On Wednesday night, thousands gathered with candles in hand for a peaceful and uplifting procession and vigil on U.Va.’s historic Lawn, to symbolically “take back” our university from the torch-carrying Neo-Nazis who invaded Thomas Jefferson’s space one week ago. Eight hours earlier, as many as 1,000 people squeezed into the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Charlottesville to honor and celebrate Heather Heyer. Friday and Saturday, thousands more will gather to recognize and mourn two state troopers who died doing their jobs protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth.
The assault on American values embodied in the reprehensible “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last weekend demands that we take stock not only of what it means to be an American, but also about what constitutes leadership in this country. White supremacists and nationalists descended on our progressive town from across the country, some with red “Make America Great” hats, many with helmets, batons, or shields, and more than a few in camouflage with guns and rifles. Their common denominator was hate for those who do not look like them, think like them, or worship like them.
They thought they could intimidate us, and other Americans in the process. They were wrong. They came to weaken us. They did not. And, with one cowardly act by a Ohio man using his car as a weapon of terror, they inflamed a nation that has grown all-too-accustomed to the rhetoric of hate and division. Their attacks left our city deeply shaken, but also strengthened and emboldened to confront the forces of evil and hate they represent.
And while white nationalists may feel encouraged, they are politically damaged. Almost every single elected leader in the country has condemned their actions in the strongest possible terms—except our President, who asserted that some of the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis were “good people” and insisted that counter-protestors were just as responsible for the violence as those who beat them with batons, and constructed homemade battering rams to split and injure their rivals.
- We grieve the terrible losses of Heather Heyer, Lieutenant Jay Cullen, and Trooper Berke Bates, and pray for their families in their time of sorrow.
- We congratulate the courage of UVA students, who defended the statue of Jefferson in the face of torch-carrying supremacists.
- We salute the law enforcement personnel, first responders, emergency technicians, nurses, doctors, and volunteers who provided aid in a chaotic situation.
- We celebrate the clergy, both from Charlottesville and around the country, who bore witness to the power of love to conquer hate.
- And we join this community in solidarity with one another in resistance to white supremacy in all its forms.
Words – Or Silence – Have Consequences
The kind of hate shown last weekend in Charlottesville has been building for decades, but its spread has accelerated since Donald Trump’s candidacy and his election to the Presidency. The President did not initiate last weekend’s events, but his encouragement of violence at his political rallies, his constant criticism and threats directed at political opponents, and his crippling dependence on white nationalists such as Steve Bannon have undoubtedly fed the growing beast of intolerance. His stumbling through Saturday’s press conference without condemning white supremacy, focusing instead on “violence on many sides,” must be described as what it was—a colossal failure of leadership. He attempted to recover on Sunday, but his unscripted Monday comments left the nation reeling, the major exception being people like David Duke and the supremacists themselves. Contrast this with our own Gov. McAuliffe, who declared early and clearly that these ideas have no place in American society. Is Trump responsible for what happened in Charlottesville? No. Did he fuel the fire that led supremacists to Charlottesville? Definitely. And did his Monday press conference forever damage whatever moral authority he might have had and further undermine his Presidency? Undoubtedly.
Political leaders of both parties are repudiating the President every day for his statements about Charlottesville events. With a few notable exceptions, however, Virginia Republicans remain timid and silent. Disavowing a President from your own party is difficult, but he has surrendered the moral high ground on this issue, and continued silence will increasingly be viewed as condonation, a position which will prove untenable to both the party and the person.
What Do We Do Next?
So what is next? Community meetings and demonstrations of support for Charlottesville are happening all over this country. These are linked to efforts at civic engagement and political involvement. At the local level, the debate on statue removal will continue, but it is very difficult to argue that these should remain, as they have now become the rallying point for forces of hate and division, and any possible utility of retaining them to educate the public about the history of slavery and white supremacy has been obliterated by torch-carrying Nazis and an ISIS-style terrorist attack. City and state police have begun a thorough review of the events to determine how law enforcement can do a better job keeping people safe.
At the state level, we are developing executive and legislative actions that address safety while disempowering the white supremacists. Can and should we restrict the ability of citizens to carry weapons during a demonstration? Or after declaration of a state of emergency? Can and should we prohibit what appear to be citizen militias, dressed to give the impression that they are law enforcement and often armed to the teeth, from participating in protests? Shouldn’t the state have a role in issuing permits that may require the deployment of substantial resources to protect the public? Should criminal and civil penalties be increased for those who create this kind of mayhem and violence as part of their protest activity? At the very least, we should amend Va Code section 18.2-287.4 to add Charlottesville to the list of Virginia communities where carrying certain loaded weapons in public areas is prohibited.
Some of these efforts will prove a heavier lift than others. Many will involve serious discussions of the first and second amendments to the U.S. Constitution. But Charlottesville and our Commonwealth are strong, and we can serve as an inspiration to others throughout our nation who seek to cast out hate and violence from their communities. To paraphrase an oft-cited quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” Our country has plenty of good people, and we realize that “doing nothing” is no longer an option.