Half a century ago the US escalated its assault on Vietnam, invading and then occupying the country for a decade with all the attendant imperial trappings: free-fire zones, strategic hamlets, body counts. US terrorism and crimes against humanity were the order of the day, and anyone who claims now that the effort was well-intentioned or naive or somehow innocent is lying. Yes, many Americans suffered and the whole country was injured, but that changes nothing in terms of the cruel intentions and the real responsibility of the war-makers—beware the popular revisionist histories being rolled out to do the dirty work of white-washing the record and brain-washing us all. The anti-war movement spread and rose up—a hopeful and generous moment—but we did not end the war. It dragged on and on with no end in sight. Six thousand people a week were murdered. Six thousand. We marched, we organized, we made art, we made sacrifices, we resisted. Six thousand murders a week. Some of us even organized a campaign of sabotage against military and government targets. And the war went on and on, until the Vietnamese themselves defeated the most powerful armed force ever assembled in history. That imperial military force is still loose in the world, still invading and occupying country after country, spreading terror in all directions, even recklessly threatening a nuclear exchange. What is to be done? We need to mobilize and build an unstoppable anti-war movement now, linked with the ongoing fight to create a just and joyful beloved community. It’s coming.
The tough bond of white supremacy over changing times and reorganized systems is the thick white glob of Elmer’s glue binding slavery to Jim Crow and then to prisons, bondage, and mass incarceration. The slave system and the mass incarceration system each violently subordinate subjugated persons to the will of their masters; each insists that subjects follow strict routines dictated by the rulers; each reduces subjects to dependency for everything including food and shelter; each isolates their subjects from normal human contact or intercourse; and each forces subjects to work for minimal compensation.
For the oppressors and the exploiting class there’s a ready rationale in every age: from the start white supremacy was promoted to justify aggression, theft, occupation, kidnapping, and murder—it was never based on inferiority, real or imagined. Racism has been aggressively employed in the service of cheap labor and in the suppression of wages and the precariousness of workers’ status, and racism justified colonial plunder from the start. As the US Empire began its long and dangerous decline and the industrial heartland collapsed in the middle of the Twentieth Century, excess labor became a fearsome predicament for the rulers. The Black Freedom Movement pushed forward at the same time, demanding access, recognition, and equality. But the counterrevolution pushed back—the gains of African Americans were nominally accepted as an accomplished fact, but in reality they were challenged, halted, and reversed wherever possible. When overt bigotry became socially unacceptable to many (remember those days!) coded markers—crime, drugs, violence—took its place. With African Americans on the march and revolution in the air, with unemployment soaring and jobs disappearing, prison became a central strategy to address multiple crises.
All of this is racism in operation, and it’s worth noting here that the word “racism” has multiple meanings: in popular usage it means bigotry, often manifest in ignorant comments, stereotyped views, and backward language. For example, Cliven Bundy, the cattle rancher from Nevada, is a racist—just listen to him and you know he’s an offensive bigot. And since you and I aren’t bigots, we can glibly claim the high moral ground. But there’s a problem: “racism” is also the structures of white supremacy and the institutional practices of oppression based on race. The examples above are instances of the execution of institutional racism. And so the question for antiracists isn’t, Are you a bigot?, but What are you doing to attack the institutional expressions of white supremacy? The mayor of Chicago shuttered more than fifty public schools in predominantly Black communities and never used the N-word; a slick, sophisticated, and “charming” president pushed harsh legislation that resulted in mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of Black people in prisons. This is white supremacy and racist practice on the ground and in the world. Call its name.
James Fields’ murderous outburst in Charlottesville can be located in the long history of organized violence against African Americans to accomplish a straight-forward political goal: the maintenance of white supremacy. He follows in the footsteps of Dylann Roof, the terrorist who massacred nine African Americans in the Charleston Emanuel AME church on June 17, 2015. Fields’ victim was a white woman, Heather Heyer, standing against the white supremacist tide that has it’s most vital roots in the White House and the ruling class.
Trump hesitates; Trump equivocates; and the message is resoundingly clear to its intended reactionary audience: the president has your back.
Then-FBI director James Comey, usually quick on the draw when it comes to labeling acts of violence “terrorism”—after all, he ran an annual $3.3 billion dollar budget to counter terror—hesitated in the case of Dylann Roof. Why? It was “horrific,” he acknowledged, but “terrorism” is “more of a political act and . . . I don’t see it as a political act.” Really? Roof said it was political.
Trump had his own uniquely Trumpian obfuscation: there were terrible acts on “many sides, many sides,” he said, and in the face of a firestorm of rage about his lukewarm response, went before the microphones two days later, and after reading a script placed in front of him by his enablers, returned to authentic Trump, Donald, au natural: They weren’t all Nazis, he explained the next day, and some were just protesting the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a great American (actually a traitor who led the military effort to secede in order to maintain the institution of slavery and the terrorist subjugation of Black slaves) and what’s next, taking down George Washington, and also, what about the “alt-left?”
James Fields and Dylann Roof saw themselves as political actors, and their actions were calculated and willful. Roof’s “manifesto” is a thoroughly articulated political document, one as filled with apocalyptic fantasies and white supremacist daydreams as you’re likely to find. And Fields has a long history of white supremacist political activity.
The farce of Trump’s and Comey’s ambiguity is telling: it reveals the selective and hypocritical deployment of “terrorist/terrorism” as propaganda by the paid agents of the ruling class. Comey’s FBI and Trump himself have labeled acts of vandalism “terrorism,” including breaking windows, hammering on nuclear silos, disabling tractors in ancient forests or airplanes set to bomb civilians, freeing caged animals, and more. As a founding member of the Weather Underground in 1970 I know from close experience just how sweeping—and sticky—that label can become.
I’m reluctant to use the word at all—it flows so automatically into the rushing propaganda stream unleashed by the so-called war on terror, screaming insistently for a permanent state of war, more US aggression, more assassinations and torture, more ethnically based surveillance and repression, more suspicion and fear, more targeting of Arabs and Muslims. But I’ll make an exception here: James Fields and Dylann Roof are white supremacists, Christians, and terrorists, their actions part of a long legacy of terrorism carried out against captured Africans and later their descendants. The history of organized terror against African Americans begins with the kidnapping of Africans, tortured and transported to the Americas as chattel, none of them willing volunteers on the Middle Passage. This massive crime against humanity was state-sanctioned, legal terror.
Enslaved people ran away and resisted in a thousand ways, and after hundreds of years legal slavery was abolished. A decades-long campaign of terror against free Black people began immediately—pogroms, arson, displacement, false arrests and imprisonment, night riders, and thousands of public-spectacle lynchings. White gangs rampaged on a whim through African American communities in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Rosewood, and hundreds of other places, and the message was clear: white supremacy would police the racial boundaries and punish all transgressions.
So here we are, and the afterlife of slavery is with us still: housing segregation, unequal schools, a criminal justice system built on the unjust targeting and caging of Black and poor people, the state-sanctioned serial killing of Black youth, dramatic discrepancies in health outcomes, and on and on.
What is to be done?
Build the resistance, go deep, and keep rising up!
Heather Heyer, murdered on an American street by a white supremacist while she linked arms with others to resist the rising fascist tide. Rest in Peace, Heather Heyer, Rest in Power. PRESENTE!