Charlottesville confronting white supremacy and hate

Helena CobbanBlog, culture, Peace resources, U.S. politics

This weekend, for the third time this year, our home-city of Charlottesville has been the target of a campaign by leaders of the hate-filled “Alt-Rights” and their associates to claim the space of this city as their own. Yesterday, one of their apparent supporters, who had driven here from Ohio, plowed his car into a group of anti-hate protesters very near to the downtown mall that is the heart of our city, killing one woman (32-year-old Heather Heyer) and injuring more than a dozen others.

Another, more indirect, result of the haters’ provocative convergence on Charlottesville was that a state police helicopter that had been circling over downtown for many hours later crashed a little east of town, killing two state troopers.

Our city authorities in Charlottesville had previously tried to limit the damage that the Alt-Right’s arrival in a town that strongly repudiates their hate-filled message would quite predictably cause, by giving them a permit to meet only in a park around 2/3 mile north of downtown, McIntyre Park. There, their free-speech rights could be more easily protected.

But a federal judge had overturned that decree, ruling that the Alt-Right should be allowed to gather from noon through 5 pm yesterday in the much smaller and more centrally located Emancipation Park, which until recently was named for the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, one source of the haters’ adulation.

Here in Charlottesville, the fears of most city residents about the true nature of the Alt-Right were sickeningly vindicated on Friday evening: Around 200 Alt-Righters bearing flaming torches evocative of whole long, sick history of the Ku Klux Klan arrived at the historic “Grounds” of the University of Virginia, parading along the length of the central lawn and brawling seriously with some anti-hate student activists along the way.

But still, the federal government insisted the Alt-Right be allowed to hold their “rally” in Emancipation Park.

My fellow-members of Charlottesville Friends Meeting (CFM, or Quakers) and I had been discussing the situation and what actions Quakers should take, for some time already. CFM has been closely woven into the community life and social-activism scene of the city since it was established here some 70 years ago. Five weeks ago, there had been a smaller Alt-Right convergence on Charlottesville, at which the Virginia State Police had clearly appeared to use excessive violence and police action– not against the fairly heavily-armed haters, but against those protesting their presence.

Three weeks ago, a prescient anti-hate activist obtained permits from the city to hold anti-hate rallies and activities in two other parks near the downtown area, McGuffey Park and Justice (formerly Jackson) Park. These parks somewhat bracket Emancipation Park; all three parks are fairly small, each occupying around one small city block. All the city’s churches (Black and “White”) and other faith communities stood strongly against the haters, as did the local chapters of Black Lives Matter, the C’ville Center for Peace and Justice, and other community groups. A whole series of activities was organized for Saturday, starting with a sunrise worship service at the historic Black church, First Baptist on West Main St.

Individual Quakers were involved in a broad range of these activities including staffing a medical tent set up to serve protesters in McGuffey Park. The Peace & Social Concerns Committee of our Quaker meeting made a number of decisions regarding what the meeting might do in a corporate way:

  • We would unambiguously join the protest against the arrival of the haters, while stressing that there is “that of God” even in people who hate and terrorize others;
  • We would hold an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting for Worship in one of the protest spaces, which would be a way to (quietly) assert the importance of holding space for peace and love even as we struggle for justice;
  • We would “announce” our presence by wearing tee-shirts that would define us.

The photo at the head of this blog-post shows a portion of the Meeting for Worship that we held in Justice Park,starting at around 10:15am– actually, 20 minutes before its scheduled start-time. Throughout most of the “scheduled” time of the worship, some 45 people were part of it.

For me, it was a unique experience. I have never before been in a Quaker meeting that had a police helicopter circling close overhead, with all the horrendous noise and sense of disquiet that that inflicts. (I thought my friends in Gaza would well understand how this felt.)

Plus, we had found a shady, relatively quiet space over at the side of Justice Park– but in other parts of the park some fairly noisy groups of anti-hate activists were coming and going. Every so often they would see a gaggle of Alt-Righters walking along the street bounding the park and would run over to the edge of our park to start yelling at them “Nazi scum! Get off our streets!” At one point an impromptu marching band made up of pro-equality students from UVA came through the park, very close to us as we sat in silent worship there, banging loudly with their drums and cymbals and playing something unrecognizable with their brass instruments!

Someone from the meeting “closed” our worship at around 11:05am, with the traditional handshake, and then we stood a short while in a circle holding hands. (Personally, I could have gone on worshiping much longer. Silence has a special power, especially in the midst of a ruckus such as that.)

After the Meeting for Worship, I pursued my earlier plan of going back to our home 1.5 miles from downtown, to finish some (JWE-related) work that I needed to get done. I had been with the Quakers at the anti-hate activities since 8 am.

After I left downtown, the situation there got worse, pretty rapidly.

I had seen some of the Alt-Righters as they made their way past our park, to Emancipation Park. Many were heavily armed, with weapons including assault rifles that are quite “legal” to carry in public in this “open carry” state. Some were kitted out in full, camouflaged military gear, including military-style helmets. Others came in other kinds of “uniform” clothing with black or red helmets and large flags bearing Nazi, Confederate, or KKK symbols, and also carrying large sticks or clubs.

On “our” side, there was a strong presence of clergy and faith groups in religious regalia, BLM and associated Black-rights activists, and many other militant younger people, many of whom wore black, with some bearing socialist flags, etc. There was one small group wearing pink helmets. Among all the hundreds of anti-hate people of a broad variety of affiliations that I saw, I saw only one person exercising his “legal” right to bear arms openly.

One group of clergy had the plan to encircle Emancipation Park completely, on the sidewalk that surrounds it– though not to enter it. This led to numerous (quite foreseeable) clashes with the Alt-Rights seeking to break through and enter the park. For a long period, the police– city police, heavily backed up by Virginia State Police, with the Va. National Guard waiting in the wings at the nearby Albemarle County Office Building– seemingly did nothing to break up these clashes. But at around 11am, the city manager reportedly declared a city-wide state of emergency, and shortly before noon the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, announced that the state had declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville and the Alt-Righters’ permit to rally in the park was thereunder revoked.

The police then moved in to clear everyone (that is, the Alt-Righters) out of the park, and they withdrew in some apparent disarray to McIntyre Park.

It was about a couple of hours after that that the young man from Ohio used his car as a weapon to plow into a large group of anti-hate activists who were on Water Street, just south of the downtown mall.

I don’t know what the coming days will bring.

This morning, there was a beautiful, solemn march of local clergy along the streets of downtown to Emancipation Park. For his part, Alt-Right head Jason Kessler has vowed to come back and “take Charlottesville back.” The city policy chief, Al Thomas, is holding without bail the man who had weaponized his car and apparently killed Heather Heyer, saying the police are treating his action as intentional homicide. There may be federal civil-rights charges brought against some of the Alt-Right leaders.

I wish comfort and strength to the family and friends of Heather Heyer and the two VSP troopers who died in the chopper crash… and a speedy recovery to all those injured during yesterday’s assaults.

Our city and state leaders have shown great wisdom and compassion in their statements. The police actions against the haters in downtown yesterday may have come a little late; but given the federal government’s insistence that the Alt-Right had to be allowed to rally in Emancipation Park, it was probably hard for them to act earlier. And when they did act, they did so without causing further injury, which was good.

As for the actions and utterances of our president, they have been very different. Pres. Trump still shelters (indeed honors) numerous high-level supporters of the haters within his White House, and has not yet openly called out the bigotry, hate, and open Nazism that is infecting the United States.

People who want to see some others of the photos (and short videos) that I took yesterday can find them on my personal Twitter feed (@helenacobban.)