A group of self-avowed white nationalists barged into the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington DC last Saturday afternoon, interrupting an appearance by author Jonathan M. Metzl, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. As Metzl discussed his new book: Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, around 10 white protesters chanted, “This land is our land” to the sound of their own thumping hands.
Led by Patrick Casey, co-founder of the white-nationalist group, American Identity Movement (AIM), the group marched off minutes later to a chorus of boos. But before their departure, Casey, armed with an electric megaphone branded with the organization’s insignia, declared, “You would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts.”
Undeterred by the booing, he continued, “But we, as nationalists and identitarians, can offer the workers of this country a homeland, their birthright, in addition to health care, good jobs and so forth.”
Casey’s bold and derisive words reference Metzl’s book, which explores how politicians, promising social and economic protection and a prosperous future for the white working class, have gained the support of some lower and middle-class white Americans. Yet the very policies these politicians promote put white Americans at greater risk of illness and death. Metlz’s research found that people in states that rejected Medicaid expansion and blocked the full Affordable Care Act live shorter lives, and states that made it easier to buy guns saw hundreds more firearm deaths.
In an interview with the Washington Post, bookstore co-owner Billy Graham said he did not expect Metzl’s talk to attract so much attention. Metzl was similarly surprised and struck by the boldness of the protestors, who carried out the demonstration on the same day as the shooting in a San Diego synagogue.
“The scary part is these [people] are very emboldened right now,” Metzl said.
Even as the blare of Casey’s megaphone filled the room, the audience remained composed. In an interview with NBC4 Washington, Metzl describes the audience as initially confused.
“The crowd didn’t really know what to make of it. Everybody thought it was a joke at first,” Metzl said.
Graham later describes the audience as “not particularly receptive.”
“We just let them have their say, expecting they would leave, and they did,” Graham said, “It doesn’t often happen here. It’s a sign of the times.”
And a sign of the times it is—in the past years, bookstores across the country have contended with threats and hateful chants, emanating from the tongues of white nationalists. Berkeley’s Revolution Books has been repeatedly threatened by alt-right activists. According to the Washington Post, the bookstore endured several confrontations with white nationalist demonstrators last year. Local media reports describe a far-right group from Sacramento as storming into the store, subjecting bookstore-goers to a barrage of insults.
“We’re going to burn down your bookstore. You know that, right?” demonstrator Rob Cantrall said in a video taken by bookstore employees.
Just last week, several members of AIM tangled with a library in New Orleans, where for years, several drag queen performers have led monthly story hours for kids. The protesters dressed up as clowns and disrupted the event before being told to leave.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Casey launched AIM just over a month ago. The organization is considered to be a rebranded version of Identity Evropa, an organization which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has sought to recruit college students and young conservatives to join its ranks through posters and online propaganda.
But, for Metzl’s event, the organization crept forth from its usual online domain, eager to share its nationalistic sentiment with the audience and the cameras trained upon them.
On the organization’s website, Casey said that they protested Metzl’s event because his book “fails to discuss the real reasons why leftism has been killing America’s heartland.” He describes the book as prescribing to “more globalism, mass immigration, and cultural decay which will only further weaken America’s heartland by replacing her historical demographics.”
While Casey spoke to America’s weakness, Metzl describes America’s strengths. As the protesters walked in, he was talking about a man in the bookstore audience who helped his father and grandparents escape the Nazis in Austria. “I was saying how much stronger America is when we think about our responsibility to people in need. At that point, the Nazis walked into the talk.”
Metzl continued, “It was very symbolic for me. In case anybody’s wondering what’s happening right now, they’re illustrating my point.”