Five years ago today, I sat down a group of Volunteer Young Life leaders at Saranac and told them what was taking place in their hometown of Charlottesville, VA. For months prior White Supremacists had been gearing up their presence in the city, the KKK had shown up, small protests on the Downtown Mall. I had spoken to many of these men. Including Jason Kessler. It was more than apparent how empowered by Donald Trump they had felt. They all wore their matching Proud Boys shirts and MAGA hats. All of them. Though their movement went beyond Trump and they’d leave him behind just as quickly, but they loved the sense of being mainstream and having a leader bring validity to their beliefs that the left was moving against white people, against men, against Christians.
In their view white people built this country, made it what it is, so of course they should remain in power and leadership. They were gathering in large over conversations regarding the removal of prominent statues dedicated to the Confederacy. This was erasure of their history by “woke mobs” and they wouldn’t stand for it. Kessler was directing everyone of his ilk to descend on Charlottesville on August 12th.
I already knew I’d be leaving Young Life, was already interviewing for my job here in Austin, I knew that August 12th was going to be bad. I nearly didn’t go on assignment. I sensed in the deepest way that this was going to be a dark day.
My phone was blowing up the evening of August 11th. Headlines and friends were messaging about the ugly presence as hundreds walked through the campus of UVA shouting vile like “Jews will not replace us” and “White Lives Matter.” We had a conversation with those teenagers about race and the significance of the things they would be coming home to. Mind you, this was before the violence of the next day. I remember texting my friends feeling sure that people would die the next day.
When the car drove through the crowd on August 12th, I was supposed to be welcoming new campers. Cheering and dancing and welcoming new campers with joy and laughter and love. Instead in hid behind a dumpster and sobbed as cheers and upbeat music played in the background.
I was devastated and angry. Angrier because I felt that so many of these things I had been admonished for speaking against over the last year. Angrier because like so many, I saw this coming. Angrier because it took this violence for some to say anything. Speaking up would have been too political.
It was the inevitable crash of what we had empowered and the silence of the church in that moment. We’ve seen it again many times. We saw it on January 6th. I’m seeing it intensify now with all the irresponsible language coming from our Republican leaders following this FBI warrant. They are being so irresponsible and giving power to the very people who have done this violence again and again.
I like to think our nation has learned a lot since Charlottesville. There should be great encouragement found in the wake of George Floyd. And yet, these figures and systems continue to be empowered and riled up against meaningful progress by both leading parties.
August 11th & 12th still weigh heavy on me. They have shaped me in immeasurable ways.
I think back to my conversation with Kessler and what I saw in those “Proud Boys” that evening. Most of them were just sad and lonely. Sexually unwanted. They empowered their loneliness by become collectively hated and ridiculed. It intensified their bond with each other and created a shared value they could find in the wake of their otherwise isolation. Through message boards and being cursed at their brotherhood intensified. They found ways to see themselves as saviors for something few would be brave enough to fight for. And the Trump movement exacerbated that urgency to do something. It gave them a way to find more support and empowered their fantasies.
Something more dangerous than Charlottesville, more dangerous than January 6th feels imminent. The more they make Donald Trump out to be a victim of our corrupt government, the more people will feel urgency to violently uphold this vision and take action against our government. These recent tweets and spinning of investigations are the very kinds of seeds that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and it’s insanity that we do not see it as such.
I don’t really see myself as a person who would regularly cry wolf or build up paranoia. But I am watching the very things I saw intensify before two ugly and deadly days find a larger audience, and even more powerful voices and I am incredibly concerned.
This is the time for difficult conversations and challenge with our loved ones. And it is a time for our elected leaders to be transparent and clear.
The moment is too fragile. May these dark anniversaries awaken our voices, our patience with one another, and an urgency to not give up the important work of education, listen and ask good questions, challenge lies and liars, and shine a light on loneliness and isolation. Invite people to healthier communities. Be both welcoming and uncomfortable. We cannot grow further apart while such hateful voices find more and more microphones. When accountability looks like persecution and is largely accepted as such, we’ve lost the bonds that would bring us together.
I would have more conversations about this. I would ask very good questions about this.