By Dr Nuraliah Norasid

The Charlottesville Incident: What We Know

On August 11, 2017, violent clashes took place in the university town of Charlottesville, in the state of Virginia in the United States. The parties involved were the white supremacists, who had planned a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the proposed removal of Confederate icon, General Robert E. Lee, and counter-protestors, who resisted the rally. They clashed at the foot of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States (1801 to 1809).

In a way, Thomas Jefferson espoused and enshrined a concept of American liberty, steadfastness and justice that both parties seek to exercise as counter-protesters stood their ground at the foot of the statue and white supremacists washed the grounds with the glow of their tiki torches while the slogans, “You will not replace us” and “Jew will not replace us”. According to eyewitnesses, the brawl that ensued resembled a scene from an old Wild West movie, where businesses closed their shutters and women hustled their children into their houses. Just about a month earlier, on July 8, the state police had had to disperse a Ku Klux Khan rally in Charlottesville as well.

As if that was not enough, the very next day on a Saturday, a car, allegedly driven by an Ohio man, was rammed into a crowd of people who were demonstrating against the white nationalist gathering. At least one person, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was reported dead and 19 others injured. At the time of this article was published, two had been arrested for the violence in Charlottesville.

In the aftermath of the incident, hundreds mourned for Miss Heyer’s death and United States President, Donald Trump, had his presidential “mettle” tested. At a staged bill-signing event at his tony golf club, Trump declared that, “[w]e condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides”. However, many felt that he came up short in not “calling evil by its name”—acknowledging the role of white supremacists in the violence and recognising that violence as “domestic terrorism”.

According to Al-Jazeera’s ‘here’s what happened’ article on the incident, Charlottesville has become a “focal point” for white supremacist movements following official vote to remove General Lee’s statue. The vote was the result of a petition started by an African-American high school student, which was taken up by the city’s vice-mayor and City Council member, Wes Bellamy. Despite the recommendation of having either having the statue relocated or for there to have more “historical relevance” given to the monument, the City Council voted to have the statue sold.

Tensions, Survival and Trace

The incident has a familiar ring to it: a car plowing into a crowd, resulting in death, mourning and anger—the deadly cycle of collective vengeance and grief, war and strife; almost the proverbial horsemen of the apocalypse. Similar attacks have occurred in Stockholm, Barcelona, Nice and London, often in well-populated areas, sometimes even during public commemorations and festivities. And these attacks were not carried out solely by Muslim extremists either. The attack in London was carried out by an “anti-Muslim fanatic” and the one in Charlottesville was by, as one news report described him, a “Nazi sympathizer”. Nothing pays macabre homage to the adage, “Violence begets violence”, than they do in the time we’re in right now and more than one person I know on Facebook thinks the “End of the world is nigh!”

A term I had learnt from a graduate course as a student are the terms ‘survival’ and ‘trace’. Simply put, ‘survival’ when used in the literary context is the ways in which an object, feature or occurrence from a past era is foregrounded in the present setting of a play, short story or novel. ‘Trace’, to try and badly summarise Jacques Derrida’s expansive and mind-numbingly brilliant philosophies, can be illustrated by how when we erase a pencil mark, the indentations in the paper remains and indicates at a past moment, a prior event or existence that cannot be erased, making erasure essentially ineffective.

History has a nasty habit of resurfacing in almost predictable cycles, as if humanity lacks the logistics to prevent them from happening. History, past injustices, crimes, anxieties—historical precedence can prove to be the strongest shapers of how a community exists with and defines itself against another. As the Black community in the United States becomes more vocal about the discrimination and injustices that they face, and in the environment of growing diversity and economic competition, the White community feels threatened enough to start speaking up for what they view as their own rights. The only problem is that the White community’s rallying cry, even if there may be real anxiety and fear in it, reeks of a history of conquest, corruption, inhumanity, segregation and socioeconomic privilege. The rich kid’s family has now moved to the ghetto and he is not having it. Apparently, neither are his new neighbours.

A close mirror in the Singaporean context is the kind of backlash that minorities would get from members of the Chinese majority each time they speak out against a form of racial or religious discrimination. The most recent debacle with the Elected Presidency and the aftermath of the social media hashtag “notmypresident”, as well as the protest at Hong Lim Park, centre of all dramas and true emotions, does not help alleviate the tensions that are already starting to re-broil in Singapore. A tension that—because Singapore abides by its CMIO categorisation—has taken on a markedly racial shade. I can only imagine how the idea that the “Malays always wants things handed to them” are being strongly ingrained into the minds of many, if it was not already. As it is, Malays working in environments where they are the minority have to work doubly hard to get half as much recognition. Many end up extricating themselves into familiar, and in some ways kinder, territories. Every achievement may start feeling like a sham or a kindly handout.

The responses of authorities and those in the highest offices also have an impact on public perceptions and sentiments. Trump may see himself taking the sagely stance by collectively condemning the violence that took place in Charlottesville, however his failure to recognise the actions of White supremacists also have the underlying effect of affirming their actions. Similarly, when the relevant authorities in Singapore fail to call bigotry, discrimination or injustice by their ugly names, as with religious vigilantism or over-zealotry, the online attacks on Shi’as or Ahmadis in Singapore, or workplace discrimination faced by Muslims, women or racial minorities, they are allowing problematic and divisive views to stand—to be affirmed by the absence of correction. And no, slapping fines and stuffing mailboxes with warning, finger-wagging letters are not going to cut it. Official statements are needed and public education is more necessary than ever.

Lessons with Cats

As a parting note, I am going to draw from the television show, “My Cat from Hell”, which features cat behaviourist, Jackson Galaxy, and his journey in helping cat owners deal with the worst and most terrifying of cat behaviours. It is an odd reference, surely, but I am fond of finding lessons in the everyday and in the accessible—like popular culture. It is interesting how he advocates for cat owners to have extra litter boxes, food and water bowls for every cat that they own. He also emphasises on how these items need to be placed in significant social spaces of the house, for example the living or family rooms, where members of the family would gather and spend time together. Space and access to necessities are important elements in what Galaxy terms as ‘cat confidence’. A cat lacking in these elements, and as such confidence, are likely to exhibit problematic behaviours such as violence and urinating outside of the litter boxes. He terms the latter behaviour as ‘over-ownership’, in which the cat feels the need to repeatedly and aggressively mark its territory or ownership of a certain space, resource or person.

Perhaps this can serve as an unusual framework for thinking about the violence and tensions that are erupting around the world. Are resources such as employment and educational opportunities made equally accessible to all communities and classes? Are members of different communities equally unhindered from participating in socially and politically significant spaces? What are the logistics necessary to alleviate the problems of violent over-ownership in human societies today? Government authorities need to start stepping up and at the same time start communicating on the people’s level. Lying prone on the ground and slow blinking might be a good start.

Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. She is the author of “The Gatekeeper” and her other writings have been published in “Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out” and the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. The views expressed in the article are her own.

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, October 2017, Volume 12, Issue 4.

Photo Source: Karyawan