Trial by fire
He was scared.
On Aug. 11, Luke Williams ’14 was on the University of Virginia (UVA) campus, training for his new job as a residential advisor in his senior year.
News of the Unite the Right protests had already perforated campus walls — people knew this would happen.
But as the events unfolded that night and through the morning, some couldn’t believe their eyes.
Backlit by the hue of tiki torch flames, members of the “alt-right”, the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi movement marched through the UVA campus to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“White lives matter!”
“Blood and soil!”
“Jews will not replace us!”
Shouts and chants bellowed through the campus, and without trying to sensationalize it, Williams says he and the people around him were scared.
And that fear lasted.
After the protests, after the deaths of Heather Heyer and two Virginia state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, a harrowing fear hung over Charlottesville like a thick, hazy fog.
Many of Williams’ friends were hesitant to do what they usually did around town — many of the protesters were still in Charlottesville.
But in the weeks following Charlottesville, the country has struggled to figure out what to do next, how to respond.
Movements have emerged to encourage the removal of Confederate monuments like the ones in Charlottesville, the Trump administration has faced backlash over its response to the events and the growing political polarization in a post-Charlottesville world have ushered in what some call a new era of discontent in the nation.
But despite the noise throughout the country today, senior Mateo Diaz says discussions on campus and across the nation can be the method to finding solutions for these issues.
“Discussion must be had,” Diaz said. “It may be uncomfortable. You may not enjoy it. But there are topics that if left to yourself, your opinion will be devoid of a richness of knowledge that comes from listening to others and hearing what you might not believe.”
So, sitting around a Harkness table, students and faculty of the school discussed and listened, agreed and disagreed. From Charlottesville to Dallas’s own Confederate statues (most notably in Lee Park), one theme arose: the country needs dialogue.
Discussion must be had.
While watching the events of that weekend unfold, humanities instructor Meagan Frazier’s sense of place in history’s path all of the sudden seemed blurred.
“As a teacher, it feels like something that I teach my kids about in the past tense,” Frazier said, “but when it happens in the present tense, it adds a different tone to how I’m teaching it and how I’m explaining it to my students. It brings a whole new aspect to history. People are still carrying these feelings, and it’s definitely disheartening because it flipped my worldview of the place I call home.”
Although History and Social Sciences Department Chair David Fisher agrees with Frazier in that the events are concerning and something to be worried about, he remains optimistic despite what’s on the news.
“I think there has been genuine improvement in the relations between different kinds of Americans — we’re not gonna go back there,” Fisher said. “For every two steps we take forward, we’re probably going to take a step back. History has these fluctuations.”
Similarly, Master Teaching Chair Bruce Westrate sees the emergence of the “alt-right” white supremacy as an outlier to the nation’s progress.
“We have to be careful of how we react to these things,” Westrate said. “These people want to provoke an overreaction — that’s a part of their diabolical intent… I really do not think that this represents what the United States is. It’s an outlier, and these things happen, and always will happen in a place where you allow free speech and scope of opinion.”
Political Forum President Austin Montgomery agrees that events in Charlottesville were an anomaly, but he believes that the recent rise in political instability stems primarily from the 2016 election.
“I do think this was something of an outlier,” Montgomery said. “I do think that in the months since November, this political polarization has increased to levels it wasn’t at before, You’re seeing more and more extreme views popping up.”
These “extreme views,” according to senior Mateo Diaz, serve as a forewarning to the state of American politics. He believes the public demonstrations held by white nationalists represent their reemergence to the public sphere.
“I think it was a wakeup call on views that were presumed in the past,” Diaz said. “This shows that those people want to be heard. These groups have not been at the forefront of public discourse recently.”
As the nation rocked after Charlottesville and the issues of racism returned to the national spotlight, so did the dilemma of Confederate statues.
Are they remnants of our nation’s history?
Are they relics of a dead ideology deserving to be forgotten?
To Fisher, the initial response should be one of calculated thought.
“The first reaction should not be ‘It’s Confederate, therefore let’s eliminate it,’” Fisher said. “I would even say where there might be a statue of [Robert E.] Lee there might be an argument to maintain a statue in that place. It’s sort of like a museum piece already. It reflects the values of the society of which it was a part.”
Fisher acknowledges the values of a bygone era do not necessarily outweigh those of the values of the present.
“At the same time we have an obligation to the people of our society and their values,” Fisher said. “If there is an African American majority population of a southern town, and it’s the majority population and there’s a Lee statue in the middle of the town and that population really doesn’t want that statue there anymore I think we have to defer to the people who live there.”
Westrate agrees with Fisher’s desire for more of an in-depth analysis of the statues on a case by case basis. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of paying attention to the circumstances that led to the establishment of these statues.
“To understand that the reason for putting up a statue can have more to do with heroism, the fallen, the sacrifice, the tragedy, than the issue of slavery,” Westrate said, “most of the soldiers that died didn’t own any slaves. 6 percent of the troops owned any slaves at all. I’m not making excuses for the cause but I’m just trying to point out that it is natural for people who are going through an experience like that to want to remember the relatives who fell in this epic tragedy.”
On the topic of the historical relevance of the Confederate Statues, Hill Washburne, president of the Political Speaker Series, believes there’s a minority of people who use the statues to inspire hate.
“The views held by those people are obviously despicable and shouldn’t be tolerated, but I feel like it’s such a minority view and in a very rural location those people descended on that location and protested on the removal of a confederate statue,” Washburne said.
In the bigger picture, Frazier believes we should take the country’s past into account because the nation’s history—both the good and the bad—brought us to where we are today, while taking a more holistic approach to the issues that affect our country.
“When we get into this habit of ‘let’s just throw all our dirty laundry away’ then we don’t acknowledge how far we’ve come and we start to forget all of the things that got us here,” Frazier said. “We’re still a very young country and so for us to try to start forgetting these things, this is the wrong target of the issue. If the statues end up coming down, that’s fine, but I think that the bigger things that we are upset about and continue to be upset about are not going to be addressed.”
The thick, hazy fog of fear and ominous hue of tiki torch flames — the symbols of Charlottesville and the events that followed have shaken the nation to its core and sparked conversations that will define a country during a time of confusion.
The fear and hate still remain. But Williams believes it all starts with education and awareness.
“This is not an isolated event,” Williams said. “Antisemitism is not an isolated event. Anti-Black racism is not an isolated event. We need to be teaching students how to understand the reality in the world. Before we condemn white supremacists, let’s condemn white supremacy, whether it be how we teach history in classes, or just how we live in general.”