What I Saw in Charlottesville

Available here.

And below.

Note: a few corrections have been made in the version below: 1. An earlier draft had “Black Rock” instead of “Standing Rock” and misidentified the color of T-shirts worn by some groups. Also, see a correction below [in brackets].


As I wrote last week, I accepted an invitation from the Charlottesville clergy to come to their city the weekend of the Unite the Right rally, to join them in witness against white supremacy, Neo-naziism, racism, and associated evils, which are counter to both the Christian gospel and American democracy.

Free speech is a protected right and we were not protesting against the rally’s right to speak; rather, we were using our right to free speech to bear witness for a better message of conciliation and peace, and we were supporting the clergy of Charlottesville to stand against the incursion of white supremacists like Richard Spencer.

Here are some initial reflections based on my experience – on the white supremacists and their message, on the clergy and faith community, on the other anti-racism protestors, on the police, and on next steps.

On the White Supremacists, Neo-nazis, and their allies: First, I was impressed by their organization. They showed up in organized caravans of rented white vans, pick-up trucks, and other vehicles, and then quickly lined up with flags and started marching. I don’t know what app they were using, but it worked. (After the state of emergency was declared, the organization seemed less effective, with more confusion and milling around.) Second, they were young. The majority, it seemed to me, were in their twenties and thirties, mostly men, but a few women. I was told by one protestor that many of the older leaders were retired military.

Many came dressed in white shirts and khaki pants, reminding me of office workers or WalMart employees. Many wore helmets and carried hand-made shields. They looked like they came expecting to fight, threaten, and intimidate. Some came in paramilitary garb, heavily armed. They carried an assortment of flags – mostly confederate, many representing their respective organizations, with a surprising number of Nazi flags. I’m 61, and before this weekend, I’ve never seen a single Nazi flag carried proudly in the United States. This weekend I saw many.

As has been widely reported, their chants included “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and the like. Their use of torches Friday night and slogans like “blood and soil” were clearly intended to evoke the KKK and Naziism. There was a good bit of “hail Trump” chanting with Nazi gestures.

Before and after the event, I have been checking a number of white supremacist websites and Facebook pages related to Unite the Right leaders and identified participants (a deeply disturbing experience) . The unabashed racism, the seething hatred, the chest-thumping hubris, the anti-Semitism, the misogyny, the shameless desire to harm their opponents, the gushing love for Trump, Putin, and Stalin, of all people … they speak for themselves. I was struck by how often the term “balls” comes up in their posts: these seem like insecure young men who are especially eager to prove their manhood, recalling election season bragging about “hand size.”

Speaking of size, I haven’t been able to find any estimate on crowd size. I would guess around a thousand white supremacists, and I would guess that the total number of anti-racism/anti-facism protesters was equal or greater.

On the clergy and faith community response: I have participated in many protests and demonstrations over the years, but I have not seen the faith community come together in such a powerful and beautiful way as they did in Charlottesville. Brittany Caine-Conley and Seth Wispelwey deserve a lot of credit, as do the Congregate C-ville team they coordinated. I hesitate to name groups represented, as I will forget someone – so please forgive me in advance. But I met UCC, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist (Alliance), Anglican, Presbyterian, and Jewish faith leaders, and the Quakers and Unitarians were out in large numbers, wearing brightly colored t-shirts. I met Catholic lay people, but I didn’t meet or see any Catholic priests. Two Episcopal bishops were present, and they had encouraged priests of their diocese to be involved. Along with those of us who participated in an organized way, it was clear that many ad-hoc groups of Christians and others came to protest, some with signs, some giving out water and snacks to anti-racist protestors.

Black, white, Latino, and Asian clergy worked and stood side by side; Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others marched, prayed, and sang as allies.

The courage of the clergy present inspired me. In public gatherings and in private conversations before Saturday, participating clergy were warned that there was a high possibility of suffering bodily harm. A group of clergy (pictured below) walked arm-in-arm into the very center of the storm, so to speak, delaying entry to the park as they stood, sang, and kneeled. (Lisa Sharon Harper shares her reflections here.) This symbolic act took a great deal of courage, and many who did so were spat on, subjected to slurs and insults, and exposed to tear gas. I hold them in the highest regard.

Other clergy and faith leaders (I was among this group) marched to a park, participated in a rally, and then dispersed to several locations, including a Methodist church a block from Emancipation Park, where we helped medics, sang and held signs as a message to white supremacist and Nazi marchers, and provided water and other support to anti-racism protesters.

When the rally was disbanded by the police, many of us responded to reports of skirmishes and sought to de-escalate tensions. When the white supremacist terrorist driver ran into anti-racism protestors, many of us were nearby, and we ran together to the scene where we ministered to the injured and supported their loved ones. Many of us helped at the parks that were designated as “safe spaces” for anti-racism protestors, and we provided pastoral care – asking people if they were OK, listening to their stories, assisting them with finding medics, and offering them encouragement. At least a dozen times, protestors said to me, “Thanks so much to you clergy for being here.” Our presence meant something to them.

I come from a tradition that doesn’t normally use vestments, but I was glad that clergy garb made faith leaders visible in this circumstance.

On the other Anti-Racism Protestors: Along with Congregate C’ville, there were other groups protesting the message of white supremacy and Naziism. I was deeply impressed with the Black Lives Matter participants. They went into the middle of the fray and stood strong and resilient against vicious attacks, insults, spitting, pepper spray, tear gas, and hurled objects. It’s deeply disgusting to see BLM be vilified on Fox News and other conservative outlets after watching them comport themselves with courage in the face of vile hatred this weekend.

There were several anti-fascism groups whose exact affiliations were not easy to ascertain. I was moved by one young woman from one of these groups at the scene of the killing. She stood on a milk crate and shouted (this is a paraphrase): “People, this is hard. This is heartbreaking – to see our neighbors lying in the street, severely injured. But we must realize what’s at stake when Nazis and white supremacists want to take control of our country. We must not be intimidated, but be more committed than ever to stand against them.” There was no call to violence or revenge; only a call to resilient resistance.

I was also deeply impressed by UVA students I met. The group of young men and women that stood up to the torch-carrying marchers on Friday night had amazing courage. Their fellow students, their parents, and all of us, should be proud of these young leaders.

Not all of the groups shared a commitment to nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Dr. King. I saw a few groups of protestors who, like the Nazis and white supremacists, came with hand-made shields and helmets, and I heard reports that some of these groups used pepper spray on the white supremacists, who were also using pepper spray, sticks, and fists on them.

On the Police: Considering the number of guns present, it is amazing that no shots were fired, and the various police forces gathered deserve a great deal of credit for this. [It turns out, from video and an arrest, that at least one shot was fired.] The local and state police had a huge challenge on their hands, and their task was very difficult. In my fields of observation, they did not seem present to intervene quickly when skirmishes broke out. They seemed to stay back in the background. Perhaps this was intentional and strategic for reasons I don’t understand. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between the hands-off way heavily armed white supremacists were treated by police in Charlottesville and how unarmed African Americans in other demonstrations have been beaten and arrested around the country over the years … or how unarmed Native Americans were treated at Standing Rock a few months ago. That contrast is haunting, itself an expression of white privilege.

On Next Steps: The young age of many of the white supremacists and Nazis suggests two things to me: first, that young white people are being radicalized in America today, radicalized to the point of using the ISIS tactic of killing people with a car; and second, that this problem isn’t going away fast – especially if radicalizing influences continue or increase their activities among younger generations.

What does this mean?

First, it means that white mothers, fathers, grandparents, wives, sisters,  brothers, children, and pastors need to speak up when their loved ones are being radicalized. Every white American family needs to realize that radicalization isn’t simply something that happens in the Middle East – it is happening today, in Ohio and Kentucky and Florida and Virginia.

In addition, clergy around the country must prepare now for when an event like this comes to their area – which may be sooner than they think. (I understand that Richmond has already been targeted for another such rally in a few months.) Just as male mammals seek to “mark territory,” these human groups seem determined to maintain their markers of white supremacy – namely, statues and flags associated with the era and culture of slavery. Their oddly ambiguous slogan “You will not replace us” seems to mean, “You will not replace our white supremacy.”

All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – the beloved community where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, mutual respect, and neighborliness. Such a better world is possible, but only if we set our hearts on realizing the possibility.

We Christians, in particular, need to face the degree to which white Christianity has failed – grievously, tragically, unarguably failed – to teach its white adherents to love their non-white neighbors as themselves. Congregations of all denominations need to make this an urgent priority – to acknowledge the degree to which white American Christianity has been a chaplaincy to white supremacy for centuries, and in that way, has betrayed the gospel. Our Christian leaders need to face the deep roots of white Christian supremacy that go back to 1452 and the Doctrine of Discovery, and before that, to the tragic deals made by 4th Century Bishops with Emperor Constantine, and before that, to the rise of Christian antisemitism mere decades after Jesus. This tense season of our history needs to be, quite literally, a come-to-Jesus moment for Christianity in America.

Along with this theological and spiritual work, we have very urgent practical work to do, including 1) pre-empting the continuing development of white supremacist and Nazi-Fascist groups through preventative measures, 2) building relationships among groups that oppose racism and Naziism – both religious and secular, 3) improving planning and coordinating among these groups, and 4) addressing the ways that white supremacists and Nazis are seeking to use us as foils to win over conservative people through fear and division (which is the strategy behind Unite the Right). What is needed in all these areas (and more) will be the subject of many future conversations.