White women are sacred.
On June 16, 2015, a bloated muskrat the color of Cool Ranch Doritos descended down an escalator and announced his bid to become the 45th president of the United States. Of all the reasons he could have posited as to why the American electorate needed a sentient but less intelligent piece of candy corn in a bad toupee as its leader, Donald Trump thought the most apt explanation that would motivate his base was that our neighbors to the south were sending Mexican rapists and murderers to threaten the lives and purity of their beloved white women.
And thus the lynch mob grabbed their torches.
The long and winding history of racism in this country begins with the fear of black men sullying the purity of the Caucasian woman with rape and violence. In 1694, years before America became a nation, the state of Virginia forbade white women from marrying nonwhite men:
“For prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious [children] which hereafter may increase in this dominion, as well as by negroes, mulattos, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawful accompanying with one another,
“Be it enacted ... that ... whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free, shall intermarry with a negro, mulatto or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever ...
The white lynch mob that protects white women has long enforced the American tenets of white supremacy. Mass incarceration and the racist war on drugs were kick-started when Harry Anslinger convinced the country that “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” It lit the spark that jump-started the lynching of Emmett Till. It evolved past pitchforks and burning crosses by bombing Black Wall Street. It forced the city of Minneapolis to fire its police chief when a Muslim immigrant allegedly killed Justine Damond.
Even today, when alternative right-wingers like Richard Spencer gather their extremist masses and speak of the “fourteen words,” they are referring to a phrase that explains the entire existence of the neo-Nazi philosophy:
“Because the beauty of the white Aryan women must not perish from the earth.”
America has never moved past this dirty little dog whistle, and now we are seeing it in full force. The country’s political and cultural climate has revved up white anxiety to the point where white men are ready to grab pitchforks again, and nothing exemplifies this more than the case of Kathryn Steinle. Her death and the acquittal of her accused killer have become a rallying cry for white supremacists, nervous Caucasians and even the president of the United States.
On July 1, 2015, Steinle was walking along the pier in San Francisco with her father when a bullet pierced her back and tore through her abdominal aorta, according to CNN. Police arrested a homeless man named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate and charged him with the murder. Zarate claimed that he found the gun and was aiming at a sea lion, but later changed his story to say that the gun accidentally fired when he sat on it.
Trump seized on the event as justification for his wall-building and Mexican-deportation efforts. One week after Steinle’s death, he told CNN: “This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico.” Later that month, he told a crowd at the ultraconservative Family Leadership Summit in Iowa:
I am so proud of the fact that I got dialogue started on illegal immigration. And people in the media—in all fairness, they were very rough on me that first week and then many of them have now apologized to me, and almost everybody’s apologized, because it turned out I was right. Beautiful Kate in San Francisco was shot by an illegal, who was here five times and they couldn’t do anything about it. And believe me, Mexico kept pushing him back because they didn’t want him. Believe me, that’s true.
Trump even used the Steinle case in a campaign video. His campaign featured Carcia Zarate’s mug shot in a political attack ad reminiscent of the infamously racist Willie Horton commercial from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential bid.
Zarate had been deported five times before Steinle’s death, returning each time. He had seven felony convictions, mostly for drug possession and felony re-entry into the United States. San Francisco police had arrested him for an unrelated crime earlier, but—as is the practice of many “sanctuary cities”—officials released the undocumented Mexican immigrant instead of turning him over to immigration officials.
A jury found Zarate not guilty of manslaughter and murder on Thursday but convicted him on felony gun-possession charges. In response to the verdict, Trump immediately tweeted:
This is how you ignite the torches.
The day after the verdict, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department issued an arrest warrant for Zarate. Republican lawmakers championed an amendment to immigration legislation that they now refer to as “Kate’s Law” that passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
Steinle’s parents resisted the urge to join the angry horde. “We were just what he needed,” Steinle’s mother, Liz Sullivan, said of Trump. ”Beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime and yadda, yadda, yadda,” she said. “We were the perfect storm for that man.”
But the mob mentality doesn’t care about intent or truth. Steinle’s parents have watched their daughter become a new-millennium Carolyn Bryant even though they initially said they didn’t want to sensationalize their daughter’s death or use her as a talking point. “I don’t know who coined ‘Kate’s Law.’ It certainly wasn’t us,” said her father, Jim Steinle.
But it is too late for that. The torches are lit. The pitchforks are in hand. The lynch mob has now assembled.
On Sunday, Richard Spencer held a march in protest of the Steinle verdict. He was joined by Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, one of the largest groups of white nationalists in the country. Also present was Michael “Enoch” Peinovich, host of the seminal white supremacist podcast The Daily Shoah. (Racists aren’t particularly known for their creativity.)
The hashtag #BuildKatesWall is trending on Twitter, and Kate Steinle’s death has become a cause célèbre. Many cite it as an indication that scary illegal Mexicans are coming over here to steal jobs, peace and safety away from white America.
While the story of Steinle is tragic, it has exploded into something more. She has been transformed into a political football tossed back and forth between Trump and his conservative (pronounced “ray-cyst”) base.
Most important, Steinle’s death and the hoopla surrounding it have become the clarion call to rally the masses who believe that America belongs to them and the only way to preserve the supremacy of the great white race and its beautiful, innocent white women is to vanquish the violent brown and black threat with walls, nooses or deportation storm troopers. This case simply recycles the politics of fear and hate as the impetus to unite this nation’s oldest law-enforcement authority:
The lynch mob.