We were not here when the chaos unfolded on that Friday and Saturday. We watched on TV as outsiders marched through our university, chanting noxious slogans, their torches giving off not light, but hate. And as we watched the horrific events play out, culminating in a death and the injury of many, we began to wonder, “What will the world think of us after all this? Will they see us as a community embracing the Confederacy and all it stood for?
Our question was partially answered by an email from Airbnb guest who asked us before he arrived, “Will it be safe for us to go into Charlottesville?” It occurred to us: will we become another Sandy Hook, another Columbine, another place whose identity derives only from a unspeakable tragedy?
Sunday night’s rally began to sketch in an answer. The thousands who showed up on Grounds carrying candles brought light and hope, singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, they gave us hope that our community could become in the eyes of the world what it has always been, a beacon of forgiveness and strength, resilience and grace.
And then on Monday and Tuesday, generals, politicians, business leaders and media began to stand up for us, to condemn those who refused to step up, rallying to our defense in defiance of a president who seemed more interested in calling his own shots than in denouncing bigotry and hatred. The spirit and courage of a town that had given the world Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence began to be recognized. We became the catalyst for renouncing white supremacy and neo-Nazism and for recognizing tolerance and diversity as keys to our democracy.
And the world began to recognize Heather Heyer as our symbol. The Economist, a globally-distributed magazine, devoted its entire back page to an obituary for Heather.
The last paragraph reads: “She was not an activist herself: there wasn’t much time to be. She wouldn’t have dreamed of, say, marching with Antifa behind a banner reading, “The Only Good Facist is a Dead Facist”. She didn’t march with Black Lives Matter, either, or wave LGBTQ flags, though she supported them all. Her way was to stand up loudly for them, and to ask anyone who disagreed why they believed that? And how could they think of that? But the sheer size of the white nationalist rally planned for August 12 made her feel, for the first time ever, that she really had to get out there on the street. She and her friends could try to spread a different message, that Charlottesville was a place of love.”
We are exemplified by a young lady who had the courage to stand up against hate and bigotry. Now the world knows who Heather was, what Charlottesville is, and what we all stand for. And for that, we should be thankful.