Michele Edwards shares experiences at #Charlottesville protest

I am sharing my thoughts about my experience in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 12. That day will stay forever in our hearts and souls, seared there, but we can – indeed we must – use it to help one another and the Commonwealth move forward.

michele edwardsOn Friday night Aug. 11, I, like many of you, was stunned as I watched a live stream video of hundreds of young white men marching on the grounds of UVA.  I have no words to describe the disgust I felt as I tried to comprehend what and why they were doing what they were doing.

“You will not replace us?”  What does that even mean? I couldn’t picture   people actually getting together in backrooms, clubhouses, basements, or wherever, to talk about how they are being replaced. With what? By whom?  As I try to picture Americans gathering together from all over the country, to light tiki torches and march around cities – including Charlottesville – to tote rifles, rough people up, my imagination fails. It seems so pathetic.

But those people were dead serious. As we now know, the following day was really bad. I had heard there would probably be violence, but I went, knowing I would stay away from that. I went so that I could witness and participate in the peaceful gathering scheduled in McGuffy Park the early morning before the hate rally was to begin. That Saturday morning, after speeches by pastors, UVA students, and peace activists, our group of about 300 disbursed, and marched slowly to the First United Methodist Church two blocks away. This church, directly across from Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, was serving as a safe space for peace marchers needing rest, medical attention, water, food, and worship.

Out in the parking lot with people singing and praying, white supremacist groups marched by with hate flags, standard Confederate flags, and sticks. Some were even wearing helmets. For what? What protection did they think they needed from us, the peace chanters, the clergy? We were hollered at and booed. It is not easy to sing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” over and over in the face of evil. But we did. And it is my sincere belief that those words are true of all of us.

Most shocking to me, however were the words of the marchers, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us.” Hearing those chants made me see what was important to the marchers. They were unified in their belief that taking down symbols of the Confederacy is symbolic of today’s white males being replaced. I can only assume that worshipping at the feet of Robert E. Lee’s statue makes them feel relevant, powerful, and superior to everyone else. White supremacists actually believe that racial diversity in the US is white genocide.

Do they perhaps not know that General Lee surrendered to the Union Army in 1865? These people have not been able to move on for 152 years! Since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, white supremacists have done everything in their power to deny equal protection under the law, the vote, housing opportunities, equal education, jobs, upward mobility, and dignity to African Americans.

White supremacists have lynched, murdered, and tortured Blacks throughout our country’s history, and white supremacists continue to proclaim that the United States of America was created by and for the white race, and for the prosperity and enjoyment of the white race.

Showing up to witness for peace and love in the face of racism and hatred at rallies is important, but the real work happens in intimate spaces; the workplace, classrooms, places of worship, playgrounds, shopping malls, our own homes with neighbors and family.

We white people, men and women, are the majority race in this country.  We have privilege. And we have a responsibility. We must stand up to bigotry in all its forms.

We are complicit through our silence when we hear a racist comment or joke. Yes, it is uncomfortable to confront people when you hear a racial slur; I’ve certainly held my tongue many times when I knew I should speak up. I hope to do better.

This enormous problem in our country right now is not going away by itself.  We are so divided by race, religion, and ethnicity that we have reached the breaking point. I witnessed the breaking point in Charlottesville and it ended in violence and death. We reached the breaking point was when a white supremacist went into a church and murdered nine African- American parishioners in a prayer meeting. We witness the breaking point when white police officers shoot unarmed motorists for driving while Black.

We are broken when there is so much poverty that men, women, and teens of all races turn to drugs and crime because they see no hope or opportunity. We are broken when political candidates pit one race against another to win an election. We are broken when the President of the United States equates the KKK and the Nazi party with those who work for peace and equality.

But are we at the point of no return? It depends. It depends on how the citizens and leaders of the Commonwealth respond to the series of white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, and Klan rallies focused in Charlottesville. It depends on whether we Virginians ever properly deal with our history of oppression, Jim Crow laws, Confederate era-icons, our own feelings about race, our own fears, and how all this perpetuates present-day racism and – let’s face it – domestic terrorism.

While I call on all elected officials and religious and community leaders to denounce domestic terrorism, I also implore all white people of conscience to speak up and speak out against racism and injustice whenever and wherever you see it.

I believe that the same violence that happened in Charlottesville can and will come to Staunton. I believe we need to take a long-term view on race relations in Staunton and in the Commonwealth. I have learned from minorities that they would be the ones to suffer intimidation and violence in retaliation if we immediately take down statues, and rename schools, hotels, streets, and the like. We need to be thoughtful and strategic, and our historical issues must be understood and addressed before making decisions on how to act. Let’s have a dialogue with one another. Let’s empathize with one another. Let’s humble ourselves and listen.

One opportunity we have in this community to engage is the Bridging the Communication Gap, taking place August 26th from 1-3 p.m. at the Waynesboro Public Library. All are welcome and encouraged to attend. More opportunities to engage with the wider community are being planned.

This road will not be easy but it is necessary. Racism and bigotry and its effects have taken their ugly toll for far too long in our country.  Now is the opportunity to root out hatred and fear (in all of us, me included) and face it head on. Our goal is peace and justice for all. We must achieve it together, and I look forward to being part of the solution to a more peaceful and just society.

Michele Edwards is the Democratic Party nominee in the 20th House District in the November general elections.

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