Charlottesville Is All-Right

Charlottesville has been my home since I discovered it in graduate school. It’s full of natural beauty, alive, progressive, dynamic. The city also has old problems begging for new approaches, issues fed by poverty and injustice. Historic markers abound in the area—Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello and the University he founded, Patrick Henry’s Michie Tavern and James Monroe’s Highland. Our history now includes the terror of Saturday August 12, 2017.

Certain thoughts stayed with me throughout the white supremacist rallying cries that began on Friday night at the University of Virginia. As I received texts on Saturday from a business owner at the scene of the counter-protest on the Downtown Mall, and appreciated encouraging emails and calls from friends and family, I worked to come to grips with all of it. Deandre Harris lying bloody and beaten by poles in the hands of white supremacists—inside the parking garage I used two days ago?

Here’s what rises to the top for me.

Taliesin Myrddin Namaki Meche. Every day I’ve thought of this twenty-three-year-old since he died May 26 on a Portland commuter train, along with Rick Best, as the two of them tried to stop the white supremacist attacking two teenage girls, one a Muslim wearing a hijab. As he lay dying of knife wounds, Taliesin said to the woman who came to his aid: “Tell all the people on this train that I love them.”

When I first read about this fun-loving, bright, joyful man, I chose to think then that he is more like who we are at our human core, more who we are than his killer. I remember that his attacker was also on the train. And I choose again today to think we are, or can be, more like him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s words were never far from me on Saturday. Certain themes surfaced immediately. In protesting injustice, it must be done non-violently, no matter what. If your heart isn’t right you need to fix it today. Dealing with people of good will who do nothing is more difficult than facing the Klan—you know where the Klan stands. Remember that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal. Hatred destroys the mind of the hater.

Heather Heyer. Heather Heyer died in an act of terrorism, struck by a car plowing through peaceful protestors on the Downtown Mall. Whether she knew King’s words, she lived them: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.” Her mother is proud of her, admiring her daughter who as a young girl always stood up for the picked on and bullied—a trait that she cultivated all her life.

Christian Picciolini. Looking at the photographs of faces in the crowd of chanting white supremacists, I see nothing—no confidence, happiness, relationship, hope—nothing. I’m struck in contrast by the smiling, joyous faces of those attending Taliesin’s Portland memorial. Christian Picciolini is the author of Romantic Violence: Memoirs of An American Skinhead. Call white supremacy by its name, he says, call it terrorism. His non-profit, “Life After Hate,” does the hard work of trying to understand and dissemble white nationalism, one person at a time. In this NPR interview, Picciolini reacts to the Charlottesville terror strike, unveils reasons for membership (including his own) in such hate-fueled groups, and envisions Charlottesville as a hopeful turning point.

Last, I thought of French Resistance fighter Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague, in which he chronicles the town of Oran’s struggle against the deadly disease. At the novel’s end, the narrator calls the town “lucky.” Countless college students have wondered “why lucky.” Camus uses the physical plague as metaphor for the likewise contagious plague that lies dormant in all human hearts—this spiritual plague will break out if we are not loving proponents of the ties that bind us together in community. We must be vigilant against the plague of intolerance, complacency, isolation, and despair.

The plague came to Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. But Charlottesville knows better now, just like the citizens who survived plague in Oran. Charlottesville is all-right.

“Tell everyone on this train that I love them.”