Last weekend I joined the courageous people of Charlottesville, Virginia who gathered, first in the sanctuary and then in the streets, to offer an alternative message to the hate-filled rhetoric of thousands of white nationalists who gathered in the city’s Emancipation Park under the pretense of protesting the scheduled removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Friday night, people of various faiths gathered for worship in St. Paul’s Memorial Church to spiritually prepare ourselves, in the tradition of the Civil Rights marches of the ‘60s, to serve as faithful witnesses to love the next day.
The sanctuary and overflow room were filled to capacity. We sang. We prayed. We heard encouraging words, and I preached a sermon based on 1 Samuel 17 titled, “Where Are The Dreamers?”
Shortly before the benediction, we were informed that a mob of white supremacists were marching toward the church with lighted torches, and we would not be permitted to leave due to the high probability of assault. We were held hostage inside of the church by this raging mob for approximately 30 minutes.
Outside, there was a small group of University of Virginia students who were standing against the mob in non-violent resistance. They were beaten and taunted. Just this morning I’ve received a request to pray for Tyler Magill, who works for UVA, and who came to the aid of the students being attacked on Friday night. In doing so, he was struck in the neck by a Tiki torch and it damaged his carotid artery. He suffered a stroke and is now in the ICU.
When we were finally allowed and encouraged to quickly leave the church we were ushered out of side and rear doors into an alley and quickly into cars.
As we made our way through the area, I began to weep as I saw masses of mostly young white men, clad in Polos and Oxford button-downs with neatly coifed hair and many donning “Make America Great Again” caps, filling the streets. They carried torches in one hand and many held baseball bats in the other, chanting “Blood and Soil,” a reference to racial purity and dominance that was birthed out of the Hitler regime.
They also chanted, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter” and “Whose streets? Our streets” which, ironically, was birthed in the streets of Ferguson.
My tears were not tears of fear, but tears of mourning. It is a sad moment in our nation – and yet not an unpredictable one given the current social and political tone of this presidential administration.
I cried because I recognized this moment, not as an escalation of white supremacy in this nation, but rather as its death rattle. And I know that the dying breaths of white supremacy will be long and arduous and violent. I know that there will be casualties on all sides.
‘The promises of Donald Trump’
Ultimately, people are responsible for their own actions, and yet our national leadership bears a moral responsibility to set the tone of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in our nation. I recognized the rage-filled chants of these men in the streets as the primal echoes of self-preservation that give voice to the intent of legislative policies being crafted and quietly implemented while we react to the screams.
I wonder might this be what former KKK leader and white supremacist David Duke meant when he said, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump."
For eight years, public disrespect of the first black U.S. president was not only tolerated by ranking GOP officials, but it was celebrated and promoted. This disrespect laid the ground work for a presidential campaign and election rooted in the promotion of racial, ethnic and religious bias.
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University found that the number of hate crimes rose 21 percent in major metropolitan areas in 2016 from the previous year. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of hate groups nationally rose for the second year in a row last year, with the number of anti-Muslim groups tripling from 2015 to 2016.
I am not suggesting that this president initiated any of these groups. Clearly, White nationalism has been here since the taking of Native land.
President Trump's hateful rhetoric – categorizing entire groups of people as violent, unwanted, and undeserving of America – has given a new legitimacy to some who feel they can express attitudes which had once been discredited, but now seem again permissible.
I am stating unequivocally that this president’s hateful rhetoric and the focus of GOP policies in this current administration have stoked and exploited fears in ways that embolden white supremacist groups.
Between toxic tweets, travel bans, and assaults on voting rights, immigration rights, LGBT rights and environmental protections, there are many factors shaping an environment that gives license to hate and harass and make America, once again, a safe place to hate.
We must react to these violently demonstrable assaults on the moral fiber of our nation. But, beyond reacting, we must also respond. We must be focused, strategic, and proactive in our engagement with this administration.
What are we not paying attention to while we are reacting to death rattles, toxic tweets and incoherent temper tantrums from the highest office in this land?
For instance, the president’s third set of comments about white supremacists in Charlottesville were attached to the end of an announcement concerning an executive order to substantially reduce environmental protections on building infrastructure. But we are not talking about that because our attention is averted by our reactions to Trump’s incendiary rant.
We must react and respond
Our nation is in a moral and political crisis.
We are witnessing the last fledgling breaths of a false racial construct whose time has come to an end, and although the death will be long and tortuous for everyone, death will ultimately come.
Our strategy must be to not only be reactionary to the primal flailing of neo-Nazi fascists, but responsive and proactive regarding legislative actions that are literally crafted by our enemies to take America back again.
We must call upon every political representative – on local, state and federal levels – to publicly denounce white supremacy, not just with statements but with instituted policies.
We must demand the restoration of the Voting Rights Act to its full power.
We must organize and mobilize the masses in every election, sending a clear message to incumbents that either they will vote in the best interest of the people or we will vote against them.
We must oppose the RAISE Act and defend DACA.
We must demand comprehensive criminal justice reform.
We must urge reengagement with the Paris Agreement on climate change.
We must implement a public platform of coalition building, inclusiveness, unity, and love.
We must challenge the erection of border walls.
We must demand the de-escalation of warmongering rhetoric.
We must lay out our expectations of a budget that is fiscally responsible and yet morally grounded.
This president refuses to denounce white supremacy and has made it clear that his administration does not represent all Americans. We must respond by showing him, and all who desire to serve this country, that we, the people, are one.
Rev. Traci Blackmon is executive minister of Justice and Witness at United Church of Christ and pastor at Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant.