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Down With Confederate Monuments: An Interview With a Charlottesville Black Lives Matter Activist

“Symbolic racism is rooted in actual racist actions.”

Members of the clergy form a human chain between counter-protesters and white nationalist militia in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017. (Photo: Heather Wilson / Dust & Light Photos)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 64th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today, in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally and attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, we bring you a conversation with Lisa Woolfork of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville.

Sarah Jaffe: How are you holding up?

Lisa Woolfork: No Black woman, like myself, would have been wandering around anywhere down here by themselves yesterday. So, that is a big shift.

So, the last time there was a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was not that long ago.

You know, there has been one every single month since May. Every month. I think that is important. To me it is a type of escalation on the part of the “alt-right.” We had that torch rally around the Lee statue. I think in May they had an event. In June they had one. In July, of course, the Klan. Then, August, it is this one. We have started calling this the Summer of Hate. We are trying to say, “What was the last white supremacist rally we had here? Was that the May one? With the handful of Klansmen? Was it the June one?” Yes, it has been quite a bit.

This one was obviously a bit of an escalation for them, but tell me how your day went yesterday? What was going on where you were?

I began the day at the First Baptist Church on Main Street. It is an historic African American church that did a service to galvanize people to come out and stand up for their community. There were wonderful messages given there. Reverend Traci Blackmon from the United Church of Christ, she spoke. Cornel West, who is a well-known activist, he spoke. There were song selections. The service was called a sunrise service and that began at 6 a.m. Then, we walked over to the Jefferson School and a group of us proceeded from there to McGuffey Park.

At McGuffey Park, there was programming. There was a gigantic live theatre puppet show with a gigantic puppet of Sally Hemings that was like 15 feet tall, and other props to tell the story about Charlottesville and the march. That was by a wonderful team of very creative activist artists. It is a community called Charis Community. Grace Aheron put that together. That is just an example of, basically, togetherness. The “alt-right” had come here to threaten the largest gathering of hate that they had ever put together, at least since the 1960s. That is what some of the people had been saying, that this was a very powerful gathering. I was very gratified and encouraged to see that so many in the community, as well as visitors and people from other allied organizations and unaffiliated individuals, people who had no connection to Charlottesville and weren’t members of any kind of organization. They just wanted to come out and stand on the side of justice. I find that very encouraging.

I helped this one woman, she must have been in her 80s, walk down a very steep slope. She was kind of struggling by herself. I just walked over and put my hand out so she could have balance. To me, that seemed like a great metaphor for the day. How do we help one another? How do neighbors, people who come together by common cause in the face of hatred and intolerance and promised abuse and vitriol? This was a very powerful and encouraging part of the day, as well as seeing the Nazis and the “alt-right” retreat from Emancipation Park after their event was declared an unlawful assembly. That was quite a parade of hate. As they were leaving the area, they threw flares, they spit on people. There were several altercations of shouting matches and shoving matches. But still, it was a very powerful display of how love conquers hate. To stand there shoulder to shoulder to shoulder with neighbors, with colleagues from my department in English, with other faculty from around the university that I have seen a few of, from people in my own organization representing Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, which is a very small and new group, has since developed allied connections.

These were all examples of how the community wants to stand together against the threat and the promise of racist violence. Something that I thought was, again, very heartening, was that too often people want to believe that symbolic hatred and symbolic racism has no real world consequence, that if we are to maintain symbols of white supremacy, those are completely devoid from the practices of white supremacy. That is false.

That is a really good point. Obviously, these people were drawn to Charlottesville and are having this massive rally in Charlottesville not because Charlottesville is uniquely welcoming to white supremacists. You all clearly proved you are not, but because the symbols there are meaningful to them.

Yes, absolutely. One thing that I like to impress upon is that I think it is very important to retain attention on the Confederate monument. Of course, many people are turning to Louisiana and New Orleans as an example of a mayor who decided to step up and say, “No more. These are relics of a racist past and I want us to build a better future as a city. We do not need these any longer. They have outlived their usefulness.” Charlottesville has not done that. They have not done a complete process of reckoning. There was a commission that worked hard to uncover lots of very interesting information about Charlottesville’s unique southern history, but the recommendation that they made — there were two recommendations. One was to remove the statue and the other was to re-contextualize them in place.

I have always been against the re-contextualization argument, because I don’t believe that you can make a huge monument to the Confederacy mean anything other than a monument to the Confederacy. What I find really compelling is that when the Monument Fund, I think that is the name of the organization that sued the city in court when the city council voted to remove the statues. Now, mind you, they voted to remove them from one place to another. Then, they had a later amendment where they would move the statues outside of the city. They didn’t want them anymore. The Monument Fund said that one of their arguments in court was that if the statues were to be moved, it would do them irreparable harm. The quote as part of the legal argument that the Monument Fund made was about irreparable harm. I really think that we need to concentrate on that claim.

What does it mean that someone’s personal identity is bound up in a racist Confederate monument, a monument to white supremacy? For me, the argument about re-contextualization has already been made. I think the best and most honest context for these monuments is white supremacy. Nothing says what these monuments really mean like a thousand white supremacists coming to defend them.

Speaking of the symbols, there was the controversy about them wanting to have their rally in this particular park that had just been recently renamed, having been named for Robert E. Lee, right?

Yes, that is right. One of the recommendations that the blue ribbon commission made was that the two parks that have Confederate monuments in them be renamed. We have a Robert E. Lee statue and that is in Lee Park. Then, there is a Stonewall Jackson statue, and that was always called Jackson Park. So, they changed Jackson Park to Justice Park, and they changed Lee Park to Emancipation Park. To the city, that was a name-change that they approved. They agreed to do that recommendation. That has already taken effect. So, people are now, in our local media and places throughout the city, [referring] to these parks now as Emancipation and Justice rather than Lee and Jackson.

So, the white supremacists had complained and sued over wanting to be able to have their rally in this particular park, even though the city had ruled that they could not.

Yes. They did. They were helped by the Rutherford Institute, which I believe concentrates on free speech issues and constitutional issues here in Virginia. And, they were also aided by the ACLU Virginia chapter. Both of which turned out to be representing them in a legal capacity. The judge, not the city, the judge ultimately ruled that they could hold their rally in Emancipation Park. Some of the legal issues … I don’t want to get too much into them, but it was around heckler’s veto and not wanting a heckler’s veto to change anybody’s unpopular views. The judge just ruled and sided with the “alt-right,” with the white supremacists, with the Nazis, with the white nationalists.

At whatever point that their gathering was ruled unlawful and they were pushed out of the park, tell us what happened because that seemed to be when the real violence broke loose.

I would say that the real violence was allowing these Confederate monuments to remain in the center of our city as a paean or a testament or an endorsement of not just 19th century white supremacy, but 21st century endorsement or tolerance of white supremacy. I think that is something that I would certainly emphasize. There are so many ways to think about and define violence.

But, yes, from what I was able to see from where I was standing was when they had their walk of shame from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park, which is a park that is a little bit … maybe a mile or a mile and a half away from their original location. There were a lot of scuffles. There was a lot of pushing. Again, they would throw smoke flares at the counter protestors or counter demonstrators and the counter demonstrators would kick them back. There was yelling. There was a lot that was certainly at work in that moment. It was quite chaotic and yet heartening, because my personal feeling at the time was that Charlottesville had come out and had drawn other likeminded people of good conscience to aid in combatting white supremacy and fascism and white nationalism.

That we had worked to reclaim in some small part that promise that America makes to all of us, and that is the promise of equity, the promise that the Constitution shouldn’t be used as a battering ram, it shouldn’t be used as a weapon to deprive other people of rights. That was pretty heartening.

Let’s go back a little bit and talk about the organizing leading up to this. Like you said, there have been all of these rallies. There have been new groups forming and organizing, going on the ground for a while now to counter this. Tell people about what has been happening.

The way that we have been working is in a coalition basis. We believe that we are stronger together than separate. There has been an umbrella of groups working as an organizing network to best utilize a variety of resources. That is something that has been very powerful. Groups like Congregate, which is a collection of different faith organizations and pastors, ministers, rabbis from a variety of different faith traditions. You have the group SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. You have Black Lives Matter Charlottesville as another example and just one of a constellation of groups that, when we pull together, are trying to mobilize our community for the greater good.

Particularly coming into this rally, what was the plan that folks had for dealing with this day? You talked about the sunrise service, the clergy and the day of programming, but tell us a little bit more about how you planned to respond to this?

One of the strengths of coalition-based activism is that it allows for a variety of approaches. Unlike the Klan rally, which was much more focused on a particular single place and time — I was involved in different seminars and symposia surrounding that, as well as some activism on the ground — this was much more dispersed. We understood that this was not meant to be a one and done type gathering for the “alt-right.” It was meant to be basically a weekend party where they would come in on Friday and then they leave on Sunday. They would need much more infrastructure in order to work.

Our goal was to help pull the community to respond to the larger, more capacious threat of the “alt-right” and the white supremacists, neo-Nazis [and] nationalists were representing and threatening to bring forward. I think we were able to do that. We were able to bring together a variety of people, several groups issued individual calls. The clergy, for example, had a really wonderful one calling on, in particular, white people of faith, white ministers, white clergy to come and join in taking a stand against not just explicit violent racism, but also the subtle institutional racism that their own institutions had created and cultivated over time. It was I think a really powerful soul searching on the part of the clergy, for example.

Charlottesville BLM also issued a call where we invited people who wanted to come and stand with us and to challenge white supremacy, as well as some of the other issues that we are dealing with in our cities, which include things like the disproportionate nature of stop and frisk [police profiling] in Charlottesville, where African Americans constitute about 80 percent of the stops and frisks, even though we comprise less than 19 percent of the community. It is not just the statues, but we can see a very clear connection between symbolic racism and institutional racism.

Going forward … you said you were on your way to a vigil. Tell me, what is next? What are people planning going forward from this weekend?

One of the things about the coalition is not everybody knows what everyone is doing. But, as a coalition, our goal is to continue in the vein in which we have started. That is helping to pull people to come forward and to join and stand in community against these types of aggressive, dangerous, menacing, racist practices and symbols. I know, particularly, that Charlottesville Black Lives Matter is interested in talking more about the Confederate statues and how these monuments should be removed, and how the city council should work hard to fight in court against the legal challenges that we might face as the court case to remove the monuments continues to go through the system.

We want the city council to basically care as much about the lives of citizens as they did about preserving the rights of the “alt-right” when they allowed their permit to go through. We want the city to be committed to questions of racial justice and to appreciate that in the age in which we are living racist rhetoric is not just talk. Racist rhetoric produces racist actions. Racist statues are not just art. Symbolic racism is rooted in actual racist actions.

How can people keep up with you and with Charlottesville BLM?

Please check Charlottesville BLM’s Facebook page. We do a lot of updates through there. We also have a Twitter feed. They can follow us there, as well.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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