I recently finished reading a long book about Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, which happened in the run up to World War II. It was fascinating in many ways, but one of which that feels very related to the situation we’re in right now was the way the reality of World War I was shaping the views of the decision-makers. While it’s easy to look back and blame everyone for appeasing Hitler (and in many cases many of them do deserve blame for accepting Fascist principles), it’s also important to remember that many people had World War I foremost in their minds—and did not want to be responsible for starting another one.
I think it is very real that today we are seeing many of the dangerous patterns of Fascism repeating themselves, and that we are on high alert not wanting to repeat the horrors of the Holocaust.
But we also need to remember that history repeats, but not exactly. If we wait until people are told to sew the equivalent of yellow stars and pink triangles on their clothing or are being herded on to box cars we might miss the real horrors that are amping up.
If the people in power in Washington are trying to activate their vision for white “Christian” (by label, not practice) nationalism, they don’t need to create any new institutions. They don’t need to make something and call it a “concentration camp” so we’ll recognize it as such.
We already have a system of mass incarceration, a system that sanctions extra-judicial killings, a system of mass deportation, and an anti-terrorism surveillance state. They are in place and they are awful.
Of course the current people in power are going to make them much, much worse. With those systems at their fingertips, they don’t need to create concentration camps. They only need to steadily expand and escalate their definition of “criminal” and the punishments the pertain to minor crimes, and abandon all attempts to even make a show of ensuring impartial justice.
The administration’s intentions and game plan are painfully obvious: Overrule states on legalizing marijuana. Threaten to violate the Constitution by sending troops into Chicago. Redefine resisting arrest as a felony. Criminalize peaceful protest. Praise the Phillipine president who has decided to just murder tens of thousands of drug users outright. Start deporting people for just being charged with a crime, but not convicted, or for decades old immigration paperwork errors, and call it deporting dangerous criminals.
End goal: An imprisoned (enslaved) workforce, an undocumented community that is so terrified it can be abused and exploited without limit or redress, and a clear hierarchy in the rest of society about who is actually free and who is constantly in danger no matter how “careful” and “good” they are.
Our national obsession with fear and our craving of law and order and safety above all else has brought us to this point and left us incredibly vulnerable to this tactic. We are scared to defend anyone accused of “a crime.” We have tolerated the creations of these systems that are now being put on steroids. And because they seem normal, are not new, their increased use may well not trip the “what would you have done during the Holocaust? . . . time to find out” button in too many people.
The challenging news is that we can’t address this state of affairs in full without addressing the American problem with egregious anti-Blackness. Not just broad racism; anti-Blackness in particular.
Now, clearly many other communities are under direct sustained attack as well, and in the opening days of the administration experienced a more explicit escalation of threat. But make no mistake. With Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice talking about law and order and not fighting voter suppression or investigating police violence and increasing private prisons, just to start, Black people are squarely in the increased danger zone.
Ever since the poor whites in colonial America gave in to the divide and conquer tactics that distracted them from fighting those who exploited them by allowing them to have a place of superiority over Black people who were enslaved, America has struggled with anti-Blackness. I have some fear that the small amount of headway that discussions around Black Lives Matter was starting to make may be sidelined in this proto-Fascist era by other comparatively more comfortable (though still crucial!) organizing work. As my boss often says, when there’s always too much work to be done, it’s easy to avoid the tasks that you are less comfortable with.
And yet, we can’t get so focused on preventing a repeat of the last war that we fail to fight the one that’s going on around us.
photo: Wikipedia Commons