My third grade teacher made us brainstorm about what we wanted to do once we were older – “say twenty-five!” she said – in a journal activity. It seemed like centuries would pass before I even reached that age at the time. To the girl with the messy bob and shiny patent leather shoes, two digits in my age instead of one was remarkable! I’d probably be taller, wouldn’t I? I remember scribbling down that I wanted to be happy and that I wanted to teach to make others happy too. I drew a picture of myself on the crisp-smelling lined paper with a dull pencil. My pencil-point eyes were gazing out at a class while I was holding an extraordinarily misshapen book.That activity came back into my mind just now. Though that teacher is no longer gracing the earth, the lesson came back as a reminder. Reaching out to people in meaningful ways can bring back memories right when we don’t expect it. And guess what? I am taller, I am teaching, and double digits never seemed so comforting.
“You will not replace us,” they shouted, stomping their feet across the university campus I love, mocking the very academic institution and city I have chosen to help me achieve my goals. As the alt-right were seething underneath cheap tiki torch lights, attempting to blaze fear into the community, I was in full awareness of their own intimidation standing before an intellectual community. In fact, it was through writings by the likes of Jefferson that gave them the right to the free speech and right to assembly that they were exercising. No one was stopping them from that. No one would want to take their place.
I had moved to Charlottesville on August 11, 2016 – precisely one year to the day before this provocation of fear. We have had other attempts, and they are always frustrating. The alt-right claims it is peacefully protesting and assembling, but when I unexpectedly run into a torch-bearing mob on my nightly walk, I experience another reality. There were chants of hate as a precursor to an event called “Unite the Right,” being held today in Charlottesville. Counter protesters who were equally emotional were waiting to clash with them under the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the historic Rotunda.
“You all work for the Jews!” yelled one of the white supremacists. Who was he yelling at? All of the bystanders? The university students who were just finishing moving some of their personal items into their dorm rooms on the historic Lawn? The local press taking photos? “We have our rights!” We were in full acknowledgement of that. Again, no one was stopping them, despite the danger hundreds of open flames posed to the UNESCO-World Heritage campus.
As I stood in awe and fear, one of the alt-right tiki torch bearers smiled at me and said “beautiful isn’t it?” I looked him right in the eyes and said “are those torches Made in China?” I managed to laugh. Suddenly, the air of superiority disappeared. His eyes dropped. He lost his intimidation game. He ran back to his group and chanted louder. Faced with the stark reality of his own ridiculousness, he knew that he would only feel validated surrounded by his group.
The protesters walked around the Rotunda and walked down the front steps towards a group of peaceful counter protesters who had been singing anti-fascist and anti-Nazi chants. The alt-right is upset whenever they are labelled in this way, so for them it was seen as provocation, not peace. During the clash, tiki torches flew and public safety was compromised. Zero dialogue, all emotion from both sides facing each other off. Alt-right torchbearers began to chant “White Lives Matter,” instigating the counter protesters to chant “Black Lives Matter.”
As I stood and watched the scene with another bystander who had been walking his dog across the campus, he rolled his eyes. “Their parents must be so proud of them,” he huffed. His dog seemed to be the only one amused by the spectacle, but much less so when a police officer next to us told us to evacuate and got on his radio calling for “all available units.”
Adrenaline is a scary thing. I’ve never run so fast before in my life. Within seconds, I was across the street. Everything else around me was a blur as I raced to safety. I heard a woman shouting “HE’S ON FIRE!” as I fled, too frozen to look back, too concentrated to escape. Then I heard a yell and looked back to see a man being arrested just behind me. I stopped across the street and watched in horror. I wasn’t out of breath, but I felt paralyzed. What was I seeing? Blue lights lit up around my shadow, and I heard cars driving at maximum speed down Rugby Road – the street I take to walk back home. I will never forget how it felt to turn my eyes behind me to the sea of blue flashing lights racing towards me. I was shaking. As the tiki torches were being blown out one by one, a thick smoke caused me to choke. I had to sit down and get my bearings before I walked home. I was disgusted. It was also my first full day back in the US after having visited the my family in Québec, Canada.
After posting a photo of what I witnessed last night to my Instagram account, I was messaged directly by a supporter of the alt-right who decided it would be their mission to make me feel like the intolerant one. “So you’re scared of peaceful protest?” the user asked. “There are a wide variety of us, and a wide variety of people at these protests. Not all of us are ‘racist, sexist, homophobic xenophobes’ out to rape and kill you.” That comment showed me above all else that they are very conscious of what they are doing. Heated language, assumptions, and a direct attack to the presentation of unbiased reporting of facts. They know that they are racist. They are very conscious that they are xenophobic. So I replied: “I understand and respect your right to assemble and express yourselves,” however when “violence and hatred are on display, one has very good reason to fear.” The alt-right user’s reply? “I just read an article about how there was violence, so you were right to worry.” Just a little bit of rationality, and their arguments are completely debased, as always.
Dialogue was possible with that user because I fit the demographic they would want to lure into their movement. That interaction would have been impossible had I appeared to be anything other than white. I seem to keep running into the alt-right wherever I go nowadays. Jason Kessler, a local alt-right activist I encountered on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall a few months back, was gleaming with joy on Twitter that “white people who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it anymore” were assembled. These users, whose sole mission is to “shitpost” (in their own words, not mine) draw support through racist memes and ridiculing anyone not in agreement with them.
Today, Richard Spencer and other members of the alt-right were maced at the Unite the Right Rally. The mayor of Charlottesville has just declared the situation a local emergency, and here I sit in my apartment, defiant of their hate and hopeful for the voice of reason and democracy to prevail. I am the alt-write. I write against their alternative reality, against their hatred, against their abuse of freedom. Rationality will never go away. You will not replace that.
Coining the neologism "non-lieu" or "non-place," Marc Augé perfectly defines spaces and places of passage; places where we stay because we know we are going elsewhere. We are there for no other purpose. These spaces serve as transient points along journeys: bus stops, metro lines, airports. It's rare to sit at home and dream of one day visiting C terminal of LaGuardia just for the fun of it. We'd rather spend our money on getting out of there than getting in.
These crossroads are often unimportant for many, but I count myself as one who finds them to be fascinating spaces. They are designed to be unobtrusive, straightforward, dull. Each area a charted latitude and longitude, each space designated for a paying consumer, yet never tangibly so. Some of these non-lieux are designed to be menacingly dull. Tense steel walls and bright fluorescent lights as transportation security scrutinizes the shape of a hairdryer on an x-ray screen, a cattle flow of passengers walking through plastic-coated metal detectors, cold and shoeless feet on stark linoleum flooring.
The non-lieu collides ideologies and identities, yet no one voices their differences. They move towards common points of departure without the slightest acknowledgement of the other, aside from common courtesies and trite platitudes exchanged to pass the time. When time doesn't pass the way the transient passenger expects, their frustration is a sight to behold.
Never has twenty minutes ever gone by as quickly as when I didn't want time to go quickly, but place me in one of these non-lieux and a mere three minutes transforms into hours. I think it's one of the many reasons I've taken a liking to sitting idly by and seeing what sorts of things people neglect when they are counting down the minutes to departure. Theory of Relativity revisited.
The non-lieu provides a sense of anonymity and recognition. Airports are particularly good examples of this. Inside the restricted zones, there is a sense of isolation. Guests are defined by gate numbers and boarding zones.
Businesspeople tap on their laptops drinking burnt Starbucks lattes, suffering through their layovers. Neon-clad families with raucous children deconstruct their luggage by recycling bins. The elderly take a well-needed nap near overpriced family-style restaurants. We don't know these people, we never will, yet the communal presence of everyone in the non-lieu creates a collective travel memory of blurred sights, sounds, and people.
Celebrities never pass into the non-lieu. They break its form; their lack of anonymity is shocking and worrisome for them as well as for other guests. Their identity is a consumer mark as noticeable as the swirling green and white curls of a certain sea maiden who markets Seattle coffee. When they enter the non-lieu, they themselves become a place to be visited; a chance for the transient passerby to interact with a larger-than-life persona. We blatantly see hierarchies and classes in this space.
Outside the non-lieu, we are faced with our identity again. Friends gather round with a hand-painted "welcome home" sign on flimsy poster board. International travelers identify themselves to the authorities of the host country. Families reconvene or send off their loved ones. Tagged luggage swirls round and round until identified by the once anonymous guest. One could see this as a modern right of passage at a smaller scale.
Having been in two airports yesterday, I noticed a certain ritual as passengers line up to board. They look around, they grab their items, they confirm that everything they care about is with them, and then they leave without looking back. These moments are the margins of history; the moments unrecorded for their banality.
It was a hectic day. Waking up before the sun had even risen in the sky, I awaited the delivery of one of the first pieces of furniture for my new apartment – a couch. What would otherwise have been a simple delivery quickly escalated into a difficult situation. Ultimately my couch was left out unexpectedly without any driver notification while I was at work. Nightmare fuel on the first day of moving.
My apartment wasn’t ready on schedule for the day either. Skilled workers painted, prepped, sawed, and cleaned up what soon will be my new home. Unbeknownst to me, their presence was a blessing in disguise.
As I moved in my boxes, I noticed they seemed shy to speak to me in English and tried not to bother me. But I wanted to make sure they knew how grateful I was for everything they were doing. Busting out my heavily French-accented Spanish, I welcomed them into my space. I instantly saw a spark light up on all of their faces. “Thank you much, you are so kind,” piped one of the workers.
The workers began to check on my work and make an effort to ask me questions. I saw one worker checking Google Translate on his phone before asking me some questions. That made me smile. It reminded me a lot of my students.
One of the workers asked what I did for a living and practiced some of his French. Others helped grab boxes as I walked in, making brief comments as they went along.
As the day passed by, I went from organizing cutlery to learning a little bit about each worker.
“I do this for my son. I want him to go to college. I don’t want him to be me.” I saw the rough skin on his knuckles. His eyes looked like he was always peering into the sun – weathered, yet powerful.
Another worker passed by with a mop, using Pine Sol Lavender Scent. “It is so fresh, yes?” He smiled. “You’re making every part of my home beautiful!” I replied. “It is why I love my work,” he said humbly. “Who had lived here before did not care as much about walls and floors.”
Another man saw the sofa and had asked about the situation. His face became stern. “How can someone do this? This is not okay. We are here for you. Let us finish our work first.”
I wondered what their work meant to them beyond a paycheck and what had brought them to Virginia. So I decided to ask a very broad question: “What is your America?”
The worker I was speaking to at the time looked like I had asked him to describe someone he loved when he replied. “My America – mi America – it is this. It is making things beautiful. It is cleaning what others don’t like to keep clean. It is building nice places for families to sleep. It is bringing God’s love.”
Another smiled over. “Here I can do what I could not back home. I am from three hours outside of Mexico City. Hot, like living in the desert hot, with the sun all the time. Sometimes I miss it, especially the food. You know elotes? The corn? I miss this. But I would not trade that for now.”
“America is my home. I am American. I am Mexican, but now I am here. I am home. I am building. And I am still talking with smiles when people cannot understand me because people are all people.” This worker was covered in sawdust, yet his expression looked like he had just won the lottery.
What was my America? I was seeing it before my eyes. A complex country filled with people who work hard and believe harder. I got back to putting my dishes in the cupboards.
About an hour later, I heard loud grunts from out front. All of the workers teamed up to bring in my sofa. They unpacked it and noticed that the legs needed to be attached.
“We will do this for you, do not worry.”
Not only did they assemble the couch, they went above and beyond. There was a part that didn’t seem to fit, so one of the workers took his own vehicle to a hardware store just to make sure that he had the right piece.
“We don’t want you to have a dangerous sofa. You are a good person.”
After having spent the entire day working in my apartment, these gentlemen took yet another hour and a half to do something that was completely unrelated to their work duties. Their reasoning was that they felt I was a good person and cared to talk to them. When I tried to pay them back, they refused my money and instead gave me some snacks from their truck as a housewarming gift.
“Muchas gracias!” I chirped over. “De nada. May God bless you in your new home.”
This is my America.
By chance, I just found out today marks Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. His designs have always held a special place in my heart. I remember seeing the “Tree of Life” window at The Art Institute of Chicago and being blown away by its stunning symmetry in person. I also remember passing by one of his incredible creations on my former commute to work – the 1940 Gregor Affleck House on North Woodward in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Without even knowing that 2017 marks his 150th, I have been planning a FLW-inspired living room in my new apartment. It’s strange and wondrous the kinds of entanglements that exist between our present and points of inspiration from the past.
Happy Birthday, harmonious spirit.
As the sun began to set on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, the tone of the evening quickly changed. I went from sharing boisterous laughs with a group of colleagues to end our day to encountering a large crowd gathered outside of the iconic Miller’s Bar and Restaurant, chanting and waving signs. Known as the bar where the Dave Matthews Band had its start, one could imagine it could attract large crowds. These were not fans surrounding rock stars, however. These were protesters denouncing a famous blogger of the alt right and local Charlottesville resident – Jason Kessler.
Kessler, like other internet personalities of the alt right, immediately decided to record the event on Periscope (through Twitter), denouncing the protesters who were labeling him as a Nazi and a fascist for his views. “These people have come up and have been harassing me, they’ve been out here for half an hour,” complained Kessler, who recently was sentenced for disorderly conduct and ordered to complete fifty hours of community service after having punched an area man while collecting signatures back in January. He also has been in attendance at recent alt right demonstrations in Charlottesville, including the Lee Park torch rally that went viral on social media.
As I stood face-to-face with the protesters, the police, and the alt right, I saw that there was dissonance and no dialogue. Protesters were chanting “Nazis go home,” but the reaction of the alt right members (who claim they do not represent Nazi/fascist views, yet still have not found a way to prove this…) was to record, to ask questions, to troll and taunt, and eventually after the social media post was made, to go home. The only interaction they had with their opposition was mockery.
For the alt right online following it was a perfect storm: Kessler could post ideal content – a video of himself surrounded by a mob of angry protesters – to fuel the fires of other social media followers of the alt right. Though protesters were also using their devices to record the situation, their mission was clear. When I spoke with them, they were upset that such a figure of the alt right lived in Belmont – near the Downtown Mall – an area where “families live and children grow up.”
Knowing that the alt right could use this footage as evidence for whatever future actions they wanted without even addressing the fact that they were being denounced as “Nazis” in a public space was not satisfying for me, particularly as a WWII researcher. So I decided to ask the tough question directly to the alt right, to see if they could respond.
“I hear these chants and I see these signs from your opposition, but I don’t hear you. Can you explain to me how you are NOT in fact, Nazis?”
Kessler’s friend seemed surprised by my question, and very willing to answer. Their claim was that they felt stifled by the left, that they could not voice their opinion without receiving shouts in return – stifle tactics that did not give them access to their First Amendment rights.
Granted, I replied, but they were evading the question. How then is the alt right not Nazi or fascist for the views it maintains? “Just like Richard Spencer, I don’t agree with everything Kessler says or does,” said his friend, “but I’m here to support him.” What did that mean? To support what exactly? As an academic, I felt like I needed to pry the sources, the evidence, the research – but all I was receiving in response was rhetoric and non-answers. Were they in fact conscious of the similarities and simply afraid to expose themselves, or was it that no one had ever asked them such a question monotonously?
I didn’t receive any concrete answers to my question. The claim was made that they were trying to disassociate themselves with violent right-wing movements, but how could they say that when I was walking close to an online personality who had physically punched an opponent? All that was there was instigation devoid of ideology.
Knowing conflicts like these continue to erupt in my new home every week or so is jarring. Though Charlottesville is a positive community by nature, the striking political disharmony that currently exists resonates long after both sides have gone home.