It’s almost three o’clock as I sit here on my parent’s porch watching my dog try not to fall asleep in the suffocating Virginia humidity. Fifteen miles away, a white supremacist smashed their car at full speed, barreling their two-ton death machine through a crowd of people: protestors, counter-protestors, police, press, townies, out-of-staters, families. At least one woman has died.
This little city with a population under 50,000 that was voted “America’s happiest” in 2014, is being torn apart by outsiders—not Muslim extremists, not Russian invaders, not North Korean insurgents. This tiny college town is under assault by out-of-town white supremacists who are willing to kill rather than risk not having their hateful message heard. They’re being met by provocative and aggressive out-of-town counter-protestors, many of whom aren’t calling for peace either.
Just a few hours ago, I saw a man stumble by me with blood pouring down the side of his face from a nasty cut on his head. I saw riot police in shields and armor marching in a line at pockets of counter-protesters who yelled in their face, “Fuck the police.” I saw hordes of people running from exploding tear gas, from mace, from each other. I saw men dressed like soldiers, carrying assault rifles calmly through crowds, ready to use it if they felt threatened. I saw a massive, ugly, violent scrum break out in the middle of the street like something out of a film about the 1960s.
If there’s one thing you notice watching an all-out brawl between real, angry people, it’s that it looks nothing like the movies. There’s nothing cool or well choreographed about it. It’s jerky, it’s panicky, it’s confusing. Nobody’s landing epic haymakers so much as awkwardly kicking and pushing and swinging at each other.
This isn’t even the first time this sort of thing has happened in Charlottesville this summer, thanks to the pathetic KKK-centric rally that took place in July.
When Charlottesville leaders decided to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park and rename it Emancipation Park—along with the Stonewall Jackson statue and renaming its respective park—they did so knowing full well it’d be a controversial decision. To those leaders, though, it just made sense. Whatever your view of history is, the reasons behind erecting those statues back in the 1920s were not purely motivated by historical recognition in the same way that the American Civil War was not purely over states’ rights. Truly, this horrific public reaction to the statues’ removal shows that there’s something sinister bubbling underneath the surface—something purely evil. Something they—and many of us—weren’t aware of. They simply couldn’t have anticipated this level of protest and violence in our little city in such an apparently modern country.
I’ve lived in Charlottesville almost my entire life. We moved here when I was four, and I’ve never lived more than an hour away since. Growing up, I definitely would have considered myself a conservative. I probably wouldn’t have voted for Obama, but the fact that I never went out and voted anyway shows you how little I cared about any of it.
Once I got to college I started to skew a little more liberally (do I really care if gay people get married? Do we really need to all have access to guns?), but again, I still wasn’t voting and just really didn’t care.
I took a graduate-level seminary class on culture my first year out of college, and one of our speakers told us that nobody really cares about political issues unless they think it affects them directly. Obviously there are some truly empathetic and wonderfully altruistic people out there who feel for everybody everywhere all the time, but in general I believe the speaker was correct.
As a middle-class straight white male, I didn’t really have any major problems, and, honestly, it didn’t seem like anybody around me did either. My high school had a white majority, but at least a solid third of the population was made up of various minority ethnicities. As far as I could tell, everybody liked each other just fine. I played midfield for my high school lacrosse team, and my line had a black guy and a hispanic guy alongside me, and we called ourselves the “rainbow line.”
When we’d read about the civil rights era, we were appropriately upset by it, but glad that it was so long ago and that we’d moved on since then. I, at least, had bought into the notion that Obama’s election pointed to a truly post-racial society.
In fact, I remember thinking Charlottesville was even a little ahead of the curve when it came to racial sensitivity. Once—as an intern at an architecture firm—my company was hired to build an apartment complex that would be lived in by primarily white, affluent University of Virginia students. It took months of back-and-forth with the city to ensure that the building wouldn’t be so close to a primarily African-American neighborhood that it’d give the impression that rich, white kids were “looking down” on them, so to speak. I—still, mostly an idiot—had never even thought of how something like building placement could potentially cause harm.
The firm hired me to hand out flyers promoting a series of town hall meetings meant to listen to local residents’ concerns and see how they felt about the proposed building. I was impressed how the city did everything it could to show sensitivity to the people living in that neighborhood. This experience told me that we were still mostly a post-racial society, but we still didn’t want to be jerks to each other, and the people in charge were doing the best they could to ensure that was still the case.
It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago—once Trump really got rolling—that I really started to think about politics. For the first time in my life, I realized that real people were actually affected by who makes our laws and what those laws mean. It hit me that I had no idea whether welfare was a good idea or not—I’d just always assumed a bunch of lazy people were on it and that being lazy is bad. Give a man a fish and all that.
What really jarred me was the shooting at the Orlando nightclub last year. For the first time in my life I thought, “What if I had been there?” Now, I don’t frequent gay bars (or really bars of any kind), but I do go into public every once in awhile. Even writers see the sunshine every few weeks. The thought that some lunatic with a legally purchased gun could blow me away was something I’d never even remotely considered before.
Then I began to notice police shootings. I saw the video of Philando Castile, I heard the rhetoric of Trump, and slowly my worldview began to unravel.
But it wasn’t even these events that began to change how I looked at the world, it was the response of the internet—of the people I knew. Suddenly, everybody was forced to take a side, and those imaginary picket lines remained static no matter the circumstance. Suddenly, it’s become impossible to respect the police or understand their necessity, while also being aware that sometimes they make mistakes that are unforgivable and should be punished. You either always think cops are to blame—as evidenced by several “Klan = Police” signs I saw at the rally—or they’re perfect angels who never falter in stressful situations. Any deaths or woundings are always the “suspect’s” fault. We either want every man, woman and child to be armed to the teeth with submachine guns, or we want every gun in America melted down and turned into a metal shrine to Hilary Clinton. There’s no middle ground anymore.
This couple-year journey has come to a head this weekend. As white supremacists flood my little hometown to literally fight and bleed to defend racism and counter-protesters egg them on and antagonize the police, I wonder who the hell is even right anymore? What sort of country are we where not only is racism and white supremacy something surprisingly large portions of our populace shamelessly defend on a national stage, but those that would oppose them do so with violence and hatred? We’ve become this social-media enabled outrage culture where nobody knows what it means to have a real conversation—to talk through opposing ideas. It’s just so much easier to fire off a rage tweet or smash a car through a crowd of people you disagree with. What sort of social illness is this? How have we regressed so far?
Despite all our progress as a world and as a country, we’ve somehow managed to devolve back into our most basic instincts—tribal warfare. I grew up assuming that the need to group up under small banners to “protect what’s ours” wasn’t necessary any more. Sure, we had some affirmative action stuff that worked against me since I was a white dude, but if anything that just inspired me to try a little harder.
It’s hard for me to understand these people that hold their opinions as so precious, so sacrosanct, that the very possibility of conversation or debate is impossible. It’s so apparent to them—and so worth protecting—that they’re willing to simply kill people that believe differently.
So we sink further and further into our curated bubbles where the only media we listen to supports our preconceived notions, where the only things we share are unflattering depictions of our opponents, where our entire friend group consists of near-militant internet warriors determined to attack at the slightest provocation.
I want to believe that buried beneath the sickening, violent, ignorant rhetoric of our president—and the timid inaction of our Congress—that there is a country unwilling to stand against such naked hatred towards people that are different from us—whether it be religion, socioeconomic status, color or even just a differing view on something like climate change. A country unwilling to resort to violence as a quick, cathartic reaction to people who believe differently. A country that realizes we are much more of a global tribe, than a local one. And one that realizes differing opinions do not mean you’re being attacked directly. That we don’t have to protect our mindset with actual violence.
I want to believe, but what I saw on the streets of my hometown today is in complete opposition to that. If anything, it’s the people I didn’t see that I have the most faith in. The attenders of local churches and other houses of faith that gathered today across the city to pray against such violence. The citizens who chose not to lend their voice or their blood to either side, and recognized that such hate is fueled by attention. Hate craves and needs to be recognized or it becomes nothing. The more we feed it, the more it spawns into several new tribes of its own.
Let’s do away with tribes, because then all we have are people.