A Dreadful Day
On August 8, 1925, twenty-five thousand defensive members of the Klu Klux Klan marched down the National Mall in Washington DC. On March 7, 1965, racist police officers beat black protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On August 12, 2017, Neo-Nazi’s, the KKK, and various other alt-right groups descended on a small college town in Western Virginia and invoked terror in the hearts of Americans citizens—terror which has not truly been know to many of this generation. The gathering of racists in Charlottesville, Virginia—a city framed around Thomas Jefferson’s most prized work and a model of liberal egalitarianism, The University of Virginia—was based at least in name on the city's decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from one of their parks. But in practice, it was much, much more than that.
The hints at violence began early in the day. Heavily armed militias stood ominously in full battle gear watching as many residents of the city including college students, clergy members, and anti-fascist groups paraded to Emancipation Park where the white supremacist rally was meant to take place. Some of these groups were armed for confrontation—carrying clubs and wearing helmets—but most were not. They were armed only with a sense of peace—a sense that they could not allow America to fall back to this level. They were armed with words and signs and arguments. The Nazi’s were to have none of it. As the racists carrying clubs, shields, and Nazi flags paraded and shouted phrases beloved by the Third Reich "Blood and Soil!”“The Jews will not replace us!"— it was clear that this would not be a debate. There would be no argument that would not result in clashes.
The precursor to August 12 was the night before when the Nazi’s planned a literal torch light march through the hallowed campus of which Thomas Jefferson was so proud. They lined up and marched with fire in their hands and hate in their hearts—chanting vile phrases as they goose-stepped their way into the horrified psyche of Americans who thought this nasty past was just that. They surrounded a statue of Thomas Jefferson being guarded by students of the University. “Those courageous students,” as Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe would later call them, stood firm while surrounded by screaming angry men holding torches. The scene was reminiscent of a lynch mob of the past. It was a scene out of The Triumph of Will or Birth of a Nation. But these were Americans in 2017.
On the 12th, fights broke out early while the police of the university, city, state were present for the event. It’s not clear how much they could have done. No barrier was set up to prevent the opposing groups from clashing with each other. Just before noon, the inevitable happened. The shouting, fighting, punches thrown, and blood in the streets—all too horrifying to imagine happening over the removal of a statue. The Nazis stood atop the hill where the statue was placed, and rained down tear gas bombs on to protestors. They battered people with shields and beat people with flag polls and extendable batons. Black Americans, white Americans, Jewish Americans, and asian Americans all stood in opposition to what was happening and all were equally shouted down and abused by the white supremacists who had invaded this quiet town.
And then there was death.
The Jewish Mayor of Charlottesville—who had been dreading this day for many weeks—finally declared a state of emergency in his city. His police force declared that the Nazis and protestors were undertaking an “unlawful assembly” by spilling blood in the streets. As the announcement was made, the park began to clear. The Nazi’s would find a new haven for their hate speech and the protestors would follow. But before that could happen, a final and horrifying act of violence would be enacted—the cap to everything that had happened that day—hatred, vileness, hate speech, violence, beatings, the blood, screaming, riots, gas, speakers, bombs, chaos, and then death. As a group of protestors stood gathered on a narrow street by the park observing the retreat of the Nazi forces, an unassuming silver car approached. As it drove down the street, it accelerated faster and faster until the crash. Then the screaming began. The car, driven by a Nazi, had plowed into the crowd sending bodies flying up in to the air. The car was only stoped when it rammed in to the back of another car which had been involved in a previous accident. The car reversed quickly, and fled the scene. It left people lying bloody in the streets and crying for help. One woman who had come to Charlottesville to protest this hatred, was killed for her efforts.
People wonder what it would be like to experience the dramatic events of history. What would it have been like to stand with Martin Luther King and face down racist police on that bridge in 1965? How would we have felt, watching with our own eyes, the Klu Klux Klan march in force through the nation's capital? How would we have reacted waking up in the 1930s and reading about another lynching which happened the night before? What happened August 12 in Charlottesville Virginia was a glimpse at this kind of history. The history of American violence and hatred that has existed since the beginning of this nation and which citizens of this republic have fought to suppress and eradicate for as long as it has been there. A history of domestic terrorism against minorities which stands as this nation's greatest shame. Violence and hatred which Presidents from Grant to Obama have fought to wipe from the American character and to eliminate from our story. And for many Americans, those stories and experiences were history, But let the events of the 12th serve as a wake up call to Americans who are still in the dark over this history of violence in our nation. It never left, it only was suppressed. What we all witnessed in Charlottesville is what people living through the Jim Crow South witnessed. It is what Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis fought so valiantly against. These horrific acts of racism and violence have been forced back in to the consciousness of the full American populous, and we can only pray that people will continue to resist these awful actors, just as our forefathers have since the founding of this republic.
August 12, 2017, Charlottesville Virginia. A dreadful day.
Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.