The weekend leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day always brings out the worst of us waving confederate flags and holding hate rallies all over the country. Many states and municipalities have designated holidays throughout the weekend as well. Held to celebrate various Confederate “heroes” and the Confederacy itself; part of a long-running effort to minimize Black folks’ struggles, Black history, the civil rights act, and racial progress in general.
The rally in Virginia was no exception.
In Virginia, Lee/Jackson/King Day has an interesting history. The holiday under that name ran from 1984 through 2000. Then-Governor Jim Gilmore proposed splitting the holiday after debate arose about the incongruous nature of celebrating two Confederate generals on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Since then, the holidays are celebrated separately with Lee/Jackson Day held on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the third Monday in January.
Prior to 1984, when the United States Congress declared Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday, Virginia celebrated MLK Day on New Year’s Day beginning in 1978. Robert E. Lee’s Birthday, however, has been a holiday in Virginia since 1889. In 1904, the legislature added Stonewall Jackson to the holiday creating Lee/Jackson Day (January 19).
After Congress declared January 15 a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr, Virginia combined the birthdays of Lee, Jackson, and King designating the day a tribute to “heroes of causes”. Similar to a few other states, celebrating Confederate history precedes MLK Day in Virginia. Loathsome as these holidays are, people are entitled to celebrate whomever they want.
But, Black folks and many other people of color know precisely what these counter-celebrations represent. Meanwhile, unaware Americans are beginning to learn just how intolerable their friends and neighbors can be when given an ounce of motivation. With hate-speech becoming more common in everyday conversations, these counter-events are the foundational platforms for the normalization of hateful views and discriminatory language.
The counter-holidays and events in many other states are similarly held on the same weekend as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Counter-holidays are a form of protest used throughout each year to deter from the celebration of emancipation, civil rights, and equality. The events that take place are precisely what someone would expect from people waving Confederate Flags.
For example, in Arkansas and Texas, the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. are celebrated on the third Monday in January. In Texas, it is currently known as Confederate Heroes’ Day. Local and state offices all over Texas, willingly mention Confederate Heroes Day whenever Martin Luther King Jr. Day is mentioned on their holiday calendars. Texas’ example is one of the more obvious attempts to whitewash the advancement of civil rights in America.
Assigning blatantly racist and intimidating names to counter-holidays is done in an effort to strike fear and drown-out those who celebrate many civil-rights leaders. They are also used to remind us all they are still right there. That there are people who believe in the old ways. That neo-Confederates are an ever-present force in the modern era. Ready to strike.
Counter-movements, holidays, and protests are how those who deal in discriminatory ideas drown-out social justice efforts. More modern movements such as Black Lives Matter were nearly silenced by false narratives steeped in racism; not dissimilar to the experiences of civil rights activists and leaders before us. If we learn anything from them, let it be that we combat lies with vigilance, persistence, and a commitment to standing up for the underrepresented.
The Racist Element
Hate rallies have become so commonplace that American society has come to expect racist assholes exercising their rights in antagonistic ways. It’s what they do. At least it lets their friends, neighbors, and employers know who they are and what to expect from them. Racists that expose themselves don’t worry me as much as those that hide it; extremists.
The racists that should concern us are the militia types. Second only to racists in power (cops, judges, politicians). The militia types are hell-bent on preparing for, even starting, another civil war. They are heavily invested in their ideology believing in“Blacks/Jews/Mexicans/Muslims/Lesbians are taking over America!” conspiracy theories and think playing army is their ultimate solution.
Should we all be thrilled that the Lobby Day rally in Virginia was uneventful? Yes, we should. To be honest, I was expecting at least one accidental shooting considering how insecure some firearms were being transported. Many reports indicate that handguns were loosely carried in backpacks and pants pockets. But nobody died, right?
Many people are pointing to the rally suggesting that we should take notice of how peaceful it was. Some have even gone on to regurgitate, “MLK would have been proud,” and, “isn’t that what MLK would have wanted? A peaceful protest?” Let me be clear, they don’t get to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. after hanging out with a bunch of heavily armed Confederate flag waving racists who celebrate Robert E. Lee over Dr. King. They’ve lost that privilege.
A civilized society shouldn’t have to remind these gun-toting clowns that how they acted is what the vast majority of us expect of them. It’s when they go apeshit — as they did in Charlottesville — that it becomes a problem. When they intimidate and threaten elected representatives — about laws voters support — that it becomes a problem. When they intend to cause harm to our friends and neighbors … we start having problems.
Despite how “peaceful” they describe the event, it was anything but. There was plenty of hate to go around just outside the capitol grounds — outside of the gun ban area. As organizers try to distance the event from insurrectionists, rally-goers from over 20 states make that impossible. The presence of right-wing extremists and white-nationalist groups was substantial.
Within the heavily barricaded Capitol grounds about 6,000 gun rights protestors begrudgingly abided by Governor Ralph Northam’s state of emergency — banning weapons in the area. Just outside of the perimeter, however, were about 16,000 armed civilians, militias, and hate groups. All co-mingling with one another offering no resistance to the hate groups among them.
“The rally was, as one attendee put it to Vice reporter Tess Owen, intended to be “a show of force.” Not the force of popular will, nor the force of solidarity, but the kind of force that comes packed into magazines, with barrels cocked, effigies hung in nooses, white skulls etched on black masks. It was a force that silenced others who sought to raise their voices, and was meant to. Monday was a day of a clenched fist raised in menace; rather than be lulled by the temporary absence of bloodshed, Americans would do better to be poised for the inevitable falling of the blow.” — Talia Lavin writes for GQ Magazine
The part of the protest that Lobby Day attendees keep pointing to was only peaceful within the confines of the heavily barricaded area where no guns were allowed. Outside of that zone is where intolerance and hate were on full display. Despite event organizers specifically asking attendees not to display neo-Confederate or neo-Nazi paraphernalia, they did anyway.
And while event organizers attempted to clarify what Lobby day was about, what they didn’t do was ask hate groups not to attend. They didn’t speak out about being associated with well-known organizations such as the League of the South, the American Guard, or the Proud Boys — all of which were present. Once there, insurrectionist groups were able to recruit more members into their militias while having their hateful logos on full display.
Even after the declaration of a state of emergency due to threats of “violence, rioting, and insurrection,” the rhetoric from the non-partisan Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) — who has organized their event on MLK Day since 2002 — followed the same inflammatory rhetoric that plays right into the motivations of anti-government militias and hate groups.
“The Democrats are afraid of the voters and want to portray this peaceful assembly of law-abiding gun owners in the worst possible way. They would love for it to degenerate to “violence, rioting, and insurrection” in order to smear gun owners. Has the Democrat leadership actually invited violent groups to attend for the purpose of disrupting our peaceful assembly?” — Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — January 16, 2020
But they don’t want us to associate Lobby Day with hate and insurrection.
As expected, the National Rifle Association (NRA) got involved too. They handed out 1,000 magazines capable of holding 30 rounds each after declaring an “emergency” to fight “Northam’s extreme gun ban.” Many gun owners were baited with the magazines into joining the NRA for a staged protest at the General Assembly Building on January 13.
The NRA has a habit of fueling these debates. They take reasonable and otherwise benign laws and frame them as the beginning of a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the government removing all of our rights. The NRA’s most successful phrasing of Lobby Day in Virginia was the declaration that new gun laws would be “turning Virginia gun owners into felons”. They have long pushed their rhetoric to the brink of calling for a full-blown armed insurrection.
The NRA’s language ranks right up there with some extremist groups. I could argue, with very little effort, that they simply echo one another. And by constantly repeating their propaganda to each other, their nonsensical ramblings inevitably start to describe an issue as something it’s not. The fears about gun laws are similar to “Blacks/Jews/Mexicans/Muslims/Lesbians are taking over America!” conspiracies because they are infinitely connected with one perceived fear driving another.
Many white supremacists fight against gun laws because they fear a minority uprising. Some white folks are afraid that Black folks will one day make them pay for slavery if they are given too much power. They call it white extinction anxiety. And it takes many forms seemingly linked to most cases of discrimination. The NRA feeds these narratives by employing coded-language that mimics what hate groups and militias are saying, thus selling more guns.
Virginia Delegate Chris Hurst described the low number of attendees as an “indication that a lot of the rhetoric is bluster.” But we can not allow our elected representatives to overlook the impact these rallies have on minorities. Last week, I wrote two pieces discussing Black teens experiencing discrimination over 5 times a day and the psychological and physiological impacts racism has on people of color. What I learned was somewhat astonishing.
Some of the studies I referenced made a point of discussing the impacts on minorities who simply witness discrimination and whether it happened to others or if it was personally experienced. The impacts were about the same; with incidents of discrimination directly linked to both short-term and long-term mental health issues.
There is no disputing that anxiety and depressive symptoms can be directly related to regular incidents of discrimination. Many of us experience it daily, others several times a day. We know from experience how prejudice affects us. And the impacts of hate rallies can sometimes have more lasting effects because of the overall message shared by larger groups of people.
Hate groups, racists, extremists, neo-Nazis, all know the effects of these events. That’s why they organize them. It’s about fear. About making people feel left out. It’s about impacting our sense of security. Sometimes in our own homes. It’s about making us feel less safe in our own neighborhoods. Don’t think for a minute that Lobby Day Virginia didn’t have this impact. It did.
A threat of violence is violence. Intimidation using weapons of war is violence. Armed men portraying acts of hate and aggression is violence. Once Americans start taking all of these things into account, suddenly Lobby Day feels like the peaceful protest that wasn’t.
If gun-rights activists continue to claim that their concerns are non-partisan without addressing the racist legacy of gun control laws, who are they really speaking for? If minorities owned the majority of firearms in America, what would gun law Lobby Day look like in Virginia? That’s easy. History shows us that their complaints and their mission would be entirely different.
The reality is, none of this is about gun control. It’s about fear.
Counter-events such as the ones described here can have lasting impacts on communities of color all over the country. Rallies similar to the most recent Lobby Day in Virginia have lasting effects on marginalized groups because of the welcomed presence of hate. The message of large contingents of armed hatemongers is not only felt in our households but our communities.
And that is what America is missing.
The moment civil society determines that a peaceful protest is no longer defined by its content but by its lack of arrests, injuries, or deaths, is the moment we have allowed for the normalization of hate.