At ground zero in Charlottesville: time to stop making compromises with racism
I sat in the sweltering side-chapel of St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church on a humid Friday evening in Charlottesville, listening to the Reverend Traci Blackmon preach a fiery sermon. A large multi-ethnic, inter-faith group had gathered here, across the street from the central Grounds of the historic University of Virginia, to sing, pray, organize, and prepare for what was certain to be a traumatic day ahead. Standing on the church’s front steps, one has a clear view of the magnificent red-bricked Rotunda and of its architect, Thomas Jefferson—President, humanist, slaveholder. Inside, Rev. Blackmon held forth on the subject of racial justice, expounding on the biblical story of David, the young boy, and Goliath, the giant and fierce soldier he defeated. She reflected on her childhood in Alabama and the terror she had experienced when the Klan marched through the streets of her town. And here she was, decades later, readying herself once again for an invasion of violent white men. (We did not know that as she was speaking a crowd of hundreds of white supremacists were marching with lit torches, in the style of the Klan, to Jefferson’s statue across the street.) She lamented that the Goliath of racism had not yet been defeated. And why, she asked, had it not been defeated? Because, unlike David, “We haven’t cut off the head.” We scuffle with it, we denounce it, but we also excuse it, we justify it. We give it space to recover.
I was at home the following afternoon when Donald Trump made a brief statement from his vacation spot in New Jersey on the violence gripping Charlottesville—a town which is less than 100 miles from the nation’s capital. After a rambling introduction, he issued a condemnation of the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.” Being president is a difficult job. You have to speak on behalf of multiple constituencies, which often have competing agendas. Words need to be chosen with exceptional care so as not to offend, especially when members of a group commit an act of terror. So one would imagine that being presented with a situation in which the terrorists in question were self-proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists, one of whom just hours earlier had plowed his car into a group of protestors, a president would be relieved at the moral clarity the situation offered. There’s no easier political statement to make than “Nazis who kill people are bad.” On Monday, he finally condemned white supremacists, only to walk that back on Tuesday afternoon, when he said there were both people at fault and “very fine people on both sides.” For a president with collapsing approval ratings, this would be an opportune moment to present himself as a firm leader and defender of American values. And yet.
It’s true that Trump stood largely alone among national Republican figures. The arch-conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz unequivocally condemned “white supremacists,” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge, immediately declared the car attack an act of domestic terrorism. But this is misleading, because most Republican politicians are out of touch with the values of their core supporters, and they still inhabit an America where condemning Nazis seems like the obvious thing to do. We do not yet have scientific polling data, but there is good reason to believe that Trump’s initial “on many sides” statement is closer to the Republican base than are the condemnations of his colleagues in Congress. The conservative mood seems to be: “What about ‘Antifa’—the antifascist groups—or Black Lives Matter?” This sentiment is everywhere on conservative media outlets, like Breitbart and The Blaze, and I have encountered it in nearly every Facebook or Twitter thread I have read. At some point, someone will declare, “the Left is just as bad,” or, more perniciously, “the counter-protestors started it.” The poor Nazis were just defending themselves.
This stubborn assertion is as spurious as it is easily debunked. On that humid Friday evening, hundreds of white supremacists marched through the central Grounds of the University to the statue of Thomas Jefferson, wielding torches and aggressively chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” (“Blut und Boden”). They encountered a small group of about 30 totally unarmed students peacefully protesting this invasion of their campus, and they immediately began to threaten them with their torches. The students were spared from serious injury only because of the intervention of two faculty members, who ushered them to safety. This was all captured on video, and none of it is in question.
Since the violence broke out very quickly on Saturday, it is more difficult to establish a sequence of events. But I had the opportunity to spend time with antifascist and anarchist protestors on Saturday morning at First United Methodist Church, which sits across the street from Emancipation Park (the site of the rally) and served as home base for counter-protestors of all affiliations. Those whom I met were genuinely interested in protecting peaceful protestors from violent attack, and they were not there spoiling for a fight. They stood guard outside the church parking lot as we were singing Spirituals when the Nazis walked by, and friends of mine on the front lines of the counter-protest say, without exaggeration, that antifascists saved their lives when the violence erupted. As for Black Lives Matter, most of their representatives were clergy, faculty, and community organizers, who were part of the peaceful counter-demonstration. It is astounding that so many people seem so unwilling to believe that avowed Nazis, who had only the night before attacked unarmed students, could have thrown the first stone.
Despite all of the complicity of the Republican Party, it would be foolish to blame America’s resurgent racism entirely on partisan politics. The rot runs far deeper than this. Many moderate and progressive whites have expressed their own forms of equivocation. Since the rally was ostensibly called to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, they have trained their anger on the city councilors who advocated for its removal. For context, the statue, erected not in the 1860s in the wake of the Civil War, but in the 1920s at the height of the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, was meant to inspire terror in Charlottesville’s newly-prosperous African-American community in the Vinegar Hill neighbourhood. It is a monument not to “Southern pride,” but to American apartheid.
Calls for its removal brought simmering racial tensions to the light of day. Many openly disavowed the racist history of the statue and of the Confederacy, while simultaneously raging at councilors Kristen Szakos and Wes Bellamy (the vice-mayor and only African-American member) for stirring up trouble. In a shockingly irresponsible editorial, our local newspaper, The Daily Progress, placed the blame squarely on Dr. Bellamy’s shoulders for having “dropped a match on a gas field.” The editorial seems entirely unconcerned with the fact that there’s a proverbial gas field covering the city, and in a twist of racist irony, it ignores Ms. Szakos, who is white and who led the charge to remove the statues long before Dr. Bellamy’s election. Many white moderates and progressives are happy to oppose racism, but only when that opposition doesn’t expose them to any danger. The fear is understandable—our town, after all, was occupied by armed thugs for a weekend in response—but refusing to blame the perpetrators for their actions only compounds the problem. Sooner or later something was going to set that gas ablaze.
It is easy for progressives, especially for those of us who are white, to lose ourselves in self-righteous indignation at the cartoonishly malevolent attempts by Donald Trump to praise the “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville. Of course, such statements are repugnant, dangerous and to be swiftly condemned, but we would not have a president spouting such drivel if there were not more subtle, deeply-entrenched forms of racial prejudice in our society, which need to be pulled out root and branch. The Nazis will come back to Charlottesville one day to terrorize us again. We know this because they have told us they will. When they do, they will find us better organized and with a greater resolve to resist them. Their rally on 12th August did not “Unite the Right,” but it most certainly united the Left. But this is not the hardest part. The real work lies in responding to and resisting those millions of Americans who cannot see the difference between white supremacists and anti-racist activists or those who blame the victims for the acts of the aggressors. The real work lies in the confrontation with the prejudices that lurk in our own hearts. The real work lies in cutting off the head.