[Editor’s Note: This story is part of a package on local hate groups, which also includes articles about one white nationalist’s strategy and the prevalence of hate groups in Kentucky. Also, we at LEO expected that publishing a package of stories on hate groups might generate controversy, so we talked with an ethicist from the Poynter Institute for his take. To read the full Editor’s Note, go here.]
I was assaulted by Matthew Heimbach and other members of the white-nationalist Traditional Workers Party on March 1, 2016, while peacefully protesting at a Donald Trump rally in Louisville. They rushed the group I had accompanied, with fists drawn. I was shoved hard from behind by Heimbach when exiting and then was shoved by countless other members of the crowd that he riled up. After my group exited, Heimbach was caught on the now infamous tape assaulting Shiya Nwanguma, a young, black college student. She also was attacked by other crowd members. Multiple protesters were attacked this way during the speech, and the violence was more persistent and intense for any people of color or queer-presenting members of the crowd.
I’m often asked to describe this assault. While violent and terrifying, it was short-lived because I was able to escape the worst attacks using the privilege of my skin. It’s hard for me to imagine how terrifying it must have been for Shiya, or any other person of color there, when an entire crowd of people was compelled to use violence against them and complied with hateful enthusiasm.
I am less often asked about the events before the assault, which are just as terrifying. I watched for approximately five hours (Trump was late) as Heimbach recruited person after person to his extremist cause. He focused primarily on young men, but also spoke to a group of middle-aged women and a gathering of older men dressed in military apparel. I listened as he mentioned things such as “our jobs,” “people who don’t fit our culture” and “taking a stand” over and over again. Not once did I see anyone challenge his language. Not once did I see anyone walk away in disgust. Not once did I see anyone refuse his literature.
Later in the day, I watched those same people he charmed quickly turn to violence against multiple peaceful protesters and any person of color in their vicinity.
We often talk about radicalization in other countries and how terrorists can convert people to violence by appealing to their prejudices and fears. We rarely talk about how it happens with white nationalists in America — how it can happen in the course of a single afternoon.
Many articles about Heimbach and his ilk present them as a joke, as if there is something amusing about them. They will march with tiki torches and carry ridiculous cardboard shields and share cartoon frogs on Facebook. They make outlandish claims they can’t back up and will argue over the most pedantic details of their particular flavor of racism.
I can see the appeal of writing about these seemingly larger-than-life characters who present a worldview that seems so outlandish to liberal America, to present them as insignificant, amusing sideshows. Unfortunately, this ignores the deep roots that racism and prejudice have in America, and how they appeal to those fears. It ignores how deadly serious they are about achieving their goals. It ignores the tactics and violence they intend to use to do it. It ignores the tactics and violence they are already using. It ignores how successful those tactics have been over the course of human history. It ignores how quickly those tactics can change people’s behavior.
Fascists and white nationalists rely on a political culture of liberal sensibilities to flourish. There is a reason why they frame many of their events as “free speech” rallies and why they organize in cities such as Berkeley and Boston. They use these “tolerant” spaces to encourage well-meaning liberals to defend them. They depend on internal fights over punching Nazis and antifa to distract liberals, while white nationalist groups grow and radicalize our neighbors. Trad Workers, in particular, often camp out in the comment sections of articles about them, befriending and recruiting commenters who argue for their rights, slyly inserting their propaganda into the discussion.
White nationalists have no intention of granting any such tolerance to others. They use violence without any concern for an open society or freedom of speech. They silence professors, activists, journalists and many others by intimidating their speech with threats of or actual violence. They will use this liberal tolerance to reach critical mass and then promptly overturn any such protections for others.
American exceptionalism has led us to believe that our country is somehow immune from the forces of radicalization that have swept over other countries. This ignores both our long history of violent racism and the fertile ground in which white nationalists currently operate. They have allies that reach all the way to the White House. They have diverse tools for their propaganda and a culture in Silicon Valley that has at best ignored them and, at worst, enabled them. They have learned that scapegoating minorities for the excesses of capitalism is effective and use it to their advantage. They are organizing, they are serious, and they are violent. Just this year they have been responsible directly for multiple deaths, and this does not count the “lone wolf” attacks that can’t be tied directly to various white nationalist organizations.
White supremacists such as Heimbach, Richard Spencer, Chris Cantwell, Jason Kessler, Milo Yiannopoulos, David Duke, Brad Griffin and Mike Enoch are certainly the small and silly men portrayed in many of the profiles about them. Their ideas are ludicrous, unscientific and unserious. Their statements regarding their organization’s current membership and infrastructure are often greatly overstated. However, they rely on society to not take them seriously. They understand, far more than most people who profile them, that many Americans are ready for their ideas, and all they need is one good afternoon. •
Molly Shah and two others are suing Donald Trump and Matthew Heimbach and others in federal court, who they say attacked them at Trump’s behest at the 2016 Louisville rally. In a court filing, Heimbach denied “physically assaulting” protesters, but he “acted, if at all, in self defense,” as well as “in reasonable defense of others,” Politico reported. Also, Heimbach pleaded guilty to second-degree disorderly conduct for pushing Kashiya Nwanguma. He entered an Alford plea, which means he pleaded guilty while maintaining his innocence and acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convince a jury.