Here is a joint statement from two former presidents.
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”
The message of President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush is in response to the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. The words are nice and make us feel good but the words of our two former leaders miss the point.
The fundamental question is do we believe in the freedom of speech and freedom to peaceably assemble? These rights are protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. Freedom of speech is not enshrined in the Constitution to protect someone’s right to recite nursery rhymes. It is in place to protect the rights of those engaging potentially offensive commentary. Similarly, the right to peaceably assemble is in place to protect those members of society who may want gather to protest against something that is popular and this right also protects those who may, themselves, be politically unpopular.
Here are a few things we know:
- There were a group of Americans, many of whom were white nationalists (and those with similar ideologies), who gathered under the banner of “Unite the Right” to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee
- This group received a permit to gather
- The statue of Lee had been located at Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, and the Unite the Right rally took place at this location
- Among those who marched in opposition to the rally were Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Democratic Socialists of America
- Those who marched in opposition to Unite the Right had no permit to gather
- The two groups confronted each other and created a disturbance with violence against the other
- A young man, who would later be identified as James Fields, a man fascinated by Nazis, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, which resulted in the death of one woman
Many of the white nationalists were armed, largely because they felt that they could not rely on law enforcement to protect them. The fact that the Unite the Right rally members were armed does not imply that they were not there to peaceably assemble.
To discuss this event is not easy in today’s America. Discussion of this is loaded with landmines. Understandably, one does not want to be seen as defending white supremacist or the KKK. The question, however, is this: Does the Constitution protect those whom we find offensive, evil, or disgusting? The answer is yes. For many American however, it is not an unequivocal yes, and for others, the answer appears to be no. Like the Bushes, media personalities, politicians, and many in the public at large are focused on the shiny object of racism. As a result, it is difficult for them to focus on what actually happened. Being against racism is clearly good, but in recent years it has risen to the level of national religion. Many Americans, whenever they witness racism or racists, reflexively want to tell everyone one within earshot how much they detest it or detest them. Again, detesting racism is a good thing, especially given some aspects of American history — but are we really willing to shred our Constitution just so that everyone can see that we are good people?
The right for the Unite the Right rally members to assemble peaceably is protected by the First Amendment. Their speech is protected by the First Amendment. Most importantly, the members of the rally, themselves, are protected by the First Amendment. Their ideology does not exempt them from Constitutional protection, however we may feel about the sentiments some among them may spew. It is worth repeating though that the reason for the rally was to protest the removal the statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of the park.
Had the counter-protesters not shown up to confront the Unite the Right members, there would have been no violence. Fields driving his car into the crowd complicates matters but he likely would not have driven his car into crowd of counter-protesters had the counter-protesters not been there. The woman who lost her life would likely still be among the living.
The way to deal with such an event is to give them as little attention as possible. Less attention would send the message that they’re a dying breed and they will have less ability to inspire other to join their cause. I suspect (and fear) that because of the commotion in Charlottesville, the rally members may gain more support for their cause.
President Trump has received much criticism due to his saying that both sides had a hand in the violence on Saturday, August 12. Many feel that he is wrong to create an equivalence between the white nationalists on the one side and the coalition of groups that formed the counter-protesters on the other. I agree that he was wrong. The lion’s share of the blame rests with the trouble-seeking counter-protesters.