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Patriotism and Nationalism in the Boston Common

I attended at the anti-white supremacy rally in Boston on Aug. 19. The rally involved about 40,000 counter-protesters responding to a group of only about 40 neo-Nazis attending a “Free Speech” event. The protest was peaceful, though there were a few skirmishes between individual protestors, especially after the rally had died down. The counter protest was a huge success, driving out the neo-Nazi group in under an hour.

One moment of the protest was particularly striking. A woman on the “alt-right” side of the fence (the opposing groups were separated by a guarded fence) faced the counter protest holding an American flag. She clearly assumed that her display of the flag would offend the counter-protesters, whom she sees as unpatriotic. An agitator walked through the rally wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and an American flag as a cape on his back. Both of these agitators thought that their perceived patriotism would offend the crowd. What neither likely realize was that the American flag was displayed at the anti-racist rally as well.

During the protest, both sides saw themselves as the side that was more “patriotic” or “American,” despite having views that were completely opposite each other. This disconnect is explained by the groups’ divergent understanding of who counts as American.

The white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies that make up the “alt-right” define patriotism narrowly. To them, “whiteness” defines ethnically American and all other races are excluded from this American-ness due to their perceived inferiority. They apply the same idea to sexual orientation and religion, where heterosexuality and Protestant Christianity are not only unquestionably superior, but the only truly American identities. American identity is also wrapped up in strict gender politics, where men and women who are truly American subscribe to traditional gender roles. When white supremacists describe themselves as patriots, they are signifying their blind obedience to their bigoted conception of American-ness.

The counter-protest had a vision of patriotism that was more critical and realistic. The rally was focused primarily on support for racial diversity and equality. It was organized in large part by Black Lives Matter and similar racial justice movements. These groups are not blindly loyal to the government, typically refrain from displaying the flag and are critical of and protest unjust laws.

This understanding of patriotism is a much better fit for the reality of American demographics and history. America is a diverse country. The 2010 US Census found nearly 37 percent of Americans were non-white, and the General Survey Society found about five percent of Americans identify as gay or bisexual. Neo-Nazi recruitment is limited to straight, Christian whites, a shrinking portion of the population.

On the other hand, anti-racist ideology fits the actual story of America, a country with a history of genocide, bigotry and imperialism. The anti-racist protest understood that America was not found, invented or built by whites, but rather settled on Native American land and built by African slaves. It accounts for the obvious racism displayed throughout America’s history, and the role of critical patriots who worked to improve the country rather than remaining loyal to its violence. This form of patriotism does not require allegiance toward or appreciation for America. It instead requires that the “patriots” work to actually improve the country and the lives of its citizens.

At the protest in the Boston Common, anti-racism won the day. But this did little to fight white nationalism throughout the country. Trump is still president, and we still have white nationalists working at every level of government, from the Cabinet to the police. In order for anti-racist patriotism to gain primacy in American government, anti-racists will have to fight harder to expose white nationalism. Hopefully, more cities and towns will follow in the footsteps of the Boston protesters.

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