A car driven by a young man reported to have white supremacist views plowed into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19. White supremacists had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. They marched Friday evening on the University of Virginia campus. Their “Unite the Right” rally, planned for Saturday, was declared an illegal assembly by city officials as the white nationalists, neo-Nazis and militia members squared off against counter-demonstrators. Two Virginia state troopers who were monitoring the violence died in a helicopter crash Saturday.
“We must take sides,” Elie Wiesel famously said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
In the hours after a brave young woman died taking a stand against bigotry and hatred, our leaders faced a choice.
They had to pick a side. They needed to denounce the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who shouted obscene slogans vilifying Jewish people, people of color, gay people. They needed to castigate those who wielded Confederate and swastika flags and shields emblazoned with fascist symbols.
They had to name and blame the perpetrators of hate.
Some of our leaders did just that, and they did so quickly, emphatically. President Donald Trump waited until Monday afternoon, after criticism of him from both the left and right had crescendoed.
He had a prime opportunity Saturday afternoon to identify and denounce the clear evil of what transpired in Charlottesville. The news conference from his private golf club in New Jersey should have been a layup, as presidential moments go. All the president had to do was call out the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists who instigated the violence in Charlottesville culminating in the deaths of Heyer and Virginia state troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates.
Instead, Trump pointedly avoided casting blame, and said the bigotry and hatred was “on many sides. On many sides.”
He refused to call the alleged use of a car as a weapon what it clearly appeared to be: an incident of domestic terrorism.
In moments of sorrow and pain, we Americans look to our president for leadership, for the unequivocal affirmation of right over wrong. We don’t expect to wait 48 hours for the president to come around to saying what he should have said in the first instance, to need to be shamed into doing so by members of his own party.
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner tweeted Saturday. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
“We should call evil by its name,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch concurred the same day on Twitter. “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
In a statement released Saturday night, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said: “The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate.”
And Republican Congressman Pat Meehan, who represents part of Lancaster County, said Sunday on Facebook that the “hateful bigotry of white supremacy and the violence and acts of terror that accompanied it yesterday have no place in American political discourse and should be condemned by all.”
It’s hard to understand Trump’s slowness to say what other Republicans, as well as Democrats, said at this low, sad moment for our country.
The neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville were chanting repulsive anti-Semitic slogans. Trump has Jewish grandchildren, whom he loves. But he didn’t exhibit a grandparent’s fierceness Saturday.
And he didn’t exhibit any of the emotion of the hundreds of Lancaster County residents who gathered Sunday evening in Lancaster city’s Penn Square for a vigil in solidarity with Charlottesville.
“ ‘I’ll meet you in the square’ has become too much our common refrain,” noted Kevin Ressler, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Lancaster, in the original poem he recited at the vigil’s end.
He’s right: Every time hatred shows itself in this county, residents gather in Penn Square to resist it. This is both a heartbreaking and inspiring fact of life here.
White supremacists and the KKK have shown their sorry faces — hooded and unhooded — in our county. So we’re all too aware that the seam of hatred exposed by the weekend’s events in Charlottesville runs long and wide and deep. We cannot forget it. We need to face it squarely.
And we must reject hatred, vocally, at every opportunity, even at the risk of an unfriending on Facebook, a relative’s cold shoulder, a colleague’s scorn. If we remain stubbornly neutral, if we stay silent when someone uses hateful language or commits a hateful act, our children will grow up believing that hatred is an acceptable choice.
Equivocating, or pretending racism is a thing of the past, only gives cover to those bent on bigotry.