I joined Drs. Omar Khan, Maya Goodfellow, Olivia Rutazibwa, and Clive Gabay at an event hosted by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London in late April to discuss the impact of Brexit on white supremacy and vice-versa. I rather enjoyed this event, particularly hearing the extremely deep personal and academic experiences from the other panelists. Brexit is a complex topic, and both the causes and effects of Brexit have manifold interactions with white supremacist politics generally, with significant secondary and tertiary effects that cannot easily be reduced to soundbite-level understandings.
My own contribution to the panel, as a non-academic and a non-expert on UK politics, was to highlight the international ties of white supremacist organizing and how they interact with the ongoing Brexit narratives. Dr. Khan pointed out, with a bevy of detailed and perhaps worrisome statistics, that although the Brexit campaign was fueled in part by a racist fear of the other, Leavers are not themselves innoculated from troubling opinions on race and entitlement. Dr. Goodfellow spoke deeply about her experience studying anti-immigration sentiment and racism.
I was particularly interested in Dr. Rutazibwa’s experience as a Rwandan Flemish Belgian woman who moved to the UK because, in her words, “the racism in the UK was ‘better.'” It’s true that nationalist sentiments—including deeply racist nationalist sentiments—are not unique to the English-speaking world, though by simple factors of language accessibility and population size, many of those issues do not rise to the same degree of popular awareness.
For my own remarks, my intention was to draw the connections between Tommy Robinson, the popular far-right UK figure, and Generation Identity, an international far-right organization linked to both the Christchurch massacre as well as the Unite the Right violence in Charlottesville. We must look to the ways that far-right figures manipulate the core ideas of free speech and incitement and operate with a degree of connectedness to far-right terror that would be intolerable if they were promoting, for instance, jihadist extremism. Robinson and his ideological colleague Martin Sellner would have playing cards if we treated white supremacist terror in the same way we treat fundamentalist Islamic terror.
I will not attempt to summarize the words of my co-panelists, but rather simply link directly to the video of the event. A transcript of my own remarks is presented below.
I suppose I’m next. I guess I’ll start by saying that I’m probably the least credentialed person on this panel. I am not an academic in this domain, but I do consider myself an activist and a researcher. By training, I am a data scientist. I’m from Charlottesville, Virginia, although now I live in Berlin, Germany, which gives me the unique, perhaps, experience of fleeing to Berlin to flee Nazis. But it is that work that I have done in Charlottesville, and that training I have as a technologist and a data scientist, that has led me to continue my activism in the counter-white supremacy movement in the United States and internationally, from the relative safety of a city that has seen this all before.
One of the things that people… when they think about Charlottesville, when they don’t really know the city itself, they don’t understand that the event that made the headlines around the world, called Unite the Right (which was very on point in terms of the naming) was not the first event in Charlottesville with white supremacy. It was not even the first event that year in Charlottesville with white supremacy. In fact, it was the fourth event in Charlottesville that year when it comes to violent white supremacy, and it also was not the last. It was the most violent and the one that gathered the most headlines, but lost in that narrative, when we focus on the tiki torches and the car attack and the President’s comments about “very fine people on both sides,” are the efforts that we went through as a community, as activists, to try to prevent that from happening.
There was a tremendous amount of work that was done leading up to the event in an effort to get the authorities—in this case, the city government and the city police, along with the state police—to deny the permit for the rally and prevent it from going on. One of the ways that we, as activists, tried to shut this rally down before it started, was by exposing many of the violent threats, the rhetoric, and the hate speech, which crossed the border from the American standard of tasteless but legal speech into imminent threats of violence. Unfortunately, our warnings fell on deaf ears, and it was even true that six weeks before the event I was able to name Vanguard America accurately as an organisation that would make a terrorist attack. Of course, James Fields was marching with a Vanguard shield shortly before he committed the terror attack. The follow-up to that, when we analysed what went wrong and we read the whitewashed report of the performance of the city and state police in regards to the event, was that it was clear the authorities weren’t going to protect us; and if we wanted to do anything to prevent another Charlottesville from happening, we had to amplify our efforts as activists to engage with the media and to raise awareness around white supremacy.
This sort of effort was boosted by the fact that anti-fascist activists had effectively infiltrated these organising circles and chatrooms. Not only did we have organiser chats from the Charlottesville event, but we had organising chats for events and groups all around the world, from Canada to South Africa to Europe. What this has done is enabled us, through Unicorn Riot—it’s an independent media collective—they were able to publish these messages. I believe there’s over 4 million messages now, and that might be an underestimate, of white supremacists organising around the world. I was able to do that along with several other researchers to expose, name and shame many of the people who conspired to commit violence and terror at the rally.
It was about a year ago that one of the biggest exposées was announced, where I had named an individual by the name of Michael Joseph Chesny as a key organiser of the rally. He was a transportation coordinator and was listed in an organisational chart, near the top of the Unite the Right planning. His comments were unique and interesting, because in the planning chatrooms, in the channel for “legal questions,” he asked whether it was in fact legal to run down and kill protesters if they were standing in the streets. Of course, this happened before James Fields did exactly that. What gets really disturbing is that Michael Chesney was a United States Marine. He was an explosives technician, based out of Cherry Point Naval Air Station in North Carolina. And what led me to him was that he was promoting a very unique logo in the chatrooms, one that only white supremacist researchers in the United States would be familiar with. That logo has now gone international because it is the logo of Generation Identity, which as you might know has connections throughout the UK, Europe and around the world, and is led by a man by the name of Martin Sellner in Austria. Sellner made headlines recently, when it was revealed that the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter had donated a large sum of money to him and had shared some of those symbols, and shared some of the Generation Identity propaganda in his manifesto.
So what we’ve seen through all of this is that the organising and infiltration work that has been done to disrupt white supremacy locally in Charlottesville has had ripple effects throughout the world; and the warnings of violence that I personally gave to the city council on a July night in 2017 still ring true, as we watch terrorism happen all around the globe, by the same very networked group of people. Now, I’m not an expert on British politics. I’m not an expert on Brexit. But what I do know is that in March of last year, Martin Sellner was denied entry into the UK to give a speech. Instead he gave that speech to Tommy Robinson, who then delivered it at Speakers’ Corner. So it’s true to say that the American way of dealing with white supremacy is, in a sense, unique to American politics; but it is also true to say that this group of extreme nationalists is perhaps one of the most international activist groups in the world.
So with that, I will conclude by saying that the effort that I’ve been undertaking in the time since Charlottesville has been to name, shame and expose these white supremacists by linking them to violence and crime, and trying to stitch together the narratives that the media are not very good at putting together themselves. So with that, I hope that we can continue this work and that there’s a lot of opportunity for crowdsourcing in this domain. Thank you very much.
Q1: Recently, there was a controversy around David Lammy kind of having this outburst and invoking the 1930s, the Nazis and I believe specifically 1938 in Czechoslovakia. I’d just be interested to know whether you think it’s helpful to raise the spectre of World War II, the Holocaust etc. at this juncture, or if it does more harm than good.
Q2: While being mindful of the encouragement to think away from avowed and explicit white supremacy, to think about how white supremacy is interlaced with whiteness and the centre and so forth, it’s notable that over the last few years, there’s been an increase in avowedly and explicitly white supremacist activism on university campuses and in our classrooms. I was wondering what the panel think about how we, as teachers, as students, as members of universities, respond to and deal with that growth.
Q3: I have a couple of questions, if I may. The first one is a general question to anyone who wishes to answer it. It’s regarding the idea of the rate of change in immigration, I have read that it is a valid fear that people have that things are changing too quickly. I think it was Tony Blair’s government that initiated that explosion of immigration that occurred in his time. That’s the thing that some people suggest as the reason why people have developed these ill-feelings towards immigration. If that is true, is it more a failure of our politicians to address that in an honest way and then deal with it accordingly that is contributing to this problem? I’d like your views on that. Secondly, a question for Emily regarding your database. Are you finding that the incidents of far-right extremism are becoming more and more violent as time goes on?
I guess I’ll answer the very specific question first, and then I’ll try to combine your question about the campus activism with the Holocaust or World War II comparisons, because I think there’s something relevant connecting those. The first answer is… Is white supremacist crime becoming more violent? The answer to that is we don’t know. The reason we don’t know is that in America we don’t track—there is no centralised source of records for hate crimes. Every state in America has a different hate crime designation. They get applied differently, and it is often down to the reporting of the actual police officer who makes the arrest to determine whether or not something becomes a hate crime. What that has left us with is trying to assemble information from news reports and newspapers, which is often no more than three or four paragraphs and is written by beat journalists that don’t have knowledge of white supremacist groups organising, or anything like that, so it’s hard to find that information. For that reason, First Vigil, the project that I’m running, only looks at cases going back to 2016, because it focuses on open court cases. If I ever get through my backlog of open court cases, I’ll extend it backwards. So if all of the Nazis out there could stop doing crimes for like a year, that’d be great. So it is very difficult to answer and rate the violence. I mean, we can look at some of the recent terror attacks that have happened in the past couple of years that haven’t happened in, say, the early 2010s, but then we can look back to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1993, so it’s really hard–or is it 1996? I forget. It’s hard to say.
Regarding the campus activism and the comparisons to World War II, I do think that the comparisons to World War II are tricky but apt, and the reason that they’re apt is not so much to serve as a warning sign of where we could be going. Even at my most pessimistic, I do not think that we’re going to be ending up in the same place. But the reality is that in my country, we are putting children in cages in Walmarts, and so it is deeply uncomfortable in these comparisons. Where those comparisons I think are super valid is to spurn people to think about what they would have done if they were alive during that time, and to exhort them to act in that way now. That means doing things that they’re uncomfortable with, that means doing things that might even be illegal, such as blocking the street, or staging an unpermitted protest, or other things that I won’t say on the record.
That connects this notion of campus activism to white supremacy. The reason that campus activism has been such a key driver is because universities have long had a reputation for being a bastion of free speech, and white supremacists use and manipulate the principles of free speech to share their message, to radicalise. And while I’m a very staunch free speech advocate, we have to recognise that the language they use is a language of incitement to violence, and just because they’re not literally saying “I want you to go stab that person,” doesn’t mean that they’re not telling their followers to go stab that person. So when we think about campus activism, we need to do better at educating our administrators on campuses on what these groups are, to highlight the connections that they have to violence, and to allow them and empower them to make a decision to act in the interests of public safety, which often means denying that platform, because what will happen is violence will break out. So I think that part of it is hard to handle on an individual basis, but it is something that we have to handle on a policy basis, and make the choice of whether we want to be the people that are going to stand idly by while someone else drums up the next terror attack, or if we’re going to try to do everything we can to stop it.
Q4: Today, British Muslims became an important target for white supremacist violence and racism. I think that apart from Dr Olivia, the issue was not really raised, and this is not only an academic debate, it is also in the national and international political scene. So my question is, what really are the reasons of this misrepresentation of this ethnic group? Is it more because we’re uncomfortable speaking about the subject, or is it more that we don’t consider it important enough to actually tackle the issue?
Q5: We talked about the logic of white supremacy and I think we need to go a bit more into depth about the nature of white supremacy. Have you heard anything new that we have not heard before? Like you have said before, I don’t really think this is anything new, and also I agree about the fear of immigrants and that situation, but if we look at South Africa with Orania, an all-white state in the heart of South Africa, can this really stem from a fear of migrants? I mean, the black South Africans are not migrants in their own country. The very foundations of America and Australia were built on this very same idea, so I just wanted to quickly ask, without getting rid of these symbols of the colonial flag which represents genocides of the Aboriginals and everything, can we really move forward from a decolonised narrative?
Q6: I’m pleased to see and hear some mention of the Second World War. I only missed it by a few months, but I suffered severe prejudice afterwards because I started school with a strange Hungarian name, while memories of a war fought against “Huns” were still very raw. Now, I have certain cynicism about educating people out of racialism, because you never know where the next egg is going to come from. And also, I don’t think it’s been very successful. Austria was always considered as being more German than the Germans – well, it was Hitler’s homeland – and there were very strong efforts made through the educational system to denazify the country. Now, in 1968, I had the ignominy of being marched out of a cinema in Richmond, because the Austrian au pair, who I’d taken with me, wouldn’t sit down and stop booing Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, for the simple reason that she regarded it as her national duty to deny that her fellow nationals did not 100% support Hitler taking over their country, and she had been right through the denazification process and everything. So how you can guarantee that anything with education is not going to be counterproductive, I do not know, and I hope the panel have got some ideas on that.
Q7: I wanted to speak up on something Olivia said but this is really for everyone, about comparison and the need for more comparison, which I’m very strongly in favour of. I think it’s very important. Two things, really: one is that it seems that in the academic literatures, there seems to be more comparison that isn’t filtering through to popular conceptions. I’m thinking particularly of comparison of anti-semitism and things like islamophobia, which are actually quite prevalent across academic literatures, but have become very hard to talk about. How do we talk about those more? And the second thing is, how do we move beyond the kind of rose-tinted comparisons that you mentioned, which I think are very common to many of us who travel across countries and feel immediate impressions that things are different, but those impressions might not really reflect realities. So just general thoughts on comparisons and how they are to be conducted and used.
Q8: I think the question is particularly for Emily, but anyone who wants to take it up can. I wanted to ask what role, or what are the problems potentially with using the language of crime and terrorism in confronting the far-right? Because obviously the whole lexicon of crime and terrorism is a racialised discourse, and yet it obviously has also a moral purchase with people, and in technical legal terms, a lot of the acts committed in the name of white supremacy are crimes, and can be defined also as terrorism. So how can we strategically, or should we strategically engage with that lexicon, and what are the pitfalls of doing so?
Thank you. I’ll keep this as quick as I can, but I do want to answer your question, because it’s excellent. One of the things, and this touches on education and some of the other questions, is there’s two sort of competing notions of how to be anti-racist. One of them is this theory of anti-discrimination, that we should treat all people the same regardless of their race, gender, sexuality or whatever. This is, at least in the American and some of the European traditions in law and scholarship, the prevailing mode. The other mode is anti-subordination, which is to say that it sort of embraces Desmond Tutu’s quote that “Neutrality in the face of injustice sides with the oppressor.” Education has been, at least over the past 20 or 30 years, mostly focused on anti-discrimination going all the way back to primary school, and so we have embraced that as the way that we’re supposed to properly be non-racist. To which I would say that we need to start looking at anti-subordination, and thinking in terms of racism not as the application of differences, but the understanding of power dynamics. And this talks about anti-semitism, the comparison’s there, also with anti-immigration sentiment. I do have a project I’m working on that identifies… We’ve identified nine principal axes that exist in English language media through which people are radicalised, but I can talk about that offline later.
To briefly address the challenges, morally and otherwise, of dealing with crime and terrorism as a hook to combat white supremacy, I agree with that take. My phone says ACAB, which stands for All Colours Are Beautiful, obviously. But it is problematic to frame—to use the justice system, which is oppressive, and to use prison and policing, which is oppressive—as the means by which we are going to solve white supremacy. So it is a challenge to do that, but what I have done with the First Vigil project is look at how white supremacist communication is being done. And that is that they are trying to paint themselves as victims and not oppressors, that they are trying to co-opt the language of the left, and that they are trying to frame themselves as innocent. So what First Vigil is intended to do is to directly annihilate that narrative by showing that even if we, without any radical changes to our society, want to embrace our current system of justice and law, that they are still not within the bounds of it.