New York’s December 23, 2019–January 5, 2020 issue confronts America’s growing white supremacy movement through a photo-documentary portfolio by Mark Peterson and an essay by poet and National Book Award–nominated author Claudia Rankine. “It is our inheritance,” Rankine writes. “Institutionalized since the Civil War by a government that only recently, and tentatively, began to address domestic terrorism for what it is.”
Peterson began documenting white supremacy in America in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. That June, Peterson photographed an anti-Sharia law rally in New York City, which included members of the violent neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys. According to Peterson, the people who attended the rally were dressed in uniforms and polo shirts with insignias and flags he hadn’t seen before. When asked what group they were with, or what they believed, they would not answer. “As a photographer, I wanted to try and figure out what was going on,” Peterson says, noting he was always upfront with his subjects about being a photojournalist. President Trump’s rhetoric around immigration and various religious groups are part of what inspired Peterson to pursue this project, and why he felt it was important to photograph these extremist groups. “These groups reflect his views in different ways,” Peterson says.
James Walsh, a writer at New York, contributed additional research and reporting in order to bring readers more context to the phenomenon. He spoke with Nate Snyder, a former counterterrorism official in the Department of Homeland Security, who notes that Trump’s rhetoric has had an impact on the movement’s rebirth. After Trump’s comments about Charlottesville, his infamous words about “very fine people on both sides,” Snyder says: “You saw activity on [neo-nazi site Stormfront] exponentially spike. “It was a validation point. You started seeing posts like ‘We now have an ally in the White House. I’m setting up a similar rally in my town. Let’s take this online action and move it offline and supply it with money and supply it with people.’ It was a mass mobilization.”
“Reporting on loathsome people who relish attention is a complicated undertaking, and putting a klansman on the cover of this magazine was not something any of us took lightly,” says David Haskell, New York’s editor-in-chief. “But after hours of conversation, we again and again came back to Claudia’s exhortation ‘White nationalism, legitimized by our president’s support of “very fine people,” has flourished in part because of this refusal to look it squarely in its face and acknowledge it as homegrown,’ she writes in her introductory essay. ‘Without a full accounting of the reality, there can be no remedy. To look away is a form of collaboration.’”