Short Visit to Charlottesville

Few people live for the excitement of radical demonstrations. Most of us want to enjoy life and, if we can, contribute something positive to society along the way. Thus, it is small surprise that, when hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, and engaged in open intimidation of counterdemonstrators the following day, almost no residents were happy, and many made their displeasure clear. In the end, one Nazi sympathizer from Ohio chose to drive his car into a crowd, injuring numerous bystanders and killing Heather Heyer, a young local paralegal with an admirable history of assisting the disadvantaged.

Thanks to extremely unfortunate and ill-considered comments on the matter by President Donald Trump, Charlottesville has become shorthand in many people’s minds for a controversy about intolerance. But what really happens as a community tries to resume normal life after such distasteful episodes? What happens after the intruders, who among other things took issue with the proposed removal of statues of Confederate leaders, finally leave town and go back where they came from? Only one organizer was a Charlottesville resident, not a particularly popular one at that, and the vast majority of right-wing demonstrators were from outside Virginia—a point emphasized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his condemnation of their activities.

I had the opportunity to visit Charlottesville last Monday. To be clear, my primary motive was to visit two retired friends who moved there from suburban Washington, D.C. They had invited me long before the demonstrations took place. I took them up on the offer largely because I had been asked to speak at the North Carolina state conference of the American Planning Association, which began on September 26. I flew into Richmond the previous day and drove to Charlottesville that afternoon. They wanted to show off their new home town and took me to the University of Virginia campus and then downtown, where we eventually had dinner followed by some late-night conversation. I drove to Greenville, North Carolina, the next morning.

I mention all this because I am sharing casual observations, not dedicated reporting or profound knowledge of the city, which I had never previously visited. Even so, I think my observations have some modest value. For one, Charlottesville is a normal, mostly attractive city, a university town of average size (just under 50,000). It is well forested in places and sports some attractive scenery, like much of Virginia. It is easy to see why people would like living there.

It is also largely a progressive city, not unusual for a community with a strong academic history. The Rotunda, the original core of the University of Virginia campus, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the years after he retired from the presidency to his home at nearby Monticello. The campus thus has a noteworthy history dating back more than two centuries to America’s earliest days. The university has a noteworthy academic history and has produced its fair share of meritorious scholarship. Historic preservation clearly is part of the university’s DNA.

But that history contains a dark side that long remained unacknowledged until more recent times. Much of Jefferson’s architectural handiwork was achieved with slave labor. The slaves who helped build the campus spent many decades deprived of access to the educational opportunities the university provided. Social justice has become a significant focus of the university’s attention in recent decades, once the civil rights movement had forced the entire state to think seriously about racial equality. This is the state, after all, that in the 1960s gave the nation Loving v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

To its credit, however, the University of Virginia has been coming to terms with its history. Surely, one can credit Jefferson for remarkable skills and a certain practical genius in both politics and architectural design. His achievements are not to be gainsaid. At the same time, there is no question that much of his life was predicated on and enabled by inequality and the suppression of opportunity for people of color, enslaved or free. His political courage never extended to the liberation of his African-American servants. University walking tours now include very factual discussions of the role of enslaved African Americans, some of whom were openly abused and maltreated on the antebellum campus. Their story deserves to be told along with that of the leaders who created much of the university’s unique heritage. Brochures and information related to historic buildings suggest that university historians have spent time documenting this history for the benefit of future generations. The contributions of African Americans, willing or involuntary, to the university need to be part of the public record. The educational displays in the Rotunda acknowledge that history.

But it was through this very campus that the Klansmen and Nazis marched on that August night, carrying torches and chanting offensive slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” They made a point of marching in front of a downtown synagogue. I may be Christian, not Jewish, but I can easily imagine how angry I would feel if that were my place of worship. It has never even occurred to me to disrespect someone else’s house of worship in any way. Part of being American, in my humble opinion, lies in respecting other people’s ethnic or racial heritage and freedom of religion. I am aware that there are plenty of examples of disrespect for diversity in American history, but they should fill us with shame, not pride, because they contradict our stated principles as a nation.

Shrouded statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

As in any such city, the university is a major presence in the life of Charlottesville. But it was downtown where the Saturday rally and confrontations occurred. There seems to be some serious public discontent with the role of the police that day in containing the violence that occurred, quite possibly because public safety officials failed to take seriously enough the full extent of the threat, expecting a much smaller demonstration. Certainly, no one expected James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from a Toledo, Ohio, suburb to drive his vehicle through a crowd with the express purpose of producing mayhem among those opposed to the right-wing protest, but it also is not clear to all concerned that police had taken all appropriate measures to secure the area to prevent such an outcome. I am not judging; I am merely reporting the apparent public sentiment.

Two statues whose preservation was the object of the protest, those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have been shrouded from public view with a “no trespassing” sign to bar fans of the Confederacy from removing the shrouds. I will not take up the arguments about the fate of the statues here. I am merely noting that many would like to see them go, even as others make a case for preserving them. But it does seem to me that there is a serious difference between exploring and understanding the history of the Civil War and providing people who fought to preserve slavery and against the United States with a place of honor on public property. Equating knowledge of American heritage with statue preservation strikes me as simplistic and even disingenuous.

But most striking in this city seeking to reestablish normal life after a harrowing episode involving domestic terrorism and racial hatred is the simple campaign that has been launched to demonstrate a municipal identity in the wake of those events. Throughout downtown, posters and displays proclaim that “Charlottesville Stands for Love.” It is a simple, almost unsophisticated declaration that captures a sentiment that informs the Klan and the Nazis that they are out of place in Charlottesville, that the community simply is not interested in fomenting or disseminating hatred. This is a city looking to the future, not interested in perpetuating the animosities and bigotries of the past. It is time to move on.

The display in the photo above appears in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall, which reminded me in its design features of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. It is a place of small shops, of funky and independent restaurants, of people who accept diversity. It is a place for people to find locally oriented businesses, to relax, to meet each other, and to foster a culture of mutual respect. It is its own message: We all just want to get along and lead productive lives. We have our problems, like any city, but hate is not welcome here.

Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Jim Schwab

 

Incident below the 606

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

The 606 is, if anything, ordinarily a very safe, quiet space full of people enjoying the outdoors. This photo is from opening day in June 2015.

One of the more disquieting aspects of urban life is an occasional confrontation with the irrational. I have debated telling this story, but I decided that enough other people either have had or will share such experiences that sharing it may have great value. One must be prepared somehow to handle these unexpected situations.

In my very last post a week ago, I noted my workouts with a trainer at XSport Fitness. One of those occurred yesterday, Saturday morning, at 8 a.m., after which I walked home with my gym bag, stopping for a snack and coffee at McDonald’s, after which I crossed Western Avenue by going up the ramp on one side to the 606 Trail, about which I have written more than once, and crossing to the other side. It is when I came down I encountered trouble, in broad daylight in the middle of a sunny, beautiful morning.

I was heading down the sidewalk to my home when a young man stood in front of me and demanded to know where I was going. “I’m going home,” I said in a matter-of-fact voice that was intended to suggest that the rest was no one else’s business. Nothing about his manner suggested that this was a friendly question.

“This is my neighborhood,” he asserted, “and I don’t know you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, and began to move down the sidewalk. But he moved to block my path. I moved out toward the street to pass him, and he moved again. He reasserted that he did not know who I was, and I made clear that was irrelevant to my right to continue on my way home. But he would not get out of the way, prompting me to ask, with increasing exasperation, “What is your problem?”

I had both the gym bag and a mostly full cup of coffee in my hands. Before I could truly absorb just how determined he was, I saw his punch coming toward my jaw. I moved back just as quickly, so that his swing only barely connected with my cheek, but now he had really angered me. I threw the coffee at him, and it splattered across his shirt. But I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing on my rump on the planter strip below the trail 16 feet above. He picked up the gym bag and threw it at me while I was down. I quickly got back up, but it was clear this confrontation was not over, and I might just have to throw a few punches of my own if he continued.

But by then, something else happened that I think is one of the redeeming glories of the 606. A small crowd of witnesses to the scuffle had gathered above, and it was very clear to all of them that he was the aggressor. Some began to try to talk him down, threatening to dial 911 for the police. I would have done that myself, except that it was a rare trip in which I had not brought my cell phone. “Do it,” I yelled to them, signaling, I suppose, that I did not have a phone with me. At that moment, I would have liked nothing better than to see a squad car show up. But it did not happen.

What did happen is that one of the men on the trail had made his way down the ramp to usher me away from the confrontation while the young man watched. Amazingly, considering all the witnesses to what had happened, he loudly protested that I had thrown my coffee at him, to which I replied, “Yes, after you took a damned swing at me!” In effect, I retreated at the other man’s urging, continuing further down the trail and then circling back to my home. Equally interesting, though, someone came out of the nearby building and ushered the young man inside. It was over; no one was hurt.

I subsequently made a police report at the station, cycling there after I got home. As soon as I told my story, the officer behind the desk indicated they knew who it probably was, showed me a picture, and I verified him as the individual who had assaulted me. They told me he was mentally ill. I know his name but will not share it. I know where he lives and will not share it. I have learned from detectives shortly after originally posting this that they are still looking for him. This was not the first time he had accosted someone. Moreover, they said it was consistent with his “M.O.”

One important feature of this story is that it highlights a problem we all know exists, but that our society does a remarkably poor job of confronting: the management of the mentally ill, including, in his case, the apparently violent mentally ill. I do not profess to be an expert in this area. There are social workers and psychologists who are much more conversant with all the issues and bureaucratic complications of a system that copes poorly, in part because most of us do not want to spend much time thinking about such people, let alone funding programs to treat them. Our jails and prisons are full of them. Many of the homeless are victims of mental illness. Yet, in Illinois, we have a governor more focused on union-busting than on funding needed social services, despite persistent pleadings from churches and social service agencies, and a legislature that is more focused on re-election than on finding solutions to our fiscal mess. We are at a standstill.

I am not saying, of course, that there is any foolproof solution that would prevent encounters such as mine. Mental illness is a fact of human life that may never disappear no matter how many medicines we invent. There will always be the problem of someone who needs those medicines not being willing to take them. There will always be those who slip between the cracks. It will fall to those of us with enough poise, enough mental stability, and enough judgment to try to defuse these situations. In this particular case, I am enormously grateful to all those people on the trail because, in their absence, I am not sure what else might have transpired. It was a somewhat unnerving incident in part because, rational creature that I am, it took a minute or two for me to grasp that this individual was simply not operating with the same set of perceptions that were part of my universe. In my universe, the street belongs to anyone who wants to use it, and other people’s rights end at the beginning of my nose, as they say, or in this case at the edge of my jaw. In his universe, I constituted some sort of threat merely by trying to walk past him.

If I had been more elderly than my 66 years, less physically fit, or a mother with a child, the incident could have been terrifying, and I suspect it has happened and may yet happen again. And in the process sometimes, we end up with even more of the walking wounded among us. It is a sobering thought on an otherwise sunny Sunday morning.

 

Jim Schwab