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“Civil war is coming.”
I saw this message on the social media platform Parler in November, about two weeks after the election was called for Joe Biden. The ominous post followed an even more harrowing message from a different user. “[O]ur people have guns too … it’s time for us to use it!!! Just like in old days.” The poster embedded a photograph of a noose.
Parler, which has since been banned by Apple’s app store and from Amazon, has billed itself as a “free speech” platform for the “world’s town square”. Last fall, without much digging, I learned that this town square is one where an increasingly violent far right digitally dances with mainstream, influential conservatives.
The fact that Parler has a vague air of legitimacy – unlike other platforms known for their explicitly far-right user bases – normalizes racist violence against Black people and anyone associated with them. Like the white police officers and “respectable” public servants who joined the Ku Klux Klan after the US civil war, or the white families who partied under the lynched bodies of Black men, white America has continued its intergenerational love affair with public anti-blackness. The methods have simply mutated. Memes calling for our deaths are the lynching postcards of the 21st century. Shared among the masses, they make casual affairs of Black terror. It’s not enough for the sharers of these memes to simply believe in white violence on a personal level; the collective experience is the point.
I joined Parler in November, before various tech companies announced plans to take it offline. It didn’t take long to find a bevy of hashtags and posts romanticizing civil war. By late November, there were over 10,000 posts that included the hashtag #civilwar and its variants. The person who posted “Civil war is coming” was replying to a post by Wayne Root, a conservative media personality with more than 100,000 followers on Twitter. Root leveled the same unproven accusations of voter fraud as Donald Trump, using the same calls for battle that white power groups heeded in their storming of the US Capitol the first week of 2021.
While some on the far right will probably retreat into the shadows cast by polling booths and hidden by exit polling data that obscures Trump’s popularity, many have not. Any perception of progress for Black people, even if this progress does not substantively exist, perpetuates violence against us and our perceived allies like leftists, Marxists and Democrats – all named by Parler posters as opposing parties in this hypothetical civil war).
To say that Parler’s users, or any Americans who revel in white power tropes and violent memes, are “extremist” is a bit of a misnomer. What we call extremism is, if anything, a common American tradition. Millions of Americans, if they don’t proactively endorse the violence, silently concede to it. They vote for it. They dress it in words like “tradition” and “free speech”.
I was raised witnessing it. There is a monument honoring Confederate soldiers in my home town of Stone Mountain, Georgia. The monument isn’t an ordinary statue erected in some mundane public square. It’s a nearly half-acre relief carved into the massive quartz and granite stone for which our town is named. It would take a runner five miles to circle around the rock formation’s base. We took field trips to Stone Mountain in high school, as if it were an amusement park and not the largest Confederate memorial in the world.
Stone Mountain has now become a flashpoint for conflict. I hiked the mountain on a recent holiday trip with my mom, days before white men wielding guns protested against the widespread movement to remove Confederate statues. We tried to hike another day, but were blocked from entering. It was closed for the day after Black counter-protesters came back with guns of their own.
When you talk to white southerners about honoring the Confederacy, you’ll hear a lot about heritage. I’ve heard it all my life. I heard it when our state flag featured the Confederate symbol throughout my childhood and in the debates to remove it. I read about it when I decided to make it one of my debate topics for a summer college class in my last year of high school. But what you’ll seldom hear is when this heritage has been selectively commemorated. Stone Mountain’s Confederate monument opened on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.
This is an American tradition of terror – a culture of dehumanizing Blackness that bleeds out into the world
This, too, is the culture of Parler.
“Time to get rid of the yoke calling itself democrats,” someone wrote in response to Wayne Root’s revolution post.
“Every town needs to decide on a gather place where an armed citizenry takes over everything … every traitor must be executed,” wrote another.
It’s not enough to dismiss the radical right as merely having a difference of opinion, or explain it away as a population of marginalized, working-class white men who can be brought back from the brink by reason and calls for a universal basic income.
Universal prescriptions are necessary, but insufficient. This is an American tradition of terror – a culture of dehumanizing Blackness that bleeds out into the world. It is the shots I heard while reporting in Kenosha, blocks from where Kyle Rittenhouse killed two white Black Lives Matter protesters, as it happened. It was the ease of white vigilantes carrying weapons in another public square, Civic Center Park in downtown Kenosha, hours earlier. It is the audacity of those white vigilantes shouting down Philando Castile’s girlfriend, from whom I was mere feet away in the park, as they argued for their right to kill to protect property. Of course, Philando was killed while exercising their revered second amendment right to bear arms, but that right is clearly reserved for some Americans more than others.
Parler may be homeless now, but there is an entire world that welcomes the hatred and violence it cultivates. As threatening as it may be, the platform will probably be replaced with something else. It’s the public terror that’s the point.
Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, activist and Guardian US columnist