Reflections on my experience in Charlottesville

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I wish I could tell you that it was an easy decision to go down to Charlottesville, that I was committed and convicted that being there was the right thing from the moment mid-July I first learned about the white nationalist rally being planned. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t. Even as I attended a training on July 20th to prepare – reviewing tips for providing immediate first aid care to those hit with bats or tear gas, sitting with seasoned de-escalators to learn their techniques for intervening as third party actors between individuals or groups clashing with words or more, I was still uncertain. My friend Jess, one of the leaders of SURJ-DC, had sent out a heartfelt plea to the community urging everyone to show up. I sat with her in the near-empty and dark community hall at the church where the training was being conducted, and shared that I preferred to mobilize for causes rather than against them, as a “counter-protestor.” I’d recalled the request of the mayor when the KKK descended on Charlottesville earlier in the month for counter-protestors to stay away so as not to draw more attention to the hatemongers. I wasn’t sure showing up to counter-protest was the right strategy, ultimately. I made excuses, even as I began to compile a list on my phone of materials I’d need to buy if I were to go: bandages, liquid antacid mixed with water in equal parts to treat those tear gassed, glucose tablets, rehydration salts.

A couple days later, the call for clergy went out. They pled for 1000 to show up to join Charlottesville-area clergy in being a faith witness to love in the face of hate. I work around-the-world with religious actors who I train and support to do that very thing; to put their life on the line to undermine and denounce extremists, and to defend their communities nonviolently, drawing on religious ideas, rituals, practices to do so – mobilizing the power of religion for the cause of life and love – and recognizing that as clergy they have both relative security and moral obligation to be out there, outside the walls of the temples and churches, when times of need arise. In late July I traveled to Japan where I’m on the selection committee for the Niwano Peace Prize, awarded every year to religious peacebuilders who do just that. Then I went to Myanmar for a week, where I’ve worked with Buddhist monks and nuns, Muslim youth, Christian pastors who were on the streets in Mandalay when deadly riots broke out there. How could I not do what I ask others to do? I returned back to DC and let Congregate C’ville – the clergy collective – know that I would be there.

On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 3:30am. I showered, took out a permanent marker and wrote across my stomach my brother’s phone number, my blood type, my name. Then I put my clergy shirt and collar on, grabbed my backpack full of supplies, and hit the road in the dark of dawn, arriving in Charlottesville as the sun had just risen. There I met up with friends and other clergy – seemingly equal part male and female –convening outside First Baptist following a sunrise service to walk to various locations. At McGuffey Park, where my group went, just a few blocks from Emancipation Park where the white supremacists were to gather, we sang, we listened to speeches by artists, activists, by Vice Mayor Will Bellamy, by Rev. Brian MacLaren. Some of us then walked to First United Methodist Church, where from the top steps in front of the church you could see the white nationalists’ rally beginning to build. They streamed past the church en route to the park – with their helmets, their weapons, their body armor. They carried flags and shields with images on them – symbols of hate, worlds of meaning I am not familiar with. They glowered at us and called out horrible things with a breathless ease. We sang back at them. Some of them were clean cut – polo shirts and khakis, respectable-looking neo-Nazis. Others looked rough – big beards, black clothes, leather chaps and jackets covered in patches. Nearly all were men. And all were white.

Quaker tips

Good tips, handed out by the Quakers

First UMC had been designated a place of safe sanctuary adjacent to the park. They’d set up barriers downstairs and had security wands they were using to ensure all those who entered the church were unarmed. There was a medic tent set up just inside the security perimeter, with a hose and shower area that was used all day to care for those who’d been hit with tear gas and mace. There were medics providing other forms of first aid care for those hit or punched. Some folks were carried in by their friends from off the park, doused in gas or with visible injuries, blood streaming down their faces. The church also had two tables set up with food and drinks – one down below in the parking lot, and another on the front steps where many of us stood overlooking Emancipation Park. From there, we sang, we watched as the crowds built up, the flags waving behind those who carried them throughout the park. We heard the muffled sounds of declarations made through megaphones. We watched the crowds of counter-protestors gathering just outside the park. We saw the armed militia men line up along the park – dozens of them clothed in beige, army green, or camo gear adorned with patches, some of which depicted the same symbols on the flags of the protestors behind them. They were carrying one, two, and sometimes three large guns, and they stood facing the counter-protestors in a manner that made it appear they were there to defend the supremacists gathered. The clergy trained to participate in direct action lined up facing them, in front of and in defense of the counter-protestors.

clergy and militia

Photo via Joshua Eaton’s Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/joshua_eaton/status/896365078777405440

On rooftops around Emancipation Park, the National Guard had set up stations where several troops were positioned with large guns pointed toward the crowds below. Many of the state police were huddled together in groups slightly at a distance, observing. As time passed, buses began arriving with riot police in full gear streaming out and taking up position in corners around the park. Medics with big red crosses taped to their chest and legal advisors in bright green caps also stood apart from the crowds, waiting.  From time to time, individuals would walk past with big bandages on their faces from where they had been struck in early scuffles. Word spread that two women within our group of faith representatives had been beaten by a group of supremacists.

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National Guard positioned on rooftops

At 11am, some of us gathered in the sanctuary to pray and worship. Through scripture, preaching, and most of all, passionate singing, we lifted up our pleas to God for peace and love to come and disrupt the building hate and violence in Charlottesville. But we prayed also for justice, recognizing that at root the fight going on that day was about racial justice, and an assertion of peace without address of the underlying issues of injustice would not be an outcome befitting our liberating God. As my favorite Psalm, number 46, was recited, I heard it like I never had before:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God speaks, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
(abbreviated)

At the end of the service, a pastor announced that a state of emergency had been declared. I went out to the front steps to see that the supremacists were filing out of the park, and I heard the sounds of shouts and more as the counter-protestors and supremacists encountered one another. The police were moving in. I walked downstairs, where the singing of the clergy and other people of faith gathered had grown louder. I chatted with a transgender (“two spirit”) Native American woman from Tennessee who had arrived with a vanload of other clergy the day before. She and I watched various kinds of folks streaming by. At one point, three young white men came up who looked like they might be with supremacists, and asked to get in. We asked someone who had been speaking with them who they were – he said they were there to protest the supremacists, but dressed like them in order to infiltrate them more easily. Perhaps they were part of the antifa contingent.

As I stood there, behind tables and security detail, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my place of safety behind barriers and security measures. I was glad the church was serving as a sanctuary, and grateful for the support my colleagues of faith were providing there – physical, emotional, spiritual — to those who needed refuge and comfort. I believe worshipping and praying in that space was itself an act of resistance. But I wondered if more clergy were needed out there, in the thick of it, on the streets where it was clear tensions and violence were mounting. We had more than enough support at the church already.

I had not come to Charlottesville with anyone. I was in touch with other DC-based UCC clergy, but they were in a different part of the city, in a safe house. I had been told not to travel alone around downtown. But I felt compelled to leave the church and go into the world to serve, as I’d claimed in my ordination paper almost ten years ago was my understanding of ministry. So as a group walked past the church’s barricade, I followed close behind them, shadowing them for awhile until I peeled off. I was nervous. I knew what I was doing was possibly stupid, but personally necessary. I’ve been hiding behind walls of privilege much of my life. I kept my eyes peeled and tried always to place myself in groups of folks I knew to be counter-protestors. My clergy collar provided me some sense of security.

Cville

At an intersection, I climbed a small embankment and watched below as a small group of supremacists approached. Blocking the intersections on two sides were lines of police. The supremacists moved up one street with counter-protestors surrounding them on all sides, jeering them and telling them to go home. One man dressed in a Scottish kilt walked up and down the street alongside them holding a sign that read “Real Clansmen wear kilts.” He was smoking a cigarette languidly. Black and brown protestors stood near the group of supremacists, looking defiant, unarmed and unarmored, courageous. As the group of supremacists marched onward, I came down into the intersection. The riot police were given orders, and they filed onward in the same direction the supremacists had gone. I followed a bit behind them with a group of Black Lives Matter activists. Above, a helicopter continued to buzz, as it had done all day, as it would continue to do. A constant white noise of propellers accompanying everything, a buzzing sound that haunts me still. 

I’m telling you: I work in war zones for my day job. My work has taken me to Iraq, Colombia, Sri Lanka. Charlottesville felt like a war zone that day. It was. 

Crossing a large parking lot, I came across another group of supremacists who had lined up alongside a building. They held their flags in front of them and watched as a group of counter-protestors gathered before them. Harsh words were flung back and forth. Bottles and other trash began to fly. A man turned to me and asked, “where are the police?” I moved forward, considering putting myself between the two groups to try to de-escalate, and remembered I was alone. So instead I ran a block back from where I came to find a group of riot police, and told them “there is a confrontation happening up there, and no police around.” Even as I did so I thought of the stories I have heard at the numerous Black Lives Matter gatherings I’ve been to, and wondered if the police would help or harm in this situation, who they would protect and who they wouldn’t. I cursed myself for not attempting to deescalate the situation myself. I prayed I was doing the right thing. The police suited up and marched to the scene, to find that the supremacists were walking back as a group toward the large parking lot, the jeering crowd behind them. A counter-protestor next to me yelled at one of the older men in their group, accusing him of racial hatred. “We don’t hate anyone,” the man replied calmly. I looked at his confederate flag, and then at his face. I looked closely. “Fuck you,” the counter-protestor said to him, adding “what you stand for is hate.”

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In a corner of the parking lot, a group of supremacists had gathered to tend to a woman in their group who was injured. They formed a huddle around her. Counter-protestors also gathered around them. Soon, a group of riot police came and formed a circle around the supremacists, their backs to them, facing the counter-protestors. They held their tear gas and plastic handcuffs ready, a warning. From a few blocks away, back towards the downtown Mall area, a large line of riot police advanced with an armored vehicle behind them. A man in combat gear was poking out of a hole on the top of the vehicle, a gun pointed at our group. At this point, a group of clergy approached. They moved faster than the line of riot police, from a slightly different direction. I saw them coming and felt relief. My people. I joined them. They were mostly women clergy. We lingered for awhile; when it seemed things were de-escalating, they began to walk onward. I hesitated, and then followed with them. We went to a café a couple blocks away, which had been designated a safe space for the clergy. A hired guard stood outside blocking the entrance. Inside, the two men who owned the café, husbands, were providing free food and drink to the faith leaders. Cornel West was in there, sitting beside a rabbi, being interviewed by Katie Couric. Surreal, but no more surreal than anything I’d already seen. I took a seat and collected myself. I sent texts to several folks letting them know I was ok. CNN was on the television, and I noted that what was taking place outside the doors of the café was national coverage.

It was not long after this that Rev. Seth Wispelwey, a leader of Congregate Cville, announced that we were needed on the streets. I heard this from the bathroom and quickly rushed out and followed the group streaming out of the doors. “What happened?” I asked as I passed the woman holding the door. “Someone was hit by a car.” She replied. Once outside, the group began running, our stoles and robes streaming behind us. We only needed to go two blocks and there we found the chaos. Seth went straight into the fray, I followed somewhat behind him, turning the corner to see volunteer medics giving CPR to someone I would later learn was Heather Heyer. Other bodies lay strewn at the intersection. Ambulances and police were not yet on the scene. Seth turned around and called to us to help create space. Several clergy and I moved the crowd away, creating a barrier along the sidewalk between the victims, the medics, and the crowds, and creating space on the street for the ambulances that had begun to arrive. Over the next hour, the victims were carried onto the dozen ambulances. Heather rolled past first, her body still and much of her clothing torn away by the medics still working to try and revive her. She was followed by some of those who were the most hurt – their legs, heads, arms covered in gashes, bruises, brokenness. Some were still and quiet, others crying softly, wailing, or even cursing at the paramedics because of the pain they felt as the gurney rumbled along the street. They were mostly younger adults; they were of all races. Some victims sat on the curb waiting patiently as those who were more hurt than them were cared for, and then called out “medic!” in turn to get support they needed. The volunteer medics were often the first to respond – running toward them with their big backpacks full of supplies. Around me, some clergy continued to hold the line (as I did) while others provided pastoral care. A pastor next to me held up her hands and arms in a blessing toward the ambulances and prayed calmly, fervently, and quietly under her breath.

In time, the ambulances all left the scene with many of the victims. The clergy attended to some of those left behind, and then Seth called on us to gather. We walked a block away, and then collapsed into each other in a big group hug. Someone started praying. The helicopter continued to buzz overhead (not long after this moment, the helicopter would crash, killing its two pilots). One of us was crying softly. “God help us,” the pastor prayed, “God help them.”

We walked a bit more to find a quiet place, and then formed a circle. A rabbi led us in a centering meditation. Seth assured us that clergy-on-call had been summoned to the hospital to provide pastoral care to the victims and their families. We received reports that the rest of the city was a restive calm at that point. We went back to the café. I ate for the first time that day. Sitting beside Cornel West, I heard him talk about the lack of police support that morning when a couple dozen of the clergy who had trained in nonviolent direct action sought to offer a prophetic witness at the park. “We were bulldozed by the fascists,” he said. “They barreled right at us with their weapons and shields. We had to disband and weren’t able to bear witness for as long, or to the degree, that I had hoped.” On CNN, President Trump appeared. We all shushed. He said his now infamous line – violence “on many sides” and the café erupted in cries of anguish and anger. We had just witnessed a woman die, and many people – many of them young, all of them unarmed – in great pain and injury. Our President was speaking in a callous way to those of us in Charlottesville who were hurting and were looking for a word of moral clarity, recognition of our pain, and support for the courage and conviction of those in Charlottesville witnessing to love and the best of American values in the face of hate. We turned off the press conference before it was done. I turned to Brother West, asking “Do you think these days, or the late 60s with all those assassinations of civil rights leaders were darker?” “These days,” he replied instantly. “In those days, we had a strong social movement. We knew we were winning. These days it’s less hopeful, more fragmented.”

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I noticed a male pastor sitting on the ground, his back against the wall, staring into space. I sat down beside him and asked him if he was ok. He spoke at length, venting and processing, about all he’d encountered that morning and afternoon. About the pain he knew he was feeling, but also the state of shock he was in that was keeping him from feeling it. His mind was spinning, his thoughts disjointed. I knew what he meant. I sat with him for awhile, the cement ground hard underneath us.

I approached Seth and Rev. Smash, another leader of Congregate Cville, and asked if we shouldn’t head back out onto the streets. We agreed to go in twenty minutes. However, when that time came there was a security threat deemed to be approaching (a group of armed supremacists) and we were told to move to the back of the café. We gathered closely and waited, quiet. When the threat passed, we gathered around Seth who suggested we head toward McGuffey park where the Quakers were planning a vigil at 5pm. Arriving there, we learned the vigil had been threatened with violence and called off, so we walked a block onward to First UMC. There, in the same place I’d been that morning, we collapsed into the pews. There were a couple dozen of us remaining by this point. We were tired, sunburnt, sweaty, hurting. Seth stood before us. He’d taken off his robe. His face was red, his voice tired. “I won’t make this long, because I know we all are all worn. But please take seriously the impact of vicarious trauma. Please know that you have been through an intense day. You tended to others. Go home now, and tend to your own well-being. Congregate Cville — which is you, don’t forget, not us — will send out material in the coming days to let you know where we go from here, and to provide guidance for your ongoing self-care.” We prayed one last time, and then we left in groups of at least three to return to our cars. I walked alongside a young rabbi – a man I had been with earlier in the day at the scene of the car attack. He wore a kippah and Jewish prayer shawl. I thought to myself once again how brave my non-Christian faith leader colleagues and those many black and brown counter-protestors were to show up in the face of those who hate them. They had much more courage than me, protected by my white skin, my Christian clergy collar, my gender expression.

end of day

We gather at the end of a long day

I reached my car and drove home, giving a lift to another UCC clergywoman from DC. On the way home, we shared with each other feelings of guilt – for all the things we had not done, for all the places we had not been that day. These were the first feelings of guilt that have stayed with me since August 12th, feelings that have been only exacerbated by the many “thank yous” I have received from others for showing up. With each one, I think to myself: but all I did was show up. I feel guilt that I didn’t arrive the Friday before to participate in the training that would have allowed me to join the direct action other clergy took in the morning. I feel guilt I spent too much time behind the security barriers in the church or in the cafe. I feel guilt that what I saw shocked me so deeply. I should have known. My friends of color have been telling me this for years. I read the SPLC’s HateWatch and cited SPLC’s statistics about growing hate activity in this country, including Neo-Nazism and KKK. It’s a reflection of my own privilege that I was shocked, not fully understanding until I saw it face-to-face. And now I know, and I am changed forever. I try to tell myself: no more guilt, guilt’s an indulgence; no one needs your guilt, just commitment and further action.

In the days since the events, I have been a basket of emotions: that guilt mixed with pride, sadness, shock, anger. The president’s ongoing remarks that have equated violence of the counter-protestors to those of supremacists in Charlottesville, and his reference to some among the Unite the Right rally as being “very nice people” fill me with rage. The round-the-clock news coverage and the many narratives about what happened in Charlottesville, some of them diverging quite far from what I saw and heard, upset and confuse me. I fear the national narratives will begin to corrupt my own experience. I feel the need especially to defend the honor of the counter-protestors, who did what was right in showing up on the side of love. I want to shout from the rooftops: these supremacists, they yelled homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist slurs at unarmed clergy people and other counter-protestors. They rushed and barreled through clergy. They came bearing large guns and shields. They came wearing symbols of hate. They came intentionally to terrorize. How can you defend them? I don’t doubt they are capable of redemption, but I also know that on that day, they were a very human embodiment of evil: death, violence, hate. They were willing to enact that violence on the forces of all that’s good, all that’s God. They came to create chaos, and they succeeded. They stood for forces of death-dealing, and they brought death with them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the extremists those with whom I work overseas with the US Institute of Peace confront and seek to undermine. Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar, ISIS fighters in Iraq. These groups, too, pull on symbols, rituals, practices. They carry flags emblazoned with their symbols. They recite mantras. They also build up entire temples of death-dealing. They create abworld that drives their hate-filled agenda and promotes violence, often against vulnerable groups, driven by a zeal of false righteousness that compels even self-sacrifice for their abhorrent cause.

Within our faith traditions, we have our own symbols, mantras, rituals, practices. We have been handed down these tools from our faith ancestors, inspired and led by a God of liberation. Symbols and ideas that are grounded in and drive Life and Love in the face of worldly ideologies and powers that seek to drive death and hate. Our symbols are stronger. Our message is God’s message. It is more powerful than any human ideology of intolerance. It will be victorious, if we remember how to draw on these divinely-inspired gifts to mobilize the passion, motivation, and means to defeat evil.

I’ve been thinking of Jesus, too. I’ve been thinking of how he walked into Jerusalem, unarmed and unarmored, to face directly those who wanted him dead. I think of him telling his disciples and his enemies to put away their swords. I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable he was, and about how he felt compelled to stand for what was right in the face of what was evil, even if it meant death (which it did). I’ve been thinking of those black and brown bodies, those Jewish and Muslim bodies, vulnerable and defiant in the streets in Charlottesville that day, confronting willingly those who want them dead. I’ve been thinking of Heather. I see Jesus at work, still walking into Jerusalem (or Charlottesville) to do what is right.

I also have been thinking of all those who provided care on the streets that day. Most especially, the volunteer medics who were on the scene of the car attack, who worked so hard to try to revive Heather. I think about the pain they must be carrying. I think of the designated “care bears” who went around with food and water and immediate medical care to those who were participating in direct action. I think of the clergy who participated in direct action, standing up to and seeking to block the entrance of, the white supremacists into the park. There is so much good in this world, I remember. And truly, I believe we have all been preparing all our lives for this moment. It is, as I noted in my first reflective Facebook post after Charlottesville, “the moment we were made for.” And what we are called to do in this moment is to have faith in the good news that love will win, and then do the work to make it so.

 

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One Response to Reflections on my experience in Charlottesville

  1. sghais says:

    Wow, Susie. Didn’t realize you were contemplating this event when we met in Yangon. Glad you went, and also appreciate your sharing your reflections. I’ve been a bundle of thoughts, emotions, and questions since the Charlottesville strife. As you suggest, there’s lots more work to do.

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