They came to hear the sound of bones being broken

Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote about Charlottesville for the Times today.

He and his wife and his friends have been discussing what to do about the Nazi rally all summer.

We could join many of our neighbors for teach-ins at the university, discussing racial history, prospects for diversity and paths toward justice. The University of Virginia had arranged a slate of public programs to give people a safe place to convene, commune and debate while armed, angry white supremacists invaded our downtown, just a mile and a half from the university.

Or we could join thousands of our neighbors who had pledged to confront the Nazis, risking broken bones, pepper-sprayed eyes, arrest or worse. We had friends and neighbors on both sides of this choice. And we saw virtue in both actions.

One school of thought says we should deny these extremists attention, as if attention were the oxygen that feeds their flaming torches. The other calls for direct confrontation: Show them they are unwelcome, outnumbered, and that the community is bravely united in disgust.

It’s hard to deny them attention unless everyone does it, and how do you make that happen? Anyway, is it really just attention that they want?

Plus, as we had learned from previous such assaults on our community, the hate groups were not just after attention. They wanted conflict. They came to hear the sound of flesh being struck, bones being broken. So the idea of denying them attention seemed less significant as the event drew closer. Still, there were compelling reasons to avoid confrontation.

The guns, the violence. Those are compelling reasons. They have a daughter. They stayed away.

I now believe we made the wrong choice. Does my status as a parent make me special? It shouldn’t. A young man named Dre Harris was ambushed in a parking lot and took dozens of blows by club-wielding thugs. He took them so I wouldn’t have to. Next time I will stand on the street with my neighbors, even at the risk of injury or death. It’s the least I can do to repay those who stood bravely this time.

We knew it would be violent. These racists are not a joke. They are not weak or small in number. They are not just pining for attention. This was not a media stunt. They did not come to offer “speech.” They did not come to engage in “debate.” They came here to hurt us.

And they did, and they’re hugging themselves with glee today.

These invaders hate my family. They threaten my country. They are numerous. They are emboldened. They are organized. They have friends in the White House. They are armed. They came in July. They came in August. And now they promise to return to Charlottesville to hurt more of us.

Charlottesville is an ideal stage for them to perform acts of terrorism. This was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the man who codified religious tolerance in colonial Virginia and who declared “all men are created equal.” It’s also the home of Thomas Jefferson, the man who owned, sold, raped and had whipped people he considered racially inferior to him. It’s the site of the University of Virginia, an institution steeped in conservative traditions that echo the Old South. And it’s the site of the University of Virginia, an elite, global research university with a cosmopolitan faculty and student body.

And then there’s that statue of Lee…you know, the traitorous general who did his best to destroy the United States in order to preserve slavery. That guy.

Two years ago, this city engaged in a civil conversation about how we would like our public monuments to represent our city. Last year, the City Council, after significant debate and dissent, voted to move two Confederate statues from two small neighborhood parks in the center of town to McIntire Park, a large, grassy park on the north side of the city. There, the monuments could remind us of our hateful, shameful past, but they would not represent our present or future.

We in Charlottesville demand the right to express our community values, not be bound by those of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. We demand that the rest of this country recognize how serious the threat of racial violence is. We never had illusions. It’s in our air and water. It’s our local history.

This is not about “free speech.” It never was. There is no “free speech” if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed. The Nazis told us their intentions clearly on Saturday. This, to them, is about “blood and soil.” They are serious. So are we.

If only the people at the top were.

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