Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock inside a cave at the bottom of the Mariana Trench for the past few days, you should be well aware of the violence and tragedy that occurred this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. After such a terrible event, one would think that in a sane world, we would be able to unite against such blind, irrational hatred — similar to the way we all did after 9/11. But apparently we don’t live in a sane world. Instead, the rally and ensuring protests have become a lightning rod for all the political divisiveness that has been brewing in our country in recent years. Over the weekend, that little town became almost a microcosm of what we’ve become as Americans, and frankly, it’s disturbing.
Now, I think the first thing to do, before discussing anything else, is to put together a detailed history of what actually happened in Charlottesville. Therefore, below you will find what I believe to be a factual, unbiased timeline of events:
- In June 2016, Lee Park in Charlottesville was renamed Emancipation Park. This was done after a unanimous vote by the city council, although it did cause considerable controvesy among the locals.
- On May 13, 2017, white supremacist Richard Spencer led the “Take Back Lee Park” rally, a protest against the city’s plans to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from the park. The event involved protesters holding torches near the statue.
- On July 8, 2017, about 50 members of the KKK held another rally in Charlottesville, which was opposed by roughly 1,000 counterprotesters. The rally was loud but non-violent, and the KKK members disbursed after only 45 minutes.
- On August 11-12, 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally drew protesters from numerous white supremacist and alt-right groups, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, outlaw bikers, neo-Confederates, and anti-government militia members. It was called “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” A number of different groups also marched in counterprotest, all united by their opposition to white supremacy. A large number of the counterprotesters were simply ordinary residents of Charlottesville, along with faith-based groups, civil rights organizations, and farther left groups such as Black Lives Matter, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Antifa.
- While the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally did apply for and receive a permit for the event, the Charlottesville government forcibly relocated the rally from Emancipation Park to the larger McIntire Park, citing safety concerns and logistical issues. The organizers filed a lawsuit in response, and on the night before the rally, they were granted an emergency injunction declaring that the rally could be held at Emancipation Park as originally scheduled. Counterprotesters ultimately obtained permits to gather at McGuffey Park and Justice Park.
- Tensions increased on the evening of August 11, 2017, when a group of nearly 100 white nationalists (many wielding torches) marched through the University of Virginia’s campus while chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans. These men then surrounded a smaller group of counterprotesters and a brawl ensued. Following the outbreak of violence, police declared the assembly to be unlawful and brought an end to the gathering.
- On August 12, 2017, protesters and counterprotesters gathered at Emancipation Park in anticipation of the rally. White nationalist protesters chanted racist slogans and waved Nazi and Confederate flags. Counterprotests in opposition to the white nationalists began with an interfaith, interracial group of clergy who linked arms, prayed, and sang songs of peace. However, later in the day, militant leftist groups chanted such slogans as “Kill All Nazis,” and it was reported that Antifa protestors at the rally carried sticks and clubs.
- Beginning in the morning, ahead of the rally’s official noon start time, numerous street brawls broke out between protesters and counterprotesters, and by 11:00am, the city had declared a state of emergency.
- Shortly before the rally had been scheduled to begin, Virginia State Police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly via megaphones, and riot police cleared the scene. Then about 100 protesters moved to nearby McIntire Park to hear the speakers that had come for the canceled rally. The weekend’s violence came to a head at about 1:45pm, when 20-year-old James Fields drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring 19 and killing one, 32-year-old Heather Heyer. This crime has been described by many as act of domestic terrorism.
I think it’s important to address the two most common dismissive responses to these protests I’ve heard from many people on the political right. Yes, the initial spark for this particular set of events was the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. Now, we can certainly have the discussion about Robert E. Lee’s rather complex (to say the least) views on race relations — on one hand, he was personally opposed to slavery and notably wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil,” but on the other hand, he also believed that it served some good because “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially.” Either way, I think the truly important story here is not the statue itself. While it is important to know and understand our shared history, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes we need to be willing to give up certain things in order to make our friends and neighbors feel safe, respected, and loved.
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” – 1 Corinthians 8:9-13
I think it’s safe to say that those of us who live in the South grew up around varying opinions of, say, the Confederate flag. A lot of us innocently watched reruns of shows like The Dukes of Hazzard (a perfectly good TV series, by the way) without thinking twice about iconography that others might find controversial. We may have close friends and family members — without a hateful or racist bone in their bodies — who view the “Stars and Bars” merely as a symbol of states’ rights and Southern pride. But others, specifically black Americans, tend to look at the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and oppression. See, that’s the thing about symbols — they can mean different things to different people. For instance, to the average American, holding up your first two fingers in a V-shape is just the peace sign, or more colloquially, “throwin’ the deuce.” But for a British person, it’s known as the “Longbowman’s Salute,” and it’s an insult analogous to giving someone the finger.
My point is that we need to learn to be sensitive to symbols, statements, images, etc. that may be hurtful or traumatic to those around us, even if we don’t intend them to be. That’s one of the ways to love your neighbor as yourself (ya know, I seem to recall somebody really important issuing that commandment). I personally learned this lesson the hard way, after years as husband to a brave, beautiful woman still struggling with depression and the long-term scars of childhood sexual abuse. You see, what we say or do may be completely innocuous and within our rights, but if it “causes our brother to stumble” — as the Apostle Paul wrote — then those negative results become our responsibility. We may think our neighbor’s reaction to something so seemingly innocent is over-the-top, unwarranted, or even ridiculous, but we have to remember that whatever pain they’re feeling is still real, and being dismissive of that pain only makes things worse.
So am I advocating the forced nationwide removal of all paintings, statues, murals, etc. honoring or even depicting Civil War figures? No, of course not. I’m simply saying that we need to be open-minded and sensitive to the “soft spots” in others so we can love them instead of alienating them. We need to avoid getting angry or defensive in these situations and instead try to see things from an opposing point of view. And believe me, I’m not preaching here. I’m just as guilty as anyone else.
Learning to be emotionally (and in this case racially) sensitive is certainly important, but it’s not the element of this weekend’s tragic events that has disturbed me the most. This should go without saying, but it’s rather disheartening that there are still people walking around in this country, in this day and age, waving Nazi flags and saluting Hitler. That’s far scarier to me than any debate over an historical monument. And now an innocent woman has been killed by some diseased maniac with an axe to grind. So no matter how this issue began, that’s where it ought to end — Americans from all ends of political spectrum uniting against fascism and racial hatred.
But sadly, that’s not what happened.
Because these white supremacist groups have associated themselves with the political and religious right, many of those who tend to fall on that side of the spectrum got defensive and have since only exacerbated the divide in our nation. Instead of simply acknowledging the tragedy and uniting behind the victims, many have responded by equivocating, something I’ve been all-too guilty of myself in the past. It’s called the “tu quoque” (you also) logical fallacy, and it essentially seeks to deflect or diminish a particular criticism by turning it back on the other side and saying, “Yeah, but what about this person or group and what they did?” The problem is that it’s irrelevant. Sure, there’s often racism and violence that comes from all sides, but the story right now is what happened over the weekend in Charlottesville. And personally, I’m less concerned with people being offended over a statue than I am about actual Nazis running around spewing their bile and intentionally hurting people.
This afternoon, President Trump held one of his trademark ill-advised, combative press conferences, and he defended the protesters, saying: “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.” He refused to take a hard stance and said there were “very fine people on both sides.” But no matter our political affiliation, we should all find this statement totally ludicrous. I think Jimmy Kimmel said it best on his show last night: “So here’s the thing. If you’re with a group and they’re chanting things like, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and you don’t immediately leave that group, you are not a ‘very fine’ person.”
Now, were there also a few left-wing groups at the rally who engaged in violence? Yes, there were. Antifa, for instance (a loose anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movement), is well known for using militant protest tactics, including property damage and physical violence. And their members, along with those of other groups, certainly did get into street fights with some of the white supremacist protesters at the rally. But here’s the thing — as much as I oppose radical leftist politics, holding such views does not automatically make their members part of a hate group, or even morally wrong, per se. Could they possibly engage in hateful or militant behavior on behalf of those views? Sure they could. They sometimes do. But the KKK? Neo-Nazis? Yeah… those groups are inherently evil. They just are. And any alignment with them is indefensible. Even if no violence whatsoever had occurred over the weekend, the idea of a massive gathering of racist hate groups should have rightfully caused outrage in everyone with a moral backbone, be they liberal, conservative, Christian, atheist, gay, straight, or little purple squid creatures from the planet Zoltar.
That’s what so many people on the political right seem to be missing. It’s not simply the violence in Charlottesville that we ought to find disturbing; rather, it’s the very existence of these white supremacist groups, their recently reinvigorated position in the national spotlight, and the disconcerting reasons why they suddenly feel so emboldened. So please, stop talking about Antifa, or BLM, or whichever leftist group happens to tickle your fancy at the moment. Let’s put aside our political allegiances for a minute and unite as Americans (or just decent human beings) against ideologies that are completely defined by their rage and hatred, be it racial, cultural, religious, or otherwise.