Warm and rustic, Charlottesville always struck me as a grand Southern idyll. Brick houses line the neat road leading up to The University of Virginia. Lively chatter fills the city’s historic parks, while the adjacent Blue Ridge Mountains offer secluded beauty. This vision of the city is sweet. Charlottesville was home to Thomas Jefferson, whose oft-cited ideas of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” supposedly manifest in the city’s liberalism and its way of life. Accordingly, the city was named the happiest place in America by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in 2014. Despite my many visits to Happy Town, U.S.A. over the years, however, the occasion of the violent white supremacist rally last month in this quiet liberal town did not surprise me.
This August’s Unite the Right rally was a premeditated act of intimidation by a vast network of white supremacist groups and neo-Nazi militias, whose alleged purpose was to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, known as Lee Park only two months earlier. Prior to the rally, basement-dwelling Internet trolls spread hostile threats and graphically violent images against counter-protesters and non-white America. Internet harassment is not taken seriously — it is dismissed as constitutionally protected speech — until these disillusioned neo-Nazis turn to real violence in the streets.
August 12th. 11:24 am. I step out of the car near Emancipation Park. Literal neo-Nazis — emblazoned with swastikas and flaunting Nazi salutes — joined hands with white supremacists calling for blood and soil. Vociferous marchers brandished semi-automatic rifles and covered themselves with large shields. They had taken over the town. Hundreds of people marched, descending on Emancipation Park: “protesters” with vindictive intent marched in uniform white shirts along the highway, “demonstrators” openly paraded Nazi and Confederate flags, people brazenly screamed racist epithets and vile mantras. They took pride in being seen, in the intimidation caused by their presence. I had never felt such overwhelming discomfort in my own brown skin.
These supposedly peaceful demonstrations, for which the white supremacists had received a permit, were a war zone. Dr. Cornel West, a Harvard professor present at the scene, recalls joining hands with clergy to form a human chain to guard Emancipation Park. He remembers riot police standing by as armed white supremacists tried to violently break through the chain with their shields. Antifa, a self-proclaimed anti-fascist group, stepped in to violently defend them, battering the white supremacists with baseball bats. West claims that Antifa saved their lives, much to the chagrin of those who seek to equate the two protesting and counter-protesting sides.
It is simply not true that both sides were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. The use of violent methods to combat fascism and racism is different from using violence as a means to advance these inherently harmful ideologies.
That difference was apparent when a white terrorist crashed his car into a group of counter-protesters a few feet away from me, killing Heather Heyer and severely injuring others. I could barely breathe as the silver Dodge Charger sent people flying into the air. I screamed when the car reversed right through the crowd. Though my white companions there were targeted for their political beliefs, I could not shake off the fact that I was being targeted for my skin color.
If I am being honest, I was not shocked. What I felt was an unrepentant and inconsolable anger. No one was out there to protect us. The police stood by, and I was screaming at them to chase after the suspect or even secure the area. Instead, they rolled in a couple of tanks and threatened us with tear gas. Armored riot police sectioned off the area and prevented counter protesters from moving. Already traumatized from near death, we felt choked and powerless.
I had never seen this many law enforcement agents — there were local police, riot police, the National Guard, and private security personnel. Despite the overwhelming police presence, a bloodthirsty terrorist had still gotten through and tried to kill us. And yet, I still was not surprised. Where was my shock? My trauma? My self-reflection of “how could this have happened?”
The attack — especially after the tragic death of Heather Heyer — revives the decades-old question: Can we, as a people, defend the right of all to raise their viewpoints equally in public discourse? When the city of Charlottesville tried to move the rally away from downtown citing public safety concerns, the ACLU defended the white supremacists’ right to free speech in court. They reasoned that the First Amendment is not really a right if it is not protected for everyone. However, can we, as a society, defend violent ideas? I’m not referring to ideas that we disagree with or even ideas that we find abhorrent. I mean ideas that openly call for genocide. The First Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, prohibits speech that “incite[s] an immediate breach of the peace.” Maybe the white supremacist rallies last month did not present an immediate danger of incitement, but should we wait until they do?
This effort is not to question the government’s duty or responsibility in quashing whatever free speech rights that white supremacists have — certainly the U.S. government does not have moral stock in deciding what construes a good viewpoint versus a bad one — but rather which ideas we allow to flourish in an open discourse. Even the ACLU has reneged, asserting that it will scrutinize white supremacy protests “with a much finer-toothed comb,” and refusing to represent these groups outright if they insist on carrying guns.
Let me be clear on why this event does not come as a shock. August 12th made apparent to me, and my black and brown siblings, that our existence is threatened by white supremacy. There is absolutely no way to separate violence from white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies. Ideas hinging on the marginalization — and elimination — of minorities are violently exclusive. The raison d’être for Nazism is genocide. How can entire movements built on pure hatred of other races claim to not support violence? Can we pretend to be shocked when events like Charlottesville do end in violence?
We have to consider the foundational ideologies in which we frame our discussions of the contemporary United States. Thomas Jefferson may have promised “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” but the slaves that built his University of Virginia clearly did not enjoy the latter two. Our fondness of a decontextualized history depicts a lack of consideration for the humanity of Americans of color. The inability of white America to understand these distinctions is encapsulated in the Jeffersonian city of Charlottesville. A mostly white, ostensibly progressive city crowned by a mostly white, ostensibly progressive college campus — one which reveres white American government and has overlooked past racism dating back to its founding — is shocked when a police force stands back as white supremacists tear into counter-protesters (mostly of people of color).
And here at home, UTD may not partake in large-scale campus activism, but we should realize the immediacy required in combating white supremacy. We are a diverse campus formed by many different people from many different backgrounds. Yet the administration uses this diversity as a mere marketing tool rather than acknowledging it as an active political reality for many of our students.
Last year, we quietly brushed off white nationalist flyers found plastered around campus. The perpetrators were caught (they were not UTD students), yet university police let them off with a mere warning. Around the same time, Qurans were found defaced in the Student Union toilets. The news made it all the way to the BBC, yet UTD administration did not mention anything, instead preferring to keep matters of this sort under wraps. Consequently, students followed suit and quickly forgot about these incidents. After all, is it not free speech that grants someone the right to throw a holy book in a toilet?
Everyone’s right to free speech is not protected equally; some are more protected than others. As my experience in Charlottesville demonstrates, there is a stark difference in the kind of police response to white supremacists versus protesters of color. Just look at the backlash in response to black people protesting the death of Michael Brown — a black teenager — in Ferguson in 2014. The decontextualized assumption that everyone, regardless of race and class, has an equal right to free speech is severely misguided.
We cannot aim to have bustling rallies at every corner of campus, but the events in Charlottesville are not going away anytime soon, nor are the displays of white nationalism seen here. A Quran in the toilet or a swastika spray painted on a wall may be considered free speech, but we can’t dismiss violent showcases of white power by citing civil liberties. People who face oppression from these groups need to know that they are not forgotten. These incidents require campus-wide solidarity in condemnation. We can achieve this with classroom discussion, bringing anti-white supremacy discourse to various student groups on campus, and reaching out to administration and faculty. A good place to learn more is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide to dealing with white supremacy on college campuses.
We should not conflate a reverence for the state with neglect of people who have historically faced constitutionally-sanctioned violence. Our duty, as a diverse and prospering campus, is to create a university culture that is collectively against bigotry, so that white supremacy is not allowed to incubate at UTD.