Darlena Cunha and Stacey Steinberg are mothers in Gainesville, Fla. As white supremacists threaten to flood their streets and police officers from all over the state barricade the roads, they struggle with how to explain this to their children in two very different ways.
The squeak of a black permanent marker against poster-board pierced through the tense silence at the community center in downtown Gainesville. My 9-year-old daughter looked up at me. Her sign read: “Black Lives Matter. #NoNazisAtUF”
“Did I do it wrong, mommy?”
She’d never seen a hashtag before, but the leaders had instructed us to put it on each sign. Gainesville had to be ready for infamous white supremacist Richard Spencer and his hordes of followers by reaching out to the world on social media for protection and strength.
This protest was different. Protest leaders gave impassioned speeches but shied away from video cameras and were hesitant to be photographed at all. No one wanted to put their name on this thing. No one wanted to open themselves up to the threats and violence that historically come in the aftermath of clashes with the alt-right.
The University of Florida found itself in the unenviable position of having to house Spencer and his followers when his think tank, the National Policy Institute, rented the space for $10,000. Unable to refuse due to First Amendment freedoms governing spaces on state school campuses, UF then spent nearly $500,000 on security. Gov. Rick Scott called a state of emergency for Alachua County. My children’s after-school programs have been canceled. Students, faculty and citizens were told to avoid the event, and nearby roads have been barricaded and shut down. Everyone is waiting for the spark of angst that sets this powder keg off.
Some of us tried to prepare early. My twins were the only children in the group of 60 that showed up the weekend before Spencer’s talk. We soon left because they misbehaved — a reminder to me that as socially aware as they are, they are still kids.
And no, they could not go to the protest this time. It was too dangerous. And we’re not even Jewish.
“How do we get from the middle school to your office so we don’t have to pass by the Nazis?” I asked my husband. I had driven the route hundreds of times, but today, there was something different I knew I might pass. Word was Nazis and white supremacists were gathering downtown, ready to march in support of Richard Spencer.
The thought of driving through crowds of Nazis with my sixth-grader in the front seat made me nauseous. He knows about Nazis. He is the great-grandson of Holocaust survivors. But anti-Semitism, I had always told him, was in the past. You don’t need to fear it today, I’d remind him when I’d recount his great-grandparents’ story. We need to fight against racism. Against gender violence and in support of same-sex marriage. Those are the issues of our times, I’d try conveying to him through the conversations we’d have, the books we’d read, and the movies we’d watch.
I thought we were immune from discrimination. As far as I can recall, I never faced anti-Semitism myself. I believed anti-Semitism was an issue of the past. Coming from a place of privilege, I was always “on the outside looking in,” doing all I could to stand up when others were being oppressed. I spoke to my children about racism and sexism as the problems of today, but today’s reality is this: There are Nazis marching in our town.
As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and a parent to Jewish children, I’m taking this very personally. Two months ago, I watched as the neo-Nazis flooded Charlottesville with chants of “Jews will not replace us.” I felt like I was waking up from a dream, or perhaps entering a nightmare. The chanting seemed to be on autoplay in my brain. I couldn’t stop hearing it. I’d stare at my kids and want to find a way to shield them from the violence and arm them to protect themselves — at the same time.
My grandparents spent the later parts of their childhood running from the Nazis. I grew up with a false belief that the Nazis were all but completely gone. Now they’ve come out of the shadows, making their way into my back yard. I need to rethink how I talk to my children about their family’s history. I need prepare them to face anti-Semitism. And frankly, I’m not sure how.
My daughters had accompanied me to the Women’s March and the March for Science. They’d made signs protesting police brutality in Jacksonville, stood on corners protesting health-care changes, painted walls with slogans of love over racist graffiti and cleaned up old homes to help house our immigrant families. My twins, as young as they are, have always been my partners in the resistance. They like helping people, close by or nationwide, and taking action has called to them since even before the 2016 presidential election. Why then, they asked, couldn’t they come this time?
“Usually when we protest, girls, the people we are protesting are far away,” I said, hedging my bets and trying to simplify. “This time, they will be right in front of us. Right there. And they might want to hurt us. They have been violent before, and I can’t keep you safe there.”
Why then, they wanted to know, was I going? Wouldn’t I be in danger, too? I could hear the fear in their voices and it broke me. It broke me that I’d had to scare them and that the fear was founded.
“Mommy has to go because she is a grown-up and she believes in democracy and freedom,” I paused. “These people are racist and because Mommy is white, she has to go to protect the people who are not. They could get really hurt. They are afraid.”
They nodded, but they still didn’t understand.
It was hard to watch the look in their eyes, the questions, the hurt as they began to realize the horrible words on the TV were actually real, physical threats in the real world.
Yesterday I received many emails packed with warnings and information about the event. One told me that the governor issued a State of Emergency for Alachua County. Another, from the school board, told me that buses were being rerouted to ensure all children arrive home safely on the afternoon of the event. I received an email from the synagogue telling me to expect a police presence at religious school this Sunday.
I’m still waiting for the email that explains how I should explain all of this to my children.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law where she also serves as an associate director of the Center on Children and Families. She is a former child-abuse prosecutor and child-welfare attorney. You can visit her website or find her on Facebook and Twitter.