.

So who really won that struggle when such a man resides in the White House? Given such a backdrop, it is little wonder that the death of George Floyd sparked such outrage.

Here in Britain, as the impact of that police killing still causes waves, we have just witnessed a sickening demonstration – our boneheads hurling bottles at the police lack even the veneer of sophistication of their vile counterparts organising that deadly Charlottesville rally. One man lectured a journalist on how Sir Winston Churchill killed Adolf Hitler. Others gave Nazi salutes while claiming to protect the legacy of our wartime leader. It is easy to mock drunken fascists who chant “Winston Churchill is one of our own”. But there is no room for complacency in our divided country.

There are figures on the far-right who understand how to harness legitimate debates for their own hate-filled ends. Tommy Robinson kept away, despite being out of jail again and his name being chanted, but built a following by abusing issues of history, integration and free speech. If the pandemic sparks a catastrophic economic slump, as many expect, smarter rabble-rousers could emerge to exploit fear and anger.

We can give thanks that our politicians on the parliamentary right are quick to condemn such behaviour. Yet at the same time, we are led by a cavalier character who has in the past ignored the dangers of flirting with nationalist tropes for his own ends. Just as it should be possible for Labour to accept that the Home Secretary Priti Patel knows about racism from her own life experiences while disagreeing with her policies, so Tories should admit Boris Johnson behaved irresponsibly in the past with his crass columns on Muslim women, race and our colonial heritage.

These were wrong at the time. Now they seem even more offensive. Like the US, our country is riven by tribalism – and we are squeezing any nuance from an increasingly binary culture. I am happy to see Edward Colston toppled into the harbour and loathe imperial apologists, but are we really discussing if Churchill – the man who saved our nation from Nazism and was worshipped by my father who fought in the Second World War – merits a statue? Have we reached such a point that people cannot see the difference between an active slave trader and a politician born in the Victorian era who supported the empire?

These are complex issues, which is why the resonance is so deep in nations that have failed to deliver equality for ethnic minorities. Go back to that statue of General Lee. It stood in a city famed as the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and a man seen as a great liberal statesman who embodied the founding ideals of his nation. Jefferson was principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a document based on the “unalienable” rights “that all men are created equal”, and spent much of his life fighting the “hideous blot” of slavery against prevailing views of the time.

Yet Jefferson had 600 slaves over his lifetime on his Monticello tobacco plantation beside Charlottesville. He once sent a letter to George Washington, another founding father who freed his own slaves, quantifying their value. This was to ram home the disgrace of trading human beings like cattle. But at the same time boys aged 10 years old were whipped on his estate to force them to work in its nail factory, which funded his grocery bills. This year the city decided not to honour his birthday for the first time since the Second World War, celebrating instead the demise of slavery. Such is the unstoppable tide of history.

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