Two years ago this week, white nationalists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of them murdered a peaceful protester, Heather Heyer, 32, by ramming her with his car. These things should be on the public’s mind as mourners continue to bury those murdered last week in El Paso and Dayton.
Despite the short attention span of much of the media today, these events have deep meaning to Americans.
The riot in Charlottesville two years ago was our watershed moment when the underground white nationalist movement emerged from the dark recesses of the Internet and savagely, boldly proclaimed racial hatred.
We haven’t seen the likes of it for close to half a century. It followed after the massacre at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist.
In Charlottesville, white nationalist marchers yelled racial, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs at individuals who lined the streets, some shouting words that might not be legally protected by free speech. They even chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” a Nazi slogan.
Where are we as a nation two years later? Where, spiritually, are the people of Charlottesville, whose citizens absorbed the body blow? How do we continue the healing that needs to take place amid the deadly partisan rancor that overtakes our “teachable moments”?
A little over two months after the white nationalist riot, Charlottesville held elections. One of the newly elected is Charlottesville Vice Mayor Heather Hill. In an interview this month, she explained the source of the tension that brought white nationalists and people “from far and wide” to Charlottesville in 2017: statues in public parks honoring Civil War generals.
“You have to strike the right balance,” Hill told a conservative media outlet. “…We want to learn from our history, but you know what, there are parts of our history we don’t want to continue to elevate.”
Hill’s willingness to strike a balance, and make herself accessible to a partisan publication is part of the Charlottesville spirit that is alive today.
The imminent removal of statues of Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson brought the protesters to Charlottesville in 2016.
Today, the statues remain in the city’s public parks – under order of Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore, who says they’re protected as war memorials.” Litigation by multiple parties continues.
That’s the spirit of the rule of law, working as it does by inches, without rioting.
The federal government became involved in the Charlottesville white nationalist riots when President Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides.” That comment proved controversial since those marchers in favor of removing the statues had neither rioted nor harmed anyone. What of the white nationalists? Were they emboldened when our president referred to their participation as very fine people?
Under the name, “Unite the Right,” white nationalists filed to hold an anniversary rally this year at the same location where the rioting occurred two years ago. The city refused to grant the group a permit, citing the public’s safety. The group is suing the city, defiant in spirit.
Yet there are multiple spirits in Charlottesville on this second anniversary.
This year, there are officers on foot, bicycles, and motorcycles, circulating among the citizens attending some eighty events.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of officers working to keep Charlottesville a safe haven during their “time of healing and reflection.” Their spirit is humble and strong.
Elly Tucker, a committee member of C’ville Sing Out! told CBS, “When we come together, we come together with beautiful voices and harmony and do it with unity and with diversity.”
Another C’ville committee member, Alvin Edwards, said the singing “can be felt across the races, denominations, religions – it crosses everything, You're on a level playing field. Everybody is singing whether you can carry a tune in a bucket or not."
These spirits are uplifting and healing.
The University of Virginia, on the doorstep of Charlottesville, is dealing with their own legacy of racism. Their spirit is reflective.
Our current president has held up the man who founded the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, citing him as a slaveholder like Robert E. Lee, but one whom we still honor.
Unlike Lee, however, Jefferson publicly confessed slavery to be wrong. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” he said of the slavery issue. His spirit turned out to be enlightened. What about white nationalism? It is a global movement working to ensure that the “white race” survives.
Are supporters using the migrant crisis to mobilize a global movement to arm white people to ensure a dominant status? While decrying slavery, is our president aiding white nationalists in their cause? If so, he is not alone; other “nationalist” leaders around the world are mimicking this nationalist behavior. Think Brexit. And think Germany where immigrants have been beaten.
I grew up in the segregated south; I know racism and bigotry. What I see now is different. This white nationalist movement is beyond the nasty hatred and bigotry that I witnessed.
More than fifty years ago blacks and whites joined hands, sat down together and forced a nation to reckon with our original sin.
We must look to the spirit of Charlottesville — reflection, enlightenment, humility, reconciliation and above all else hope in a future where we all can live side by side together. It must prevail if we are to survive as a nation.