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Lecia Brooks

On Charlottesville, right-wing extremist recruitment and the civil rights movement

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The Unite the Right rally swept through Charlottesville, Virginia, during the the weekend of Aug. 11-12. Ostensibly a protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park, the rally opened with a torchlit parade, anti-semitic chanting and demonstrators from white nationalist and white supremacist groups, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, marching openly. The event was punctuated by violent clashes between them and counter-protesters, and an act of terror that left many injured and one young woman dead.

Lecia Brooks knew a demonstration by white nationalists was coming, but said she was shocked at the scale and violence of what happened in Charlottesville. The outreach coordinator for the Southern Poverty Law Center and director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, Brooks has watched the shifting sands of identity politics and racial acrimony from the standpoint of a civil rights educator and diversity advocate. She offered some insight into those issues ahead of her keynote speech at the 14th annual Change Your World Celebration in Boise on Friday, Sept. 15, which benefits the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights.

What do you do at SPLC?

Of late, I've been talking a lot about the rise in hate extremism from the far right, in particular, what's happening on college campuses.

What's new about far-right extremism?

There has been a concerted effort that really began last year early in the presidential campaign in terms of recruitment efforts on college campuses specifically targeting young, white college students. They get people to believe that white folks are being dispossessed. That's been happening more online and since the campaign, they've been coming out of the woodwork.

What's missing from the conversation about what happened in Charlottesville?

The conversations that began in the immediate aftermath were pretty transparent and pretty honest about what they saw. There's a focus now on, what about these far-left extremists, Antifa? The conversation seems to be more about that than the fact that over 11 white nationalist groups marched together and killed a woman.

What was your own reaction to those events?

Even though we track it, it was still shocking in that we've never seen such a large contingent of white nationalists just take the streets like that, out and bold. It was frightening. We're the ones that predicted this was coming, but it was incredible.

A poll found 44 percent of African-Americans are against removing Confederate statues. What's going on here?

I think people aren't educated about what [the statues] represented when they were erected. We think they're tremendously valuable in museums and archives, but they don't need to be in public spaces of honor.

What are the challenges facing the civil rights movement today?

I think the No. 1 challenge is voting rights and voter suppression, in particular. We were certainly alarmed by the Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act. In the aftermath we saw all of these voter ID laws pop up and some pretty bold moves to further restrict voting. This last primary election, they said I was an 'inactive voter.' I said, 'Are you kidding me? I vote all the time.' We made tremendous strides with LGBT equality, and now we see the transgender ban in the military. With the DACA decision, we feel like we're getting hit from all sides.

What is the factor that brings diverse groups together under the banner of civil rights?

This is why we saw such rapid movement in LGBT equality: Young people have grown up in a more diverse world, and they don't see issues as segmented as older folks do. For them, the issues are really connected, and they have friends across racial groups, across sexual orientations.

What gives you the greatest sense of hope?

The increased youth engagement, because if we look at issues globally, nothing really changes unless youth push for that change. We see it globally, and we saw it here in the modern American civil rights movement. Forty-thousand people came out after the events in Charlottesville to take a stand. It was beautiful.

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