Last weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. On Aug. 11-12, 2017, various neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and neo-fascist groups descended upon the city to protest the removal of a Confederate statue and march in support of white supremacy in the United States. On the night of the 11th, around 200 men and women marched onto the University of Virginia campus yelling racist and anti-Semitic chants. Things turned deadly the following day when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
This year, Unite the Right’s organizer Jason Kessler planned an anniversary event, but when he couldn’t get authorization to do it in Charlottesville, the venue shifted to the nation’s capital, putting the people of the Washington, D.C., area on edge.
Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md. – District 8) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) saw this as an opportunity for unity and organized the Teach-in & Interfaith Vigil: A Regional Town Hall, which took place at Washington Hebrew Congregation on Aug. 10.
Raskin, Holmes Norton, and various faith leaders from the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington spoke at the event, and emphasized the importance of unity against hate and intolerance.
The group presented the Aug. 12 Solidarity Declaration, a proclamation signed by more than 160 religious leaders in the DC community and co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC), and the Montgomery County Faith Community Advisory Council. The declaration states, “Our belief in the ultimate dignity of human life requires that we stand together at this challenging time in affirmation of the spiritual values we all hold in common.”
A panel discussion was held in Washington Hebrew Congregation’s main sanctuary, with Raskin and Holmes Norton giving the opening remarks.
Holmes Norton asserted that, “[White supremacists] have given us a rare opportunity to expose their hate.”
“The First Amendment is neutral,” she said, “and the way to combat hate speech is to change the narrative.”
“They march under the protection of the First Amendment, but they would gladly run the Constitution [into] the ground if we let them,” said Raskin, “so we the people — assembled here to defend our Constitution and our democracy — must be clear about who we are.”
After the congresspersons’ opening statements, they introduced Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream,” who gave a brief yet informative lecture on the current state of white nationalism.
Next, the panelists challenged the audience to think of their community, society, and themselves in a different way. Southern Poverty Law Center Outreach Coordinator Lecia Brooks motivated the audience to support each other, stay engaged, and teach our children acceptance.
Educator Randy Blazak encouraged the audience to focus on dismantling racist systems, stressing people should not play “whack-a-mole with Nazis” but direct the public narrative.
Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, D.C., asked the audience to challenge white supremacy in their own backyards, emphasizing that marginalized communities don’t need “white saviors” but rather to be uplifted and amplified.
Wes Bellamy, a city council member and leading organizer in Charlottesville, said that racism is systemic and that the U.S. will need “major surgery,” not “a Band-Aid and Neosporin.”
The event closed with a galvanizing speech from Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach. He warned against apathy and ignorance of America’s racist and prejudiced past, asserting “that kind of revisionist history will actually hinder us from pushing forward towards a more perfect union.” He also counseled the audience to first “pray for those who have been overcome by the insanity of hate,” and then take action and hold themselves accountable. “We can’t just be mad — we must make a difference,” he said.
By C.M. Ransome
C. M. Ransome is a DC-area native who studied religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys eating Thai food, reading comic books, watching Arsenal Football Club, and playing with her nephew.