ADL Chief: Trump's Failure to Denounce 'Alt-right' to Blame for Charlottesville

U.S. president's approval to white supremacists was 'not a subtle dog whistle, but like a bullhorn' for them to join public discourse, Jonathan Greenblatt says

A demonstrator holds a sign in front of the White House during a vigil for the woman who died in the car-ramming attack in Charlottesville, August 13, 2017.
A demonstrator holds a sign in front of the White House during a vigil for the woman who died in the car-ramming attack in Charlottesville, August 13, 2017.Credit: ZACH GIBSON/AFP

NEW YORK – The head of the Anti-Defamation League strongly rebuked U.S. President Donald Trump for failing to speak out against white supremacist violence that led to a woman’s death at the “Unite the Right” gathering last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt also said that the president’s “statements are no longer sufficient” and called on Trump, Congress and others to implement policies to address growing white nationalist extremism in the U.S.

“The death of an innocent young woman, a senseless loss of life which we anticipated, should serve as a wake-up call as to where unchecked racism can lead,” Greenblatt said in a call with reporters on Monday, speaking of the death of Heather Heyer. Heyer was a local Charlottesville resident who had come out to counter the protest when she was mowed down by a car that others present said appeared to have been intentionally rammed into the crowd.

“We’re at a pivotal moment here, one where racists are emboldened to move out of the shadows and into the spotlight,” Greenblatt said, speaking from Tel Aviv where, he noted, officials are experienced at dealing with car-ramming attacks.

Greenblatt faulted Trump for signaling his approval to the “white supremacists and extremists rallying around his rhetoric, including his unwillingness to consistently and forcefully denounce their behavior. This was not a subtle dog whistle, but like a bullhorn and a signal for them to try and rise and take a seat at the center of the public conversation,” the ADL leader said.

ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt.Credit: ADL

Greenblatt ticked off several instances when Trump signaled his approval of white supremacists since the last presidential campaign, including the lifting of an anti-Semitic Star of David meme which Trump tweeted, his failure to disavow neo-Nazi and ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, “recycling 'alt-right' rhetoric in his stump speeches, and somehow people associated with the 'alt-right' found their way into positions of authority in the West Wing,” Greenblatt said, referring to Trump advisers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon.

Greenblatt said the president needs “to move from words to action. Real action. The kind of action that takes place when we have moral leadership. We want the president to do more than acknowledge racism,” he said, referring to Trump’s remarks over the weekend about Charlottesville.

After “bowing to overwhelming pressure,” according to The New York Times, Trump on Monday condemned racism as "evil" after two days of equivocal statements about Charlottesville. He originally blamed the violence on “all sides” and did not name those at fault for most of the violence.

Greenblatt called on the president, Congress, governors, state legislators, mayors and city councils to address the rise in hate crimes.

“We are glad that the Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation” into the Charlottesville violence, Greenblatt said. “That’s the bare minimum. We want to see the DOJ and the new head of the FBI launch a program to make sure every law enforcement officer in America is trained to deal with hate crimes. We want the Department of Education to step up and elevate anti-bias, anti-hate content in our classrooms. The way to inoculate our kids against intolerance is through education and learning. This should be the priority of our education department.”

Oren Segal, director of the ADL's Center on Extremism Credit: ADL

“It is long overdue for the president” to take steps like this, Greenblatt said. But “we cannot afford to wait for the White House. Whether you’re the U.S. president or a university president or a PTA [parent-teachers association] president, everyone has a responsibility to step up and speak out against hate.”

The Charlottesville demonstration was the largest white supremacist protest in at least a decade, according to the ADL. Information about attendance at other gatherings can be seen here.

“Immediately [after the violence in Charlottesville] we heard clear, cogent denunciations from elected leaders of both parties at the local and national level,” said Greenblatt, listing Republican Congressmen Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, before adding “as well as every single leading member of the Democratic party.”

“What we didn’t hear in the hours after the event was a strong and forceful denunciation” from the president, Greenblatt said. “Today in a statement he finally said racism is evil, finally mentioned white supremacists, something that he inexplicably couldn’t seem to do before today.”

Several hundred people from about a dozen white nationalist-oriented groups gathered in Charlottesville last Friday, some 125 of them parading through the small city wielding torches Friday night like latter-day members of the KKK.

On Saturday, shortly before their larger demonstration was slated to begin, violence broke out and the mayor declared a state of emergency, cancelling their permit.

But groups of those who had come to Charlottesville gathered in pockets around the city, spewing anti-Semitic and racist slogans to members of the press and anyone else they encountered.

Over the past year or so “we’ve seen the slow emboldening of all sorts of white supremacist groups,” Oren Segal, the director of the ADL's center on extremism, told Haaretz in an interview later.

Segal pointed to the ADL’s recent tallying of 160 incidents of white supremacist flyer distribution on 108 university campuses in 34 states over the last academic year. That is “by far the most we’ve ever seen” of that type of campus activity, Segal said. “To me that attests to the fact that they believe they have an audience for this, and a young audience. It also suggests the crowdsourcing of hate.”

Their activity in Charlottesville “showcased the cohesion throughout a cross section of the white supremacy movement, shows how energized they’ve become recently and how it’s trending younger,” Segal said.

Leaders of the so-called alt-right movement, including national figure Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, the local resident who organized the “Unite the Right” rally in his hometown, are now planning campus tours in the coming school year, Segal said.

“Charlottesville isn't the end. It’s really the beginning,” Segal added.

Next up is a “Free Speech Rally” in Boston scheduled for next weekend, which Segal described as “alt-lite.” But since Boston’s mayor said Monday afternoon that the protest wasn’t wanted in his city, several headliners have dropped out.

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