Who Decides Who Belongs in America?

From Charlottesville to Kenosha to Portland, the president’s supporters are acting on the racism he has encouraged since the beginning.

A scene from the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville is seen side by side with a scene from a far-right protest in Portland.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nathan Howard/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to be “from somewhere.” When I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, a very bless-your-heart older Southern woman told me, sotto voce, at a luncheon that nobody got to be “from Charlottesville” unless they had been born there, even if they had arrived there as a child. By the same token, when the Nazis marched there, in the summer of 2017, followed by the Proud Boys, then followed by the KKK, and followed by yet more Nazis, those of us who lived in Charlottesville were always quick to point out that the racists and white supremacists and anti-Semites who thronged the parks and streets and University of Virginia campus that summer were decidedly out-of-towners, a kind of marauding invading force that had flown and driven in from around the country. They were not a part of this little college town we all called home, we said to one another, again and again. And again, this was all somewhat ironic, in light of the fact that when the Nazis did march, their chants toggled between “you will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” Apparently these bottom-dwellers who had parachuted in from Oregon, California, and South Carolina shared a conviction that we were the ones taking over their spaces and their places, and that no matter where they lived in America, they were somehow entitled to be domiciled wherever they saw fit, including places in which others actually were domiciled. We, the residents of Charlottesville, were thus the invading force, and our invasion required repulsion with weapons of war. We were attempting to replace them, the white guys in the flat front khakis. Even if they came from California, it was their city, not ours.

I am struck, once again, witnessing the events this week in Portland, Oregon, and in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by that same dynamic, as gaggles of largely white men in trucks organize to stake out racial justice protests and variously assist the police or protect local businesses or restore law and order. These self-appointed vigilantes and quasi-militias feel they are justified in carrying weaponry, deploying pepper spray, shooting paintballs at civilian protesters, and, at least in the case of one such individual, shooting and killing protesters refusing to accede to their authority. In Idaho and Michigan, similar gangs of white men have stormed capital buildings, demanded entry, and been seated.* They have threatened elected officials, all under color of some vague claim that they belong in these spaces—that they have a kind of unfettered right of access to government buildings, even in violation of public health regulations and public safety directives, because they belong there.

In the summer of 2017, one enduring feature of living in Charlottesville, as the misfits and the racists took turns lolling around town, was that those of us who resided there became fearful of looking strangers in the eye. Sometimes we could tell who the “outsiders” were: They favored big trucks with flags and assorted racist bumper stickers, and some of them wore mildly alarming T-shirts. But the real quandary came when you walked through town and just couldn’t tell whether someone was merely running an errand or there to harm you or harass your children (they were mostly “hes”). The abiding worry was that the insiders and the outsiders could not be readily identified, that the outsiders posing as locals because they believed themselves entitled to occupy an entire town were impossible to identify. The city stopped feeling like “home” and began to feel unrecognizable, and unsafe. In a perverse sense, the relief of August 2017 was that one could finally differentiate the locals from the actual Nazis on the basis of who was brandishing flaming torches and carrying guns. The guesswork was, at minimum, gone.

All this has resurfaced in the fragile summer of 2020, chiefly because everyone I know in Portland has assured me that the city is not in fact “under attack” or “on fire” and also that the people who have come from afar to play at volunteer law enforcement are not from there at all. Self-appointed gangs of enforcers, in other words, are again laying claim to a small city, even though they are outsiders, and are again terrorizing protesters and locals under some imagined authority they think they have to go wherever they please, waving weapons and imposing what they believe to be law and order, even though their actions are neither lawful nor orderly in some cases. They have an unlimited right of access anywhere in the country, extending “stand your ground” or “castle” laws to any ground on which they stand.

One theme of modern life in America, documented in video after video, is that if you are Black or brown, the assumption is that you do not get to belong anywhere, whether you live in that place, pay your taxes in that place, or in fact own that place. You don’t belong in your own car or in your own apartment. You certainly don’t belong at a peaceful protest. This administration, and many administrations before it, have tried to force this theory into formal policy—if you are a parent being separated from a child at the border or being redirected to Mexico, that is because you do not belong here; you do not belong anywhere. You belong someplace other.

What is perhaps more disturbing about the current mood in parts of America, as opposed to much of America’s recent past, is the way in which this claim to belonging is being reasserted more broadly by those who are utterly convinced that they belong everywhere because they have always been told that they belong everywhere. And now, often thanks to reassurances from law enforcement and government power itself, the members of these self-appointed militias feel they ought to make determinations about who else belongs. There is no illusion that everyone might find a place here. It is the old arrogance of white men taking Native lands being performed anew, with the same tools of violence. And if Stephen Miller has arrogated unto himself the power to decide who does and does not belong in America, and if Bill Barr has arrogated unto himself the power to decide who does and does not belong at a peaceful protest in Lafayette Park, and if Donald Trump has arrogated unto himself the power to decide who does and does not “belong” enough to cast an absentee ballot, well, that is because these men genuinely believe that America belongs to them and they can dole out bits and pieces of it as they see fit. And—most terribly—they are implicitly and explicitly empowering their supporters to do the same. Indeed, Donald Trump, much like the militias and fake policemen he has emboldened across the country, has gone so far as to suggest that not only does he belong in the White House, but it somehow belongs to him, claiming last week at the RNC that he was entitled to use it as he saw fit because he was there.

There is, in short, not just an asymmetry in morality at work here, but an asymmetry to the force of the property claims. Donald Trump has devoted his tenancy in the White House to the proposition that certain people belong in America, to all of it, to any of it, and that belonging is nine-tenths of the law. As such, they may do what they need to secure those claims (hence his pardons of the grifters and the looters). Any other people never belonged here; they perch here only at his sufferance. That’s why he performed ritual acts of welcoming new citizens and reformed criminals at the Republican National Convention—because he wants to emphasize that who belongs is up to him. It’s why anyone who is anywhere he wants to be (including Lafayette Square) is a “looter.” He is deciding who belongs and who doesn’t belong. And he is telling anyone who agrees with him to clear the streets and the parks as they deem fit. And because this has scrambled our ideas about who is an invader and who is a local, this is getting resolved, suddenly, on the streets. And as a consequence, we may not be able to look one another in the eye again for a long, long time.

Correction, Sept. 3, 2020: This piece originally incorrectly referred to a nonexistent incident of white men storming Iowa’s Capitol.