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A Nation Divided: Special On-Site Report

Omri Nahmias, Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville spiraled into division and hate. Can a splintered country heal?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

 Mishpacha image

NO LEEWAY It all started on Friday night, when members of a far-right group gathered to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War, from one of the city’s parks Photos: AFP/Imagebank

T he morning after a Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a gathering of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, a pretty college town known for its red-brick colonial architecture and historic campus, residents remained in shock.

One person was killed, 32-year old Heather Heyer, an idealistic young woman who was described as a soft heart who would weep openly over the world’s injustices. The killer, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, was described by friends and classmates as disturbed and unusual, a young man who had become ensnared in a movement of hate.

At the scene of the crime, residents laid wreaths of flowers and lit candles. Evan Kirdnell, a 20-year-old student at the University of Virginia, was one of those who came to pay his respects. He told Mishpacha that he had witnessed the attack firsthand.

“The first minute, people were screaming ‘gunfire,’ but right after I realized that it was a car crash, I ran to administer first aid,” he said. “I saw a lot of injured people.”

Emotionally, he says, he was still feeling “a bit stunned.” A terror attack in his small town is the last thing he would have expected. “Charlottesville is known as a place of peace and love,” he said. “The city center is a family type of place, and it’s open and welcoming to anyone who chooses to come.”

It all started on Friday night, when members of a far-right group gathered to protest the city’s plans to remove a statute of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War, from one of the city’s parks. White nationalists and neo-Nazis joined in another protest on Saturday, a “Unite the Right” march that was met by a large group of counter-protesters, some of whom belonged to the provocative Antifa, or anti-fascist, movement. Violent confrontations broke out between the two sides, even after the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, had declared the alt-right march illegal. At 1:45 p.m., Fields drove his Dodge Challenger at full speed into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Nineteen people were injured in the attack.

“Ultimately, thousands of people came here, identifying as Nazis, armed from head to toe”— Robert Parham

Jewish residents of the city report that they had felt the tension building for days. City officials warned them in the week before the planned march not to confront the protesters in any way and to add security where necessary at Jewish institutions. But even after the attack, said Chabad shaliach Rabbi Shlomo Mayer, community leaders were asked to remain on guard.

“We got a message from the president of the university that there were some threats to the Jewish community in Charlottesville,” Rabbi Mayer said. “She didn’t say what kind of threats, but she did say that maybe we should call the police, and we did so [on Saturday night]. They came over to make sure that everyone was okay.”

Rabbi Mayer, who has been in Charlottesville for 16 years and estimates the Jewish community in the city at around 600 people, said he plans to upgrade the Chabad center’s security system. But his worry remains. “I won’t lie to you. I think about it, it is on my mind.”

Indeed, neo-Nazi activists marched through the city on Saturday chanting slogans like “blood and soil” — a German nationalist expression popular in the pre-Nazi era — and “Jews will not replace us,” a statement that captures the white nationalists’ paranoia that they are being displaced in their own country.

Robert Parham, 38, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, who recently moved to the city and davens at the Chabad shul, came to the attack site to recite Kaddish. On Friday, he watched as protesters carried torches through the city. “It was right under my office window. It was surreal. To see people marching with torches, with Nazi symbols, with Nazi flags, it was delusional,” he told Mishpacha.

“Anyone who has grown up in Israel, like I did, grew up with the post-trauma of the Holocaust,” he explained. “When I saw what was happening here, it brought up post-traumatic feelings. I saw these expressions portrayed in television films on the Holocaust, and it threw me back to that era.”

But despite the tragic outcome of the march, Parham said he expected worse. “It is terrible what happened, but it is at the lowest threshold of what I feared would happen,” he said. “Ultimately, thousands of people came here, identifying as Nazis, armed from head to toe, and it is enough for one of them to melt down and take out a machine gun and spray down people, and there would have been a much bigger attack here. I didn’t think it would end peacefully and that they would just depart quietly.”

Other residents of the city, who watched their pleasant and peaceful town descend into a vortex of violence, were still sad and angry a day later. Richard Fox, a local owner of a farm and a hotel, said that he was personally in favor of leaving General Lee’s statue in the city park. He said it has a place there, along with expressions of support for the civil rights movement.

The real issue, he said, is that extreme right-wingers had hijacked the discussion, one that had largely been conducted cordially on the local level. “We can’t continue like this,” he explained, as he placed flowers and lit candles at the crash site. “This is the worst thing I have ever seen in the city. People were intentionally run over here, and we have to start talking to one another to figure out how we got here. This is not America. We are in 2017, not the ‘40s or ‘60s.”

Fox can’t remember a time when America has felt more divided, with violent extremists on both sides. “We have never been so torn apart.”

Asked if he was optimistic that Charlottesville, and the nation, could heal its wounds, he answered in the affirmative. “It can’t be worse than this,” he said. “People died in the streets. We must unite. The hatred, the bigotry, has no place in Charlottesville.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency for Charlottesville, and a massive police presence remains in the city’s streets. McAuliffe, a Democrat and former close advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, delivered a blunt message in the hours following the attack to the far-right and neo-Nazi protesters who had gathered in the college town.

“Go home,” he said in a televised address. “You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you are patriots but you are anything but a patriot… There is no place for you here. There is no place for you in America.”

Just up the road, 115 miles away in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump’s White House continued to deflect attacks that the commander in chief had failed to initially denounce the attack strongly enough. In a statement at a golf club on Saturday, Trump said that he “condemned in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence … on many sides.” That qualifier, which seemed to suggest that the counter-protesters had somehow acted as badly as the car attacker, brought back the charge that Trump coddles the alt-right and white nationalist movements, whose members supported him at the polls. Democrats and Republicans alike took to social media to lambaste the president.

“Mr. President, we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”

In a statement released Saturday night, Senator Ted Cruz added that the Justice Department should investigate the car ramming as “an act of terror.” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted that “White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.” Senator Marco Rubio, a Trump opponent during the 2016 race, also barbed the president: “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.”

On Sunday and Monday, the White House gainsaid the charge and issued more explicit condemnations of the violence and its perpetrators. But the hate remains, and the president who leads the country must find the wherewithal to bring together a nation truly divided. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 673)

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