I’ve built up a tolerance to tragedy and disaster. Watching the news often leaves me feeling sick, with something stuck in my throat and eyes that are close to watering, but I somehow get past it and with a faster recovery each time.
But Charlottesville made me sick and tired like I haven’t been in awhile. The images from the protests disgust me. Until I saw college kids holding tiki torches and marching alongside Nazis, I had hoped obvious racism was a game less populated by people my own age.
Seeing young people march to defend hate left me angry and disappointed, but knowing the American Civil Liberties Union defended their right to march confused me. I could not understand how a group that is a prominent voice for the resistance defended one of its biggest opponents. The group that sent lawyers to airports to defend those affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban now stands by white supremacists? That’s not what I expected.
I, like many other people, have focused so much on the ACLU’s defense of marginalized groups and became enamored with certain groups they defend that I didn’t look back and pay attention to everyone they have defended. Listening to “Smashing the Confederacy in the streets and on the screen” on the podcast “Politically Re-Active” helped me come to terms with what the ACLU did.
In the episode, Lee Rowland, an ACLU Senior Staff Attorney, confirmed that no one in the ACLU has the personal goal of defending Nazis. The position the ACLU took — defending neo-Nazis — is not new: The organization defended a group of neo-Nazis that planned a march in Skokie, Illinois, a town with many Holocaust survivors. Rowland explained that this defense was difficult for members of the ACLU to take part in, but they took this position in the hope that it would protect the free speech of civil rights groups. If that group of neo-Nazis received a permit or permission to protest, it goes against precedent if a civil rights group hopes to march peacefully but is denied that right. Learning this forced me to take a more realistic view of the ACLU; like the law, the ACLU has a lot of gray area.
I understand their argument, but I can’t bring myself to accept it because what I saw was wrong. It is wrong to scream slurs, it is wrong to use hateful speech to target minorities and it is wrong to carry guns, knives and makeshift weapons to intimidate and attack unarmed protestors. However, there’s no law against slurs. There’s no law against hateful rhetoric and there’s no ban on weapons at a protest. People will say what they want, and there will be arguments and controversy, but there should never be violence. No one should fear that they’ll be attacked for speaking out against a group’s beliefs, especially not in the United States. I know the ACLU focuses on ensuring that, but the way they sometimes try to do that makes me cringe.
I’m tired of seeing new poster children for racism and other forms of hate, but I don’t expect the campaign to end anytime soon. The fact of the matter is that hateful speech and words against it are protected by the First Amendment. But in terms of morality, it is obvious which is greater. No one knows when the collective moral compass of our country will work — it was broken to begin with.
But hopefully, despite living in a place where civil liberty advocacy groups are forced to defend those who want to threaten the community, the United States can go in a better direction. However, this depends on the work of everyone. One or a few organizations cannot be tasked with this, and we know that we can’t leave this in the hands of President Donald Trump. I think a piece of me looked at organizations like the ACLU and thought that they were the ones with power. Their spokesperson is the one on the news, and they are the most able to influence society.
But I realized that we have power. We don’t have a team of lawyers, but we have options. We can contact our representatives and work to educate ourselves by learning from each other. That is how we begin to see change, by taking action and working to fight ignorance.
Corey Dullin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.