Unpacking : Charlottesville
The blatantly public gathering of racist white supremacists and Neo-nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a historically racist campus was, by all accounts, the white nationalist coming out party of the millennial era. This is the product of ‘whitelash’ as coined by Van Jones. This was the intensely pivotal wake up call for many. This was the first time in modern times we’ve seen a clash of two sides - racists and anti racists - where it wasn’t predominantly black versus white, but rather white people with consciences standing against white people with hate in their hearts and tattooed on their chests and arms. The mantra of ‘White Silence is White Violence’ has sunk into the public consciousness in a way that is needed.
The roots of this tragic chain of events finds itself in a town hall meeting in 2012 where Kristin Szakos, a 22 year resident of Charlottesville and an 8 year member of the city council, asked a simple question about why the Robert E. Lee statue was so prominently displayed in the Central Park of the city. She was told by many before she moved that Charlottesville was this ‘really welcoming place’. She has an interracial family, so she was rightfully perplexed about Charlottesville glorifying heroes of the Confederacy while maintaining a reputation for being so welcoming.
A report has identified '1,500 memorials to the Civil War’s losing cause, from schools to state holidays, ranging from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest’. None other has a greater collection of memorials than Virginia, where this all took place. But it’s not just the south that has monuments to the Confederacy. New York has them, the state that provided more soldiers than any state to the North’s cause in the Civil War and California has them, where schools in San Diego and Long Beach are named for Robert E. Lee. There was a practice of putting up these monuments in the 1920s as a way of trying to rewrite the war and perpetuate the dangerous myth of white greatness in the South. Jenna Wortham, podcast host of the New York Times’ ‘Still Processing, talks candidly about how that myth was perpetuated on UVA’s campus. It’s why she only lasted a little over one semester before she felt the need to actually leave the country and go abroad, if only for a little while.
It seems that for many in the public consciousness, this rally sticks out as a rare occurrence, something that cropped out of nowhere and reared it’s ugly head into the national media-sphere. This is not the case. Dylann Roof’s despicable massacre of 9 innocent black lives in a church that fateful day, June 17, 2015, in the name of ‘starting a race war’ in order to take back America from ‘stupid and violent’ African Americans sparked a near overnight reversal of respect for the symbol of the Confederate flag. The turning point was when a photo was released with him holding a gun and the Confederate flag, looking menacingly at the camera. It’s chilling. And while many monuments and flags were removed, the reaction in the white supremacists space has been active with over 350 rallies in support of the Confederate symbols staying where they are since South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from state grounds. It’d been there since 1962, ironically the year that the NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins praised U.S. President John F. Kennedy's "personal role" in advancing civil rights.
It should be made clear that the decision made by the Charlottesville city council, with a vote of 3-2 in favor, was a vote to simply move the monument and rename the park. The monument wasn’t being destroyed (though it should be) or defiled. According to Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who is a reporter and was a guest on The Daily, a NYT podcast, white nationalists decided to have a rally on Friday, August 11th, in response to the decision by the city to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee riding a horse. They marched onto UVA’s campus carrying tiki torches and chanting ‘You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us, White Lives Matter’. The irony of white nationalists carrying a torch of non-white origins is not lost on me, you could say that appropriation can’t be helped even when yelling about their own singular cultural importance.
On Saturday there was a 6am service at the historically black First Baptist Church, folks were ready to demonstrate against the white supremacist protestors. Cornel West was in attendance. The white nationalists were scheduled to protest at Emancipation Park at 12 but they started earlier than expected, mobilizing around 9am. On the other side, at the church, folks were readying themselves to march towards to Emancipation Park, where the statue was. It was clear that they were headed for a confrontation and at 11:22am the governor declared a state of emergency. Both sides had weapons, bats and guns. They were so armed as to make Governor Terry McAuliffe say, ‘The militias had better weapons than his own police.’ I haven’t been able to confirm that with another source.
It’s helpful to know that a lot of the white nationalists came from out of state, mostly young white men. Men that had the presence of mind to not want to give their last names to reporters because ‘they might want to run for office’ later in the future. The sheer audacity to basically know that what they represent is so reprehensible it could stunt their futures, but to still proceed, is beyond me.
After the tensions boiled through the morning, the key moment happened, a gray Dodge Charger rammed into the anti-racist protesters. Heather Heyer was killed by that attack. She had a history of fighting racism and her loss was felt throughout the country. If you’re anything like me, you’ve read tirelessly about the events of the day so I will keep my retelling short.
During the white supremacist protest of the removal of the statue there were persistent chants of ‘White Lives Matter’. There is a direct parallel with the cohort of white folks who believe that immigrants and people of color are stealing their jobs and are bringing a net of danger to “their lands” and that they, the white people, are being replaced. Naomi Klein deftly states, in her excellent book, No Is Not Enough : Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need,
A simpler way of saying it is, some white people, particularly some white men, are adjusting poorly to the reality of having to play on an even playing field. I do believe that white lives matter, I do believe that black lives matter, everyone deserves equal rights, regardless of who they are. But where you will always go wrong is when you try to assert your dominance and importance over another, at the expense of the civil liberties and freedoms of another. The Confederacy and the retention of its memory loses the right to claim this historically important status of heritage while simultaneously trying to suppress the systematic racial injustice it represented and continues to represent. The assertion of Black Lives Matters is so important because it is an ethos counteracting the very real status of how black lives are treated in America - from disproportionate jailing and profiling to being othered and discriminated against in our daily lives.
Jeff Sessions calls the fatal attack ‘domestic terrorism’, Trump then said in a statement 'You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That's what I'd call it. Because there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism?’ He seriously asked that before landing on 'And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible inexcusable thing.’
As if there is a question that needs answering, as if there is a need for detective work in the face of a dead activist, all of it caught on videotape and the driver in custody, a 20 year old white supremacist whose mother called the cops on him twice because he beat her.
There is this tendency to want blame the acts of the white supremacists and neo-nazis on Donald Trump, to make him the scapegoat. But that is looking at it completely in reverse. Donald Trump is a product of the same racist system that caused the rally and the subsequent domestic terrorism. He isn’t the first Trump to be associated with racist white supremacist groups. His father was arrested at a KKK rally. David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, thanked Donald Trump for ‘condemning leftist terrorists’. Donald and his father was sued in 1973 for systematically discriminating against black people when it came to housing. Racism and the Trumps go way back. It makes absolute sense that he took two days to condemn the white nationalists. It makes even more sense that he went on TV, Tuesday, August 15, and essentially took it all back. He has a base to keep happy. As a lead white supremacist, Matthew Heimbach, said "Our values, and the ones that helped get Trump elected, can’t be compromised on”
Racism in America has been around as long as America has been around. America was founded on the systematic genocide of indigenous people and then built on the backs and births of kidnapped black folks. There is no period in our history that isn’t tainted with the racism and intolerance that caused the death of Heather Heyer on this past Saturday, August 12.
There has been a persistent desire by the right to simultaneously take liberties from the common man and suppress their right to protest and fight against the taking of those rights. As of February of this year, 'Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to curb protesting in at least 18 states'. It’s no coincidence that at the protests in response to Donald Trump being elected President, despite losing the popular vote, hundreds of people were arrested and, for the first time ‘in modern times’, they found themselves charged with felony charges, often stacked charges with decades of prison time attached, this done in order to pressure the protesters to take a plea deal, despite their innocence. After the massive protests of the Keystone XL pipeline, Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, lawmakers have introduced key legislation with the hopes of lessening the effects of large protests. There has been legislation introduced that seeks to criminalize demonstrations, the blocking of traffic and protests that require extra policing. They’re also considering bills that would levee harsh penalties on protests-turned-riots. Which on its face sounds reasonable but this would undoubtedly be abused by calling even a peaceful protest a riot and then responding in kind. The reason in the running for these measures are 'the protection of property' a reasoning that goes well in hand with the usual property-over-people prioritization of the elite and the right. Time reports that according to T.V. Reed, these types of proposals are unprecedented in his 40 years of studying protests. Reed is an English professor at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest. He also goes on to state that they’re un-American. But honestly, this type of systematic oppression is actually eerily American in practice.
Slow Violence is a term used by Rob Nixon in his book, 'Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor’, to describe how 'The violence wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly’. But there is an equally dangerous war of a similar methodology being waged on civil liberties in America. A war that over time, from the Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the New Jim Crow, to the War on Drugs, to now with the demonizing of Mexicans, immigrants and Muslims, has systematically worked to remove independence and rights from people of color and the poor, from LGBTQ to persons labeled with psychiatric disabilities, from those with different religious backgrounds or heritages. As early as a few weeks ago, Donald Trump attempted to remove Trans people's right to serve in the armed forces from the table. That was a tweet that was met with 'fire and fury', to send his words back at him.
Day to day I am learning more and more the importance of staying informed and being active. I am learning the importance of connecting with friends and the people in your community to go out and act. That is the best way to fight the tide of slow violence, of the seemingly endless assault on all sides that leaves us outraged, saddened and even paralyzed in disbelief.
Hope is found in action. Get informed, figure out how you can help using the gifts and strengths that YOU have. It may seem simple, marching, protesting, writing your senators - but there are strengths in numbers. It's about all of us creating a grassroots movement for change.