As a mother, I want my children to be in a safe place.
As a preservationist, I honor a sense of place.
As an American, I am having trouble finding my place.
An early summer visit with my son and future daughter-in-love was a lovefest, consisting mostly of sips and savors of sunshine, local spirits and spending a little West Coast money in an East Coast city. Though the temperatures soared, I saw my first fireflies, watched a lightning storm flash and roll through the distant sky and experienced many cultures at the City Market, the popular farmer’s market held downtown.
This city has been my son’s home for about 13 years and my husband and I are content that he and his beloved are in a good place that offers them stability, growth, entertainment and security.
One of the places I always like to visit is the downtown mall. It’s rich in history (the East Coast has really embraced adaptive reuse) and small businesses thrive. There’s an amazing artist collective that I always patronize and I marvel at the variety of interests that coexist in the space.
The kids and I were walking off a delicious lunch from Rapture on the mall when we turned down a brick street covered in chalk, tributes scrawled to a young woman who died during one of the blackest days in recent history. My heart stopped, frozen in grief. The sense of place struck me. This was where, a year ago, things went horribly wrong.
My son lives in Charlottesville.
That short block is where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was struck and killed by a Dodge Challenger driven into the crowd by neo-Nazi James Alex Field, Jr. during a day of terror brought by white supremacists who – exercising their First Amendment right of assembly – marched into Charlottesville and spewed hateful messages of racism and intolerance. Heather was there to try and stop the vicious message of hate. Her last Facebook post is the title of this blog – “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Also killed that day were Virginia State Troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, whose helicopter crashed as they were surveilling the conflict growing downtown. All three deaths were directly caused by invaders from out of town, bent on attacking Charlottesville’s heart of kindness and compassion. This disturbing trend of outsiders fomenting unrest is something spreading nefariously across the country, seeping into city council meetings and otherwise peaceful settings.
The news media has descended upon Charlottesville for the anniversary and I’m sure some of the images I am sharing will be the backdrop for many standups you’ll see this weekend. The brick walls are filled with messages of hope and love, sentiments felt by the overwhelming majority of the area’s residents. Visitors to the walls are invited to continue to contribute their own comments, invited by a box of chalk placed near the point of impact.
Those of you who have not been to the downtown mall may not know that it is also the site of what Charlottesville officials dedicated as a First Amendment Wall – a 50-foot long two-sided wall with a chalkboard surface and a steady supply of chalk for people to use to express themselves. The walls are cleaned weekly, so the messages are ever-changing. Some artists have created images, writers have posted inspirational prose, lovers emblazon the wall with hearts and flowers and others simply write their favorite quotes or salutations. Near the wall is a small platform where speakers can share their messages verbally. This area is very near Charlottesville’s City Hall complex, embracing the city’s dedication to freedom of expression.
Heather’s walls are a few hundred feet from that symbolic area.
I was too overwhelmed with feelings to walk those hundred feet to see the First Amendment wall during my visit. The tears filled my eyes at not just Heather’s loss of life, but also the loss of innocence and safety I hold dear for my children. How could anyone have so much hate to come into another’s neighborhood and be so cruel, hateful and un-American?
So much hate vs. so much love. So much hurt, breaking the collective nation’s heart.
What holds true is that, on that day, the streets of Charlottesville were filled with passion – some misguided, some true. The racist marchers were met by peaceful counter-protestors, filling the streets to tell the interlopers that they were not welcome in their community, that there was no place for their hate. Without criticizing any response from authorities, the situation exploded out of control quickly and innocence suffered the most severe injuries. All the hindsight in the world cannot change what happened, but we do have control over how it plays out in the future.
Charlottesville city, Albemarle County and Virginia State officials have banded together, closing many of the popular gathering spots (including that delightful City Market) for the weekend. Merchants at the downtown mall are banding together, many of them vowing to stay open as long as it remains safe. A ridiculously long list of prohibited items has been established to keep “implements of riot” away from the downtown area. Conspicuously absent from that list are two deadly weapons: guns and cars. The governor has declared a State of Emergency, allowing federal authorities to assist should the situation get out of hand. The National Guard is on standby.
As an American, and as a journalist, I am committed to defending the First Amendment; to preserve and protect the people’s right to free speech, assembly, religion, press and petitioning the government. Whether the cause falls into my beliefs or not, the rights are critical to our country, but I will not defend violence or hate of any kind at any time.
The peaceful, friendly, safe place where my children live is on lockdown for the weekend because the passion of hate threatens to burn brighter than the flame of hope. We must make sure that Heather and Troopers Cullen and Bates did not die in vain.
Friends in my neighborhood may have noticed the turquoise sticker on my car and wondered “What’s C’ville?” It’s a place we love. We will continue to visit and embrace Charlottesville as our own, because so many people we love live there. We refuse to accept that hate is stronger than love.
For an unbiased, thorough, excellent accounting of the events of August 2017 in Charlottesville, I highly recommend “Summer of Hate” by Hawes Spencer, a journalist who has reported for the New York Times, the Daily Beast and NPR who has also taught journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University and James Madison University.
Carol Rock is a writer based in the Los Angeles area. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years’ experience covering all areas of news and features. She works as a freelance public relations and media consultant, with writing remaining her strong suit. Her tattoo, if it were real, would read “Don’t Die Wondering.”
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