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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Author: Kent C. Williamson

I long for peace, I believe in the power of music, and I live mostly on Mexican food. A few of my films... Stained Glass Rainbows, By War & By God, Rebellion of Thought, and When Love Walks In. I am the Founder of Paladin Pictures (aka the Paladin Media Group) as well as the Community Films Foundation. I'm the husband of 1 and the father of 6.

7 thoughts on “Charlottesville’s Mid-Life Crisis”

  1. Kent, Respectfully I must take issue with the way you seem to have characterized the counter protest. I’m sorry you were assaulted-not cool-but by putting “peaceful counter protester” in quotes, you seem to paint with a broad brush and imply there were no peaceful counter protests. Not true.

    A man that mows down people with his car is not just having a “moment of rage”, he is acting on a long seething hatred and resentment.

    Calling the hatred that was on display IN RESPONSE to the invasion of hateful rhetoric, bigotry, and fascism MORE insidious is appalling. When Nazis invaded, no one thought the resistance was to blame for that nasty World War. Why would we think resistance to neo-nazis now is any different? Every individual is responsible for their own actions, so let’s be clear here: the alt-right, white supremacist nazi gang that assembled here is all kinds of wrong. Resisting them and driving out this toxic ideology is the only rational response. My grandfathers put their lives on the line (along with many who gave up their lives) to defeat the Nazis in WWII. Would you call their vigorous defense and offense against the enemy more insidious than Hitler’s straightforward grab for world domination?

    1. Molly – To your point about there being truly “peaceful protestors” I probably should have stated in the article that I did see some. The problem is that some of the ones I saw could not be distinguished between “peaceful protestors” and “silent observers” and “bystanders” because the “non-peaceful counter protestors” were hogging the spotlight. And like I mentioned my camera tends to go to the most interesting thing in my immediate area. If you were there you’ll know that it was very difficult to tell who was who. The barricades helped while the alt-right was actually in the park, but when they moved into the streets it became more difficult. Signs helped, but uniforms would’ve helped more. I did also see a few members of the clergy at different points.

      Regarding your grandfathers and their service to America… of course I wouldn’t call what they did more insidious than Hitler. I will also say that it was a war situation. Now after this past weekend some might think that we are at war in our country over this issue. We’re not at war… at least not yet. And may it never escalate that far. Comparing this weekend to the war your grandfathers fought would be a huge insult to the sacrifices they and many others made for our country.

      1. Kent, we don’t know each other very well, but here’s what I think know about you: you are a good guy, loving family man, a man of faith, and a patriot. I don’t want to discount your experience this weekend, but there were lots of peaceful protesters there. There was a line of clergy placing themselves between the Nazis and the angry counter-protesters, the silent worship of the Quakers in Justice Park, the army of prayer warriors that only God could hear. I just feel very strongly that it is important to resist the enemy, and to my mind the enemy here is fascism, racism, injustice, and everything about the Nazi ideology that world fought to defeat. Do I wish every counter protester was well-trained and committed to non-violent resistance? Sure – that’s more my style. But being passive about our values is a real disservice to those who sacrificed themselves for our protection and liberty. That’s why I feel compelled to speak.

        This is your space and you can say whatever you want here, and I appreciate your response and being willing to have a dialog.

  2. Thank you are your efforts to cover the protest march in Charlottesville yesterday. What a tragedy, three people lost their lives and the pot of misplaced anger keeps boiling over.

    I counted thirteen times that you used the word “hate,” “hatred” in your article, Charlottesville’s Mid-Life Crisis. What a powerful word hate is. Hate has become the tag that describes the motives and actions of the protesters in this demonstration. What is worst is this is now the emotion that is gripping the divide in America both politically and socially. In my most dangerous war, experieance hatred was not an adjective that we used to describe it. Hate did not motivate us we were angry but not full of malicious hatred.

    In reflecting on the story of Cain and Able and what must have motivated Cain to kill his brother with his own hands, the hatred that must have pushed that act of violence and hatred to the surface is beyond human comprehension. It is the first story of such violent hatred recorded in the biblical narrative. It shows that hidden inside our human nature is the seed of self-destruction the ultimate act of rebellion against the seed of life creation.

    I’ll stand with you and Dr. Martin Luther King and the multitude of other like minded Americans that believe, “…that hate is too big a burden to bear.” There is so much more to be said, but I’m of the opinion that words and analyst will not solve not erase the seeds of hatred that are spreading across this nation. It will take a demonstration of a lifestyle that is centered in the opposite or absence of hatred. “LOVE.” The Jesus of our bible did more than give us a written statement or list of all our problems and solutions. He became flesh and lived it amongst us and allowed us to see it for ourselves. We must do the same.

    Your work is important Kent, keep it up.

  3. As always, perfectly said Kent. Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, The University of Virginia, and a “host” city to the world, has a big black eye. Going to take a while to heal from this one. Glad you were safe while in the melee. Prayers for the hurt and deceased.

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