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We Need A Long-Arc Historical Perspective to Understand White Supremacist Extremist Violence.

“Beware the Ides of March.” Those words of warning from a Roman soothsayer to the great Julius Caesar have—thanks to William Shakespeare—resonated through the ages. They still strike a chord today. Had Caesar not ignored them, his brutal betrayal and murder might not have happened and probably would not have been chronicled in one of those Shakespearean Tragedies. 

But at least Julius Caesar had a fortuneteller’s warning about impending disaster. The worshippers in the Christchurch, New Zealand mosques had none when a gunman attacked their place of worship this past ‘Ides of March’--Friday March 15, 2019. What greater betrayal than to be at afternoon prayers, communing with your Creator, and then be indiscriminately slaughtered by some crusading White Supremacist wielding rapid-fire automatic killing-machines? Fifty dead. Fifty wounded, with the unfathomable added carnage of wrecked and ruined lives. 

That was the original opening for the first draft of this piece back in late April. As I edited the article, I could not keep pace with unfolding explosively “related” events: 46 tourists dead at three luxury hotels, over 220 Christians slain while celebrating Easter Sunday at three churches in Sri Lanka, with at least 500 people injured; one student dead in STEM charter school at Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and 8 injured. Had they anything in common? Undoubtedly.

Once again, with these new atrocities, we have a new generation of people—primarily seemingly alienated, young males with personal, political and/or religious grievances--who feel the need to express those beliefs and purge those “grievances” by killing other humans who do not look like them, think like them, or worship as they do. The Sri Lankan attackers were young radicalized Islamists- 8 males, and two of their wives. Some have speculated that those killings were retaliation for the slaughter of the Islamic Worshippers in New Zealand. The New Zealand murderer (alienated young white male extremist), and the Colorado school shooters, are seemingly part of an ongoing continuum that includes Timothy McVeigh. On April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City Oklahoma, the workers and other individuals using the Murragh Federal Building also had no warning when the bombing planned and executed by McVeigh shattered their lives with a massive death-dealing, life-wrecking explosion. Death toll 168. Over 680 Injured. This is a global, repetitive pattern. And as the New York Times recently highlighted, these individuals are referencing and drawing inspiration from previous White Extremists mass atrocities. 

What is often missing in the discussion and coverage of white extremism and mass violence is an historical perspective. This spike and acceleration of right wing extremist assaults against various “others” is something we have seen before on a global scale. As a Broadcast Journalist in the 1980s, I witnessed first-hand a similar spike in violence and, seemingly, the media’s reluctance to accurately name it and help curtail it. I also witnessed a similar cultural and political environment that contributed to the mass violence. Much like today, in the early 1980s, people of color and the gains of the civil rights movement were increasingly under attack, many Americans wanted to “turn back the clock to an earlier era,” and the President often encouraged these aims. 

On December 9th 1980, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Representative John Conyers, began hearings on Racial Violence Against Minorities. “There is abundant evidence of a marked increase in the incidence of criminal violence directed against minority groups” he said in his opening remarks.“ Hate groups appear to have reached the conclusion that their activities are no longer so disreputable, and violence-prone organizations have been conducting their activities more openly and flagrantly….This situation confirms the view that government authorities have done less than an adequate job at investigating the causes of racial violence, monitoring its extent and punishing the offenders.” 

What had transpired to move the Honorable John Conyers to hold such hearings? A rather scary litany of events starting in the late 1970s: in Chino, California, a white hunter unable to find any game, turned his rifle on African Americansand shot them; in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Klan, after burning a cross, celebrated by shooting five black women at random; in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Klan together with neo-Nazis, attacked an anti-Klan demonstration, killing five people; in Jackson, Mississippi, a white policeman shot and killed a pregnant black woman; in Atlanta, Georgia, 15 black children slain, at least 3 others missing; and in Buffalo, New York, six black peopleslain by sniper-fire or stabbings, with at least two of the victim’s hearts ripped from their bodies.

As you can imagine, Representative Conyers was not the only person concerned about these assaults and murders. “The fact that the perpetrators of these acts of violence have yet to spend four months, if that, in any prison, leads one to believe that it is indeed OPEN SEASON ON BLACKS in this country,” I wrote in 1981. Indeed, my concern had reached such a level that in February of 1981 I sent an almost 4-page memo to key individuals in the ABC network television news division, including President Roone Arledge. In the memo, entitled “OPEN SEASON ON BLACKS??? (The Rise of the KKK, Neo Nazism, and the New Right),” I argued that what was needed, by our news division, was an in-depth, big-picture assessment of these repeated violent incidents targeting African Americans. My sense of urgency was a personal reflection of the same concern that caused Congressman Conyers to start those hearings: blacks were indeed being assaulted at an alarming, seemingly epidemic rate. And it wasn’t confined to the U.S.: “Klan/Right Wing activity has been notably evident in Canada and Great Britain, with a marked increase in Neo-Nazism and other Right Wing extremism in Germany, France, Spain and Italy,” I wrote.

Not everyone agreed with the assessment Congressman Conyers and I had independently made.  Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology published an article by James B. Jacobs and Jessica S. Henry in its Winter 1996 issue entitled “The Social Construction of A Hate Crime Epidemic” which statistically “debunked” the actuality of any such “epidemic.” The authors concluded it was not an epidemic in the “strict” definition of what constitutes an epidemic. But, try telling that to the people who were under siege, and who at that particular moment in time knewt hey were under siege. I still stand by the conclusion of my 1981 memo: “Unquestionably there is a major story here. Utilizing the ABC News Division/Programs to the fullest capability could and should result in a landmark series of reports that would do justice to ourselves as a News Organization, and to the nation as a whole.” 

I got no immediate response. A week or two later, in my role at the time as an Assignment Editor and sometime Field Producer, I found myself on loan to ABC’s Atlanta Bureau. I was assigned to cover one of the very stories that had compelled me to write my “Open Season on Blacks” memo: the missing and murdered children of Atlanta. From 1979 to 1981, at least 28 children and adults were murdered in the Atlanta area. I will never forget covering those weekend “Community Searches” trekking through local neighborhood parks and wooded areas; will never forget that Saturday morning, as we waded through low shrub undergrowth, bright sunlight jaggedly streaking through tall trees, the disconcerting, uncomfortable unease as our line of searchers actually stumbled upon the body of yet another young black murder-victim. 

The Atlanta Child Murders, however,  werenever connected to any wider coverage of the issue of a nationwide trend of assaults against blacks, despite the rumors of possible Klan involvement. This was in part because Wayne Williams, the man suspected of killing at least 28 of the 30 people killed in the Atlanta Child Murders, had recently been tried and convicted of killing two adults. That significantly lowered the profile of that two-year series of murders, even though many people harbored serious doubts about Williams’ guilt in the murders of those children. In March 2019, the Atlanta police reopened the cases of the murdered children. 

As I continued to investigate this story as a Producer for ABC’s 20/20 in 1982, my team grilled the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) about our earlier leads on possible Klan involvement in the killings of those children. The GBI categorically denied any such link. Later, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) probes of the GBI unearthed the fact that the GBI had indeed launched serious investigations on probable Klan links to some of those murders. To my knowledge, Klan involvement was never proven to be true, but the point remains: as violence against African Americans remained high, it was often seen as isolated incidents instead of part of a larger pattern.  The bulk of my research on the subject went to the NIGHTLINE Show which was quite interested in exploring the issue, but I have no recollection of a NIGHTLINE report or series of reports ever airing. If there were any other media outlets, print or broadcast tackling the issue on such a wide-ranging level, they went right by me. Let me not be facetious. It never happened.

I did, while on loan to the Atlanta Bureau in 1981, receive a request to reach out to the Southern Poverty Law Center, to “check into” the activities of the Klan and the New Right. That evidently was the unofficial upshot to my detailed suggestion for an in-depth,wide-ranging look at the growing White Extremists phenomenon, although there was no acknowledgement of my original memo summarizing my already extensive research on the issue, and definitely no mention of a major News Division larger-picture overview. Unfortunately, that was the extent of it: much too little, and no follow-through. 

The early 1980s was also similar to today in another way: a period of progressive reform was facing backlash and roll-back. The hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights Movement were challenged by citizens and leaders.

I witnessed this tension first-hand in March 1981 when I covered the anniversary of the  Bloody Sunday-Edmund Pettus Bridge-Selma anniversary. March 1981 was only 16 short years from the actual March 7th 1965 Bloody Sunday attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge: a State-sponsored, not a KKK, White Extremist assault on blacks peacefully seeking to exercise their Constitutional Rights.

On a so-bright-it-hurts-the-eyes sunshine of a day, Rebecca (Becky) Chase, myself and an Atlanta Bureau Crew covered that 16th Bloody Sunday Anniversary March for the Sunday ABC Weekend News. Significantly, that bright sunny day was in sharp contrast to the growing darkness of the times. It was at a time when, as today, people of color and the gains of the civil rights movement were increasingly under attack; a time when there was a “let’s turn the clock back to those ‘60s Bloody Sunday days” when the State and the KKK-mobs moved as one; a time when there definitely should have been a “big picture” look at what was happening. As the American Friends Service Committee wrote in 1981, “the current upsurge in activity comes at a time of economic and social uncertainty“ which then fostered the subsequent Klan scapegoating and assaults of blacks.

Ronald Reagan had already deliberately tapped into that “social uncertainty” by launching his 1980 general election campaign at, of all places, the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yes, the place where civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered by a Neshoba County faction of the Klan in June of that Freedom Summer of 1964, a long festering wound of the Civil Rights era. One could not have gotten any deeper into Klan Country than Philadelphia, Mississippi. Needless to say, the Klan loved and fully endorsed the Reagan Candidacy. If you thought Donald Trump was slow to repudiate the public endorsement of his avid White Supremacist supporters, he was downright speedy compared to Reagan. It took Ronald Reagan almost a month to repudiate the Klan endorsement. Reagan, whose slogan was also “Make America Great Again,” promised to “turn the clock back” to his version of a better time—one that had fewer protections and rights for African Americans. Reagan’s proposal to weaken the Voting Rights Act and his support of the South African Apartheid Regime received the full blessing of Bill Wilkinson, then the Imperial Wizard of the KKK.

Today, Donald Trump assiduously coddles, sympathizes with, and even praises his home-grown White Supremacists, while being eulogized as one of their own not only by them, but by their international counterparts, e.g. the New Zealand mass murderer. Indeed, there is a global connection, a global exacerbation of this White Supremacist extremism that needs that broad-brush, insightful, historical perspective. The parallels between the early 1980s and today are quite striking. In the words of the legendary baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, it’s “deja vu all over again.” 

But despite some admirable chronicling of the current global spate of White Extremist carnage in major news publications especially the New York Times, we still do not have an adequate, full, historical breadth-and-depth take on the ongoing, repetitive nature of this phenomenon. As the violence, whether “sympathetic,” “retaliatory” or “copy cat” continues seemingly unchecked—another mass shooting, 12 dead in Virginia Beach just two weeks ago—such analysis is obviously long overdue. In the US, a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found the number of terrorist attacks by Far Right perpetrators quadrupled in the US between 2016 and 2017, and that Far Right attacks in Europe rose 43% over the same period. The Anti-Defamation League attributes 73% of extremist-related killings in the US from 2009 to 2018 to the Far Right.  Maybe some “Team” of journalists and mental health professionals will put this negative, corrosive cancer of hate-mongering, violence-inciting, fear of the “other” nativist divisiveness into its needed “big-picture” historical and moral perspective. Hopefully they can and will help call to account all those perpetrators of violence, whether Radical Islamists, White Supremacists, or whomever. 

One thing is certain, we cannot make light of or down-play this burgeoning problem. Unlike Trump, we must remain vigilantly focused in identifying and holding accountable not only those perpetrators of violence against blacks and other people of color, but also their inciters, enablers, and all those who say and do nothing whenever these xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, anti-immigrant zombies rear their ugly heads. Hopefully, for whatever “Team” that takes on this most necessary of tasks, may their efforts resound successfully on platforms far, wide and multi-dimensional, with many, many, eyeballs. And maybe we can do more than just hope.