Charlottesville

An Experience in 5 Parts

“Last night at the torch walk, there were hundreds and hundreds of us. People realized they are not itemized individuals, they are part of a larger whole…and now as you can see today, we greatly outnumbered the anti-white, anti-American filth. And at some point we will have enough power that we will clear them from the streets forever.” — Robert ‘Azzmador’ Ray, Neo-Nazi

Photo Credit: Jordy Yager

1. Whiteness.

I saw so much white supremacy in action this weekend, and I’m not just talking about David Duke and Richard Spencer. The white supremacy I saw was in the absence of so many white protestors.

White people love to be safe. We love safety so much that we created an entire country around it. For the vast majority of America’s history, the laws and movements of people were designed to privilege white people’s safety and success. Whiteness instinctively preserves its own safety. It doesn’t want to go where things might be dangerous. But it is a privilege of whiteness to choose safety. It is a privilege of whiteness to say, “avoid this area because it will be dangerous.” It is a privilege of whiteness to say that a non-specific threat is enough of a reason to not show up. It is a privilege of whiteness to stay comfortably at home, when there is a non-specific threat against black lives every time they drive cars, walk down streets, sleep in their beds, shop at the store, and play in the park.

White people have the freedom to choose danger, and to choose to avoid it is a privilege. When it came to August 11–13th, I would go so far as to suggest that choosing safety over presence was actually a choice to uphold white supremacy, because it was a choice to rest in the safety that whiteness gives.

2. Terror

On Friday night we heard the chanting of the torch bearers. Their deep voices traveled down the street, reaching the front porch of the church, where we stood. We watched the videos that were livestreaming, and we were shocked by the long trail of flame that stretched across the Lawn.

“There are so many of them,” I said over and over as I watched and listened. There were so many of them. They were so proud in their hate. So threatening in their demeanor, so smug in their whiteness. And they had waited for us. They had delayed their torch rally to be present with us. They wanted to intimidate us when we left the church. They knew the power of showing up by the hundreds. Inside, we had delayed our ending, singing and stomping our feet, hoping to outlast them. I felt as if I had dropped into a movie set in 1960. In the end, they decided not to pay the church a visit, staying by the statue instead. Some of us stood on the porch, listening, watching, until those handful of us left were locked inside the church, in the name of safety and in the spirit of fear.

The torch bearers were terrifying, and I realized then just how vulnerable we were, and would be all weekend. This wasn’t a game. This wasn’t theoretics. This wasn’t just a free speech rally. Their presence was an immediate danger to everyone. I felt exposed and at risk simply by being in my city.

Throughout the weekend, I knew the potential for a mass shooting or an IED explosion was ever-present. During the church service, I prepared for a bomb, for a shooting. I saw a ProudBoy inside the service, live-streaming. I saw someone call for us to be driven out of the church like moneychangers. Everywhere I walked this weekend, I did so with nerves on the highest alert, knowing that if something were to happen, no one could stop it.

3. Courage.

But hate and fear was not the only story here. I also saw immense courage by so many people. On August 12, I saw people of all colors, of all faiths, standing together in tangible, important, and inclusive ways. We know white supremacy has always been a part of Charlottesville’s story, but so has resistance. From the Jefferson School to the Four Hundreds to the Charlottesville Twelve, black people have always been resisting and remaining in the face of those who tried to bulldoze them out of the story. They are still here, the witnesses to the racial trauma that is Charlottesville, the ones who have been re-traumatized by this weekend, and there are more of them. Younger ones who showed up, bravely claiming their city in the face of those who want to subjugate them once again.

Did you know there was a community march on Saturday morning?

You probably have not seen many pictures of this march. This one, led by Black Lives Matter, was made up of people in the community. Photos don’t show the whole story, and sometimes, the absence of photos is also a story. How many pictures of the clergy linked arm in arm have you seen? Probably many.

The clergy who answered the call to show up against white supremacy were absolutely incredible Friday night, and Saturday during the day. But most of the clergy in the photographs did not participate in the community march. It is telling to me that I had to search high and low for photographs of the community march, and the ones I found are not the gorgeous professional pictures we are used to seeing. Black-led resistance apparently doesn’t garner the same kind of press coverage as white resistance does.

Saturday morning we gather at the historic Jefferson School, and in the midst of the terror that was the weekend, black community leader Don Gathers stands and tells us this is a party. Our march is not a funeral, he says. This is a joyful day because we are claiming our city for what is good and true. “They are not welcome here! They do not belong here! This is our city,” he says. Someone yells, “whose streets?” We roar in response, “our streets!”

We march up the road and as we get near McGuffey Park, I hear chanting. We walk up the steps and I see black vice-mayor Dr. Wes Bellamy, the man who has endured so much hate, threats, and trolling over this issue, leading chants against white supremacy.

Black activists, some of whom traveled here for this day, get up and speak. They name the reason we are here. White supremacy. They quote Baldwin and Ellison.

UVA professor A.D. Carson reads a poem, Good Mourning, America, saying:

“America, for as long as it has existed, openly endorsed terror,

and rode the wave of fear that followed to super-powered dominance,

domestically and abroad.”

In the face of evil, they stand and name it.

There were Episcopal priests, Rabbis, Black community leaders, city officials and more gathered together. After the march and speeches, I hung out in the road, around the BLM people. It felt like a march of some kind was imminent, but it also felt unsafe, so we stood and waited, knowing violence at the park was occurring. (Eventually they would have their march, and it would be celebratory. It would be tragic.) White supremacists walked by, shouting angry, vile things. I cannot describe how surreal it is to see an internet troll come to life. It was not the words themselves that were so shocking; it was the lack of shame — the pride even, in shouting them, and the anger that was behind them. The terror was in knowing that when people were that angry, with that many weapons, that anything could happen. They were not afraid to say those things. They were not embarrassed. There was no sense of human decency, and how does one handle human indecency?

I think that has been one of the most shocking things to me. There are indecent human beings out there, who don’t even hide behind their fear as an excuse for hate. They are just angry and mean and dangerous, and unashamed of their belligerence. How do you feel safe when that exists? How can you not look suspiciously at anyone who fits that white male demographic?

But as we stood waiting, a black man in the Black Lives Matter t-shirt with a bullhorn began laughing at them as they walked by. “You guys look ridiculous,” he said. The BLM group booed them, taunted them, laughed, appearing unafraid. “We’re Charlottesville,” they said. “Get the fuck out of our town.”

4. Anger.

After the courage I saw by so many black people Saturday morning, I had so much extra anger at white people. I felt in danger because of their absence. I knew that if thousands of white people had clogged the streets to outnumber the Nazis, that the point would have been made that they were unwelcome, outnumbered, outdated. White supremacists and activists of color both understand that this is a power struggle, and that showing up matters.

Look at the photos of the clergy march.

Photo Credit: Jordy Yager

Look behind the clergy. Do you see it? Do you see the open air? The lack of people behind them? Where are all the white male pastors? Where are those people who are most respected by white supremacists, and therefore the least vulnerable to confront them? Where are all of the religious people who have been commanded to resist evil, to lay down their lives for their neighbor? Is there not 1000 righteous clergy to be found in the United States? White people have to get used to the idea that, like Confederate statues, safety and comfort are not worth preserving.

For decades, people of color have been asking for white allies to show up. To join in solidarity with them in fighting white supremacy and anti-blackness. And when the threat was the strongest, and marginalized lives were most at risk, white people did not show up in the numbers that they could have, should have. I sat in a meeting this week where black people confessed their inability to trust white people again. They are afraid of us, and for good reason. So often white people prioritize white concerns, white fears, white victims.

I am angry that what happened is not enough. That white people are still defending Nazis. That people are reducing this to ‘haters gonna hate’ as a means of avoiding responsibility for their role in this. As if this can be boiled down to hate and love, and not power and fear, injustice and resistance. I am angry that people act as if this arose spontaneously. As if Nazis and neo-Nazis emerged out of thin air. As if those who voted for this are innocent. As if no one warned them for a solid year that this is what their votes were supporting. As if they bear no responsibility for the President, the Attorney General, and the immoral laws and policies that arise from them.

People say they want peace. But peace, although admirable, is not the goal. Justice is, and so often only comes after situations that, to white people, are decidedly unpeaceful. It is peaceful for clergy to stay home and tell their congregants to pray and not confront. But that does not change things. It is peaceful to refuse to hold governmental authorities accountable. But justice is not meted out by the status quo. It is not wrong to be afraid, but we have got to get into the practice of showing up anyway, in spite of the fear. In spite of the threats. There are many ways to defeat white supremacy, but sometimes it does mean showing up on the front lines.

I am angry because this courage has been here and for so long it hasn’t mattered to white people. This resistance has always been present in C’ville and in this country. It has always been here, but it has been increasingly visible for the last 3 years. 3 years! 3 years of people dying, cops lying, protests and marches and arrests and t-shirts and slogans, in a highly visible ever-present way. 3 years of whiteness plugging its ears to the cries around it. 3 years of white christians doubling down on their centuries-long support of whiteness, hate, and oppression. 3 fucking years of Black Lives Matter and white people still act as if even the ability to be empathetic is too much of a burden. It makes me angry.

5. Hope.

But after this experience, I am also hopeful. For the people who were here, who organized and planned and showed up, this experience has been good. Hard. Traumatic. Eye-opening. But good in the truest sense of the word; that which is morally right. The clergy, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and ordinary white citizens showed us what showing up and speaking honestly looked like. They were brave with their presence. We need more people to follow their lead.

The sense of community has been real. Over the summer I have seen hundreds of white people show up to listen and learn from black leaders. People are in solidarity, and working in different ways to create change. White people are waking up and are willing to learn.

Going through a traumatic event will change you. Knowing that your safety lies in the hands of your neighbors, not the cops, will change you. Knowing that there are people in the community who are willing to put their lives literally on the line for others can change a community, make it bolder, braver, better. Engaging in justice work will change you. People say this is a wake-up call to white people, and the ones who have answered the phone realize that it has been an exercise in privilege to have waited so long.

But look at what you get to do. You have the ability to stare evil in the eye and watch it flee. Whether you are willing to absorb physical violence, or need to stand on the sidewalk, whether you stand silently or chant loudly, there is a place for you to show up and to claim our city in the name of diversity and love.

In spite of our terror, some of us showed up. In spite of terrorism, we continue to show up. There are people here, of all races and faiths, who will fight for this city to be a place of safety for everyone, and who have the courage to name the injustice for what it is.

But there is more work to do, and there is room for so many more people. Join us.

american & religious studies. liberal episcopalian. studies whiteness in evangelical pop culture. older than I look. infj. 5w4. UVA BA ‘20/MA ‘22