The Sadness of Charlottesville

There is much to be sad about here in Charlottesville. This past week our City Council voted to shroud our two prominent confederate statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The move is intended to be seen as a symbol of mourning over the death of Heather Heyer who was killed when she was struck by a car during the upheaval at the Alt-Right rally earlier this month. Unfortunately, the shrouds look a lot like giant garbage bags which immediately caught traction on social media with those who want these monuments torn down and tossed out like a plate of bad leftovers. A prominent photographer friend of mine posted a picture as the drapes were being placed on one of the statues. He ended his post with these words about Charlottesville… “This is not the place I use to know”. I won’t try and put words in my friends mouth about what exactly that means for him, but there is a bit of that sentiment in the air here.

Let me say that I don’t really consider myself a “Southerner”. I’ve lived in Virginia since 1993 and in Charlottesville since 1995, but I’m a Texan by birth. It’s true that Texas fought as part of the confederacy, but many from Texas are much more “Texans” than they are “Southerners”. As a matter of fact, lots of Texans are Texans before they are Americans, which you’ve probably encountered along the way. Let me also say that in no way am I part of “The South Will Rise Again” movement that we occasionally hear about. My ears always perk up when I hear stories of the secession of Texas (not that it would ever happen), but as Texans we tend to be independent folks who often think we can do things better on our own. BTW, the modern day discussions of secession have nothing to do with slavery, just in case anyone reading this is wondering that in this current climate.

So what do I find sad about the current ongoings?

• I find it sad that the great little city of Charlottesville has become known around the globe for the ugliness of White Supremacy and the ugliness of Antifa. I stood in the midst of both of these groups with a camera on my shoulder and saw some of the ugly parts of humanity. Both of these groups are tiny slivers of society and truly do not represent the great people of Charlottesville.

• I find it sad that “voices of reason” on both sides of the statue debate are totally drowned out by the extreme voices that the media loves to cover.

• I find it sad that the “f” word was used in abundance by many different people in their anger at our recent City Council meeting and that no one with any authority attempted to make the conversation more civil.

• I find it sad that one of our community members lost her life. And I find it sad that the “cause” has turned her name and identity into a rallying cry for their political purposes. Who was she? Most of us never knew her. Was she an artist? Did she excel at sports? Was she strong in math & science? Was she a church-goer? An atheist? Did she love animals? Who was she? Most of us will never know and now she has been immortalized by those who seized the opportunity and have collectively galvanized her into something that probably was only a very minor part of her life. That saddens me.

• I find it sad that more than 150 years have passed since the Civil War ended and that my black brothers and sisters still have to deal with the emotional and psychological chains of slavery. And I find it sad that even when the statues of Lee and Jackson are removed from their parks that the issues of racism won’t go away with the monuments. True, those who feel oppressed won’t have to look at the statues any longer, but all of those white supremacists will still blend into our society. Those who hate people for the color of their skin will still shop in the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, work at the same jobs, and hate with the same hate. The point is that the statues are not the problem… the heart of man is the problem.

• I find it sad that in the progressive little City of Charlottesville we’ve had parks for 100 years with statues of confederate generals, but no one ever worked hard to create a park dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. or any other civil rights activists. What would the dialogue in Charlottesville be like today if 40 years ago the city had carved out a park and installed a statue of MLK? He has a performing arts center named after him, but buildings are different than statues.

• I find it sad that those who use this statue as a learning tool to never repeat the mistakes that our forefathers made, will no longer have that opportunity once the monuments are gone. I’m not one that looks at these statues as “heroes of slavery”. When I look at any confederate statue I look with a tinge of pain and grief and I’m also reminded of how lucky I am to even exist in this world. Two of my great-great-grandfathers (non-slave owners) fought for the South (one from Texas and one from Mississippi). The one from Texas left Cherokee County with 6,000 other men… only 600 returned from the war and he was one of them. So I consider myself very fortunate that he even survived, because if he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here. So my sadness about the tearing down of monuments has absolutely nothing to do with slavery. It has more to do with feeling of gratitude I get when I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to be alive in this world.

Ultimately, I believe that within each of us resides both the ability to do great good and the ability to do great evil. We are unbelievably complex creatures and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were no different. As a follower of Christ, I try to focus on the good within me and unleash it onto those in society around me, while I try my best (and sometimes fail) to arrest the evil within me before it comes out and wreaks havoc. As Derri Daugherty of The Choir sings in “What You Think I Am”, “I’m nobody’s angel, I’m not that good. I’m no red devil In the wicked wood. I’m a dedicated minister and a downright sinister man. I’m a whole lot better and a whole lot worse than what you think I am.”

A friend from California recently asked me that when these statues come down, as Christians, “shouldn’t we be rejoicing?” I guess I don’t know. I’m sure some will see it that way and I understand their reasoning. As far as rejoicing, I want to rejoice whenever I see my black friends and neighbors accomplish great things. I have several that are filmmakers and artists and I want to celebrate with them in all of their accomplishments. I want to rejoice with the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. I’ve taken all of my kids to Selma, Alabama to walk the Edmond Pettus bridge and I’ve taken them all to Memphis, Tennessee to stare up at the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, because I want to instill in them a love and respect for the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that he did. I also want to rejoice when I see a black father loving on his kids and involved in their lives. They say now that over 70% of African-American’s are born out of wedlock. With statistics like that and the fact that the family unit is the building block of a society I would argue that the issue of “family” is far more important today than the issues of “slavery” and “oppression”, but unfortunately, nobody’s out in our parks and streets marching about that.

This article  originally appeared in a slightly modified form as a response to a Facebook post.

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Charlottesville’s Mid-Life Crisis

The mid-life crisis of my little city of Charlottesville, Virginia, has taken a turn for the worse. At Saturday’s Alt-Right Rally we lost 3 lives. One hit by what appears to be a madman in a vehicle, who also injured a number of others in his moment of rage, and two Virginia State Troopers who died when their helicopter crashed into the earth.

Following last month’s KKK rally here in Charlottesville, which I also wrote about, the city began to brace itself for this version of the racial hornets’ nest. After seeing and hearing the bubbling hatred from both sides at the KKK rally I expected something similarly disappointing yesterday, and let’s just say that unfortunately, the Alt-Right rally exceeded my expectations.

As a filmmaker and a documentarian I approach events like these from a very different viewpoint than most who attend. I try my best to be like a fly on the wall, pointing my camera in the direction of the most interesting action in front of me and capturing what it sees—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t currently have a plan to make a film or even a short video from the material I’ve captured, but I realize the significance of these events and so I feel almost obligated to be there to be the eyes and ears of those who can’t, those who choose not to attend, and for future generations. This is a part of how I serve both my community and my society.

That’s what I was doing at the Alt-Right Rally when I was punched three times in the face by one of those “peaceful counter-protestors” you’ve probably heard so much about. Fortunately for me, she was the 5 foot, 92 pound variety of counter-protestor and not the 6 foot, 300 pound version. Besides knocking off my glasses and roughing up my lip a bit, I’m no worse for the wear. This occurred early at the rally when I was attempting to film something that she and a few of her friends didn’t want filmed. That’s when she started throwing her punches. What was I trying to capture with my camera when this occurred? A couple of counter-protestors had been pepper-sprayed and were receiving aid. I was trying to document people helping their fellow man when I became the victim of her fury and rage. It’s crazy what will set people off when they are so on edge at a rally like this. I guess in some way it’s probably easier to punch a middle-aged member of the media with a 20 pound camera on his shoulder than it is to punch one of the young, angry, racist, alt-right members with pepper spray in his hand. Unfortunately, the greatest harm she did was to my camera. She grabbed a cable and yanked it with both hands which ripped it in half and left my viewfinder inoperable for the remainder of the day. Imagine trying to document an event like this without being able to see what your filming.

The hatred I saw at the Alt-Right rally flows in both directions. The hatred of white supremacists is it’s own ugly breed of hate. It’s a type of evil that must consume it’s carrier like a cancer, eating away at any good healthy cells that remain. In many ways, it’s easier to diagnose than it is to cure, but at least it’s diagnosable. We can label it, call it what it is, and weep for the victims it claims. Or, as I witnessed at the rally, we can label it as racism, call it what it is, and then become consumed with hatred toward the person who caught the disease. Now the hatred I saw from the counter-protestors is not nearly as easy to label, define, or diagnose. This makes their version of hatred more complex and perhaps more insidious. I fully believe in the idea of a “righteous anger” where the ideas of racism and white supremacy can anger us to the point of action. But our actions are very telling. If we examine them carefully, our actions can let us know if we crossed the line from “righteous anger” into pure hatred—which is what I witnessed at the rally in Charlottesville.

One benefit of a rally of hate like this is that the hatred from both sides is evident and on display. I consider this a benefit, because it’s good to be able to look into someone’s eyes and know what they hate. It’s very revealing. The concern, of course—the danger—is the harsh reality that when the rally is over, and the outfits, gas masks, and flags are all put away, these people just blend right back into the society around us. They go to work with us. They eat at restaurants at the next table over. They walk our streets. And although their wardrobe and signs might be back in their closets, the hatred they have for their cause is still in their hearts.

There was a lot of violence yesterday which made it very different from the KKK rally last month. And as I examine the two events in my mind I think much of yesterday’s chaos could have been avoided with one simple addition to the layout at the park; the media moat. At the KKK rally there were two sets of barriers between the KKK members and the counter-protestors. This double-fence (provided by the City) gave a gap of ten or twelve feet between the anger of each side. This “moat” was only accessible by members of the press. I could point my camera in either direction and capture the rally and the counter-protest. Yesterday at Lee Park there was no media moat provided. This put members of the media right into the midst of the melee where they could get punched in the face. The Alt-Right Rally had more participants than the KKK rally did which may have made the moat harder to establish, but I really believe that if the city of Charlottesville had provided a media moat that the violence between the two groups could have been stemmed.

Perhaps one of the overlooked consequences from yesterday’s event was what I call the “hijacking of statue protection”. For those who may not be aware, both the KKK rally and the Alt-Right rally stem from a decision that Charlottesville City Council made to remove two confederate statues from two public parks. The park where yesterday’s rally occurred contains the statue of General Robert E. Lee and the park where the KKK gathered has a statue of Stonewall Jackson. Charlottesville has a good number of level-headed non-racists, including some black friends of mine, who don’t want the statues removed from the parks. But I’m afraid yesterday’s events will make it much harder for their voices to be heard. Why? Because now it will be very easy for the left to equate “statue protectors” with “racist, white-supremacists”. I can hear it now, “Oh, you’re one of them. How dare you want to keep the statues. Why don’t you take your racist, hate-filled ideas and leave this town?” I’m guessing after yesterday, it will be a bit easier for those who want the statues removed to hate those good citizens who want to keep them. May our potentially misguided assumptions of others not foster division among the good, well-meaning people of this city.

Which brings me to the Reverend Martin Luther King,Jr. One of my favorite quotes of his is this… “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I don’t know how we do it, but I believe that love is a better response to the evils of racism than hatred can ever be. We must find ways of living out this type of love in our communities. Every time we are called names, or spit on, or punched in the face, we must… we must retaliate with love. Hatred breeds only more hatred, but a righteous anger can lead us to love and I truly believe that love conquers all.

As the events were winding down yesterday around Lee Park, I was walking the streets thanking individual police officers and members of the National Guard for doing their jobs. I looked down in the gutter along Market Street and saw the most profound sight of the day. Laying there among the trash was a plastic bronze eagle, the type that would adorn the tip of a flag, perhaps the flag of one of the racists at the rally, perhaps. But what made it profound was that the head of the eagle was tucked under a discarded face mask that someone had used to protect themselves from pepper spray. A bronze eagle that represents America’s freedom, made out of plastic (probably in China), lying discarded in a gutter trying to breathe through a face mask. I stared at it for a moment and then I knelt down and picked it, tucked it securely into my pocket, and walked away.

UPDATED: 3:20pm, August 13, 2017 — This article was updated to adjust event timing to “yesterday” where one instance originally said “today” and to include the following paragraph which was omitted in the original…  “One benefit of a rally of hate like this is that the hatred from both sides is evident and on display. I consider this a benefit, because it’s good to be able to look into someone’s eyes and know what they hate. It’s very revealing. The concern, of course—the danger—is the harsh reality that when the rally is over, and the outfits, gas masks, and flags are all put away, these people just blend right back into the society around us. They go to work with us. They eat at restaurants at the next table over. The walk our streets. And although their wardrobe and signs might be back in their closets, the hatred they have for their cause is still in their hearts.”

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