Friday night, looking at my Facebook feed I was seeing a lot from friends about the white supremacists rally in nearby Charlottesville. And I had an really terrible foreboding feeling well up in my stomach. My gut said no, no one should go. I posted on Facebook kind of warning people, that was how strong the intuition was. I knew I wasn’t going to really stop anyone from going but I felt the urge to try.
Saturday morning I felt conflicted. If this is a major civil rights issue of our era, a pinnacle moment, a line in the sand, I wanted to be there. I did not want to avoid a protest or be silent in the face of hatred. There were a ton of people I love and respect planning on attending. I want my kids to live in a better world, and I want to be proud of the legacy I leave them. Several different religious and political groups I know and respect were making a presence. And hearing more about the tiki torch wielding Nazis from Friday night at UVA, and their intentional use of that fear inducing imagery was really hard. I had a friend message me upset that I was discouraging folks from attending. I felt a lot of pressure to show up. So we made a last minute decision and I threw my medic bag together and we took the baby to his grandma’s house.
We parked strategically away from the sites of protest once in Charlottesville and walked in. I wanted to find the place where some of my friends were meeting in a church. I had been told that earlier that morning things were calm there. Not knowing Charlottesville well we ended up where the white supremacists were gathered being confronted by counter protesters in Emancipation park. I immediately wanted to burst into tears.
The image of the white supremacists rallied there with shields and flags, and the white supremacists throwing some kind of pepper gas or sulfur gas canisters into the crowd was overwhelming. It was such a bizarre and terrible scene. I was not engaged, did not participate in any chants or yelling. I felt just entirely on high alert and full of worry. I have been to many protests in my lifetime, and done my share of hollering. This one I only felt anxiety.
I honestly think maybe things would be better if we all did just stop and grieve when we see this stuff. Like fuck yelling let’s just sit down and cry. Let’s be more human than our enemy. (Up until the point when they actually try to hurt us in a this calls for self defense way). As a society we do not allow enough room for the full range of emotions. And when the emotion we are battling is anger/hate/fear I don’t know if retaliatory anger is useful. I get that this is an incredibly unpopular opinion. I get that.
We only hung out in that area relatively briefly, greeting several friends. The front lines on the border of the park steps and street were a constant battleground with skirmishes back and forth between the two sides. The police soon announced that there was an order to disperse. We could see riot cops with their shields getting into formation. We have no interest in getting arrested so we started to plan where to move next.
It was surreal to see self proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists walking down the street. They had all kinds of symbols painted on homemade wooden shields and flags. The geography of the location made for a lot of intermingling of the sides which was stressful to say the least. It was heart wrenching to see the two sides grappling and tussling with each other. This was exactly a recipe for disaster scenario where the mob mentality and fear/anger on all sides was a disaster waiting to happen. It was awful to watch. I am not a fan of Nazis y’all, but I also don’t have the stomach to see someone beaten to death or anything. The energy was that bad, I was worried that at any point violence would cross the line and a mob would end up killing someone. It was gross. The whole thing was gross.
The option of just holding a place for reason seemed unavailable in Charlottesville today. We found a park where the counter protesters we’re based, and then went to help a friend bring in a bunch of vuvuzelas (plastic horn like noise makers) that were intended to drown out the hate. On our walk to meet them things seemed okay. Then the National Guard marched past. That definitely set me on edge, I hear National Guard and I think Kent State. Once we met our friends at the chalk wall on the pedestrian mall and we tried to return to the park, we had to choose our route based on avoiding scuffles. Up the first street we attempted to use was a fight, one young black man came down our way, having been involved in the tussle. He said he did not need medical attention. So we went on, up a different street, to get to the park.
The park was calm for a bit, with a small amount of counter protesters set up. We handed out vuvuzelas. Then there was another conflict in front between the two sides. At this point I think the main demonstration had been dispersed so there were roving small groups of white supremacists spread out. A cop ran to get into his unmarked truck right in front of us, then appeared to be in the crowd with a weapon drawn. Riot cops started marching up several streets towards the park. I will admit it, I was near panic. Not because of anything specific to protest persay, none of this was new to me. I’ve been unarrestable before in situations with riot cops. This was different, a mania in the air. It felt terrible. I could not see a positive of being there, only increasingly terrible results.
I am a gun person, I like guns, and I am pro open carry. But no one with guns in Charlottesville today made me feel any safer. The white supremacists, antifascists, and police/military were all carrying guns. That just made me feel like the line between a scuffles and a shootout was getting less and less existent as people sweated and worked themselves up. Hot, sweaty mobs make bad choices in my experience.
We left, I was upset enough that we just left, less than 2 hours after getting to the town. The feel of the events was bad. When we we’re almost home I got word that a car had driven into a crowd of anti racists.
I have now heard, and seen that a car crashed into the crowd of counter protesters, pretty clearly intentionally, injuring and likely killing people. I can only hope that there won’t be any more incidents like that today or tonight, or ever. I shy away from the term terrorism because I have seen that word used against groups and people for political reasons (Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front for example were considered the number 1 domestic terrorist threat for many years, in 2009 Virginia considered anarchists to be the number one domestic terrorist threat) . I agree that generally, currently, terrorist is a word used against people of color and not white people BUT I think that means we should stop allowing it to be used against people of color, not try to expand the use of this propaganda word.
I am too old or too parenty or too weak stomached or something to want to see any more fighting today. I do not want to see more people hurt or killed, period.
Or the other side (unless they’ve earned it).
I guess I sound like a darned pacifist. Maybe that is where my politics are leading. I know that the general public has a hard time swallowing bad behavior from any political position, but I also know we can not take every action we take with public opinion in mind. But I come back to the fact that being right doesn’t matter if you aren’t effective.
I did not get a sense today of what an attainable goal or positive outcome of the counter protesters was. Fighting Nazis with fists might be justifiable, I can agree philosophically with that, I love the dang Inglorious Bastards. But I don’t feel like the frailty of human life is being taken into consideration by anyone here. Y’all aren’t wearing body armor. If you are, you aren’t wearing helmets. Other people definitely aren’t. As soon as a shot is fired you can bet anyone anywhere near you will be pecked off by the police or national guard. There has to be some moral obligation to each other’s safety. Live to fight another day y’all. Please. Resisting these racist movements requires strategy.
I take the unpopular side here with the ACLU and defend the legal right of these jerks to say what they will say. I don’t want the state to start having that kind of power. And I also don’t trust the mob. I don’t think acting like these people (except in literal defense) is a good idea. We want them to be better we should be better. Being the bigger person sucks. But like, you kinda gotta. Yes, if they are actively attempting to hurt people, stop them.
I have learned that my intuition is to be listened to. Today it may have saved us from injury. I guess I feel just as conflicted and unpopularly as I did before attending this protest myself. I vehemently disagree with the Nazis. That does not mean I agree with all the methods being used to combat them at this particular stage in the game. Maybe I am just being squeamish. I do believe that we have to try different approaches. Today’s escalation was predictable and tragic. I feel like the script created by the Nazis was followed by everyone else. We need a new script. We need to go off script. We should aspire to be unpredictable, to try new things, to reach our goals in a better way. Protest is maybe not effective!?!?!?!?!!??! Certainly not all protests are effective or useful. That depends on how we think about effective or useful. I truly think not enough critical thinking is done around our tactics.
I did not help organize anything for this event, so I may not have a place to criticize. But I also felt put off by the macho and aggressive tone of the organizing I did see going on, mostly via social media. If you are going to attend this or future similar events I will say I strongly believe the potential for injury is very high. Arrest is also a strong possibility. We need to figure out ways to mitigate these risks and find useful long term community building things to do for folks who can not take these risks. Having organized medics and expanding the training of medics for this event was a great idea. Now I want to know how we minimize injury defensively. I want to know how we discourage macho bravado that ramps up the scenario.
I have question I would love to explore with others, especially regarding future similar confrontations.
- What is the goal of the counter protest? Specifically.
- How can we keep our people as safe as possible?
- Do we have an overall strategy? How do the goals for this one event fit into the strategy?
- What are the points of unity between different segments of ‘our side’?
- What do we do if one of ‘our side’ behaves in a way that endangers others?
- How do we make participation sustainable?
- If we know what we are against can we articulate what we are for?
- Can we think calmly and not be reactionary if that is not the most effective thing?
- Are we willing to engage in less cool or flashy activism if more boring work is more effective?
We have a lot of people with their hearts in the right place, we need to figure out how best to use ourselves to achieve our goals, once those goals are articulated. I don’t count today as a win, and I would like to find a way to win.
I don’t want anyone else getting hurt. I am going to eat butter bread with my baby and watch Willy Wonka. If anyone needs to talk please be in touch. I don’t have answers but I have a lot of questions and warnings. If you were there or have ready about it please engage in some self care today. Trauma is hard. Ask for help if you need it. (I have since written a different post regarding self care and trauma).