“I could never live in the South,” a young friend of mine says. Too racist. Too steeped in the ugly history of the Confederacy. Too much hate.
That was on Saturday morning. After the tiki torch Nazi parade. Before the car. Before anyone died. Before careening, lurching Saturday turned to sickening Friday and told it, in the bleak gallows-humor argot of Twitter, “hold my beer.”
Tim’s a bright, idealistic local white reporter who’s inclined to puckish conservativism, but has more love for a good story than any ideology. He had been in Charlottesville just four days before, on that all-American institution: the post-college road trip.
I remind him: The Proud Boys rallied in Hancock against a local Black Muslim community not even a month ago. A town supervisor in his county got caught on tape calling Martin Luther King Day “n****r day,” and then he got reelected. Up here — 500 miles north of Appomattox, and more than 150 years after a Virginia farmer wrote that he’d rather “endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar” — Confederate flags wave from porches and pickup trucks.
“I want to argue with you, but you’re right,” Tim says. I wish I was wrong. I wish it were a Southern problem.
Sunday: A man turns to his web camera, clears his throat, and gets ready to address a national audience. He looks tired — it’s been a rough weekend — and older than I remember, but that’s to be expected. It’s been a long time, but I know his face well. My mother almost married him. Twenty years ago, he was family.
His name is George Curbelo, and he’s the commander of the New York Light Foot Militia. Like other militias, they are mainly right- and libertarian-leaning Second Amendment activists, some of them radicalized by the passage of the New York SAFE Act.
For about 45 minutes, Curbelo tells a Charlottesville story: how, in the absence of much real intervention from state and local police, his volunteer militia lined up between white supremacists and antifa spoiling for a fight, and kept them from killing each other.
It’s surreal listening to him lay the blame for police inaction in Charlottesville on a “progressive agenda.” The rhetoric is jarringly familiar, just with a different enemy. On the left — if it even makes sense to call people opposed to white nationalism and Nazism “the left” — there is a widespread suspicion that the police failed to protect the public because their sympathies lie with the white nationalists. Same symptom, different diagnosis.
Into the breach left by a disengaged police force, militias like the New York Light Foot gladly stepped: armed like a paramilitary force, terrifying to behold, accountable to no one, self-appointed as a “neutral” party. They are proud of their work in Charlottesville. Some of them feel that if they had not been asked to leave on Saturday morning, Heather Heyer would still be alive.
There’s a photo on Curbelo’s Facebook page, Liberty Den. A single line of clergy members in church regalia, joined by Cornel West in an immaculate suit and cufflinks, stands with linked arms along a Charlottesville sidewalk. Facing them is another line of white men in tactical camo, armed with long guns. To militia members, it’s an image of peacekeeping. I realize where I’ve seen this photo before: shared by my friend Clare, who lives and works in Charlottesville, and is not particularly neutral on the topic of Nazis. She’s appalled at what it depicts: unarmed clergy being met with a show of force.
Sunday afternoon: A few dozen Delaware County residents, with balloons and tambourines and small children in tow, are heading for the entrance of the county fair in Walton. They’re here to deliver a letter to fair organizers, signed by nearly 600 local residents, urging them to ban the sale of Confederate flags on the fairgrounds.
They’re met with a closed gate and a Delaware County sheriff’s deputy barring the way. Behind the gate, fair setup is underway, tents shining in the sun. The protestors ignore the gate and the officer and spill into the fairground, following fair president Ed Rossley as he angrily turns his back on them.
“I want them arrested,” Rossley says. Eventually, fair organizers accept their letter, and the protestors agree to leave the fairground.
My name is on that letter as a full-time local resident and taxpayer and business owner and Delaware County fairgoer — although I held out for awhile, fretting that the theater of protest would just harden local battle lines and bring the execrable Proud Boys down on all our heads. I’m not particularly proud myself, either of signing or of waffling over it. But it feels like a low bar, asking people not to wave flags used to terrorize black children next to the line for the Ferris wheel.
A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have signed it. Reporters don’t do these things. There were more reporters in 1938 than there are now. They didn’t help much.
Sunday night: My wife and I are out with a couple of friends. We are talking about Charlottesville. It is impossible to talk about anything else. We are not talking about whether the Nazis are wrong, or whether they are violent: this is obvious. We are talking about whether the counterprotesters who fought back are.
What about BLM, what about antifa. “Both sides.” “Many sides.” Arguing about tactics. Arguing about how much civil disobedience is acceptable. Arguing about free speech. Arguing about anything but the justice of each cause. As if there were nothing wrong with Nazis as long as they’re not beating people in the street. As if we couldn’t possibly make a moral judgment between the two: on the one side, people who want to fossilize white supremacy as the law of the land, and on the other, people who want police officers who kill citizens not to get away with it because of the color of their skin.
It is profoundly disorienting to come up against so much hard moral relativism on the right, after years of being unfashionably concerned with its prevalence on the left.
I wish it were a Southern problem. Not, as it seems, an American one.
Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at email@example.com.