Charlottesville unrest an opportunity to act, reflect

Aug 17, 2017 by and

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In the wake of violent clashes surrounding a white nationalist rally that turned deadly Aug. 12-13 in Charlottesville, Va., individuals and groups connected to the weekend’s events are finding varied ways to work for future peace and justice.

Roy Hange, who co-pastors Charlottesville Mennonite Church with his wife, Maren, said his congregation was involved with supporting those in the church who felt called to participate in direct action against the “Unite the Right” rally of ultra right-wing groups and white supremacists gathering from across the country.

Eastern Mennonite University professor of social work Carol Hurst, right, walks with her 84-year-old father Luke Hurst Sr., a 1956 EMU graduate, and her son on Aug. 12. She is a resident of Charlottesville. — Eastern Mennonite University

Eastern Mennonite University professor of social work Carol Hurst, right, walks with her 84-year-old father Luke Hurst Sr., a 1956 EMU graduate, and her son on Aug. 12. She is a resident of Charlottesville. — Eastern Mennonite University

Hange said others in the congregation limited their response to staying away and praying.

“Besides the clergy and Black Lives Matter and some local groups, a significant number of the groups that came from outside town came to rumble, and the police knew it,” he said.

The resulting violence culminated in a state of emergency being declared and counterprotesters being run down by a driver who plowed a car into a crowd, killing one woman and sending several to the hospital.

The Hanges and others from CMC were involved in planning meetings ahead of the turmoil and hosting a time of listening during the Aug. 13 worship service.

Christian Peacemaker Teams executive director Sarah Thompson participated in other planning meetings ahead of the rally, offering trainings on nonviolent direct action to be used in a manner that would keep the rally from happening.

“I’m not surprised [by the violence],” she said. “. . . I was impressed no one got shot. We were training people on how not to get shot because there were police snipers all around. There were a lot of guns around.”

Now Thompson’s helping develop new resources based on CPT’s experiences around the world for counterprotestors in response to indications similar groups may rally elsewhere.

“Most of our training is involved with the state,” she said. “And when there are multiple armed actors and when the state isn’t going to protect the most vulnerable, then our nonviolence tactics need to evolve and go beyond symbolic actions and optics, toward a real awareness of the risk.”

Thompson said she knows from experience in antiwar marches that successful rallies feel empowering, which makes confronting hateful events all the more important.

“If we ignore them as some people suggest, it doesn’t make them go away,” she said. “. . . If you don’t want to go to a counter-demonstration, that’s fine, but make sure you get to folks to keep hate from growing.

“It’s a matter of living an alternative not only on the day they rally, but every day.”

Quiet in the land?

Eastern Mennonite Seminary student and Iraq War veteran Evan Knappenberger has lived in Charlottesville off and on over the years and was a board member of the city’s Center for Peace and Justice for several years. He deliberately avoided the events of Aug. 12 and encouraged others to also stay away, but made his way there the following day to attend CMC and a vigil for Heather Heyer, killed when struck by a car driven by an alt-right demonstrator.

“En route, I happened into a riot,” Knappenberger said. “There were snipers, police drones, hundreds of journalists and angry people” confronting Jason Kessler, a local man key to organizing the white nationalist rally.

Knappenberger said he got to know Kessler during Occupy Charlottesville six years ago. Both slept then under a statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, whose proposed removal sparked the white nationalist rally. Knappenberger said that back then, he ultimately had to run Kessler out of the park after he became violent. Kessler was a man in need of community, but was alienated.

“I am at least a little guilty of what is happening in Charlottesville, precisely because I am my brother’s keeper, and I failed to love Jason Kessler, and now he is in the grip of this demonic Nazi ideology,” he said. “Perhaps if I had been more willing to commit to loving him, this would never have happened.”

Knappenberger said he regretted getting caught up in a counterdemonstration he didn’t think was productive.

“The quiet in the land suddenly makes a lot more sense to me after this weekend in Charlottes­ville, which was a mini war zone,” he said.

Fellow EMS student Adam King offered pastoral care with other clergy in the thick of the Aug. 12 violence and said it inspired him to continue to take part in demonstrations. An associate pastor at RISE United Methodist Faith Community in Harrisonburg, he participated in Congregate C’ville, an organizing group headed by EMS alumna Brittany Caine-Conley.

Along with 40-50 other multifaith clergy, King’s group intended to block an entrance to the park, but due to low numbers instead locked arms on a sidewalk facing the park as rallygoers marched past for two hours, hurling slurs and insults — especially at well-known leaders of color like Cornel West and Traci Blackmon. For a time, armed left-wing activists stood behind the clergy, until King said the alt-right demonstrators broke through with shields and clubs as police declined to intervene.

Brittany Caine-Conley, fifth from right, a 2014 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, marches with clergy on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va. A United Church of Christ pastor-in-training, she is the lead organizer of Congregate Charlottesville, which called for clergy and faith leaders to counterprotest the Unite the Right rally. Among those who joined are Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and prominent social justice activist, and Traci Blackmon, executive director of Justice & Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ. Many others linked with Eastern Mennonite University and Eastern Mennonite Seminary participated in the weekend’s events. — Jordy Yager

Brittany Caine-Conley, fifth from right, a 2014 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, marches with clergy on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va. A United Church of Christ pastor-in-training, she is the lead organizer of Congregate Charlottesville, which called for clergy and faith leaders to counterprotest the Unite the Right rally. Among those who joined are Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and prominent social justice activist, and Traci Blackmon, executive director of Justice & Witness Ministries for the United Church of Christ. Many others linked with Eastern Mennonite University and Eastern Mennonite Seminary participated in the weekend’s events. — Jordy Yager

King was getting lunch about three blocks away when the vehicle struck a crowd, and he was among those responding.

“We provided anything from crowd control to emotional support to those who were hurt, to providing direct care until ambulances could arrive,” he said.

In the days after that Saturday, King came to realize he got to choose to face the violence, in contrast to his brothers and sisters on the margins — people of color, women, those in the LGBTQ community and people of other faiths — who have to face it daily.

“Those of us who are privileged to live in a country where we benefit daily, we need to step up and absorb some of this violence,” King said. “Because others have no respite and can’t escape, and I can. I can retreat from it. So I have to return and face it even though it’s truly terrifying.”

Pastor Hange said his church was working for restorative justice in the community before the protestors came to town and will continue to do so.

He recalled a conversation with a pastor who was frustrated with nonviolent direct actions and decided to creatively engage with people throughout the day. That pastor didn’t confront anyone, but said things for the sake of others.

“He stood beside a line of guys marching and looked them in the eye and said ‘Stay safe today,’ ” Hange said. “. . . He honored the person enough to have them rethink what they were doing.”

He noted that less flashy sideline interactions are probably a key to building peace and true community relationships.


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  • Evan Knappenberger

    Great article. Thanks Tim!

    Evan Knappenberger

  • Rainer Moeller

    That “Stay safe today”-action was in true Mennonite spirit.

    As for the so-called “Christan Peacemakers”, I see that their vobulary has changed somewhat. Before the rally they didn’t speak simply about NDI (“nonviolent direct action”) – they spoke more precise about “militant” or “confrontational” NDI. A change in words or in thinking?

    But I agree with Sarah Thompson that such rallies are mundane powerplays (the side who wins feels “empowered”, the side who loses feels powerless); only, are we really to take part in such mundane powerplays? Shouldn’t we tell people that there’s more in life than a feeling of power (or lack of power)?

    Adam King’s snippet about what happened is interesting, but rather subjective, and one would like to hear the other side.

    • Evan Knappenberger

      I worry about Anabaps getting caught up in spectacle and failing to do the holy mundane things that actually matter.

      Evan Knappenberger

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