Charlottesville 2018: Power of God, Power of State

The highly anticipated (and dreaded) anniversary of the August 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, the murder of Heather Heyer, and the violence that exposed sympathy to white supremacy in the highest places in government, passed mostly without incident.  Having joined the brave clergy counter-protesters last year, who held the line in front of Emancipation Park and ministered to the injured, I am relieved the violence did not return this year.

The crowds that gathered this weekend both in Charlottesville and in Washington, DC, show that those who would dismantle white supremacy are more vocal than those who value it.  I’m encouraged by this and hope that last year’s violence spurred the kind of social change and reflection that Selma did years ago. But before we pat ourselves on the back and sit back in our easy chairs, thinking the forces of good won the day…

Let’s talk about the police presence in Charlottesville this weekend.

Late in the week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, unleashing all the powers of government upon Charlottesville in an attempt to keep the peace.  It’s understandable: Last year, police stood by as clashes erupted in the streets. This year there would be no such critique. In no city that I have ever visited, not even those under military occupation, have I seen such a formidable presence of law enforcement.  I feel as though I have now witnessed the full capacity of militarized policing.

As I walked by streets blocked by gravel trucks, barricades, police cars, and armored vehicles, I remembered how a murderous man driving a Dodge Challenger caused the only death in the mayhem in the streets that occurred last year.  Keeping cars out of downtown seemed a reasonable goal.

The clergy group I was with moved toward the Rotunda, a prominent feature of the University of Virginia campus. There was violence there last year, but this year there was a gateway with metal detectors guarding the entrance.  Good, I thought, as I read the list of prohibited items. Students would be able to go in, hold their protest, and do it in safety.

But it’s hardly a protest when one must ask permission from the powers that be.  The students knew that and had planned for it. As a few people began passing through the metal detectors, a banner was unfurled:

“LAST YEAR THEY CAME W/TORCHES. THIS YEAR THEY COME W/BADGES”

One might jump to the conclusion that the protest was outrageous and ungrateful.  No small amount of discussion erupted even among the protesters on this point.

But these students have lived in this community.  They had experienced the failures of policing on August 12, 2017, when police stood by and did little to intervene.  They have joined in the ongoing community discussions that have exposed sympathies to white supremacy among police and governance.  Listening to them might be smart.

In a brilliantly conceived strategy, the protest suddenly moved away from the metal detectors and other symbols of the security state. The students refused to give heed to those who would tame their chants by passing through their checkpoints. As the crowd pivoted, another stage was set on the side of the building.  In a space created by the protesters, free of the icons of civil authority, a woman stood with fist raised to the sky, flanked with a banner that read: Black Lives Matter.

It was not long before police appeared.  Hundreds of them, layers deep, all in full riot gear.  When the crowd would shift, they would shuffle to the right, maintaining their lines.  Shields up, visors down. Military vehicles converged.

The crowd came at them chanting: “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here!”  The police stood firm. It was unclear who they were protecting, though. There were no Nazi flags, no KKK banners, nothing of what was seen in Emancipation Park in 2017.  Why WERE they in riot gear? Why was a highly militarized presence in front of young people, armed only with passion, energy, commitment, and a vision of a more just and fair Charlottesville? Where the chants of “Black Lives Matter” are shouted because they know part of America believes they do not?

And then, everyone dispersed.  No tear gas, no batons, no shots fired.  Nothing but an impression that while this almost comedic, outrageous, excessive police presence did indeed prevent violence, it wasn’t there to protect the vulnerable, nor those exercising their right to free speech.  It was there to preserve the status quo.

And this may be the takeaway from Charlottesville in 2018.  I saw students passionate about justice. I saw the state use its power to protect its interests.  And I saw people of religious faith who formed a line and stood between the students and the police, putting their bodies in the way.  That was the most encouraging thing I have seen in a long time.

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