As I stood at the intersection of 4th and Water Streets on August 12, 2018, I thought, I can’t believe I’m here again, trying to be a faithful presence in the midst of chaos.
One of the streets of this intersection in Charlottesville, Va., has been renamed “Heather Heyer Way.” It’s where one year ago a white supremacist mowed down a crowd of people, killing Heather and injuring 19 others.
But the chaos this year wasn’t caused Nazis. It was caused by police.
When I came to the area to answer a call for clergy from the local interfaith group Congregate C’ville, I saw police in riot gear, three rows deep, lining the intersection. There were two Bearcat tanks behind one of the lines, one with an officer standing on top with his finger on the trigger of the automatic weapon he carried.
White clergy decided to form a line in front of the police, on both sides, to protect the community members there — mostly people of color — and to allow them to leave without feeling threatened.
Eventually the police backed up, and then backed off to the sides of the streets. But it was really only the downpour of rain that finally defused the situation.
Ultimately, what happened to this group attempting to remember and mourn the tragedy of the terrorist attack was shocking yet predictable.
The situation was shocking because there was absolutely no reason for a crowd of peaceful activists to be met with such overwhelming and threatening force. It was predictable because it’s what law enforcement — various forces from the Charlottesville police, Virginia State police, and National Guard — did in the city all weekend.
The student protest on the University of Virginia campus the night before was met with riot police for again, absolutely no reason at all. The Robert E. Lee statue in Market St. Park, the ostensible flashpoint for last year’s “Unite the Right” rally, was surrounded by more cops than I ever seen in one place in my life.
The Charlottesville police spokesperson made priorities clear when he announced his first two objectives for the weekend: “We are trying to maintain order and have a duty and obligation to try and make sure there is no property damage.”
I was reminded of something that Rabbi Susan Talve, a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, where I work, said shortly after the Ferguson protests of 2014: “When we’re more upset about property damage than lives, in the religious community, we call that idolatry.”
White supremacists were in short supply in Charlottesville this year. Likewise, fewer than 40 showed up at the “Unite the Right 2” rally in D.C., scared off by the thousands of counter-protestors, proving that what stops white supremacy is anti-racists showing up in overwhelming numbers to oppose it.
But important lessons from the original “Unite the Right” rally have not been learned by public officials. D.C.’s Metro arranged a private car for the white supremacists, and D.C. police escorted them to and from Lafayette Park. And this year in Charlottesville, police decided that community members were more of a threat than the Nazis were last year. They stood by when the Nazis attacked last year, and then they policed the community when it peacefully commemorated this year.
I know that it is hard for much of the white Jewish community to comprehend the widespread mistrust of police that people of color have. The presence of police to protect us and our institutions feels both friendly and normal, unremarkable. When we perceive a threat, our first response is often to call for more security, without an understanding that a police presence makes many — both in our community and in others — feel unsafe.
As Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville last year and rallied in D.C. this year, they were the ones protected by police. In contrast, historically, statistically, and anecdotally, people of color are often threatened, not protected, by police.
This weekend unfolded over the first of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah and a time of remembrance and repentance in preparation for the new year. Traditionally, we blow the shofar every day of this month as a call to this self-reflection. “T’ruah” is one of the sounds of the shofar, and as a representative of T’ruah who was in Charlottesville last year and this year, I can say that we white Jews still have much self-reflection to do to fight white supremacy effectively. We have to take our share of responsibility for the long history of structural racism in this country — including how that plays out today in policing.
Jews fight Nazis. That’s what we do.
And we have to do it with others who are targeted by white supremacy, most notably right now people of color. We will find safety in relationship with them and other marginalized communities, not with the police.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Rabbi Salem Pearce. She is the Director of Organizing for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.