Diary — August 15, 2017, 6:00 pm

Black Rebel Hug

Three days in Charlottesville

love Charlottesville, so I couldn’t miss the Nazi party. I grew up down by the beach, in Chesapeake, Virginia, and enrolled in the University of Virginia when I was seventeen years old. I spent a decade on the green hills of Charlottesville as a student, then a townie. I tended bar on the Corner, and learned to cook at the old Tea Room Cafe on Main Street. I was an actor downtown, did social work in the county jail down Avon Street, and I sold wine and led tours one blue ridge over at Jefferson Vineyards, riding a farm truck in the autumn with migrants hauling in grapes from the fields. I love visiting family and friends in C-Ville, so when my fellow UVa alumni, Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, planned to “Unite the Right” with a rally full of Nazis, racists, and rebel yellers, I wanted to go back to town and feel my old home place. I wanted to truly resist, not by fighting back, but by giving an alt-right marcher a warm, black hug. What on earth could make Spencer more uncomfortable than a long, heartfelt embrace with a black man like me?

august 11

5:30 p.m. Meatpacking District, Manhattan—I board the express bus to Charlottesville and wonder if any of my fellow passengers are heading south to join the Unite The Right rally. My only real plan, other than hugging a conservative, is to remain alive all weekend. I figure there will be two especially dangerous times when the violence would be most chaotic and toughest to avoid: first, whenever the rally ends and police force the crowd to disperse; and second, after nightfall, when darkness and booze and a muggy day of political frustration could add up to gunfire. Like most black Americans, reasonable fear of racists with guns is not new to me and the only novelty of this weekend was that white Americans felt threatened, too. Some of my best friends are white, and I text one of my very dearest, who I’d roomed with in C-Ville after we met at the old Tea Room Cafe. Will is an entrepreneur who thinks more of food than politics and has several restaurants on the leafy, pedestrian, Downtown Mall, all within a few block radius of tomorrow’s rally. We plan to meet at one of them in the morning.

8 p.m. A seat on the bus, along the Mason-Dixon Line—I see online that a Federal Judge has just issued an order that the City of Charlottesville cannot change the permitted site of the rally, at the old Lee Park, to a large field a mile away from all the pedestrians on the Downtown Mall.

10 p.m.—My bus is hurtling toward Charlottesville when the texts start coming in: “Holy Shit.” It’s starting. I watch live on Twitter as at least 150 white supremacists march onto UVa grounds holding lit tiki torches and chanting against Jews and for White Lives. I can’t see police anywhere and in two hours my bus is going to drop me off, a half mile from the torch mob. A hot flash of fear burns my stomach until I see, live on Twitter, some kid in khakis sprint to the top of The Rotunda steps and throw up a Nazi salute. My fear turns into revulsion, then anger. The Rotunda is not just a marvel of Neoclassical Architecture, designed as a love note to order and reason. It’s also the 3rd hole and 4th tee of our old frisbee golf course where a bunch of my college buds used to while away hours playing together. It’s not just whites that romanticize Thomas Jefferson. I know my college grounds hide buried slave bones, but that building is too beautiful for 21st Century, torch-lit hate. As the mob starts to beat students underneath a statue of Jefferson, I text my eighteen-year-old cousin whether he’s watching this mess and he writes: “Yo, it’s crazy. I’m gonna be there next Saturday.” He was born and raised in Virginia and starts his second year in the College next week.

august 12

12:30 a.m. The West Main Street bridge—The bus stops and I step out into the stuck, humid air of a summer night in C-ville. It’s just a five-minute walk to her house, but the old friend I’m crashing with demands to drive over and pick me up. “It’s felt like a powder-keg here all summer,” she says, and I think about my cousin who was killed by neo-Nazis almost thirty years ago. It was a baseball bat and steel-tipped boots to the head, late at night after a white-supremacist rally in Portland, Oregon. I look up and down Main Street for white folk in khakis and hop in my friend’s car. My host invites me to bed (we’ve always been platonic) and as we cuddle into sleep I quip: “If I had known all it took were 150 Nazis to get into your bed, I would have recruited them a decade ago.”

9:30 a.m. Starr Hill, a half mile west of the Robert E. Lee statue—Breakfast is coffee, nerves, and Tums. A lone helicopter moans in the sky above sleepy, downtown Charlottesville.

10:45 a.m. Three blocks from the site of the rally—I wave to a Virginia State Policeman as I jaywalk downtown. I’m wearing a UVa t-shirt and a LiveArts baseball cap, from the local community theatre. I’d like people to easily note that of the many sides converging today, I’m on Team Charlottesville. A friend texts me that she just saw “over a 100 in riot gear and guns just got out of vans in the market street garage headed downtown now.”

11:00 a.m. Downtown Mall, two blocks from the rally—A platoon of thirty state policeman are helping each other cinch up brand-new body armor under a leafy tree outside the Omni Hotel. I’ve never been more comfortable around heavily-armed cops, and today it feels mutual; there’s no reasonable fear between us. I thank one of them for working overtime and he says, “man, we’re just hoping for the best.” Twitter tells me that fighting at the rally site has already begun, though the rally doesn’t start until noon. A mom pushes a Bugaboo stroller with some kind of terrier leashed to it and I smile at the perfect little picture of Charlottesville this makes: as long as we stay two blocks away from race issues, our town is all peace, preppies, and puppies.

11:53 a.m.—I’m eating a flaky biscuit with Virginia ham when Will texts me: “Come out back if you wanna see some shit.” I put down the southern comfort food to go check out some Nazis. I take a last swig of Hendrick’s gin and ginger beer, for courage and stomach-settling. I ask one of Will’s waitresses, a nice blonde gal named Shannon, how to get out back and she leads me through the kitchen, past two guys cooking on the line, one black and one white. I couldn’t tell who was the sous-chef. We go out the back door, through the parking lot and up to a street full of screaming ralliers of the American Right. It feels strangely familiar, like a perverted version of a UVa football gameday. Filled with the energy of the crowd I start shouting: “Wahoo-wa, Wahoo-wa, Uni-V-Virginny-Yah!” From the middle of the street, a burly white guy in jeans and a hunting vest sees me and his eyes bulge out with glee. He begins aping a gorilla and making loud monkey sounds. His impression was fantastic. I walk up to my buddy Will and he advises me, “oh, man, don’t engage, just observe.”

This is a very white event, from the scores of marchers shouting past us, to their scattered onlookers on the curb. It is often hard to distinguish who was who. I see more whites in Black Lives Matter gear than I do black people altogether.

Marching for the Right there are, as one might expect, grizzled, bearded men with Confederate flags and muddy work boots. But there are also metrosexual dudes heiling Hitler in brown leather oxfords, as if Quentin Tarantino had drunkenly shot a J. Crew catalog. There are men in faux combat gear, with painted bike helmets, knee and elbow pads, broom handles and sticks, and goggles for the pepper spray. And there are men in real combat gear, with assault rifles, flak jackets and ammo belts. They have the outfits, if not the fitness, of actual soldiers—pot-bellied warriors of a generation raised on the American couch. Of the hundred white-supremacits marchers that pass us, maybe five are women. Will shakes his head and sighs, “I tell you what, this is not a place to pick up chicks.”

I look uphill at the rally site and see purple smoke wafting toward us, and the air begins to taste sharp and bitter. A young man in dark jeans and a white shirt grabs my shoulder with one hand, his other holding a rebel flag and a Plexigas shield.  “Hey”, he says, “I just wanna apologize for that guy there” and he points to the fellow still whooping like a primate. The young man is full of conflict; his eyes well up with tears and he glances at his flag and back at me and said, “I don’t believe in that stuff and that’s not why…” I grab his hand, thank him, and pull him into a hug. A Black Rebel hug. Behind him, someone yells “faggot,” and behind me someone scolds him, screaming that he has no right to apologize for his fellow marcher. The real minority in Charlottesville today are people with the ability to see their political opponents as fully human.

1:30 p.m. Back inside The Whiskey Jar—A young, white photographer with an excellent camera and a blond ponytail sits next to me at the bar. He scrolls through his footage taken moments ago and jumps up, hollering, “yes!” when he gets to a clip of a neo-Nazi getting pummeled. He notes my disgust and says, “I only like it when it’s them gettin’ hit, you know…”

I overhear two distraught women tell Will they just saw a car run over a person and I hear ambulances screaming outside. I walk toward the action and two white men are holding up a young woman with long black hair; she’s an Asian-American cradling her elbow, red with blood. She and at least two others must have been knocked off their feet, because she’s wearing two mismatched sneakers, neither of which fit her. I think, this is what it takes to walk in other Americans’ shoes.

Water Street is full of people and blood and sobbing and shock. Photographers are shooting a crying girl on a gurney and a woman yells at them, “Stop taking pictures! She’s just a child! You’re disgusting!”

2:30 p.m.—Writers and politicians tweet out their disapproval. Moral rot fells their party so low that conservatives claim moral high ground by denouncing Nazis. Many still struggle to distinguish between the hate of White Supremacy and the haters of White Supremacy.

6:30 p.m. Sundown Town—I walk back in a daze to the safety of Starr Hill. I don’t yet know how many people were killed and I can imagine one of the day’s gunmen scoping me as a potential conquest. I just hope Trump supporters are tired of all the winning. I ride out of town to Will’s farm before nightfall.

august 13

9:30 a.m. Albermarle County—Where do Nazis eat breakfast, I muse aloud? IHOP, someone answers. Will pulls a chair up to his stove and his four-year-old girl helps stir the grits and fry eggs and bacon in a cast-iron pan. My kids, two boys aged eight and six, are in the countryside on vacation, unaware I’ve come to town. I surprise them at the pool and jump in to splash around. They’re half-Jewish, half-black, and fully problematic for the American Right. They ask what I’m writing about and I begin to explain to them how Nazis fit into the Republican party, but they quickly decide the deep end of the pool is a dark, hidden forest and that we should all go exploring.  

2:00 p.m. Free Speech Monument, east end of the Downtown Mall—I hear that the main rally organizer, Jason Kessler, is giving a press conference and I catch a ride back to town to see. The Downtown Mall is full of guns, but this time it seems like just policemen and national guard. Kessler steps up to a thicket of microphones and, fifteen feet away, I can’t hear one word. The crowd is chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Their First Amendment right is louder than his.

3:00 p.m.—It’s easier to find Tibetan Prayer flags than Confederate Battle flags on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. It’s always been a blue dot in a red state and that’s partly why it’s a poignant ground for this battle in the American Conversation on Race. An old, white-haired man I’ve seen on the Mall before is standing alone, arms outstretched, wearing a black blindfold, next to a handwritten sign that read Free Hugs. I trust you, you trust me.  

I can’t wait to get back north to New York. But first, one more Black Rebel Hug.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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