Fears as Ku Klux Klan rally stirs tensions
Clashes this weekend in the US state of Virginia represent the sharp, ugly end of America’s racial and economic divisions. Could the USA be on the brink of an era of political violence?
Around 50 people in Klan hooded robes. White supremacists, nazi salutes. A huge counter-demonstration of around 1,000 people. Bottles thrown. Police step in. 1950s America, right?
No, this was the scene in Charlottesville, Virginia in July 2017. The sight of clouds of tear gas is a familiar sight again in US cities.
The members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had come from North Carolina to protest against the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, an issue which has arisen in many cities in the South.
While the KKK’s lurid outfits and racist ideology will forever keep them in the public consciousness, the truth is that their influence has greatly declined since the Civil Rights Movement.
But with Donald Trump in the White House (with the Klan’s endorsement), many now fear that America is on the brink of a new age of political violence.
The far-right’s adversaries turned out in force in Virginia. Among a crowd comprising residents, Black Lives Matter activists and ordinary liberals, one group in particular has grabbed the headlines in recent months. This is “Antifa” — short for anti-fascists.
Antifa’s origins lie in the Occupy movement, which gained attention in 2011. It has become the focal point for militants opposed to Trump, whom they regard as fascist-in-chief.
On the morning of Trump’s inauguration, they set dustbins on fire and smashed shop windows in Washington.
They set fires and stormed buildings at the University of California–Berkeley to prevent an appearance by Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
The movement has now spread to Europe. At the G20 summit in Hamburg at the weekend, Antifa again clashed with police and set yet more cars alight.
According to Jennet Kirkpatrick of Arizona University: “Violence erupts when traditional modes of political speech collapse.” Joanne Freeman of Yale believes a “polarised, emotional, anxious” population has lost faith in traditional institutions, making violence inevitable.
Are these pessimistic predictions correct?
“Dark times lie ahead,” say many. The forces in American society that might prevent violence are becoming weaker and weaker. Donald Trump implicitly incites violence against journalists; liberals are reluctant to condemn the antics of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. How can you not be gloomy about the future?
“Politics encourages a cynical, mean view of humanity,” reply others. But remember that the vast majority of people are kind, peaceful and courteous. The violent fringe is yet to really touch the lives of ordinary Americans, who still believe deeply in the traditions of free expression and respect for political opponents. Do not despair.
- Is the USA heading for a violent political future?
- Are politicians doing enough to prevent political violence?
- Design a poster discouraging political violence.
- Research a country or a society that descended from peace and democracy into violence. Write 500 words on how and why it happened.
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Q & A
- What do we know?
- That political violence is on the rise in America. This has coincided with the rise of Donald Trump, who was endorsed by a number of far-right organisations. However, many of the most violent protests have been by some of Trump’s most fervent opponents, most notably Antifa. Now many are afraid that America is descending into an era when political violence becomes the norm.
- What do we not know?
- Exactly why this is happening. Several factors have been suggested, such as widening inequality, the rise of Trump, and growing political polarisation, with those on the right and the left more unwilling to discuss their differences than ever. We also do not know whether events — Trump being voted out, for example — would stem this tide.
- Ku Klux Klan
- A hate group that started in the Southern United States in 1865. While it has also targeted Jews and Catholics, most of the KKK’s violence has been directed against black people. They frequently lynched innocent black people as recently as the 1950s.
- Robert E. Lee
- General-in-chief of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Lee is considered one of the country’s greatest generals and is still popular among many people in the Deep South.
- Many cities in the South
- Earlier this year, the mayor of New Orleans ordered that four statues of Confederate figures should be taken down in the black-majority city.
- Occupy movement
- An international movement against inequality and “a lack of real democracy”. The first Occupy protest to receive widespread attention was Occupy Wall Street in New York on 17 September 2011.
- Milo Yiannopoulos
- A leading figure in the “alt-lite” (as opposed to the more openly racist alt-right), Yiannopoulos is a controversial critic of Islam, third-wave feminism, political correctness and social justice movements.