On Aug. 12, I stepped into a war zone. The sound of a helicopter constantly whirred in my ears and tear gas burned in my throat. The white supremacists threw pepper bombs and tear gas at counterprotesters. We were forced to used our protest signs as shields. We saw numerous fights and brawls break out. Many people attending the white-nationalist rally were dressed in military gear and were heavily armed with assault weapons. At times I found myself standing next to these people after confusing them with the Virginia National Guard.
I was wholly unprepared to face this armed and militant threat.
After all of this, and the violent casualties of the car attack that day, I was dismayed to see that #ThisIsNotUs was almost immediately trending nationally on Twitter.
This baffled me. What I saw that weekend seemed as though it were ripped straight from our history books.
It reminded me of something distinctly American: domestic terror in the service of white supremacy. It is important that Charlottesville be understood within this context.
Throughout American history, dozens of communities have been rocked by mass violence against African Americans. Lynchings have gotten public attention, but instances of mass violence seem intentionally erased from public memory.
Even today, they are referred to by the clumsy and inapt name of “race riots.” But these were massacres intended to defend white supremacy and intimidate minority communities.
I was doing research on one of these attacks, the Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana, in the weeks before Aug. 12.
Nearly 130 years ago, in 1887, sugar workers in Southern Louisiana went on strike to demand higher pay and payment in real wages instead of scrip. After three weeks, mobs went into the town of Thibodaux and indiscriminately slaughtered about 60 black people.
After the massacre, all sugar workers went back to work and efforts to organize the labor of sugar workers were stalled until the 1940s.
While conducting research on this, it had not occurred to me that I would actually be threatened by white-supremacist terrorism in person rather than reading about it on faded parchment in an archive.
These instances of terrorism always served to defend white supremacy when it appeared threatened. During Reconstruction, they were meant to restore political power to former Confederates and slave owners. Other times, such as during the series of race riots in summer 1919, they protected residential segregation and the threat posed by black soldiers returning from war. Or in the case of Thibodaux or Tulsa, it was the threat of economic independence.
In Charlottesville, the terrorism resulted from the symbolic threat of the removal of white supremacy.
Charlottesville voted to rename Lee and Jackson parks into Emancipation and Justice parks, respectively. It voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Less noticed but of equal symbolic value was the $4 million equity package providing resources for residents of color in Charlottesville. This sum was a paltry amount, but it was meant to acknowledge the historical injustices faced by residents of color in Charlottesville.
When the Lee statue was erected in 1924, the opening ceremony was attended by the Ku Klux Klan. The chapter had given $1,000 to the University of Virginia.
Many of these Confederate statues were erected in the 1920s during a period of resurgent KKK activity, lynchings and violence.
They were not historic reflections of a war well over 60 years past, but a concrete way to mark white supremacy on the American landscape.
In response to Charlottesville, the call to remove or replace Confederate statues is now stronger than ever. Many cities, including Durham, N.C.; Baltimore; Gainesville, Fla.; and New York City, removed their Confederate statues overnight.
These statues have served as implicit endorsements of white supremacy for a very long time.
On Aug. 12, we all saw how prepared the “alt-right” was to intensify that fight. They have pledged to return to Charlottesville. They will probably go to other cities. We should prepare for the fact that we could be headed into a new era of violence.
This is not inevitable. White nationalists canceled several rallies in the wake of Charlottesville. But we must still proceed in the face of terror without fear.
In contrast to President Ulysses S. Grant, who took active efforts to destroy the KKK, or President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s deployment of the National Guard to Little Rock, Donald Trump has chosen to cede moral leadership and side with the “very fine people” who beat and ran through my friends on Aug. 12.
In this vacuum of moral leadership from the leader of our country, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia must now choose how they want to react.
In Thibodaux, I talked to several community members who observed that the 130-year-old massacre had left a scar on the community that still hasn’t healed. They noted the unwillingness of white residents to discuss to confront the past, the lingering segregation and outright boldness of white supremacy in the town.
In Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia, while the world is watching, we should be like a shining city upon a hill.
The Lee and Jackson statutes must be taken down with the utmost haste. The longer they stay, the more risk of agitation from white-supremacist groups. Charlottesville should support housing for residents of color who have struggled since the destruction of the city’s black community, Vinegar Hill.
The University of Virginia, built with slave labor, can do right by its past today.
Last month, hundreds of students marched on the University of Virginia’s grounds. During the march, the Black Student Alliance and many other student organizations unveiled a list of demands for the University of Virginia administration.
U-Va. has made progress, as evidenced by progress on a memorial for enslaved laborers and the granting of departmental status to our African American Studies program.
U-Va. must do more.
The worst thing that we can do is to isolate this violence, to paint this as the work of a few fringe groups without wondering how they were able to draw in thousands of people to violently protest a statue. We can’t ignore the way these groups have the audacity to parade in broad daylight, how they came so well-armed, so prepared for conflict.
We can’t let this pass without confronting what made deadly violence possible in Charlottesville: the inequality, racism and white supremacy that is entrenched in our communities.
This threat is not new. But it is growing.