August 15, 2017
Family, Friends, Colleagues, Sisters, and Brothers:
Many of you have heard that armed white supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched and rallied in my home town of Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived from ages nine to eighteen.
The city sits at the edge of Virginia’s piedmont in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. In the rolling fields of this horse country, one often finds colonial mansions, with stately white columns at the front and wooden and brick former slave quarters in the back. A few miles west, in the shadow of the Shenandoah mountains, hills grow steeper and are forested. There the mansions often give way to trailer homes propped on stacked bricks at the end of dirt roads. Gravel driveways are full of scattered oak leaves and the occasional rusted car or truck, guarded by large barking dogs eager to chase bicyclists like me who dared to traverse their fictive territory.
My parents moved to Charlottesville in the early 1990’s. My dad got a good job at the University of Virginia—housing was cheaper in the south; we bought a home at the beginning of a dirt road—Gillums Ridge Road—a few miles west of town. My mom continued to make the three hour Amtrak commute—each way—to Washington D.C., where she taught at Howard University, the historically black college.
Charlottesville is a fairly progressive college town, especially in a state like Virginia. Eighty percent of the city voted for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election. There is a large black population, mostly segregated on the south and east side of the railroad tracks that run through town. Coal from West Virginia moves to the coast on those tracks in big black open cars, with the empty cars travelling back. There is a decent sized Jewish community, as well as an increasing number of transplants from the Northeast, attracted to good schools, low housing costs, and jobs at the University of Virginia and its affiliated medical center, the largest employer in town. Starting in the late 1990’s a sizable Latino immigrant population began arriving in Charlottesville to work in the City’s restaurants, local construction, and in some of the food processing plants found in this part of the state. Many came from Northern Virginia which had attracted Salvadorians who flocked to the D.C. area and its plentiful construction and service sector jobs.
Growing up, I attended Temple Beth Israel, central Virginia’s only synagogue, a reform congregation a block from the Albemarle County Courthouse, where a statue of a confederate soldier guards the entrance, rifle and bayonet in hand. And just across the street is the larger than life statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, rearing upwards on a giant horse. A block in the other direction is the now infamous Lee Park, recently renamed Emancipation Park, with another massive equestrian statue, this one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the decorated United States Military Academy officer who abandoned our Union to lead the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
Until this week, Charlottesville’s claim to fame was that it was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States who wrote those famous first lines in the Declaration of Independence that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…” His house, Monticello, perched above town on a large hill, is a tourist destination for many. Just before his inauguration Bill Clinton visited Monticello, an event I well remember. The New York Times reported that he would journey to the nation’s capital by making the 115 mile trek from Monticello to the Lincoln Memorial.
In second or third grade, like all Virginian elementary school children, we took U.S. History, with a focus on the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I remember we were learning about Thomas Jefferson. I asked my history teacher, she looked ancient for a nine year old, “Why did Thomas Jefferson have slaves?”
She replied calmly in a thick southern accent, “He needed workers to take care of the plantation.”
“Well why didn’t he just pay people to work there?” I quipped.
She responded, clearly irked, “They wanted to work for him, and he treated them very well,” as she quickly continued to another subject. That was one of my first lessons of the South.
At the urging of my father, a former eagle scout, I joined Boy Scouts Troop 114 in Ivy, Virginia, part of the Stonewall Jackson Area Council, a name that remains to this day. We went on fun hiking trips in the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains, and at age 12 or 13, practiced shooting .22 caliber rifles. Later, I learned my dad wrote a letter to the Boy Scouts, objecting to the memorialization of a Confederate general like Stonewall Jackson. They replied considerately, but nothing changed. I ended up dropping out after a few years. I just wanted to just go on camping trips, and wasn’t too interested in all the merit badges.
I was a rebellious teenager. I didn’t quite fit in to the youth scene. There were the preps, the jocks, the skaters, the blacks, the rednecks, the punks, the goths, and the nerds. I joined the punks. High school students separated themselves into cliques, just like everyone else.
I learned in my senior year about the struggle to desegregate Charlottesville’s public school. After the 1954 unanimous Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, it took twelve brave black families filing a lawsuit to integrate public education. In the summer of 1956, outside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church where these parents and civil rights advocates gathered to strategize, the Klan burned a wooden cross. The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that year, part of a strategy called massive resistance to racial integration. Under the banner of “School Choice,” new laws, much like charter schools and school voucher programs today, allowed for parents to use state funds to send their children to segregated private schools. After a judge denied Charlottesville’s legal appeal and ordered the integration of two schools, the Virginia governor ordered them closed until they were forced to reopen a year and a half later. White children flocked to area private schools; almost no private schools accepted black students until the 1980’s, and then only as tokens. School district boundaries closely mirrored class and racial patterns in a still-segregated housing market.
My first real summer job was in 1998, shortly after getting my drivers’ license. I worked as an electrician’s helper. The year before, my sophomore year of high school, I took night classes for electricians at the local community college and the technical school. Other apprentice electricians were in the class. I remember one middle aged white man was on work release from jail. He got released to work, and take classes, and would go back to the County jail each night where he was locked up in a towering new building overlooking the freeway just outside of town.
Working construction taught me a lot about class and race in central Virginia. We worked non-union. There were no unions that I knew of in central Virginia. Joe, the experienced electrician I would help by fetching tools and crawling through rafters and under homes to run wire, lived in a trailer park by the river on the east side of town. One day driving through the country, we passed a modest one story home with a neat grass yard in the middle of a large field. Joe mentioned to me that he wanted to own his own home in the country one day, just like the one we passed, nothing fancy, just something so that his wife and two small children could move out of the trailer park.
With his co-workers, Joe liberally used the n-word either to talk about African-Americans or to color their language as they talked shit to each other to pass the time. But they weren’t racist, they told me, because they had black friends. We would do house calls to fix residential electrical work in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas. Sometimes we worked on new construction, which was a lot cleaner and easier. The company charged customers sixty five dollars an hour for labor, and an additional amount for parts and materials. Joe would buy the parts, do the invoices and estimates, and drive to each job, scheduling work and picking up new leads directly on his two-way phone. Every once in a while we would get dispatched to a job from the office. He earned $13 an hour and I made $6. I asked him once that if we billed $65 an hour for labor, who got the other $31 dollars an hour? He said some of it paid for the rent at the office, the truck, and the secretary who took care of all the bills, but most went to our boss, the owner of the company. Something about that didn’t quite seem right to me. One time we serviced this old plantation. They had their family tree on a wall and it reached back to the 1700’s. As I entered the house after fetching a part from the truck, a black woman was vacuuming rugs in the other room. Many of these mansions still had old slave quarters in the back, which they used for storage. Not much has changed, I thought.
I ended up working as an electrician a few years later in Northern Virginia after high school, before I moved to Chicago. The company I worked for was based in Norfolk. We were wiring multi-family residential units that none of us could afford. Our boss, a wiry redhead with a deep Southern accent, would divide our team into two crews, blacks and whites. We would compete against each other as to who could wire an apartment fastest. We would race, drilling holes, pulling wire, and nailing boxes for sockets and switches, from the top floor to the basement. Two co-workers of mine served in the Navy, an African American in his late 20’s or early 30’s who smoked black and mild cigars, and a bald, heavy set white guy, who kept talking about his next tattoo. As we worked, they would talk shit to each other, the white electrician cracking racist jokes, and black one dishing it back, poking fun at his manhood, weight, intelligence, and lack of a sex life.
Our boss couldn’t hire and keep enough black and white electricians to do all the work at the rate they were paying us—I made $10 an hour, no benefits. Instead they hired three Mexican families, who worked as independent contractors; they were paid piece rate—for every apartment they wired. One family had come up from North Carolina. They had a kid my age, and two younger ones, the youngest being 14. I helped him once with the power drill—you had to climb a ladder and drill holes through wood to run the wire— but I got yelled at by my boss, he was always yelling at us, and I was told to do my own work. One family was fired for doing too good a job. Their work was clean and neat, but they took too long and used too much wire, our boss said. Each ethnic group on the construction site had its own niche–Salvadorans worked carpentry, Koreans did the siding. One day the general contractor showed up in a white jeep. People thought he was from Immigration, and everyone dropped their tools and scattered.
Two years earlier, after that first summer working construction, my dad asked me to jump in the station wagon. He was involved in a living wage campaign at the University of Virginia, and they had been distributing these blue and orange eight dollar buttons to workers and students- they wanted the University to pay a minimum of $8 dollars an hour. Most of the people involved in the campaign were undergraduate students, guided by a few professors and graduate students
We drove across the railroad tracks that separated the black and white sections of town and into a low-rise public housing project. Knocking on the door, my dad explained that people in the living wage campaign had heard that a cashier at the University of Virginia Hospital had been sent home because she was wearing a small $8 dollar button that she refused to take off.
My dad, who was dressed in a suit and tie, told the father of the young female worker that the University of Virginia Living Wage Campaign would support her right to free speech, that she had a right to return to work wearing the button, and that they had passed the hat at their last meeting to try to cover her lost income until she could return to work.
On a bitterly cold day in February, we held a rally for living wages. In addition to the students, professors, clergy, and a few brave workers, the local prison guard’s union an hour away in Stanton showed up with a giant American flag.
Dozens of us accompanied the young black woman back into the hospital cafeteria and there she returned to work, wearing her button, head held high. Of course, we soon dispersed and later I heard she quit her job because she was being harassed by her supervisor. The University never formally agreed to a campus-wide living wage, but personnel quietly raised the base salary for all employees to $8.00 an hour, while subcontracting out custodial and food services.
In 2000, the spring of my senior year of high school, I went with a group of high school and University students to a big demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Frank Ix and Company, a Charlottesville textile factory had just closed, and we were going to protest free trade agreements and for global justice- so companies didn’t close other factories to set up shop in Mexico, Korea, or China, searching for the lowest wages and the fewest health, safety, and environmental regulations. I ended up getting pepper sprayed by a water cannon attached to an armored vehicle. Our protest march was surrounded by police and I was arrested. Along with hundreds of others I was bussed to jail. Soaked in pepper spray, they hosed me down with cold water. I was able to borrow someone’s dry clothes in lockup. Hundreds of jailed protestors spent hours together sitting on cold concrete floors in large holding cells in the basement of the D.C. courthouse. While waiting, we all decided to refuse to be released on our own recognizance, and to demand a trial by jury. Some fellow demonstrators had been arbitrarily charged with felonies, and we decided, talking amongst ourselves and with other groups across the hall through wrought iron bars, that either we all would be released, or none of us. By demanding all our constitutional rights, and clogging the jails and courts, we would make it impossible for the system to function.
After mixing us with the general inmate population in D.C. federal prison, some of the mostly white protestors who were lawyers started talking to the almost exclusively black inmates, who complained of poor living conditions and multi-year prison terms based on shoddy evidence for low-level, non-violent drug offenses. The warden then moved us to a wing of the prison reserved for those serving violent offenses. At some point we all went on a hunger strike—the food sucked anyway – and I was finally released five days later on an early weekend morning to a waiting crowd of supporters camped outside.
The living wage campaign in Charlottesville didn’t die. Every Friday a small group, it seemed mostly older white women who attended Quaker and Unitarian congregations, would rally outside a new hotel built on Main Street to demand that all new Charlottesville hotels pay their staff a living wage. I got involved in a few other groups before I left Charlottesville later to move in with my aunt as my parents moved to California. I participated in an “Earth First” hiking club with some college students. Years later, I heard that Earth First was called a terrorist group because they slept in tree houses built so loggers wouldn’t use their chainsaws to clear cut old growth forests.
After spending several years in Chicago, I returned to Charlottesville and Temple Beth Israel in early 2009 after Barak Obama was elected president, when I worked for a few months for Interfaith Worker Justice, a religious network for worker rights. I visited Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Unitarian, Methodist, Quaker United Church of Christ, Jewish, and Muslim congregations to speak with religious leaders and their congregations’ social justice clubs, and to rally people of faith in support of workers’ rights.
Many congregations were also struggling with access to affordable health care, which was getting more and more expensive, as big employers cut back on benefits. I met with a group of proponents for Single Payer Universal Healthcare who worked with the Charlottesville Peace and Justice Coalition, and we held a large forum on how the lack of affordable care impacted the lives of central Virginians in a hall in the county building. Driving to Northern Virginia the next day after staying at a friend’s house in rural Greene county, thirty miles north of town, I spotted several large billboards conspicuously placed in the cow pastures adjacent to a winding rural two lane road. Paid for by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group run by the billionaire Koch brothers, oil executives from Kansas, the signs urged the mostly white country residents to remember to vote in the 2010 mid-term elections to take back their country.
Today Donald Trump is president and Charlottesville is infamous. It all started when the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, a multi-racial and multi-denominational coalition of religious congregations, and the town’s progressive white community won a vote in the city council to vote to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, despite the objections of the city’s Mayor. Several months later, Alt-right poster-boy Richard Spencer and torch wielding Nazis descended upon town in an unannounced protest. A few months after that, earlier this summer, the Klu Kux Klan received a permit to hold a rally at the site of the Robert E. Lee statue. They announced they would show up armed, but they were still opposed by thousands of peaceful counter-protestors. I heard in the weeks afterwards, local police visited the residences of young black activists who organized the response to the Klan rally, and attempted to question them and their family members.
In the latest rally this past weekend, Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right, Neo-Confederate, and white power organizations and their associated militias poured into town from across the country for a “Unite the Right” rally and march. Outfitted in fatigues, wearing body armor and helmets, equipped with metal batons, shields, pistols, and assault rifles, Nazis and White Supremacists prepared for the trouble they wanted. A planning meeting for the counter-protest the next day and an interfaith prayer service were held at an historic stone church on the University of Virginia’s campus the night before the rally. Torch wielding white men shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans marched on campus and surrounded the church. After some time, the worshipers, including a high school friend of mine who posted about it on Facebook, snuck out the back to avoid the hostile torch wielding crowd. The police response lagged; they declared it an unlawful assembly after white supremacists had already dispersed.
The next day, as social media reports portrayed Nazis and white power protestors pepper spraying and punching counter demonstrators armed with bullhorns and cardboard signs, another high school friend of mine was working a few blocks away setting up his restaurant for the Saturday night crowd. Speaking with him by phone later on, he said a long, peaceful procession of Charlottesville residents were marching through downtown to oppose the out of towers hate speech, when a car slammed into them. Many were hurt, and caught between two cars that also were hit. My friend said her heard a rumor that a twelve year old girl was severely injured, and may have died, as well as the young woman, 32 year old Heather Heyer, that the news had reported murdered. They quickly closed the restaurant, concerned for their own and customer’s safety, losing a normally busy Saturday night of business. I heard on the news that night that the murderer was a Nazi from rural Ohio, a “General” in the white supremacist group Vanguard America, who had slammed his car at 40 miles an hour into a peaceful crowd and then peeled off, trying to escape.
President Donald Trump went on national television to address the nation. He mentioned that everyone had a right to exercise their first amendment rights, and condemned bigotry and hate on many sides, and then repeated himself again to emphasize the point, , on many sides. The murders and victims, the Nazis and counter protestors calling for racial unity, were equally to blame for the violence.
The police and national guard stood by and refused to intervene. I read a news article that a large group of Neo-Nazis beat a black protestor with metal pipes within an inch of his life in the parking garage next to the Charlottesville Police Station. When bystanders tried to intervene, they had pistols pulled on them. Police did intervene however, to protect the white supremacist “Unite the Right” protest organizer, Jason Kessler, whom they escorted away from a press conference he dared to hold the day after participants in his own rally assaulted Charlottesville residents, murdering one and injuring many.
Our state institutions will not save us. We must defend each other and enforce our rights to freedom and security. I was heartened to learn that over six hundred rallies around the country were planned and held within a day of the Nazi terrorist attack on Charlottesville. Two days later, a large crowd knocked down the statue of a confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina, an echo of the time U.S. troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, but with much more authentic grievance and rage.
But the fascist movement in the United States is hardly dead. Breitbart news, an organization considered the voice of the Alt-Right, was founded by a Jewish Zionist who thought that Muslims and the left, not the radical right, were the real existential threat to Jewish people. The organization grew under the direction of the former Wall Street banker, Steven Bannon, who rose to fame after framing and ultimately destroying the community group ACORN after it registered millions of new voters in the 2008 election cycle. Bannon is now a key White House strategist, and has cultivated a wide following among white power hate groups through Breitbart News. Breitbart.com is the 66th most popular website in the United States. By contrast, the New York Times is the 31st most popular website. Jacobin Magazine, a growing online socialist publication, ranks 7,057. The Daily Stormer, the Neo-Nazi online newspaper, is ranked 3,673.
A news story in Breitbart posted on Saturday night focused on the Charlottesville rally, condemning violence by the anarchist grouping Antifa, (short for Anti-fascist), a nebulous formation defined by their black bloc “direct-action” tactics pioneered in 1999 to disrupt the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Antifa showed up at the University of California, Berkley to oppose Breitbart commentator and pedophile Milo Yiannopoulos’ hate speech. Breitbart also criticized the infringement of the first amendment rights of Unite the Right demonstrators—police canceled their rally and declared a state of emergency as Nazis began beating peaceful counter-protestors. By Sunday morning, August 13, 92,000 comments had been posted under the article by die-hard white supremacists. They attacked Jews, Communists, the news-media, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, as well Antifa. Breitbart comments defended white nationalist militiamen who invaded Charlottesville, both their right to armed assembly, and their grievances about the decline of white power in the United States. Commentators expressed their desire for a white nation, and to cleanse the country of racial and religious minorities.
The night after Nazis murdered Heather Heyer and terrorized my hometown, I went to a bar in Los Angeles with a high school friend who also grew up in Charlottesville. He started telling me how Nazis in vans were still driving around town with impunity, jumping out and beating people up. As my friend went out back to smoke a cigarette, another man overheard us. A white guy with a neat full beard, a yellow President Barak Obama T-shirt, a skull and crossbones tattoo on his left wrist and thrasher metal band hat, sat on a bench outside, smoking a cigar. He quietly and calmly mentioned he was a supporter of the Proud Boys, asking, “What’s wrong with being proud to be white?” He defended people’s first amendment rights to protest for their beliefs at rallies, and said that it was a shame there was so much violence on both sides, especially the anarchist Antifa. He just hoped there wouldn’t be guilt by association, like when those two Black police officers were killed in Baltimore by rioters. His voice was purposefully calming and de-escalating; he was alone at the bar. Still, even in the heart of Los Angeles, he want’ afraid. I asked him later what he did for a living; he said he owned an electrical supply company that catered to industrial enterprises. Could have fooled me, I thought. This guy was dressed like one of the linemen I worked with back home.
Even in the heart of multi-cultural Los Angeles, white power groups are organizing. My friend said that the Proud Boys had an event at that very bar a few weekends ago. I looked at him in shock, puzzled why he took me to this place tonight, then scanned the room, glanced over my shoulder, and slammed back my beer to leave.
The other day I read a book called “Fascism, what it is and how to fight It.” This short pamphlet written in 1932 by Leon Trotsky, a key leader of Russian Revolution, argued that fascism was a product of the decay of capitalism and the desperation of ruling elites when confronted with a militant working class. You can read it here:
After World War I, the author explains, communists attempted revolutions in Germany, Italy and Hungary. Only Russia’s succeeded; the rest were crushed by the police, the army, or rightwing paramilitary groups. In the wake of this repression, governments formed with a program of social-democracy, which involved democratic elections, legislative bodies, legal procedures, social welfare programs, and labor laws. But with former European colonial empires and their economies in ruin after the devastation wrought by World War I, Western Europe remained in an intense crisis. The owners of the big companies quietly supported small shop keepers and professionals anxious about their declining social and economic mobility, organizing them into paramilitary fascist organizations, as well and electoral parties. In a few short years, these groups rapidly eclipsed social democrats, unions, and community groups, garnering a sizable minority of votes in elections. They began to wage armed fights to destroy any organized opposition. As they established paramilitary wings, many on the center and the left felt comfortable that the police and military, under the control of democratically elected officials, would crush these armed groups. Instead, their size and boldness grew, and they began to assassinate union leaders, and vandalize synagogues, as the police looked the other way.
Trostky advocated armed self-defense to counter Nazi aggression. I don’t want to repeat the tired debates of the early 20th century; in many ways we live in different times. But looking back on the atrocities committed by and for the fascists of that era, it seems in retrospect that Trotsky may have been right.
My grandfather, Theodore Lichtenstein, fled Berlin in 1935 for the United States. He had a phony student visa and eventually settled in Fredrick, Maryland where he ran a 5 and 10-cent store. His own parents thought that, yes, things were bad, but they would blow over. My great grandfather had a box full of metals earned on the Eastern Front during the Great War. But life became progressively worse even in once cosmopolitan and social democratic Berlin. In January or February 1943, the police loaded them, along with thousands of other Jews, onto box cars at Berlin’s leafy Gruenewald station bound for the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Calls for law and order will not save us. Nor will the police. The police response to civil rights compared to pro-confederate protestors is telling. In Ferguson, Missouri, the state called in the national guard. The government deployed armored personnel carriers mounted with machine gun turrets, assault rifles, bullet proof vests, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, and aerial drones. Police used tear gas, non-lethal rubber bullets, sound cannons, and pepper spray on that inner suburb’s black population, as they grieved the untimely death of a young man bound for college, chanting, “Hands up, Don’t shoot!” In Charlottesville, on the other hand, white protestors were allowed to threaten, beat, pepper spray, maim, terrorize, and even murder their opposition. The news reported that police made only four arrests.
I recently heard that Neo-Nazi theorist and propogandist Richard Spencer attended the University of Chicago for a masters’ degree, graduating in 2003, the same year I organized, along with many classmates, walkouts of high school and college students against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In the spring of 2004, after the media televised gruesome images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis at the military detention facility at Abu Gharib, outside Baghdad, our student anti-war group collected 1,000 petitions from students and faculty within a week calling on Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. Rallying downtown to deliver these petitions to our U.S. Senators, speakers called on those responsible for these heinous acts to be prosecuted for war crimes.. At a teach-in we held the next week, in part sponsored by the University of Chicago Human Rights Program, I remember comments from two skinhead students. One defended torture: Israel did it, he reasoned, and we need to be tough on terror like them. A few minutes later another spoke. “Like my comrade said,” he gestured, “I support torture to stop terrorism.” Comrade, I thought. These Neo-Nazi students had been organizing quietly as we publicly held noisy rallies, teach-ins, marches, and press conferences.
I don’t remember seeing them again.
As they continued to organize quietly, we turned our attention to supporting the lukewarm candidacy of John Kerry in hopes his centrism would defeat George w. Bush. We failed. In 2016, many civil society organizations turned again to the center— in support of the safe known entity of Hillary Clinton.
After witnessing Nazi and Klan terror in Charlottesville last weekend, and the lukewarm reaction by the federal government, we must call out racial hatred, those that would collaborate or appease it, and protect both ourselves, and each other. With courage, determination, faith, and solidarity, we will prevail. The values of human liberty and equality that Thomas Jefferson wrote of so eloquently, despite what he actually practiced, are still considered universal moral standards. Now is not the time to be meek, silent, or to placate the center. It is time to choose: fascism or freedom, or as Rosa Luxemburg, the German-Jewish revolutionary put it before proto-Nazi Freikorps militiamen kidnapped and killed her, socialism or barbarism. Neo-Nazis today feel emboldened that their violence works; It terrorizes peace loving people, gives racist extremism a national media audience, and is protected by their President, Donald Trump. We cannot give up and remain silent. They are reacting with violence because we are the majority, and we are winning. I still believe we will win, and together, yes, we can.
In unity and struggle,