Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Fred Everett Maus: Recent Days in Charlottesville

It has been one month since the events of August 11-12. This morning, University of Virginia students in first-year dorms wake up to find anti-Muslim pamphlets. In the afternoon, an activist friend shows me a death threat she received in a message: a photograph of a grave with Hebrew lettering. Tonight, a group of student activists, with some supportive faculty, returns after dark to the statue of Thomas Jefferson where torch-carrying white supremacists encircled a small group of students on August 11. Chants and speeches as students shroud the statue of the slave-owner in black. A group of white men, mostly students along with some men known to be in white supremacist groups, stands outside our circle, watching silently, taking pictures of everyone.

The earthquakes, the hurricanes, ongoing racism and newly confident white supremacists, increasing militarization and threats of war, the assault on the environment–how are our hearts supposed to hold all of this?

Overwhelmed by the horrors in Las Vegas. One of the terrifying things about the August 12 events in Charlottesville was arriving at Emancipation Park and seeing many visitors carrying semiautomatic weapons. The violence in Charlottesville could have been so much worse. I wonder how long people will be able to enjoy gathering to share their love of music, after the Bataclan attack, Ariana Grande in Manchester, this …?

About two months after the August 11-12 disaster, Richard Spencer and some friends return for a brief torch-lit march downtown and another rally in Emancipation Park. Why? To show that they can. After, Spencer posts a brief video statement online. Ebullient, he says: “We came, we triggered, we left.” Moments later, he says repeatedly that they came in peace, as though psychological violence is peaceful.

Today’s public-school lockdown in Charlottesville is a response to an internet post about the desirability of a mass shooting here. To say the obvious: it happened because Richard Spencer has established Charlottesville in the imaginations of far-flung right-wing extremists. And that’s why it is particularly repugnant for a local television station to air an apparently respectful interview with Spencer this evening–though it would have been repulsive on any day. NBC29 seems pathetically proud of their access to Spencer, taking credit for getting a “rare interview.”

Walking on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, I stop and buy something in one of the shops. It is a little overpriced, but it is nice. The manager and another employee talk about the possibility of more trouble–another Nazi rally–this weekend. “I hope things will be ok for you here,” I say. “We were worried about our sales this year,” the manager replies. “We fell $9000 behind last year’s sales. Then”–her voice very quiet–“the August events happened, and we fell behind another $9000 just in August. We’re a small business. We can’t deal with that.”

Emotional visit today to Charlottesville’s only mosque, holding its annual open house. Many Muslim volunteers ready to show us around the building, answer questions, demonstrate calligraphy, share food, and more–sweet, gentle people. The man who guides me works in a school as a gym teacher for special education students.

In a course I am teaching, I lead a group of UVa students through an exercise involving dreams. Each student is supposed to call to mind a recent dream and then work with it in a series of stages. No one is asked to disclose the content of their dream, but after the exercise one student wants to share his. He dreamed that, in a previously unknown area below the University’s Scott Stadium, an alt-right rally was taking place; angry protesters confronted the rally. Then a guide took him to another room, full of severed body parts. The guide apologized for the awful sight, but said it was better for him to know about such things. The student is fearful as he recounts this; we are solemn as we listen. We all know how he feels.

A beautiful fall day, bright sun and cool breeze. I take the dog for a long walk at Chris Greene Lake. Several families are relaxing by the water; a few people are fishing. Bluebirds, butterflies. A pleasant couple, jogging together, stops to pet the dog. Four times, I see a pick-up truck driving through the park. Three large flags flying in back, US flags and between them, one of the alt-right flags. On the back window, in huge white letters, a smirking one-word question: “Triggered?”

Nothing here feels “normal,” nobody feels safe. For many of us, two layers of trauma: relatively privileged people have abruptly lost their sense of comfort and familiarity in a setting transformed by threat, and there is the additional trauma of learning that many people around us never felt safe here—the trauma of recognizing one’s own ignorance and complicity. This double trauma wounded many people—white, economically-comfortable people—after the November election, and recurs now with new intensity in Charlottesville.


 

Copyright 2017 Fred Everett Maus

Fred Everett Maus is a professor of music at the University of Virginia.

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Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia shrouded in black

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