Stephen Friedrich, front, and Scott Douglas set out candles for Heather Heyer as hundreds gather at Woodruff Park on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, in Atlanta. Protesters decrying hatred and racism converged around the country on Sunday, saying they felt compelled to counteract the white supremacist rally that spiraled into deadly violence in Virginia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

After Charlottesville, We Have To Stop Using The Terms “Alt-Left” and “Bernie Bro”

The murder of activist Heather Heyer at the hands of domestic terrorist James Alex Fields, Jr. at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has demonstrated the increasing emboldening of racism and fascism under the Trump administration.

The rally, the violence, and the shock of the deaths and injuries that followed came during a week in which — before and after the incident — the fervor to equate the alt-right (read: Neo-Nazis) with the “alt-left” (read: people who believe universal healthcare is a human right) is at a peak.

While the term entered national conversation after Donald Trump condemned the “alt-left” and laid equal blame on them for Charlottesville’s violence, it has actually been in use for quite some time — and not just by right wing fanatics, either. The most devastating use of Trump’s new term has been by mainstream liberals to smear the progressive leftists who dare criticize the corporate darlings of the Democratic center.

Consider the New York Times Op-Ed published earlier this week, which opens with the words “I see both the social justice warrior alt-left and the white supremacist alt-right as two sides of the same coin.” Or consider veteran and ex-diplomat Robert Caruso blaming Heyer’s murder on the leftists “yammering about Goldman Sachs.” Or an editor at the Daily Kos blaming the alt-left for the rise of violence under Trump. Or CAP editor and prominent Hillary supporter Neera Tanden tweeting — bizarrely — about the “alt-left who want to join the fascists,” a demographic that simply doesn’t exist. Or political commentator Mieke Eoyang chiding the so-called Bernie Bros for remaining inactive in the face of the racist violence of Charlottesville. Or prominent liberal Twitter accounts drawing direct comparisons between the mobs at Charlottesville and Bernie Sanders supporters.  Aside from Putin and white ‘hillbillies‘, it seems that the center’s favorite scapegoat in response to the white supremacy of Charlottesville is the myth of the so called “alt-left.”

The “alt-left”, to be clear, does not exist. There is no unified, politicized body of young people who exist only to demonize politicians of color and enact left-wing oppression, violence, and fascism. The term compares people who celebrate the oppression and murder of people of color to those who want to end poverty and provide free healthcare. And notably, those marching in Charlottesville were the very “Bernie Bros” whose tactics white liberals and centrist Democrats have smeared since the 2016 campaign. Heather Heyer herself was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World who was marching alongside the Democratic Socialists of America. Of the others injured — some critically — in the clashes, there were International Socialist Organization members and members of the DSA as well.

White liberals and centrists however, are eager to erase young POC and dismiss substantive leftist critique so that they can shield themselves from their complicity in the problem. It is profoundly absurd to call this group “Bernie Bros” — a term that has now come to mean anyone who doesn’t support the Wall Street funded, prosecutor- and mass-incarceration-loving Democrat center, and it is incredibly misogynistic to the swaths of leftist women and leftist women of colorAmerican socialism has a long tradition of pushing back against racism and fascism and allying with civil rights movements to push back against the alliance of white supremacy and capitalism. Many intellectuals of color see their politics more closely aligned with those of politicians like Bernie Sanders. To erase the existence of these vast and prominent swaths of people, especially after their turnout at Charlottesville, and their continuous activism in the aftermath — in favour of Kamala Harris’s “K-Hive” or “YAS QUEEN” Hillary Clinton (two politicians that have literally made careers out of the mass incarceration of people of color) is abhorrent.

There’s historical precedent to this. White liberalism has always lived in its own fantasy, where somehow closing your eyes and ears to violence gives one a superior position. It lives in a fantasy where asking for universal health care and free education is as bad as  asking for the genocide of entire ethnic groups; where it is only milquetoast centrist politicians like Chelsea Clinton and Kamala Harris that can deliver us from evil; where the only morally righteous position is so firmly lodged in the center you may as well not be taking a position at all. Not only is this an absurd fever dream, but it is actively harmful when a huge number of people in the country with ostensibly pure motives are encouraged to stuff their fingers in their ears and pretend that to take any position at all is as bad as to take a position of hate, racism, murder and bigotry. The liberal fetishization of centrism and non-violence emboldens the alt-right.

While the United States is founded on racism and has always been racist, there are turning points in the country’s history that have come about as a result of peaks in racist violence, and we are living in one of them now. During the civil rights era — another time of violent openly racist displays — lives were lost as white liberals equivocated, declared both sides as bad as the other, tried to situate themselves in a center that wasn’t there, and were content to find moral superiority in not joining either racist violence or the fight to survive against racist violence. It’s no surprise leaders from MLK to Malcolm X despised white liberals for their equivocation.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s idiotic and hurtful comments, it’s easy to fool oneself to believe it’s only the right wing that can do something as horrific as equating those termed the “alt-left” and the fascists of the alt-right. But as Sarah Jones explains in the New Republic, the popularization of the idea that leftists and progressives can be as toxic as Nazis came mostly from liberal and centrist commentators. When looking back at the racist history of the United States, the passive, centrist, ‘take-no-side’ bystanders were just as morally culpable as the slave owning, lynching, incarcerating, angry racists.

It is too critical a juncture to pretend that both sides are as bad as the other, to mistake the privilege of not needing to take a side as the moral superiority of not choosing to take one. We have lost countless people of color, activists, and white allies this year to not roll our sleeves up and shed the cowardice of the center for the courage of taking a stand. Let Charlottesville and Heather Heyer be a wake-up call to stop kidding yourself, to ditch the false allies of the white suburbs, J.K. Rowling, big businesses and clueless and immoral politicians, and join hands with your local grassroots leftist movement who speak truth to power.

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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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