The power of these protests would never have been possible without months and years of effective organizing. In Charlottesville and elsewhere, Democratic activist groups like Indivisible, which rose up out of the shock of Trump’s election, turned out alongside members of Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, and the Worker’s World Party. Liberals who began to find their voices in the protests against “repeal and replace” earlier this year have banded together—sometimes uneasily—with leftists who’ve been taking politics to the streets for years. They massed in big numbers this week, and in some places did more than disrupt traffic—in Durham, North Carolina, for instance, protesters pulled down a state of a Confederate soldier, defying a 2015 state law that bans the removal of such monuments.
The response from politicians has ranged from the unsurprisingly lackluster—denunciations of Nazis, mostly, which is hardly a show of political courage—to the carceral: In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed adding “inciting to riot” and “rioting” to New York’s hate crimes statute. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe drew heavy criticism for defending the police’s inaction in the face of the violence the nationalists brought with them, bragging that there had been “zero property damage” in Charlottesville. Once again, it seemed that those who were supposed to be in charge valued unbroken windows more than lives.
It was left for the people of Charlottesville to take care of each other—people like elder-care worker Corey Long, featured in an instantly iconic photo standing between an elderly man and an armed man brandishing a Confederate flag as a weapon. “The cops were protecting the Nazis, instead of the people who live in the city,” Long told reporters afterward. He and his friends had gone out to peacefully counter-protest—until, he said, “someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground.” Long had picked up a can of spray paint that another white supremacist had hurled, and he stepped between the elderly man and the flag-bearing nationalists, held up a lighter, and created a makeshift flamethrower. Long’s actions exemplified the importance of “community defense,” which, far from being unbridled machismo, is also care work. After an alt-right protester slammed his car into counter-demonstrators, street medics were the ones, as International Socialist Organization member and former Fight for $15 worker Trish Kahle pointed out, whose shaking hands treated wounds before any official response arrived.
The counter-protesters in Charlottesville, like the people of so many recent movements, had to do what the state did not—keep themselves safe, protect one another, and fend off attack. In the wake of their actions, GoFundMe accounts for the injured spread rapidly across social media. Rather than distracting from the important national debate over our dysfunctional health care system, this shone another light on its importance. As Charlottesville organizer Laura Goldblatt told me earlier this summer, “These monuments are symbols of white supremacy in Charlottesville and it is not enough to call for their removal. We have to push for material demands.”
Those “material demands” predate Trump’s election. While Heather Heyer’s support for Bernie Sanders has caused too many to read the Charlottesville events through the lens of the 2016 presidential campaign, the people on the ground in Charlottesville know better. They can trace the genesis of what happened in their city down through centuries of American white supremacy to the feet of Thomas Jefferson—as the torch-bearing nationalists chanting “white lives matter” did last Friday night. This history is much older than Trump’s administration, and its solutions will require much more than another election.
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