To understand Charlottesville is to understand the divisive, divided, and vitriolic America we now know, writes Joyce Fegan.
The question we are all asking — what has happened to America? And how do you stem this global flow of hate? A small town, with cobbled streets and coffee houses, maple trees and southern charm, holds the answers to both of those questions.
To understand Charlottesville, Virginia is to understand the divisive and divided, violent and vitriolic America we now know.
First things first: nothing ‘happened to America’. Trump, yes, is a key player in the validation and promulgation of hate and bigotry, but the current state of American affairs goes far beyond, and before, a reality TV star, with six bankruptcies to his name.
“You ever see the movie Ghostbusters?” Don Gathers asks me, with his soft southern drawl in a bar in downtown Charlottesville. He’s trying to answer the question: where has all this hate, bigotry and racism come from, the one that brought death and destruction to his town at the hands of torch-carrying white supremacists in August 2017?
“Remember that scene where there’s that river of slime running just below, that’s what has happened here. That river of slime has been running through this town, just below the surface, for a while, and they just waited for their catalyst to bubble up,” he explains.
And what was that catalyst?
“I guess 2008, was what caused many of them to bubble back up to the surface again with the election of President Obama and the hatred and the vitriol that was espoused through that eight-year window has just never stopped,” he adds.
But 2008, is far too close a date to stop at.
The popular story of America has three distinct parts. The first, and the one we all know, is one of adventure. In 1492, a man by the name of Christopher Columbus went on an epic voyage, and on his journey he discovered a new and magical land. Nowhere in this story are we told about the mass genocide of the natives, the Indian Americans.
Part two, the English and the French begin to colonise the new land. A while later, in 1776, these colonies declare independence and the United States of America is formed. Next is a civil war. The part that gets left out is: it was over slavery. Abraham Lincoln is elected president in 1860 vowing to abolish slavery. A group of southern states, including Virginia, are not happy because they want their slaves and so they form the Confederacy in 1861, and break away from the rest of America. They’re defeated in 1865. And all is supposedly well.
And part three — slavery gets abolished and in the 1900s we have the civil rights movement that ends the segregation of black people. Again, all is supposedly well.
Then in 2017 America, when images of white-hooded men carrying torches and flags through Charlottesville, were broadcast around the world, we were aghast. We were further aghast when it resulted in the fatality of a white woman — Heather Heyer. We thought it was a one-off, an isolated incident over some statue or other, in small town America.
Those statues, that tower over Charlottesville to this very moment, are of men called Robert Lee and Jonathan ‘Stonewall’ Jackson — men who believed in, and argued for, the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of the coloured.
I stand at those large statues with Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. She gives me a test. My weak American history is going to let me down. No, she wants me to find the memorial dedicated to the slaves, amongst these adjoining parks and their enormous statues. I draw a blank.
We walk a few dozen feet and she brings my attention to a plaque, about the size of a laptop computer screen, that mentions slaves.
“That’s it,” she says. And I start to get why these statues, and their vast presence, and their nod to white supremacy, might upset the black population of this quaint red-brick town.
Back in the bar, Don tells me about the local girl who sparked a national debate.
“In 2016, we had a 15-year-old young lady, at the high school, Zyahna Bryant, who dared step up and say: ‘This isn’t right.’ She started the petition to have those statues removed. She said they made her feel uncomfortable,” he explains.
This is where the story is no longer about a small town kerfuffle. She wrote a letter to her town council and local paper in March 2016.
“When I think of Robert E Lee (one of the statues) I instantly think of someone fighting in favour of slavery,” she wrote, “thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind. I am offended every time I pass it. I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors and all of the fighting they had to go through for us to be where we are now,” she wrote.
I totally get it. Black people were burned and hung as recently as 60 years ago, they are killed with impunity by American law enforcement to this day — those statues do not serve to heal.
Who doesn’t get it though, are three white women, who pose for selfies at one of the statues during my history tour. In their jeans and fleece tops and dyed blonde hair, they giggle over the photos. One woman says: “I’m going to put this up [on social media] and people can say what they like.” There is no doubt that there is a mental block between those women, who see those statues as part of their heritage and history, and Zyahna who sees only oppression.
Lara Harrison is a therapist and a mother of three. She is also an activist who goes into schools to try and tackle this very disconnect. Not only are the confederate statues an issue in this town, as they are elsewhere in America, but school kids have worn caps and tops with the confederate flag on them to class.
“Do I think some of those kids absolutely know that they’re intimidating students of colour and want to do that? Absolutely. But do I think some of those kids have been ingrained with this argument that it’s heritage not hate? Yes, absolutely.
“And I think it’s our responsibility to educate them beyond that because whatever their intention is, the impact is harm and the impact is trauma,” Lara says.
As a white woman, she talks repeatedly about the need to step into someone else’s shoes, that we, white people, need to listen. Instead of reacting from a place of “white fragility.” “A lot of it just comes down to — is the person willing to decentre themselves?
“We can give you the data. We can give you the legal precedence. Can you look at another human being and believe their lived experience? It’s about believing, and humanising and valuing [others] equally,” she says.
So, as this statue debate played out in small town America, less than two months later, in May 2016 Donald Trump becomes the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
The parallel between this small town and the American nation continues.
On Wednesday November 9, the world wakes up to find out Trump is the 45th President of America. In Charlottesville, he is simply referred to as “45,” even “46 minus 1”. Then, on November 10, the final meeting took place over the statue issue in Charlottesville’s city council. A moderate position, to move, not remove, one of the statue’s was arrived at.
This has been standard, when we revise history and realise that the person we celebrated may have oppressed others and the statues are moved to museums where they can sit in context, not “written out of history.” However, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the statue never gets moved and in July 2017, the Ku Klux Klan comes to town, with full police protection. This was done in the name of “freedom of speech” and “public safety.” Counter protesters stare them down, tensions rise and the police deploy tear gas on their own townspeople.
After this assembly, another permit is applied for, this time for a “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. This is where torches, guns and Nazi and confederate flags are flown and where one woman dies.
But where this ceases to be a local issue once again, is when Donald Trump makes victims of the persecutors and says there was hate, violence and bigotry on “many sides, many sides.” If he perhaps studied the footage he would see who arrived wielding weapons and fire.
As an academic historian, Jarane is sure of the damage that “45” is doing.
“Even if he’s only in for four years — the damage he’s doing, that he can inflict, because democracy is something that has to be cultivated, it’s not something that runs on autopilot. It actually has to be continually nurtured and cultivated,” she says, but doesn’t stop there.
In Charlottesville you hear the “F” word a lot — F for fascism, and hence the emboldening of these “alt-right” hate groups under the principle of free speech.
“I think now, just now, with what’s happened in the past two weeks, the Proud Boys (white supremacists) rioting in Portland and New York. Then we had the two black people that were killed in the grocery store and then we had the mail bomber and then we had synagogue shooter.
“I think now more Americans are starting to say: ‘Oh fascism, maybe there’s a word for this, maybe there is a problem. Maybe these people aren’t crazy who’ve been saying this for the last two years.’ We’ve been the canary in the coalmine here in Charlottesville. We’re on our own here, that’s what we realised A ’12 (August 2012),” she says.
What Jalane means by on their “own” is the idea that racism never really went away, just the visible parts of it did, the buses and the toilets being segregated.
Racism is baked into the institutions of America, its courts, its police force, its government and banks, and hardwired into the psyche.
Tanesha Hudson, a 37-year-old, local woman is testament to that. Aside from working full-time and raising two children, she works to help black children stay in school and out of prisons.
“People don’t understand the colour of being black. It’s a huge struggle being black and I woudn’t expect people to understand. [They think] being black is just go to school, do good work, make good grades, go to college, get a job.
“No. I compete every day. I’m viewed merely because of the colour of my skin, I’m looked at crazy all the time just because I’m black. If you and I had the same job, I’ve got to work ten times harder than you and I’m still getting paid less — I promise you,” she tells me in a packed bagel shop she used to work in. She is the only black person eating in the restaurant.
But it’s not just talk, she has examples.
“A friend of mine was going through the business loan process, they denied her. And it’s not just banks, it’s schools too. We meet this on every level — anything to advance you in society it’s a million times harder for a person of colour to get it done,” she explains.
She also tells me of a recent story where it was one law for the white students and another for the black ones. White students were caught drinking vodka in the school library — underage drinking is a criminal offence. Nothing, bar suspension happened to them. Meanwhile, three black schoolgirls got into a schoolyard fight and assault charges were pressed.
As Don, of the Ghostbusters analogy says: “Their poisonous tree has many branches.” Talk to white people around the town, in the parks, business owners, and they say they have their locals’ backs and understand comprehensively that it is not about free speech for the “white supremacists”, another phrase people readily interchange with “fascists.” But just as the story of Charlottesville can help us to understand what is happening in America right now, it also holds solutions.
On my last night in the town I sit outside in a restaurant working. A black man suddenly appears beside me. We chat. He’s just out of “penitentiary” for murder — he says he killed his mum’s abusive partner. He can’t get a job and needs $18 to get a bus to Lexington. I have no cash on me. It’s dark and he suggests we walk to an ATM. I decline. He walks off and approaches another woman. I overhear her say: “I gave you money for that Lexington train before. I don’t have any cash on me now, but I will give you some when I bump into you again.” He leaves altogether, and we get talking.
She finds it hard how powerless she is to help him. She sees what he is up against, but still she isn’t impressed that he lied or tried to get a woman to go to an ATM late at night. But she still doesn’t condemn the man.
And for the hundredth time over the last two years I think of Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think of its core line specifically.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”