For many Americans, the emergence of white nationalism on the national stage has been shocking. But for people who have been paying attention to such matters for decades, what has happened in Charlottesville and beyond is not only unsurprising, it's something that could easily happen here in the Pacific Northwest—the site of some of the most organized white nationalist movements in US history.
Beginning in the late 1970s, an idea known as the Northwest Territorial Imperative encouraged members of white-supremacist groups nationwide to move to a five-state area (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Western Montana) in the hopes of one day declaring this region an Aryan homeland.
In response to this call, a network of some 120 rural and suburban grassroots groups sprung up to counter racist attacks in their communities. While rarely recognized in activist histories, these groups developed creative and resourceful strategies for confronting racism, sharing resources, and setting boundaries to prevent white nationalism from gaining ground.
The history of these groups is the subject of no. NOT EVER., an exhibition by Seattle activist group If You Don't They Will, currently installed in the Henry Art Gallery Test Site.
no. NOT EVER. is an information archive and experiential lab that presents more than two and a half hours of video and audio interviews with individuals who were actively involved in these grassroots groups in the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the Northwest Territorial Imperative. These interviews are organized by topic—things like gender bias in organizing, rural/urban disconnects, and "free speech"—a phrase that has long been used by white nationalists attempting to force their views onto platforms that may lend them legitimacy.
"Many organizers do not know how to say NO to white nationalist claims for free speech rights. White nationalists are acutely aware of this and use 'free speech' as an effective strategy to test a space to see how hospitable it is for their recruitment and organizing," explains one of the cards hung around the perimeter of the room. The discussion points they provide couldn't be more timely. The white nationalist claim to "free speech" is a thorny issue, but the show's pragmatic and in-depth assessment has been honed through decades of putting theory into practice.
The show also challenges the notion that white women are innocent bystanders, revealing how groups like white nationalist women's circles and knitting groups create lasting relationships and intergenerational infrastructure.
Situated at the heart of the exhibition is a red picnic table, a nod to schoolyards and church socials—the social hubs of rural environments. The table provides a place to sit and engage with the participatory elements of the show, like an interactive timeline of white-nationalist activity in the Northwest and cards containing scenarios that challenge visitors to think about how we might respond to various situations.
If current events are any indication, many of these scenarios will not be hypothetical for long. no. NOT EVER. is both a living history archive and a place to learn from suburban and rural organizers who have been facing down white nationalists in their communities for decades—a crash course we could all benefit from in this historical moment.
A participatory workshop organized by the artists takes place at the Henry on Sat Sept 23, 1–3, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register.