On weekends, I love contributing to #celebratelu with Ruth Ayres Writes, to celebrate moments big or small from the week. But, this weekend I am struggling about what to write. No, scratch that, I am not struggling at all…I know exactly what I want to write about: the events at Charlottesville. There is nothing to celebrate as I try to make sense of the evil that was allowed to transpire, and the inevitable tragedy that took place.
On Friday night, I was aghast at the sight of white men and women carrying burning torches and chanting racist filth. It was a clan rally, but without the robes. I think it was this point that horrified me the most – here were these men and women, boldly walking just as they pleased, without a care in the world about being recognized, being seen. In fact, they wanted to be seen – they were proud to be seen. And, they felt safe – there were no police in riot and with tear gas at hand to make them disperse, to show that our government stands opposed to racism. All the fears I had had since the election seem to come to fruition on Friday night – Trump’s America, the people who voted him in, were at last emboldened to make it plain that this is what they meant by “make America great again”.
On Saturday, I followed the news on Twitter with increasing dread. Peaceful demonstrators were gathering to protest against the evil on display the night before, and armed Nazi militias were on their way, too. There was no word of caution or restraint from the President of the United States – why would there be? these were his people and he knew it. After all, there was David Duke naming it on television, for all to hear: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
Then there was that horrific moment when there was news that a car had plowed into a crowd of protestors, followed by the tragedy that was, by now, inevitable – someone had died. As I waited for word from the President (and it was a long wait, because Trump certainly took his time), this is what he had to say: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”
Many sides???? Is this what we have come to as a country, when an evil act can be downplayed because there are “many sides”? The choice between good and evil, justice and injustice, love and hate, is simple to name and make. How, pray tell, can there be “many sides” to the events in Charlottesville?
Today, I’m thinking about two people: the man who chose to drive that car, and the young woman he murdered. Both, most likely, had grandfathers or great uncles who had been part of the American army that had fought Nazi Germany, liberated death camps, and been witness to the human cost of white supremacy. Both, most likely, had learned about the war and its causes in history middle school or high school history classes, watched documentaries and read books which made evidence of that human cost indisputable. And yet…one chose evil, and one chose good. Heather Heyer is the name of the young woman. She was 32 years old. It has been reported that her last FaceBook post read: “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” Heather was paying attention. For her, there were not “many sides”.
I’m thinking about Heather as I try to imagine how I will teach in this coming school year. So often, we teachers are programmed to encourage our students to look for complexity and nuance when they engage with the world, to be aware of their own narrow perspectives and to look at issues from all sides. At the moment, this stance, when it comes to issues of justice and race, seems to hew perilously close to “many sides”. In this matter, we have to begin teaching the false equivalency of “both sides” – and that there is no such thing as the alt right movement, there are only Nazis. We need to name the hate, and ensure that our children can do so as well.
Last night, President Obama, Tweeted out this quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
At this moment in history, this becomes my teaching mission for the school year: teach to raise up more young people like Heather Heyer, who knew there was only one choice between good and evil, and paid so dearly for it. If there is one thing I can celebrate this weekend, there is this – soon I will have the chance to teach that lesson to a new group of sixth graders. I take hope from that.