Are we heading for a civil war in this country? Frankly, I don’t think so. But if we fail to oppose racist and fascist actions like those in Charlottesville, Va., we do so at our peril.
Make no mistake: in Connecticut, fascist fear mongers have long been with us. While the recent reappearance of racist and neo-Nazi forces is horrifying, it’s important to take a look back on how local communities have defeated the hateful right in the past.
In the 1980s, the Ku Klux Klan staged rallies in Meriden, Scotland, East Windsor, and other towns. In response, the Anti Racism Coalition of Connecticut (ARCC) was founded. This organization united dozens of civic groups, churches and labor unions in a common cause. Kicking off in 1982 with 2,000 people marching to the State Capitol, ARCC also organized in neighborhoods and workplaces to undercut potential Klan support.
The ARCC coalition quickly learned that racism had to be exposed and challenged, not ignored. When we are silent, we are giving our tacit agreement to the perpetrators. Without opposition, hate acts escalate.
The coalition met Klan rallies head on with a determined nonviolent presence. It organized education forums and implemented in school districts an anti-racist curriculum. It built a multi-racial presence that became the “first responder” when the KKK raised its ugly head.
ARCC passed the state’s first Hate Crimes law, sponsored by legislators Miles Rapoport and Eric Coleman. It was the second law of its kind in the country at the time. The measure requires the state police to annually collect town-by-town statistics on bias-related incidents based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This provides a tool to alert law enforcement when hate crimes are not just isolated incidents, but part of a pattern.
The anti-racism group gave ordinary folks– people who never protested or marched before– an easy way to get involved. Anti-racist organizing can’t be an exclusive club; it has a broad-based, “big tent” popular movement.
Elected officials and business leaders were held accountable to participate in a broad anti-racist program. Most politicians get a pass just by showing up to a rally (or today, issuing a tweet). CEOs don’t seem to think they need to do even that much. ARCC believed it had to push them to create initiatives that met human needs, promoted racial awareness, and made a real difference in people’s lives.
This is a critical component, because racism is systemic, not personal. While individuals can be bundles of fear and prejudice, our political and economic system has long benefited from racial division and white supremacy.
The news media was challenged to keep coverage fair. In 1983, three Klan members tried to distribute leaflets at the Westfarms Mall in Farmington. Television stations and newspapers covered the minor event like it was a major story. Too often, news editors still decide to “balance” their coverage and give “both sides” equal time. ARCC rejected that false equivalency– there aren’t two equal sides when it comes to racial hatred.
Steve Bannon has called Donald Trump’s platform “economic nationalism.” This is the hook by which they have cynically drawn in white people. It’s a false promise, but an attractive one to those looking for something or someone to blame for their distress. We should not let the racist right co-opt the fight for decent jobs and an economic revival for all, which in truth they have no intention of providing.
These are the lessons that past generations of Connecticut people have learned. We shouldn’t have to start from scratch today.
After she lost her daughter– murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville- – Heather Heyer’s mother told the world: “Find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way.”
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes the website ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.