Charlottesville – One Year Later

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Standing in the midst of protests during the State of Emergency – Charlottesville Downtown Mall – August 12, 2017

I moved to Charlottesville on August 11, 2016.

One year later, my new hometown became a trending hashtag. Heather Heyer lost her life on a street where I would walk every single day to buy groceries. My campus was awash with tiki torches. The pungent smell of smoke still comes to mind every day as I walk to work. The same night that alt-right protestors flocked to “The Lawn” at The University of Virginia, I was wholly unaware of what was coming towards me as I sought to recover from a day of travel from Canada one day prior – until a police officer recommended I get to safety. Though I sought solitude, I was instead involuntarily in a line of literal fire. My story was documented in a blog post published only moments after returning home.

Celebrating my one-year anniversary of living in the historically rich (and complex) city didn’t feel the way I expected after having packed all of my worldly belongings into cardboard boxes and made the journey from Metro Detroit. Though I was a newcomer, I never felt a more profound sense of belonging to a geographic place than I did in the midst of crisis. I equally have never felt a deeper sense of urgency for the topics I research – fascism, the Second World War, ideological conflict, propaganda.

Though the world remembers August, I remember the months that led up to it. I lived on 1st Street at the time – one of the roads that intersects the Downtown Mall, and equally meets the statue of Confederate-era general Robert E. Lee in what is now known as “Emancipation Park” (formerly “Lee Park”). I was unaware of the history of the statue, but I wasn’t too shocked to see a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, as Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy. I was a bit more surprised once I found out the statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924.

It’s interesting to think that all of the events of August 2017 were precisely one hundred years after it had been commissioned by a philanthropist named Paul McIntire – a man who equally donated generously to the University of Virginia and was decorated with the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.

It was in February 2017 that I first encountered a protest against the removal of the statue – a solitary man sitting on a park bench.

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I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to me. He saw me looking at him and glanced back at me briefly. Having never seen anyone displaying a Confederate flag in this way, I took a photo, took note of my surroundings, and walked back home. I didn’t think much about it, except for the fact that I never would have encountered a similar scenario anywhere where I had lived in the past.

Fast forward to May 13, 2017 – a date that often goes unnoticed by those outside of Charlottesville. This was the day that the first tiki torch rally took place at the base of the statue. I once again was nearby, just as I would be in August. Shouts rose to the sky like smoke. “Russia is our friend!” they shouted. “You will not replace us!” cried others. Needless to say, I was confused by it all. It was only upon going home that I had remembered that the City of Charlottesville had offered to sell the statue, and that an injunction of six months had been put into place by a judge in April 2017.

Instead of fast forwarding a few months, let’s focus on the ones we don’t think about too often. Now-infamous Jason Kessler was booed off the Downtown Mall while eating at Miller’s Bar with some of his friends in June 2017. He started a Periscope video to rally his supporters on Twitter, and I decided to interview his group with questions after they began to move away from the bar. You can read my article from that time here. What I gathered from my interaction with the group and having seen how the antifa had organized itself to track and denounce Kessler – I recognized that our community was on the verge of something unprecedented.

Investigating online, I discovered that the worst was to come in the form of a major rally to be held in August. I tried to ignore it as I taught middle schoolers for a month and then traveled to Canada to visit family and conduct research in the national archives. I thought I was going to miss all of the events. Instead, I was back just in time.

As a doctoral student focusing on cultural history, I’ve come to realize that Charlottesville – like the rest of the world – has layers of history that are memorialized in different ways. When these histories intersect present academic and social initiatives to re-document and accurately represent the past, there will always be resistance from groups who collectively remember historical events differently. These histories – which are inherently connected – bring out unresolved conflicts, biases, and insecurities that can lead to the events we saw unfurl in our streets in August 2017.

But where do we stand now in August 2018?

An area councilwoman was quoted to say that we as a community have ‘lost our naivete’ in a recent Washington Post article. As someone who witnessed these harrowing events firsthand, I respectfully disagree. We as a community have never been naïve. We are conscious, we are active, and we are resilient. It has taken a lot of time to recover from last year’s events, and as I am typing this, I am still hearing State Police helicopters patrolling every inch of this city. Others in this article agree with this sense of resilience, but it is telling that the title of this article (and general tone) has painted a fractured portrait of Charlottesville one year later.

The same article also states that “the real damage has been to the city’s psyche and the sense of itself.” Residents of this city – commonly called C’villians – would disagree. Our city is vibrant and self-aware. Its residents define it – not the tiki-torch wielding alt-right protestors who stole our tranquility and tried to dismantle our sense of community.

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This is what defines Charlottesville. Only steps away from where a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters and residents, graphic designers at Charlottesville’s Rock, Paper, Scissors shop designed a heart that symbolizes our resiliency, our progress, and our unity. We as a community recognize we have much to address – rapid gentrification and its consequences, being the city with the most expensive ACA health insurance in the nation, and a past rife with discrimination – but we are challenging ourselves every day to face the real tasks at hand that will enable us to build a more egalitarian, sustainable community.

As for this weekend, only time will tell what will happen. We have reverted to our State of Emergency, and our streets are filled with law enforcement. The alt-right was denied a permit to hold a second “Unite the Right” rally here, so they’ve taken their show down the road to Washington D.C. instead.

Charlottesville is one year stronger.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Two days to go, yet miles apart

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It’s hard to believe that in two days, the decision will be made for who will be our next President. Staying away from the political discourse this time around has almost been impossible, particularly thanks to our social networking and hyperactive news outlets. My mind has been critiquing all sides of the political spectrum during this race and I’ve finally been able to compose my thoughts into a few paragraphs. My opinions and conclusions are not intended to make light of the political issues at stake, nor am I attempting to condemn anyone’s stance, regardless of political affiliation. I am trying to separate myself from the entire political arena to make sense of the scenario. Here are some of my thoughts:
 
This election has created an even more enormous schism between those who find themselves on the left and the right – even among those of the same party. The polemical nature of 2016’s race is dangerous. Those who have identified themselves as being outspoken in this race are being pushed to an even more isolated position, breeding a larger base of support for reactionary political movements that are reappearing globally and will likely gain more footing in American politics if this tendency continues. From what I’ve seen on social media, everyone feels that they are fighting the good fight against their evil opponent. It of course is natural to have a certain sense of loyalty to one’s own side, but the sheer number of posts I’ve encountered of people – from at-home bloggers to superstars – pleading with voters to vote for the values of their candidate makes me take a step back and worry about the gridlock that is sure to follow, regardless of who ultimately wins the election.
 
Stepping away from the topics surrounding our decision this year – we as a whole have gotten to the point of not wanting to hear one side or the other. Most of our minds were firmly made up months ago – and yes, often with good reason. We follow media sources and friends with our own political leanings and completely isolate the opposite side. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting tool called “Blue Feed, Red Feed” that allows you to see the differences between conservative Facebook and liberal Facebook side by side. What we see online hardly ever crosses into the opponent’s camp. I’ve come across a handful of posts throughout the election of those proudly claiming that they had unfriended anyone whose political beliefs were contrary to their own or who were supporting the “wrong” candidate. It may be satisfying in practice, but these acts simply solidify the stance another has taken in their own mind as being right. This helps feed political extremism. The other person will see the unfriending as intolerance and will become even more steadfast about the opinions the unfriender found to be upsetting.
 
2016 has proven itself to be a year of surprises. But what happens after November 8th? Where do we go from here? Can we actually have either side step back gracefully to let our new President lead? Trump supporters lack confidence in Hillary, and Hillary supporters are outraged by Trump. Bernie supporters are upset with Hillary, are in diametric opposition to Trump, and often feel obliged to vote for Hillary out of party loyalty or may decide to vote for Stein since her values align closely with progressive leftist politics. Republicans who supported other candidates such as Kasich or Cruz may feel ashamed by their candidate and may consider giving their vote to Johnson. Some may vote party lines or cross party lines for the first time.
 
Who wins? It’s hard to say. This election has re-hashed the deep-rooted divisions between the multiple layers of society in our nation that continue to separate and define us. Moving past November 8th means that we need to realize that despite who we supported in this election, whomever we have identified as our political opponents won’t suddenly be non-existent. I feel that it is more important than ever to understand why those who hold completely different viewpoints think the way that they do. That doesn’t mean we should agree – what it does mean is that we should listen, analyze, and be prepared to give a concretely logical response to what we consider to be counter to the progress of our nation as a whole. Communication and understanding from both sides need to be at the forefront as we inaugurate our new President come 2017 and in the coming years of a country that has found itself fiercely divided in the political arena.
 
I end with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. – “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Swipe left, swipe right: The Advent of Consumerist Dating

“He wasn’t that attractive,” said a well-groomed woman to a friend sitting with her at a table a few seats over from mine. Being all alone and sipping on my latte, it was hard not to tune out of the conversation. “What was he wearing? Sweats?” joked her friend from across the table. “No, he just didn’t look as good as any of the pictures he had up online.”

Overhearing this short exchange was a revelation for me.

Want a new book? Buy it on Amazon. Tired of your wardrobe? Find it on any clothier’s website with little effort. Want to find a partner – or even a fling? There’s an app for that… and the selection process has become more commercialized than anyone could have imagined a few decades ago.

There are obviously positives and negatives to this new trend. On the one hand, people less likely to find time outside of their jobs or who wish to avoid the bar scene have an easier time than ever to connect with potential matches. Some apps and websites ask you to answer some of the most personal questions out there in regards to sexual tendencies, romantic history, and whether or not you think you’re smarter than the general population. These questions are equally answered by other matches. The higher you agree with each other, the more compatible you are… or at least, so it seems. (I don’t think I’d like to date an exact replica of myself in any event).

Some websites and apps are helpful for people who wish to find matrimonial candidates based on religion, such as Christian Mingle or Shaadi. Others are intended for people who specifically want to date to marry, such as eVow or eHarmony. The gay community has Grindr, an app that locates other potential matches based on distance. Tinder is notorious for its swipe left for no, swipe right for yes choice system, which makes dating – and flings – a very visual process.

All of these options, regardless of their general established “purpose,” have created a very similar environment to the likes of even eBay; in short, users have to “market” themselves like a product.

This can be both very efficient and equally very troubling. Many that I know have had very beautiful relationships blossom from these websites and apps, whereas others have found them discouraging. “I don’t like being seen like this,” one friend mentioned to me while chatting. “I’m just viewed for my photos. It’s annoying because I know I’d get along so well with some of my matches if they met me in person. They say no because I don’t meet their physical standards. It’s superficial.”

For those who receive no response, a general copy and paste message is sent out sometimes hundreds of times per day. Conversations fizzle out after simple introductions. Accounts close because of boredom, and reopen for the same reason.

Are we at the point where everything – relationships included – can be grouped as a commodity? It almost seems that way. Psychologically speaking, the average person is bombarded with advertisements and paradigms of beauty no matter where one goes. These subconsciously embed themselves into our minds, and we form checklists for what we desire just the same way as we remind ourselves of the consumer goods we dream about.

To a certain extent, preferences are natural and have always been. For example, I have always had a predilection for men with darker hair and eyes. Does that rule out the possibility that I would date someone with blond hair and blue eyes? Absolutely not. But for many it would, and the websites have made it very easy to do so. Included in many search options, a prepackaged mate can be chosen based on height, race, education level, and more. It’s almost like buying a new sweater. If it doesn’t fit, send it back and search again.

More than ever, it seems like technology has acted as Pandora’s box, providing a wealth of options and opportunities, but erasing the key components of natural connection, whose signal is weakening day by day.

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Fear. The power behind the definition of this four-letter word has stopped even the most tenacious in their tracks. We fear the unknown, the lack of acceptance by our peers, any threat to the security of our daily lives, and most of all, we fear death.

We are very aware of how we are perceived, and an end result of that is that most people wish to be seen as a paradigm of social perfection, emulating either what is perceived to be ‘right’ or fashionable. Governments are equally faced with this fear of how they are perceived. To evade many issues and uprisings, the general public is fed with comfort food for the ears – vague statements that help to stall decisions and provide ephemeral placation. This fear has complicated government to a point where process has degraded into procedure and progress has become appeasement.

As was famously penned by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening line of his The Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Human nature hasn’t changed very much since. We are creatures that like to stratify and organize all parts of our lives while simultaneously climbing the social ladder, all the while in fear of defeat and criticism. Included in the organization of our world are all of the values and traditions that weave together to create our personal identity – our nationality, our religion or lack thereof, our sexual orientation, our political affiliations, our educational background, our job specialization, our likes and dislikes. Yet, though these aspects represent the fingerprints of our uniqueness within the collective, they are also areas that sometimes foster fear and conflict, particularly in two domains: 1) the fear of an attack on our personal identity and 2) the fear of the judgement or conflicts between others who do not share in the same identities. This is where we begin to place ourselves “in chains.”

It has become a trend to think that by simply passing legislation one can fix all of the world’s ills, almost as if we were prescribing a remedy for our fears. That unfortunately is not the case. The process that has been set into place to make governments function was intended to provide a catalyst for general responsibility. The process provided by government is only one means to an end. When we start to take into account the variety represented by individual rights, we start to realize the mammoth undertaking it would be to address each issue. These individual and social rights therefore can be interpreted as self-executing rights – ones that are not necessarily explicitly covered by federal law, but still hold validity.

One very important self-executing right has recently come into the spotlight in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France – that of the freedom of expression. Never before have I seen such a vast array of responses from different news sources or personal connections in reaction to an incident. Some responses were filled with messages of solidarity and hope for the French people during the tragedy. Others had posted online that one ‘reaps what one sews’ and were ‘not surprised.’ Many reactions were in direct target to Islam, either for or against. Armchair activists that had only days before never heard of or read the publication began to chastise the authors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo for hateful publications. The hashtag #JesuisCharlie has become a worldwide mark of support. #JenesuispasCharlie has also appeared, as well as #JesuisAhmed – representing the fallen Muslim police officer.

There are several important points that can be taken away in wake of these despicable acts of terror committed, particularly in relation to the right to freedom of expression.

Firstly, if one takes a look at the history of Charlie Hebdo, one will see that this is not the first time that the publication had been involved in legal or social skirmishes due to its content. In 2006 for example, Charlie Hebdo was taken to court for its publication of several cartoons that related to Islam. France, along with many other countries, have laws that limit the mass publication of what can be defined as hateful speech. (One can refer to these laws for further reading and analysis: Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, article 24; La loi n° 90-615 du 13 juillet 1990 (Loi Gaysot); Code pénal – Article R624-3, link here).
The court’s holding found that the cartoons and publications were protected under the law, as they “mocked fundamentalists, not Islam or Muslims.” (Viscusi, Bloomberg Online, 2007). Therefore, it was their fundamental right to be able to publish their opinions.

This leads to the second point – what exactly can be identified as hateful? Does everyone agree? The difficulty with enforcing such laws deals with the fact that what is considered ‘hate’ is usually a relative concept. Some will agree, some will disagree. Furthermore, by denying certain ‘controversial’ groups their right to participate or to express themselves in the public forum is a surefire way to breed conditions under which a suppressed subject might force its way to the surface in more violent ways than writing or drawing. In grade school, it was common for the teacher to ask students to express their feelings to resolve issues, rather than bottling them up. The same goes for adults, too.

Let’s return to the idea of the organization of our world. Freedom of expression is liberating because it allows us to address our individual needs in a way that enables others to understand and respond to them, making our lives more stable and fulfilling. What becomes frustrating for some is when they encounter the product of another person’s expression – be it a cartoon, a film, a novel, or a political speech. When these creations are in diametric opposition to one’s personal values, the creation becomes offensive, frustrating, demeaning, and controversial. In many cases, some people are even afraid of facing anything that even remotely challenges or goes against their status quo.

Is there an easy solution to this situation? Absolutely not. Since the issue is so relative and is mainly based at the individual level rather than the collective, the best we can do is to take the advice of another eighteenth-century philosopher – that of Voltaire. He wisely articulated that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We will never entirely agree with what other people will say or think. There is no law that can ever change or will ever change that. What will move us forward towards a more open forum of respect, responsibility, and free discussion is to always have an open mind, particularly to those who hold a differing viewpoint.

Face your fears.