Opinion » Letter From The Editor

Pick a Side



1960s: Threat of nuclear war, civil rights protest marches, bloody clashes in the streets, riots.

2017: Hold my beer.

Early last week, we were all concerned when the president of the United States offered the possibility of the U.S. taking military action against Venezuela in off-the-cuff remarks. A few days before that, most of us were appalled to find ourselves in a tweet-inspired nuclear stand-off with North Korea.

Ho hum. How boring.

So, last Friday, white supremacists upped the chaos ante in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a "unite the right" march in which they carried guns, waved Nazi and confederate flags, and chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans. In the ensuing counter-march on Saturday, one of the alt-Nazis took it upon himself to drive a Dodge Charger at high speed into the crowd, injuring 19 people and killing a young woman named Heather Heyer.

President Trump stepped off the golf course long enough to issue a de facto statement, reportedly written by his staff: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence" Trump said, then added, "on many sides, on many sides."

Did you hear about the Racist Asshole Cafe? Yeah, no entrees but many sides.

Yes, I stole that from a wag on Facebook, but when your president is incapable of differentiating between murderous white supremacists carrying Nazi flags and people marching in support of equality and civil rights, dark humor is a logical response.

These are dark times. And, as it was no doubt intended, Trump's statement was seen by the Nazis as wink in their direction, a message that the president was not going to call out those who were using his name to promote their sordid cause.

Ku Klux Klanner David Duke said as much: "This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back; we're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump ... That's what we believed in, that's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back, and that's what we gotta do."

Two days later, after mounting criticism over his initial remarks, even from members of his own party, Trump read another statement, this time specifically stating that "racism is evil" and denouncing "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."

He read carefully from prepared remarks and didn't ad lib. But the message to the alt-Nazis had been received. Richard Spencer, the imminently punchable leader of the white nationalist movement said as much: "[Trump's] statement today was more kumbaya nonsense. Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously."

The battle lines are drawn now, between those who want to reestablish white dominance of America and those who seek a country that offers equal opportunity and justice for all. And that battlefield has turned to the symbolic vestiges of the War Between the States — statues and monuments honoring the confederacy — many, if not most, of which were erected in response to the civil rights struggles of the 20th century, not the war itself.

In Memphis on Saturday, several hundred people gathered at the foot of the city's Nathan Bedford Forrest statue to hear speakers decry the fact that the founder of the Ku Klux Klan sits in the middle of one our most prominent city parks.

This week, the city filed suit against the state to enable it to remove that statue and another one of Jefferson Davis, which sits incongruously in a downtown park, a purposeful thumb in the eye of black Memphians that was erected in the 1960s.

But people are getting impatient and demanding quicker, more forceful action. The citizen-toppling of a statue in Durham, North Carolina, this week has gotten the attention of many activists. No one wants the battle of Charlottesville to be re-enacted in Memphis, but the city and the country — thanks to the president's dog whistles to the uglier elements of his base — are being forced to confront the deeply planted seeds of American racism.

We're all going to have to pick a side. And there aren't "many."

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