I wrote my column a week or so ago and was typing it up for my deadline, but every word I typed seemed frivolous in light of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia recently. I typed up that sentence, and it sat on my computer like that for several days as I went back-to-school shopping and got paint brushes for a project in the basement. I went kayaking with my nieces, nephew, and children. The whole thing went in and out of my consciousness because it is horrifying but distant and my skin is about one shade darker than albino. I live in a majority white state that votes Republican. That picture of the rally (the one with the ridiculous tiki torches) contains people who look like people I know. One in particular could be the twin of a man I know only peripherally, and I have to admit that after the shock of having neighbors who voted for our current president, I found myself thinking that if that happened to actually be this man, I knew I wouldn’t be surprised.
And then I watched HBO’s Vice News episode “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” and words like “horrifying” seemed too frivolous to use in response to what happened this past weekend. The episode had a reporter (Elle Reeve) interviewing and shadowing a white nationalist leader (Christopher Cantwell) before, during, and after the rally and the events surrounding the rally. First, we see the chanting, which will ring in my nightmares forever: “Whose streets? Our streets! Whose streets? Our streets!” or alternately “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” So much anger was wrapped up in that mob of people who individually could probably very easily overpower me physically. We rely upon the decency of others so much in our everyday lives. We forget how vulnerable each of us is to people who decide not to be decent. It was terrifying to watch these men chant, even from the safe position of thousands of miles away behind a computer screen. And I’m white, so they’d have to talk to me before they realized they hated me enough to kill me. Yes, kill me. That is not hyperbole. That is just about a direct quote.
Christopher Cantwell not only vehemently denounces any small suggestion that he is a nonviolent protestor, he lays out the weapons he was personally wearing, and it covers the bedspread. Oh yeah, and then he says that the next rally will be even better because more people will die. I don’t make a habit of watching videos of white supremacists speaking, so a good portion of my time watching this video was trying to wrap my head around how people could come to these conclusions. Because these aren’t historical figures. These are people who live in my country. These are people who live in my state. These are people who live in my neighborhood (ok, I still can’t believe that one. It’s too horrible). Or, apparently, I live in their country, their state, their neighborhood. I walk on their streets. And I can think like them and be like them (in ways that are so intrinsic to my personhood that I can’t actually change them) or die. How is this not considered terrorism? Isn’t that the logic of a terrorist?
And then there is the footage of the counterprotestors, including the horrifying (there’s that word again, and it’s too small to even convey the depth of horror) footage of a car speeding into a crowd of people (which Cantwell calls a self-defense move on the part of the driver). I understand the need to physically be there, to send a message, to be more than just a website (especially when one of the white supremacists saw the small numbers of counterprotesters as evidence that their viewpoint is a minority viewpoint), but I don’t see how anything is accomplished by sitting there with both hands flipping off the speaker or yelling swear words. It was one force of hate meeting another force of hate. When one of the counterprotesters mirrored the language of the angry, chanting marchers by saying that it was wrong that the rally was permitted to come to his city because “this is my city,” I wanted to say “Wait. This is not a question of whose country it is. This is his country; this is your country; this is my country. And we have to live with each other.”
We are never going to magically solve all of our disagreements. What we must do, though, is learn how to disagree. This means not chalking up domestic terrorist language, actions, and perspectives to “First Amendment rights.” If people are rallying while armed to the teeth and saying quite clearly that they mean to do harm to another human being, then that is no longer a rally. That is a mob. That is not protest. That is war. We cannot just yell at them and tell them to go home. They are home. We are all home. We cannot just say that we find their viewpoint repugnant. We must also let them know that their means of expressing disagreement is not acceptable in a civilized country. And we must do this by showing them how people disagree without bashing heads in and without the completely useless phrase “f— you.” This rally should never have been able to obtain permits. People with weapons should have been detained or turned away from gathering points. People threatening harm should not be allowed to foment the masses. And it darn well shouldn’t take days for the leader of the country to denounce domestic terrorism.
I am still trying to wrap my head around how people who live in this country can come to all the conclusions that my fellow human beings express. But the biggest disconnect for me is the idea that we can’t all live together and so one segment of the population feels emboldened to kill another segment of the population, that it’s either one group or the other that controls everything, that one group is replacing another group. I know you are more than hate speech and violence. I know you have families. I know you have hopes and dreams that are not centered on this movement. I know you are more three dimensional than I see on the news. I know this because I’m a human being too. I have a family. I have hopes and dreams. I am three dimensional. Engage with me like a human being, engage with all of the other human beings who call this country home in a way that does not deny their humanity, and we can find a way to all sit down at the bounteous table that is the United States of America.