Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Friday August 11, 2017
These days my emotional life doesn’t extend beyond Trump’s Korean brinksmanship and Charlottesville’s imminent white supremacist rally, the two competing for my terrified attention. “I am scarier.” “No, I am scarier.”
Everyone in Charlottesville knows that something bad is about to happen. Many people are coming into town for the “Unite the Right” rally—fanatical white supremacists, extremists gathering on a scale unknown in the recent past. We know there is grave danger; we can’t predict what will happen, but we think it will be violent. The white supremacists (I’ll refer to them as “nazis” for short, lower-case “n” to indicate that they may not identify themselves as Nazis or neo-Nazis) will come together around a statue of Robert E. Lee, approved for future relocation by the City Council, in a park long known as Lee Park, now renamed Emancipation Park. The local decision to remove the statue helped determine the place of the rally, but the central motivation is to bring together different factions that want to ensure that white people dominate the future of the U.S.
The city tried to move the rally out of Emancipation Park, a block of grass and trees in the old downtown area of Charlottesville, to a larger, more isolated park. But just today a judge ruled in favor of the original location. Emancipation Park is close to a pedestrian mall in an area much used for upscale leisure activities. Near the park are shops and restaurants, banks, used book stores, an antique store, an old school building converted to artist studios, the main public library. As the rally approaches, I am haunted by fantasy images of rioters smashing the windows of familiar buildings. Many downtown businesses have already announced they will close on Saturday, for the safety of their employees and customers. Businesses that remain open do so in intentional defiance of the rally. Many, whether they will be open or not, have signs in the windows rejecting racism.
Discussion of the appropriate response to the rally has been vigorous. Some people say to ignore the event: deny the Nazis the attention they crave. Some people want to mark the day, but with an event apart from the rally—a series of talks and performances in McGuffey Park, a few blocks away from Emancipation Park; a set of discussions on relevant political issues at the University. After some thought, I know that I want to be downtown, directly confronting the nazis.
Some time after 9:00 PM, online in my home, I learn that nazis are marching on the Lawn in the center of the University of Virginia, my employer. Horrified, I watch a live feed. Some three hundred racists chant slogans such as the Nazi classic “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” As they march, there is nothing to deter their triumph. Where are the police? Is this demonstration all right with the University and city authorities? A group of about twenty University students, dining with a faculty member, learns of the march and goes to the Lawn in opposition to the march. At the climax of the march, the nazis surround the students. Only when the confrontation becomes violent do police step in to end the march. I am sickened to learn that UVa students—the kind of people I spend my life trying to help—have been assaulted. This dismaying march shows all too clearly the spirit of tomorrow’s rally. The white supremacist visitors are not here to meet each other and discuss politics. They are here to terrorize, and they are proud of their links to Hitler’s Nazis.
Nearby, St. Paul’s Memorial Church is filled to capacity with people gathered in opposition to the next day’s rally.
Saturday, August 12
At 7:30 AM, I go downtown to support reason and inclusiveness. I am definitely frightened. I am grateful to the friend who wrote this to me last night: “Audre Lorde once said ‘Self-preservation is an act of political warfare.’ Do participate. Just know when you’ve hit your limit.”
I park and walk past First Baptist Church, a mostly black church where clergy assembled earlier this morning before walking to the center of town. I greet a woman who is on the front porch, standing guard it seems. “Has the group already left?” I ask, partly to show I am on her side. Warmly: “Yes. May God bless you from the tip top of your head down to your toes.” Anxious about what is to come, I am moved by this sweetness.
I catch up with the clergy and walk to Emancipation Park. It is early, and few people are there, but groups of men in uniform stand around the edge of the park, heavily armed, laughing among themselves and throwing out a few harsh comments.
I walk a short distance to McGuffey Park, designated as a gathering place for people protesting the rally. I listen to several good speeches against racism. Then I walk over to The Bridge, a performance space close to the Downtown Mall, where a group will gather to march to the rally. On the way, I talk with a student who was on the Lawn Friday night. He tells me that, at the violent conclusion of the march, white students stood in front of the black students to protect them from the nazis. He also tells me that the students sent someone to St. Paul’s Memorial Church asking for help. But no announcement was made in the church, no help was sent, and the church locked its doors in fear of the marchers.
At the Bridge, we practice some chants and go over safety rules. Each of us pairs up with a buddy; buddies will keep each other as safe as possible. Then we march over to the rally, chanting. We have some drummers, who add a lot of energy to the chanting. We take up a position across the street from an entrance to the park. We stare into the park and chant. Contempt and anger are intense in both directions. Water bottles fly through the air. I see protesters close to me suddenly crumple, kneeling on the pavement, hands to their faces—pepper spray. It spreads through the air, and for a long moment I can’t breathe. Whenever a protester is injured, cries of “Medic! Medic!” fly through the crowd. A scuffle breaks out as nazis walk through the protest to the park. The group I am with hears that more nazis are coming toward the park. We link elbows to block the street. But no one challenges us, and soon we turn back to face the park.
More stuff flies through the air between the rally and the protest. The nazis start throwing smoke bombs. I decide to take a break, away from the rally. It is meant to be a short break—I expect to be downtown all day. I return to McGuffey Park. In the medics’ tent, a protester is treated for pepper spray. His face and chest are bright red. He is frantic and screams repeatedly, in turn, “I can’t see!” and “They said it was the police, but it was the nazis!” Another man, covering his face, unable to see, guided by a friend, walks toward the medics’ tent. Suddenly protesters run up the stairs into the park. “Get out of here now! They are coming!”
I leave promptly, as does everyone except the medics and their patients, and go instead to the First United Methodist Church, a designated safe space. To enter, I have to say why I want to be there, show my drivers’ license, and be checked with a metal detector. There are many volunteers inside. A table has ample snacks and water bottles. In several rooms there are psychotherapists for people who want them, also a massage therapist and an acupuncturist. Planning for the event, these therapists felt they were probably bringing too many volunteers, but they have been busy all day. From inside the church, I learn that the rally has been declared illegal. I go to the front porch of the church and see the park, now eerily empty. A woman standing next to me says, “I don’t know. I felt safer when we knew where they all were. Now, they could be anywhere.”
The safe space goes on lockdown, which means there is a perceived threat from outside. I am ready to leave the church, but have to wait until the lockdown is lifted. Once I can leave, I see that the downtown area is full of protesters. They carry signs and from time to time chant a little more, but with the nazis dispersed, there isn’t much energy to the protest. It feels like we won.
I decide that there is little that I can contribute by staying downtown. When I arrive at home, I go online and learn that a car drove into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer, injuring many others. We all knew that something bad was going to happen, but we couldn’t predict what it would be.
Much later Trump, after long delay, responds to these events, telling the world that there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” This is profoundly distressing: no one can pretend that the white supremacists are a tiny, isolated minority of fanatics when the President seems to excuse them.
Sunday, August 13
I don’t want to leave my house. I immerse myself in news coverage and social media.
Many people feel strongly that the city of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia did not do enough to protect people. Debate, blaming, policy reviews begin.
Trump reads a prepared speech attacking racists, the K. K. K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists, “and other hate groups.” He reads it poorly, as thought he never saw it before; the speech is widely felt to be insincere.
My friends in Mexico send messages urging me to come to Mexico City, where I will be safe. A friend—a psychiatrist in Texas—writes to me: “The moral wounds experienced from witnessing evil come at a cost, but also the capacity to share that witness is powerful.”
Throughout 2017, I am in an online course studying Pauline Oliveros’s practices of “Deep Listening.” One of our regular meetings takes place tonight. I and another member of the group are in real distress. Together, we seven students perform two of Pauline’s pieces, structured vocal improvisation, followed by our own free improvisation. Tender, warm, the music creates an extraordinary hour of beauty, community, and support. Peace, for a time.
Monday, August 15
I am more aware than usual that I live in a small house in the woods, twenty minutes from the University, thirty minutes from downtown. For most of the day I stay in my home, online, following the news and debate about Charlottesville.
But I leave to join a group of teachers and other staff at noon for discussion of how to begin the school year. How will we help students deal with pain and fear in the wake of violence and shameless bigotry? About a hundred people join; we work in small groups. We are outside, at the center of the University grounds, in the first of several emotionally powerful events to “Take Back the Lawn.” Lots of pain and confusion; many good ideas, later compiled into a very useful document. Some people in the group notice a University photographer at the event. We agree to send word that we do not want names or recognizable photographs to be published. We are not looking for trouble from right-wing activists; recent attacks on liberal academics have been energetic and consequential.
Trump talks more about Charlottesville, clarifying his belief that some of the “alt-left” people protesting the rally were “very very violent,” and that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
A friend in the Netherlands writes to me: “Take care, it is all quite outrageous, especially as it is also a kind of a coming out of Trump as being part of the far right, something we knew in a way, but till then could still fantasize that we were exaggerating, but apparently we are not. Scary times. So: look for a job in Europe!”
Tuesday, August 16
I go to the gym for an hour. It’s good to get out of the house to a place that feels safe.
My head is full of appalling images from Friday and Saturday, from the media and from what I saw directly.
Wednesday, August 17
In the morning, a boxing lesson. In a few weeks, my boxing coach will marry his boyfriend. My coach is white, his partner black. He tells me that they spent the weekend in Pennsylvania, wanting to be far from Charlottesville during the rally.
In the evening, I attend a special meeting of the Insight Meditation Community of Charlottesville in response to the weekend’s events. It is a beautiful gathering, with a focus on quieting traumatic responses, grounding, clarity of thought, and self care—toward greater effectiveness in the world.
Thursday, August 18
A friend in Mexico sends me a link to an interview in Tricycle with Ocean Vuong, a poet I admire, about passing through fear to compassion and poetry. It is what I need today.
In the afternoon I meet with the African refugee whom I help with English. Not surprisingly, we spend the whole time talking about the weekend’s events. We look at pictures of armed militia downtown; he has seen the pictures before, but thought the people must be U.S. military. He is amazed that it is ok to put on a uniform, carry a big gun, and go out in public. We speak about the importance of free speech in U.S. life. We talk about Heather Heyer, and watch together her mother’s statement at the memorial service. I had read a transcript already, but not watched the video. We are both deeply moved. “It is beautiful,” he says. “Pay attention, find what you can do to help make things better.” Then he talks to me about his life in Africa. Of course, he has seen much worse than this; that’s why he’s here. He knows a lot about how to be careful and take care of himself and those around him in a dangerous situation. These days, he is staying in his apartment as much as he can.
My route home from his apartment passes by downtown Charlottesville, and I decide to stop and walk around. I haven’t been there since Saturday. I have walked in the downtown area hundreds of times since I moved here in 1990, most often with my two children when they were young. Tonight it is quiet, with a few people strolling around, talking, eating outside, shopping a little. They seem subdued, tentative. I arrive at the park where the nazis gathered. It is almost empty. It seems incredibly small—on Saturday, full of frightening people, enemies, it seemed vast. Leaning against the statue of Lee is a large hand-made sign, “Heather Heyer Park.” I stand at the corner where I shouted “No nazis, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” a few days before, and realize for the first time that I had been protesting next to the public library where for many years I took my children every week. For the first time during these days of horror, I start crying.
I go to the street where Heather Heyer was murdered. It is closed off now. At each end are gifts people left—flowers, signs, a few candles, a teddy bear. About fifteen people are there, solemn, taking pictures, talking quietly.
As usual, almost everyone on the Mall is white, a reminder of the persistent problems of my community, the segregation that is so marked here. We have so much work to do.
Copyright 2017 Fred Everett Maus