Charlottesville’s Summer of Racism

The Summer of 2017 will probably be remembered as a Summer of Racism… at least from the mass media’s point of view. In my little town of Charlottesville, Virginia, it really began brewing in the Spring after our City Council voted to remove two Confederate war statues from a couple of parks downtown. That decision was soon put on hiatus for 6 months by the court system, but at the same time City Council also voted to rename the two parks from Jackson & Lee to Justice & Emancipation respectively, and that decision was put into place right away.

On the 13th of May, a rally (unofficially sponsored by Tiki Brand torches) took place in Lee/Emancipation Park (or Leemancipation Park for short). This was a precursor of the Alt-Right Jamboree on the 12th of August where White Supremacists (mostly out-of-towners) and Antifa (probably also mostly non-locals) politely exchanged business cards and agreed to meet up for drinks to hash through their differences and better understand each other… I mean, beat on, screamed at, and pepper-sprayed each other while Police in riot gear watched from a distance and helped clean up the mess after the melee was over. And of course, both of those racist events were the crusty slices of stale bread on each side of our KKK sandwich. Back on the 8th of July, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan came to town for their protest in Jackson/Justice Park (or Jackson4Justice Park). I attended both the KKK rally and the Alt-Right fiasco with a camera on my shoulder to document these moments of Charlottesville’s history and from my perspective the KKK rally was a walk in the park compared to the Alt-Right/Antifa mess.

So that’s been Charlottesville’s Summer of Racism (the 2017 edition). It’s clear that White Supremacy exists and at these rallies they get their chance to come to our town and bang their drum, but all of the rallies, City Council meetings, and discussions about racism has made me wonder… what does racism really look like on a normal day in Charlottesville? Not when people come to town to argue over statues and spread their hate, but what does racism look like on a day-to-day basis here?

The community memorial in memory of Heather Heyer on Fourth Street in Charlottesville. The Race Jewelers sign glows through the window from their store located on the corner of Fourth Street SE and Water Street.

For the last six months or so I’ve been asking my friends and colleagues where they see racism in action… not the racism you hear about on the news, not the systemic racism that effects our society but often makes me feel helpless to try to change, not the racism that a friend told you a story about, but the racism that you personally witness, experience, or even may participate in. As I’ve asked this question, I’ve seen the looks on my friends faces as they think about the question; white faces, black faces, and others. And you know what? The silence I’ve heard in response is very interesting.

Some of those I’ve asked jump right in with a story of racism they heard about in Chicago or some other city. Their example is about racism “out there”, which I don’t deny exists, but I try to pull them back to their own lives and direct experiences with racism. Often that’s when the crickets begin chirping. Not that racism doesn’t exist, we all know it does, but it just doesn’t often occur in their day-to-day experiences.

Now I’m the first to admit that the few friends I’ve had this conversation with in no way constitutes a scientific sampling. I also admit that my circle is relatively small; the company I run only has a handful of employees, the church I attend is cozy, yet somewhat diverse, the paths I walk are often off the beaten path. So that’s why I want to bring this up here… to broaden it out and to hear from you about your own up-close experiences with racism. How have you seen it? What does it look and feel like? If you have a story to share, I ask that you please respectfully share it so that each of us can benefit from your personal experience.

I’ll close with an interesting story dealing with race. Last month I spent a couple days with a new black friend of mine. We were able to share several meals together and spent a lot of time just hanging out and getting to know each other. As we ate, he told me about an important meeting he had just wrapped up with another African-American man. During the meeting, the man pulled him aside and said, “I’m glad you’re one of us!”, meaning, “I’m glad you’re black like us!” As my friend retold the event and let those words sink in, he shook his head in silence.

We’ve come a long way since the slaves were freed following the Civil War. We’ve come along way since Martin Luther King, Jr. walked across the bridge in Selma. And someday, maybe we’ll say we’ve come a long way since Charlottesville… but until then, no matter how far we’ve come, it often seems like we’ve barely taken a step.

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.

The KKK Took My Cville Away

I awoke this morning disappointed… and a little encouraged. Yesterday I attended my first KKK rally right here in my little city of Charlottesville, Virginia. If you’re curious as to why I attended a rally of the Ku Klux Klan you can read my reasoning here. The rally went off as expected. The KKK preached their hate. There was a large police presence. I witnessed several non-Klan arrests and saw 3 pepper grenades deployed to help disperse the crowd afterwards. All in all it was an afternoon of “entertainment”, our town made the national news, nobody was shot or seriously injured, I was documenting the event and captured some great footage… so why do I awake today disappointed?

I’m certainly not disappointed with the members of the KKK. They delivered exactly what they promised… a protest against the removal of confederate statues in Charlottesville. They applied for their permit to demonstrate, it was granted by the city, and the police presence protected them throughout the event. I don’t agree with their message, in fact, I’m staunchly against it, but I love the fact that I live in a country where all speech can be protected by our constitution and our police force—even hate speech. The moment that is taken away, we all have something more serious than the KKK to worry about.

My disappointment did not begin until the KKK showed up about 45 minutes late. Prior to their arrival at Jackson Park (now called Justice Park) the crowd was chanting things like “Black Lives Matter Here” and I found myself proud to live in a town that was willing to stand up to threats and defend the black lives in our community. And then the KKK arrived and the mood shifted drastically. The chants in defense of black lives became curses of white men in robes. The love and support being spoken of our black brothers and sisters turned into group hatred being demonstrated toward the protestors. “F— you, KKK!”, “Go to hell, KKK!” And while the venom continued to build within the counter-protestors, the majority of them never realized that their hatred toward their fellow men and women is not very different at all than the hatred of the KKK. In one sense “hate is hate”. It’s much easier to feel justified in our hate when we are part of a majority that hates the actions or beliefs of a minority, but reality is that hatred is hatred. It eats our souls, consumes us, and eventually spits out our bones.

I was also disappointed with the counter-protestors comments and reaction to the police presence. Printed signs and vocal chants of “Cops and Klan go hand in hand” were seen and heard throughout the park. People yelling at state and city police officers, “Why are you protecting them?”, “Is this how our tax dollars are being spent?”, and “You’re just as bad as the KKK!” were heard through the duration of the rally and afterwards. The negativity toward the police was so bad that I stopped filming for a while and instead walked the entire media moat that separated the crowd from the KKK and told every police officer I saw (probably 30 of them) “Thank you!” for doing their job. I wanted each of them to know that at least someone appreciated what they were doing. And what exactly were they doing? They were not there to protect the KKK (even though they did that as part of their jobs) but they were there to protect the voice of dissent. And for that I am unbelievably grateful. The police presence alone probably cost the city $100,000 or more. And as I stood there watching the Ku Klux Klan spread their venom, I thought to myself, “Thank God I live in a country that allows these voices I disagree with to be heard” and “Thank God we pay our police to help make this type of event safer for everyone.”

So this is our America; a place where haters can apply for a demonstration permit and have it granted, a place where counter-protestors can believe their hatred is more “pure”, “just”, “moral”, or “righteous” than the other guy’s hatred, and a place where police officers will get up in the morning to do their job to the best of their abilities all while hoping they’ll get to come home that night and tuck their kids into bed. I won’t soon forget talking to a black, female police officer at the rally yesterday. I thanked her for doing her job and mentioned something about this having to be one of the craziest days for her on the force. Her sigh, head nod, and the look in her eye told me I was 100% right.