As I drove to Springfield on Sunday morning for a rare mid-August Senate session, I listened to the radio coverage of the sickening violence in Charlottesville. Shocked like everyone, it also occurred to me that the Illinois Senate had a unique opportunity to speak out and speak out quickly. Silence would be inexcusable. If we could not band together in this moment to repudiate these horrible acts strongly and publicly, we had no business representing our constituents back home.
I am grateful that my colleagues agreed. Senate Democrats and Republicans unanimously approved my resolution, SR 794, to condemn the violence, denounce the evil that white nationalist groups promote, and urge law enforcement to recognize them for what they are — domestic terrorists — and to pursue any criminal elements just as we would international terrorists.
I am also heartened that Governor Rauner spoke out in this same vein. We must stand in total opposition to the hatred, bigotry and violence displayed by these rebranded heirs to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. We fought and triumphed against these hateful ideologies in two bloody wars and the Civil Rights Movement. We are still fighting the many regrettable barriers to equality that have been left in that wake. For the horrible devastation they caused, these lessons should remain fresh in our minds.
Yet now more than ever it feels like the whole country is a tinderbox. A new atmosphere has taken root, given power by leaders who have been silent or acquiesced or given tacit support. So now and as always, silence would have been the worst possible course of action.
We cherish the First Amendment. We cherish the protections of free speech, but the First Amendment doesn’t protect the incitement to violence. We cherish the protection of the right to assemble, but the First Amendment doesn’t protect the right to assemble in a lynch mob, and we don’t need to wait for someone to throw a rope over a tree limb to recognize them for what they are.
These hate groups stand in irreconcilable conflict with our nation’s founding principles of justice and liberty for all. At one point in our history, all of us — Catholics, Jews, Muslims, whites, blacks, Latinos, immigrants and native Americans — were likely subject to this type of hatred. We need to rally ’round and protect those who are subject more acutely to it today. If there is one lesson to carry forward, it is that if we do not all stand together and defend each other, that hatred will eventually come back around to each of us again.
We here in Illinois can’t pretend to be better or worse than the rest of the country. We may not be the Old South, but we need to wrestle with our own dark history and its repercussions today.
Illinois monuments may celebrate Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, but we have pernicious structural racism that manifests itself differently. We have violence erupting across black neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, neighborhoods that have suffered persistent neglect and from which the scars of racial injustices of the past have never healed because we keep picking at the scabs. We need meaningful investment and the reversal of structural racism that has built up over generations to have any hope of equality for all.
Diversity has always and will always make America stronger and better. White nationalists and neo-Nazis remain very real threats to social and racial progress. They may market themselves and their ideas as the “alt-right” these days, but they seek to reignite the animosities of the past and foment hatred and ethnic eradication. There is no room in this world for racial and social intolerance and the violence it ultimately promotes.
On these central truths, silence is inexcusable.
Don Harmon, an Oak Park resident, represents the 39th State Senate district.