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For Black Activists, Charlottesville Is Part Of A Long History Of Racial Strife

The Charlottesville, Virginia site where Heather Heyer was killed during a white nationalist rally last weekend.
Evan Vucci
The Charlottesville, Virginia site where Heather Heyer was killed during a white nationalist rally last weekend.

President Trump did not single out any groups by name on Tuesday when he was criticizing "alt-left" counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va.

But in a tweet responding to Trump's comments, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called out "BLM," or Black Lives Matter.

"For us, it never really moves us when folks try to point out that BLM is violent," says April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter D.C.

A decentralized movement, Black Lives Matter has a name that has taken on a separate life as a rallying cry for demonstrators not affiliated with organized groups. It can be difficult to determine which protester is part of a group.

Goggans adds that critics from the far-right see the movement as an "easy target."

"Folks who are anti-black, folks who operate within a racist or white supremacist framework are going to always see black people as violent," she says.

Goggans says she is disturbed that it took the violence in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer for more people to pay attention to the problem of white supremacy in the U.S.

"They couldn't see it and hear it when black people were saying it," she says. "It was, you know, we're oversensitive, we make everything about race, we're just angry all the time, when the fact is, you know, we've been screaming for hundreds of years that this is what is going on."

Goggans says what's important to Black Lives Matter now is to help others understand how the movement sees white supremacy playing out in policing, public education and other institutions. Whether or not Trump changes his rhetoric about Charlottesville is not important to her or Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network.

We live inside of a country that has completely allowed for white supremacists to be at the forefront of the conversation.

"We live inside of a country that has completely allowed for white supremacists to be at the forefront of the conversation," says Khan-Cullors.

Charlottesville, she adds, has brought more urgency to addressing attacks against people of color by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

"What we saw over the past weekend in Charlottesville is that these people want us to die, and so we need the people of the U.S. to take a stand," she said. "Where do you stand? Do you stand for life or do you stand for death?"

The events in Charlottesville have also drawn responses from other activist groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Danyelle Honoré, president of the NAACP chapter at the University of Virginia, took a stand against white supremacists rallying in her college town last Saturday. She drove to campus to take part in the counter protests.

"What I saw this weekend was not a disagreement on ideologies, on a statue or southern heritage. It was an event to show hatred to another group," says Honoré, who is a third-year student at the school.

She is planning a march across the grounds of the University of Virginia for students in response to last Saturday's events.

At the national level, the NAACP plans to continue fighting racial inequality through the courts and legislation in Congress, according to Hilary Shelton, director of the group's Washington bureau. He says Trump placing blame for Charlottesville on "both sides" a day after condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis is a "very, very disturbing flip-flop."

"This is not a problem that we have not seen before," Shelton says. "Sadly, it's a problem that we're experiencing now that takes us back to presidents of long years gone by — those who would actually support or ignore right-wing extremism, hate groups, white supremacy and all the problems that we've had in our country."

Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement are now preparing for a tenser climate at protests and rallies. Khan-Cullors says she is paying more attention now to safety concerns.

"Many of us are working with security companies to help us think about security culture for our organizations. Many of us are making sure that people don't know where we live so we're not followed," she adds.

Goggans says she's worried that the government will start going after more protesters and that law enforcement officers will not protect them from violence by extremists. She is particularly concerned about an upcoming event that organizers have called a pro-Trump rally.

"What happens Sept. 16 when this 'Mother of All Rallies' comes to D.C.?" Goggans says. "How do we ensure that we don't have white supremacists running up and down in trucks with rifles in black communities?"

This Saturday, Black Lives Matter activists plan to counter-protest a "free speech rally" in Boston.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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