When about a dozen men, along with one woman, filed into the Politics and Prose bookstore in the midst of Jonathan Metzl’s talk about Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, listeners at first thought it was part of his presentation.
“You would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts,” one of the latecomers barked into a bullhorn just as Metzl had been introducing an elderly gentleman in his eighties who had lived in Kansas City and hosted his grandparents and his father after they escaped Austria and the Holocaust. “He put himself out for strangers,” Metzl told the bookstore audience.
“The point I was making,” Metzl told The Daily Beast on Monday, was that he was “a version of America that was confident and generous and made us a leading light for how a great country should act.”
The man with the bullhorn had another view. “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.”
As the audience realized the disruption wasn’t part of the show, they started booing.
Ten minutes later, the group marched out, chanting “This land is our land,” and “A-I-M,” for the American Identity Movement that is a re-branding of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi group that helped plan the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
As to the white nationalists’ actions, “the D.C. police are investigating, though we have no idea who they are,” Bradley Graham, co-owner of the bookstore, told The Daily Beast. “It happened to be Independent Bookstore Day around the country, and we were celebrating,” he said.
“If they wanted to stay and ask some questions at the end of the talk, they could have done so. But they chose a different, more disturbing course. it’s unfortunate we live in a time where this kind of behavior is becoming more pronounced and now even affecting a traditional safe place like a bookstore.”
The bookstore, located in the tony and conventionally liberal Chevy Chase neighborhood in Northwest Washington, is just a few doors down from Comet Ping Pong restaurant, ground zero in 2016 for “Pizzagate,” the unhinged right-wing conspiracy theory supposedly involving Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats using the basement of the pizzeria, which doesn’t have a basement, for a sex-slave ring.
In 2017, a 29-year-old drove there from North Carolina for what he later called an “incredibly ill-advised decision” to try to rescue those non-existent children by firing an assault rifle inside a family restaurant. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”
Asked if he’d taken any security measures in light of Saturday’s incident, Graham said that was done back in 2016 after Politics & Prose and other shops adjacent to Comet Ping Pong received death threats. “Some of the 2016 measures involved enhancing surveillance, and those are always in play now,” he said. “Other measures weren’t necessary last Saturday.”
Metzl, a medical doctor and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University, says his entire book is about the despair of white people, “but the despair is not coming from immigrants, it’s coming from GOP policies that undermine infrastructure and health care.”
Dying of Whiteness opens with Tennessee blocking Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which would have benefitted tens of thousands of people. Metzl grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and documents the devastating effects on working people of former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, and of Missouri’s gun culture. He argues that these policies that claim to help the white working class instead make their lives “harder, sicker and shorter.”
As to the white nationalist disruptors at his event, “The irony is the point they were making, that white America is faring poorly, is one that I agree with,” said Metzl.
He was in Washington to speak on a panel about whiteness at the first annual National Antiracist Book Festival sponsored by the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington. It was founded In 2017 by Ibram X. Kendi, whose book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016.
The Center was Kendi’s way of trying to understand how the country could veer from Barack Obama to Trump. Its phone number on Monday led to a message asking people to please email due to high caller volume, and to expect an answer in two business days.