We criticized Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair last week in this space for her incivility and intolerance in disruptively confronting alt-right leader Richard Spencer while both were working out at Old Town Sport and Health.
We stand by that critique. But Fair’s action, which we view as reflective of our broader society’s decline into polarized, intolerant nastiness, is insignificant when compared with the vile and toxic posters that were found in Del Ray last weekend.
These posters, quickly removed by Alexandria residents and police, were racist and anti-Semitic. They threatened blacks, Jews and Fair herself. They appear to be a reaction to the gym encounter – though hate-filled flyers were also placed on cars outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. last week, so perhaps they were part of a larger, regional effort at intimidation.
Here’s what else they were: cowardly.
Whether or not one agreed with Fair, it took courage for her to personally confront Spencer in that gym. It was the exact opposite of courageous for someone with a sadly deranged mind to manufacture filth and post it by stealth under cover of darkness. The posters are reminiscent of the days when cowards gathered under white sheets and, emboldened by their numbers, attacked blacks as a mob.
There is, at this point, no evidence directly linking Spencer to the flyers. But given that his attacker was targeted, if he wasn’t involved, now is the time for him to distance himself. It’s also imperative for President Donald Trump to speak out forcefully against ethnic and religious hatred when it bubbles up, whether it takes place in Alexandria, Portland or elsewhere. His mild protestations to date are simply not sufficient, given that his campaign rhetoric and attempted immigration ban seem to have emboldened purveyors of hatred.
The flyers also illustrate what is and isn’t acceptable in America. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of American democracy and people have a right to hold views that are hateful – and they have a right to express those views, no matter how offensive others find them. In fact, every one of us probably holds views of some kind that someone else would find offensive. To paraphrase a biblical axiom, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
But when an expressed view becomes a threat, as in these flyers, then the issue of free speech is overshadowed by concerns for physical safety. The poster of Fair listing her address and the one of a person in blackface holding a knife are clearly threats.
The response to attempted intimidation needs to be that of resolution and strength. Alexandria’s political leaders, including Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, quickly denounced the flyers and those who posted them. City police will hopefully locate and unmask the perpetrators. Our community deserves to know who did this, even if the only crime committed was a violation of Alexandria’s graffiti laws.
The rest of us should just carry on as if nothing happened – because the community that we have here in Alexandria is far stronger than a few filthy pieces of paper.