I’ve never “looked up” to the men who line Monument Avenue, I never thought they were heroes, even from a young age. Through my K-12 education, I understood them to have fought for slavery. Still though, until the events in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally, I wanted to keep the monuments – they are part of our city and state’s history after all, and that history should be remembered. At least that’s what I thought.
Unite the Right in Charlottesville changed everything. As a Jew, what happened in Charlottesville shook me to my core. I know what these people can do. I’ve seen firsthand the tattooed serial number of a Holocaust victim. I know this evil exists in people and in the world. On that Saturday in 2017, I felt like that evil was back.
I had heard about the “Unite the Right” rally months before it occured, mainly through social media and online chatter. Allegedly, Richard Spencer was to show up, and some other “alt-right” heavyweights like organizer Jason Kessler and former Buzzfeed editor Baked Alaska. The monuments were already an issue at that point, with one gubernatorial candidate, Corey Stewart, constructing his whole campaign around keeping the statues. He once infamously tweeted “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
Honestly, I wondered if people would even show up. These rallies tend to have a greater presence online than they do in person, and the last few rallies while symbolic and reflective of growing intolerance had been noticeable small.
If I only knew how wrong I’d be.
The week of the rally, talk about the event started to get serious in my networks and within my circle of friends. I saw even more urgent and ominous posts on social media concerning Unite the Right. The rally over ‘free speech’ and ‘southern heritage’ wasn’t just going to happen, but white nationalists, supremacists, and people looking to intimidate and commit violence were going to show up in force. Still, based on the KKK rally in Charlottesville the month prior, I assumed the counter-protesters would easily eclipse whoever might show up.
On the day of the rally, I was working at the Richmond Jazz Festival and news about the rally was slowly trickling in – every vibration of my phone made my heart beat quicker. By lunch time, Charlottesville was all my colleagues could talk about. The images of torches (that was Friday night), hate symbols, and armed men had become omnipresent in our world. I started to feel sick. Jews know all too well what these symbols mean. From an early age, we are taught where that kind of hate leads. Later in the day, seeing the footage of the car ramming into counter-protesters and pedestrians played on repeat in my mind. It looked like a terrorist incident that a group like the Islamic State might carry out in France.
The fact that a terror attack happened at a place I knew so well, with many of my friends right there, potential victims, left me numb and anxious. Everything felt awful. I couldn’t smile, laugh, or even make jokes with my friends. Everything about this seemed wrong and somehow impossible – this was 2017. Coming home was no different, I talked to my parents and they were also numb.
As a Virginian, I felt ashamed. As a Jew, I felt fear.
From my Jewish upbringing and education, I knew full well the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the kinds of crimes against humanity that unchecked hate leads too. Millions were murdered in an industrial genocide and burned in ovens, simply for who they were. Seeing marchers from the National Socialist Movement display swastikas and other kinds of Nazi imagery while shouting Nazi slogans like “blood and soil,”rattled me to my core.
Heritage not hate? This is the argument people make. Maybe at one time that is something which could have been considered. But now, this ‘heritage’ has been entirely coopted by white nationalists, supremacists, and others that would spread hate through these symbols and monuments. How could I then fight to keep these monuments?
No, that is now unacceptable, and I was not alone in my feelings. My newsfeed was filled with people who were just as scared and numb as I was. Could anyone really have imagined a domestic terrorist attack by white supremacists in 2017 – in Virginia?
Only a day later, news broke that Richmond was also going to have a rally in September at the statue of Robert E. Lee to protect Confederate monuments. Suddenly, it seemed a real possibility that the evil that invaded Charlottesville could come here. I saw Antifa Seven Hills, Richmond Struggle, and Richmond’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter posting the rally date all over social media, vowing to be prepared for whatever may come. There was a solidarity in the city I had never before felt. We all witnessed evil, some close up, but we weren’t about to let it happen here.
Fortunately for Richmond, the rally scheduled for September was canceled. This was followed by leading Democrats all calling for the removal of the Confederate monuments.
Other cities apparently felt the same. Confederate monuments and symbols are being removed in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Gainesville, and even spontaneously in Durham. Many more are currently slated or at least in discussion to be removed. This conversation has been long overdue. However, the fact that someone had to sacrifice their life for this to happen, provides little comfort for those who fight for equality on a daily basis. In fact, it just reinforced what most people already knew about the US in 2017.
Yet there was still a need for moral clarity, and we need that to heal, but it was nowhere to be found.
President Trump, a sitting U.S. president refused to condemn Nazis, white supremacists, and the KKK. He equivocated, he lied, and he provided a defense to people that carried torches and would outwardly threaten and intimidate Jews, African Americans, and immigrants. In a long list of aspersions, this time he crossed a line that, for most, was uncrossable. If I was starting to change my mind about Confederate monuments before, there’s no turning back now.
These men and women supporting white nationalism and supremacy were not in Charlottesville to preserve ‘culture and history’ as Trump said. Instead, they were reacting to their own deluded notions that white people are losing control of our country. That equality is somehow synonymous with their own ill-treatment. When men shout out “Jews will not replace us” in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee, what does that say about Southern heritage or what the idea of it is being used for in our modern political context? When these people brandish Nazi symbols and scream “fuck you faggots” in front of these monuments, what does it say about a historical figure who supposedly stood up against a tyrannical government to protect his ownership of other human beings?
When these people brandish Nazi symbols and scream “fuck you faggots” in front of these monuments, what does it say about a historical figure who supposedly stood up against a tyrannical government to protect his ownership of other human beings?
We can no longer dissociate the ‘culture and history’ conversation from the modern context in how it is being used, to do so would be to accept the growth of modern white supremacy.
Ultimately, these statues should have been removed a long time ago. Richmond has proudly displayed the Confederate monuments for well over one hundred years, yet has still not elevated all history equally. Even with the new addition of Maggie Walker, our city and state have a long way to go in setting the historical record straight. This has been a long time coming, all the rally and Trump did was speed things up.