Shreveport’s Vigil for Charlottesville

I hesitated to add to so much of the noise out there right now – especially when so many experienced the terror in Charlottesville firsthand – but because it was both so healing and so humbling to be able to speak at our Shreveport rally for Charlottesville last Sunday, my second home and a place I dearly love, and because my heart has been so heavy and always feels lightened a little when I find connections with other hearts — I’m posting my remarks below. If you have time for more, listen to the incredibly talented AJ Haynes of the Seratones make you weep with her poem and singing of Strange Fruit under a tree once used for lynching at the Caddo Parish Courthouse.

I went to the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s as a Jefferson Scholar, a scholarship that brought with it expectations of not just academic excellence, but citizenship and a real contribution to the inclusiveness, equality among student life. I soon learned that this was a campus-wide religion at UVA – this religion to Jefferson and his democratized ideals of self-determination, honor and equality. I took the history of civil rights under Julian Bond and poetry with our first black female poet laureate Rita Dove. I say this to tell you what a horror and shock it was to see hundreds of torch-bearing neo Nazis walking the central lawn of this campus, my campus, on Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – Charlottesville, then and now, struggles with a racist and misogynist past with lingering aftershocks in the present– a state school that didn’t allow women in until 1970, a university built with slave labor under the design of a founding father whose repeated rape of his slave mistress has become perversely romanticized. Charlottesville is far from perfect. But Charlottesville did not bring this on itself.

I believe that Charlottesville was expressly targeted as a strategic battle site by Richard Spencer and his NeoNazi, racist colleagues BOTH because it is now a progressive city built by the leading architect of America AND because it could actually be anywhere. For outside hate groups to invade and unilaterally terrorize a city that voted over 80% blue in the last election, a college town, and UNESCO world heritage site – (a city also, by the way, surrounded by a sea of red) – is a pointed, clear message that reads: We can take Berkeley with torches and hate just as easily as we can take Shreveport.

This matters to us not just because we feel for people in Charlottesville but because the violence could happen here — and the oppression and marginalization of already vulnerable people is in fact happening daily at the policy level.

My friend Kristin Adolfson was in the crowd hit by the car Saturday that barreled into her and dozens of other peaceful protesters that were holding signs that said, “Solidarity. Unity.” Kristen had written Love Not Hate on her shoulders and carried snacks and water in her backpack. She was marching by a low-income housing complex that white supremacists had been tormenting with racial epithets and chants of “Heil, Trump”. Miraculously, Kristin was unharmed, but a woman near her, Heather Heyer, died. Kristin told the New Yorker in an interview Sunday: “This was a terrorist act. Something that happens in so many places around the world, and it happened here in our little town. And I still can’t process the hate—that someone could actively take people’s lives, that’s what their goal was.”

She wrote to us on Facebook:

“What I can’t forget: The joy we had as we were marching down Water Street. Clapping and chanting and the solidarity and the community.

Then: such a strong feeling of ***NO!!!!!*** when I realized what was happening, realizing there was a car at full speed plowing through us. If my NO could have stopped time. It felt like it should have, it was that big.
How I knew what was happening and I couldn’t stop it. The sound of the car hitting human flesh and bone, ripping into us like dominoes, a quick staccato. Bodies thrown into the air. The anger that someone would do this. So angry, so angry. NO.
NO to the car and to the driver and to why it happened.
The fear for how bad it was, how many dead? How many dead.
A woman supported by three friends screaming heart wrenching. Her scream contained all our screams.
The tear streaked face of the young man wearing gray and a black medical mask around his neck, telling me someone is dead.
His face. Grief, incomprehension, pain, tears and pain, collapsing not able to stand.
His face.”

Over the past several years, since Sandy Hook, I’ve wondered – how long until I know someone who’s killed by gun violence and unchecked hate and intolerance? Or since Lafayette – when will I need to map out the exit the next time I take my kids to see a movie? How long until it comes for me or someone central to my life? I didn’t have the opportunity and the misfortune to test my courage as Kristin did (and I know that for many the awfulness of racially motivated violence has long been in their streets.) Charlottesville is as close as it’s come for me. I won’t let my fingers write “so far” – but that of course is my fear, your fear, all our fears, right?

Here’s what I know:

  • This is not “alt-right” or far-right, this is non directional, non partisan. Non American. The actual right should be loudest group saying this.
  • This is not about First Amendment rights. Not when assembling and speaking also means toting torches and assault rifles and other actual tools of terror. Friends who teach constitutional law at UVA have been telling me and others earnestly that when both the first amendment and the second amendment are abused together – violence, terrorism, homicide are not far behind.
  • Ignoring the fact that there is a short, direct and causal line from the President’s rhetoric and permissiveness for hate to the recent shocking surge of violence and hate crimes in American towns is dangerous. Strong leaders on both sides of the aisle, CEOs and other influencers are now seeing this writing on the wall and finally being vocal. Meanwhile – David Duke, our embarrassing fellow Louisianian, himself declared that the alt-right unity fiasco “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”
  • Doing nothing regarding Shreveport’s own Confederate statues and totems of racism in the hopes that Charlottesville’s violence won’t come here is ostriching and wrongheaded and in fact, the surest way to greater oppression and racial violence and domestic terrorism.
  • Equivocating with so-called compromises on false equivalencies – as if monuments enshrining civil rights and slavery bear equal moral weight and significance as worthy symbols in front of a courthouse is another fast track to Charlottesville – or worse.
  • I love Charlottesville so much I named my daughter after it — and I also gave her the middle name Strong. I actually believe Charlottesville is going to be okay, largely because there is a strong and motivated population and institutions that immediately began calling the evil out by name, AirBNB owners who canceled Alt-right reservations, locals who moved their cars to make it harder for hate groups to park and have to walk miles and miles in their sad little fake military costumes, teachers and students who stood in front of their university buildings as they sought to reclaim it for tolerance and were viciously assaulted, and now residents crowd-funding for all kinds of social justice groups to strengthen their community.
  • I love Shreveport too. Can we organize like that together?
  • When and if the Nazis come to our town, or reveal themselves in our town, terrorize and threaten people, maybe even brutally mow down some young brave person, how will we respond to their chant “you can not replace us.” I think we start in the same way we have gathered here at this vigil: by standing up to say, “we are not replacing you – because you were never entitled to anything you are demanding in the first place.”

I need to say how much of an imposter I feel as a well-meaning, slightly crunchy aging liberal white woman talking about bigotry and racism. I am acutely aware of the fact that what I am speaking of is no news at all to my neighbors of color in Shreveport. In fact, I told Tamica there were people far better positioned than me to speak today. But then, I remembered what I read this Sunday morning in the New York Times:

“Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigot-ocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”