This past weekend, Charlottesville, VA was terrorized by thousands of armed white supremacists. Drawn by the city’s plans to dismantle a statue of Robert E. Lee, the participants of the so-called “Unite the Right” rally carried out a series of attacks on residents that culminated in James Alex Fields Jr. ramming his car into a group of nonviolent counter-demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Later that day, Daniel Borden and several other unidentified white supremacists severely beat 20-year-old Deandre Harris. The evening before, a Unite the Right mob surrounded and attacked University of Virginia student counter-demonstrators with mace, kerosene, and tiki torches.
Like so many times before, the immediate reaction of social and mainstream media to white supremacist terror in Charlottesville was a mix of false equivalency, denial, and performative shock born of willful amnesia. As white liberals and conservatives alike indulged in ahistorical attempts to distance themselves, their politics, and the nation from white supremacy with #ThisIsNotUS, Donald Trump and others misrepresented the events in Charlottesville as a matter of “violence on many sides.” Predictably, the answers offered to the question of organized white supremacist violence were not to dismantle whiteness but rather to “love each other.”
“Love that is not grounded in the humanity of those it claims to love is anything but.”
There are few responses to white supremacy quite as pernicious and paralyzing as the vapid demands to “fight hate with love,” a sentiment which was shared by the President and self-professed liberals alike. Such arguments erase the fundamental role of white supremacist violence (whether institutional or interpersonal) in the creation and perpetuation of the United States, and thereby shift the conversation from systems and oppression to individual choice and compulsory nonviolence. Consequently, the inherently genocidal goals of white supremacists are overlooked in favor of a view that equates them with the very people they seek to destroy. The message to those of us actually targeted by fascists is clear: let the Nazis threaten, attack, and kill you, or you’re just as bad as them.
The problem here is not love itself but its debasement. The “love” presented here has been vacated of meaning to the point that it signifies little else than what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to in 1963 as a “negative peace which is really the absence of tension.” When weaponized to silence discussions of white supremacy and criminalize anti-racist and anti-fascist direct action, these calls for “love” sublimate into a hate that only exists to serve the powerful. This reduction of love to mere sentiment betrays its very nature. Love that is not grounded in the humanity of those it claims to love is anything but. Love is not a mandate; love is a choice.
Neither is love inaction, silence, or complicity. Love does not stand down in the face of terror. Love does not demand silence in the face of injustice or submission in the face of oppression and its attendant brutalities. Real love proves more expansive and powerful than previously imagined when tested by the specter of death.
“Love is not a mandate; love is a choice.”
This love is fundamentally distinct from the hollow variety peddled by those who seek to silence and regulate dissent and defiance. It does not limit itself to the rhetorical or symbolic but extends into the material. It is not a love that imagines itself apart from other emotions, even those most often considered to be separate from love. It is a love that demands that we protect people from white supremacist violence by any means necessary and that uses our fear to alert us, our fury to mobilize us, and our grief to heal us. These complexities do not taint our love, but rather, mature it from sentiment to something capable of guiding us through terrors — a bond which holds us fast to our purpose, a vow which keeps us true to the cause of liberation.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the demands to “fight hate with love” is that these axioms are most frequently directed at those who already do. To fight hate with love necessitates an understanding of what that hate truly is. The hate we are facing is not the product of some biological essentialist factionalism or misunderstandings born of innocent ignorance — it is the legacy of the violent ideologies that form the foundation of these United States and that have organized the global distribution of power for more than 500 years. The hate we are facing is white supremacist, capitalist, cisheteropatriarchal, and ableist. To combat it, we must anchor ourselves in love for the people targeted by these systems: Black, indigenous, Asian, colonized, poor, working, houseless, undocumented, migrant, refugee, queer, trans, nonbinary, women, femme, non-Christian and with disabilities.