Alt-right rally: “Not a new fight for me”

Members of the Union community who joined demonstrators protesting the August 12, 2017, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reflect on what they saw, heard, and learned amid the violent clashes. Alumna Lana Heath de Martinez (pictured at left) is the Welcoming All Coordinator for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy in Richmond, Virginia.

By Lana Heath de Martinez (M.Div.’16)

The white supremacists who came to Charlottesville are not the fringe. The war they promise is being waged against people of color, religious minorities, the LGBTQ community, and women. It has been waged since the first European stepped foot on this continent and decided that native people were a sub-human inconvenience. Our original sin is racism:  from Native American genocide to slavery to Jim Crow to Japanese Internment Camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the prison industrial complex, the border wall, Standing Rock. It’s a war that has been raging violently in communities of color but largely invisible to white Americans. The shock and trauma of white Americans comes from our brand-new front row seats.

Well, they’re not really new. White Americans gathered to picnic while black Americans were publicly lynched. White celebration of black death is nothing new. White Americans cheer on Trump’s calls for the expulsion of Mexicans and other immigrants while affected families wail and scream in agony. White loathing of migrant native people is nothing new.

I guess we’ve had a front row seat all along, but maybe instead of bearing witness we were celebrating the oppression of our neighbors.

This feeling of traumatic emptiness and raging hopelessness is nothing new. For five days I wondered why I could not cry or scream or feel… anything.. Except the sense of deja vu that this was not the first time. Then I figured it out.

I’ve seen this before. While lobbying for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations in the Virginia General Assembly early this year, I faced the same elected officials day after day referring to my family and community as “bad apples.” Not human. Not hearing the testimony of violence my comrades and I described. Day after day I stood at the podium pleading with those in power ⏤ mostly white men ⏤ to understand that my family members (Native American from central Mexico) are human beings.

The KKK, neo-Nazis, they are not the fringe. They are sitting in our state houses crafting policy that mirrors exactly what the marchers chant. “Build the wall – leave or die” = 4 anti-sanctuary city bills. “You will not replace us” = no access to work, to health care, to identification for immigrants.

This is not a new fight for me. I’ve been yelling from proverbial and actual rooftops for years while people who look like me refused to hear. Listen. Listen. Listen. Communities of color and their allies are clamoring for defense from white supremacy that is on our streets, in our law enforcement agencies, in our government, in our families. White supremacy was indeed exhibited by the clergy there to oppose it.

“Clergy needed in the parking lot” sounded over the church’s loudspeaker. As a faith leader who helped to recruit clergy, I was committed to responding. Walking out into the parking lot I heard a young woman of color calling for a revolution that would bring liberation to all people. She was with three comrades. I admired their courage to stand in the face of the KKK and neo-Nazis and declare that they are empowered and free. A disturbing scene began to play out.

“They aren’t committed to non-violence,” explained the lead clergy member. “We’re not going to engage them; we are just going to move toward them until they get off church property.”

And I watched as a sea of white people in clerical garb forcefully removed people of color calling for their own liberation from the church that was publicly committed to being a safe space. Faith leaders were standing up not to the neo-Nazis but to their targets. That is the scene I cannot stop replaying.

This commitment to “non-violence” is complicit in violence to our neighbors. We suppress people who are actively fighting violence against their communities. We suppress any message that doesn’t align with our own (limited) understanding. We have got to do the work of building a deeper political analysis. My soul sank through the asphalt as I stood next to these four brave witnesses facing the on-coming tide of clergy.

On Friday, I stepped out of the civil disobedience training to speak with a reporter. He wanted to know why we were ignoring the governor’s advisory to stay away from Charlottesville. “If we stayed home, would you still come and report on the Unite the Right rally?” I asked. “Of course. It’s news,” he answered.

“That’s why,” I said. “Their message cannot be the only one going out into our universe.”

Our message is going to have to be louder, broader, and on the offensive. Will you wait for neo-Nazis to march in your streets? Or will you confront them at home? I promise you they are there. The message that the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy brought to Charlottesville is one that Union knows well. In fact, it is the footprint Dr. Carson Brisson has left in every classroom. Our message is this:

You are invited. We are all invited. You may not know this invitation is for you, but it is! You are invited to put down your hate and to put down your fear. You are invited to walk towards each neighbor in love. You are invited to shuv ⏤ to turn away ⏤ from what you have done and believed. Turn toward hesed ⏤ right and just relationship. Only with a life of love and justice between us can we hope for shalom, for the world that God intends.

There is nothing that any of us have ever done or can ever do to have our invitation rescinded. This invitation is for us all and is always for us.

I can’t stop thinking about that invitation, and I can’t stop thinking about the literal harm and destruction white supremacists wish to bring on my family and millions more. And above all, I can’t stop thinking about the church’s complicity in that violence. When targeted communities cry out ‘we need your protection!’ they are not asking us to link arms and sing “This Little Light of Mine.” They are asking us to be a barrier that will not allow evil to pass ⏤ and in fact to vanquish that evil. This requires a new ethic. Passively allowing people who wish to harm communities to enter with their military arsenal is violence. And remember that violence is not confined to public marches. It is happening in traffic stops and ICE raids every day. There is always, always work for us to do that requires putting our bodies between evil and its target.

On Sunday, I heard State Senator Jennifer McClellan speak. The end to her comments is an exhortation to us all:  “Find the place in the resistance where you feel most comfortable. Then put one foot in front of the other and step forward. Go one step further than where you are right now.”

That is the way forward.

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