Opinion: It’s not enough to oppose racism when white nationalists come to town. We must try every day to end it

Berkeley residents must train our eyes to bear witness to racism as a crucial first step in fighting and ending it.

By Amber Akemi Piatt

Amber Akemi Piatt is an advocate and researcher passionate about advancing racial equity and gender justice.

White supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis threatened to rally throughout the Bay Area last weekend. In doing so, they issued an invitation to us all to reject hate and courageously stand united for love and inclusion. Many people on the left turned out with friends, chants, and signs, and the hate rally organizers largely cowered from showing up. Though it may be tempting to declare this a victory and call it a day, our commitment to the struggle for justice must extend beyond opposing the weekend’s anti-hate events. Hate did not begin with the ‘No to Marxism in America’ rally and will not end with its failure.

Racism may not fit within our idea of the liberal Bay Area bubble, but it is precisely that – an idea. Racism and other forms of bigotry absolutely do live here, and every one of us has a role to play in ending it. To do so, training our eyes to bear witness to it is a crucial first step.

Just last week, for example, I saw an act of hate that was deeply disturbing – both in its flagrant racism and in its invisible mundaneness.

I was about a block away from my local Berkeley grocery store and noticed a Black man selling Street Spirit papers outside. I mentally noted that I had cash in my wallet to buy one and looked forward to my conversation with the vendor, whom I’ll call Ted. I buy papers from him frequently, and he is always kind – a breath of fresh air from the harassment I am more typically subjected to when interacting with random men on sidewalks.

As I looked ahead, I saw a tall White man was approaching Ted. I assumed he was buying a paper, but the White man quickly moved closer to Ted’s side and began to lean in close to him. For a split second, I found the shift in stance curious but then realized the White man’s body language looked confrontational. Was I witnessing an innocent conversation or harassment?

I hastened my pace just as the White man looked over his shoulder. He saw me, swiftly walked to his car, and began to drive off. I went to Ted and asked if that man had been bothering him. He was clearly and rightfully frazzled but maintained his gracious demeanor. Other people scurried by. I asked what exactly the aggressor had said, and he shared that he was trying to instigate a fight. As he recounted what happened, I took out my cell phone and snapped a picture of the aggressor’s car and California license plate number. Through deep breaths and endless head shakes, he shared that the White man was threatening to “jump” him, saying it would go “viral,” likely referencing and glorifying the recent videos of white supremacists harming Black folks and their allies.

I felt heartbroken. I kept apologizing as if that would erase the violence he had just experienced. Eventually, I bought my paper, walked away, and proceeded to enter the grocery store. This small interaction felt like an insult to injury. How could we be reduced to such an insignificant transaction in the face of such a hateful, systemic problem? How did Ted feel about the incident and our subsequent exchange?

If the numbers tell us anything, this is a strikingly common problem. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 1,184 homeless people died at the hands of housed individuals and another 872 people were survivors of non-lethal violence between 1999-2010. Most of these violent acts were committed by individual people who harbor biases and resentment, not by organized hate groups.

Hate speech, hate rallies, and hate groups undeniably contribute to the air of violence and oppression that marginalized people experience, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The ideals of white supremacy and racism are deeply embedded in all our social structures – and sadly, in most of us.

I resolved to go back outside, ask Ted if he wanted to call the police, and offer to give witness testimony. Given Berkeley Police’s notorious hostility and violence against folks who live outside, I did not believe it would result in justice and assumed Ted would feel rightfully wary of the idea, but I wanted to offer. I felt compelled to do something, but I didn’t know what else to do or who else to turn to.

But, by the time I went back outside, Ted was gone.

If you fear that this man may have been your father, brother, uncle, cousin, partner, son, nephew, co-worker, or congregant – reach out to him. It probably wasn’t him that I saw, but that’s not the point. It could have been.

We must also take this a step further. We must question why we are okay with these structural inequities in the first place. In what ways are we complicit in creating conditions that force people to sleep on the street? How do we hold our elected officials, and indeed ourselves, accountable to supporting everyone in the Bay Area, including homeless folks and people of color?

We must all embrace, own, and incorporate a commitment to justice in our daily lives to make the Bay Area a fairer place. We must all do the work that has been needed all along. White people, in particular, are accountable to acknowledging, disrupting, and dismantling white supremacy in all its many forms.

We must read up on historical and contemporary oppressions, have challenging conversations with our loved ones, join coalitions organizing for positive change, advocate for equitable workplaces, support legislation that advance a meaningful equity agenda, vote for candidates who champion equity, and hold elected officials accountable for making the Bay Area work for us all.

These calls to action for justice are all around us every day if only we’re willing to see them.