Last night I located old taper candles and my husband cut circles of cardboard with star-shaped openings to be used as drip sleeves. I was leaving for a candlelight peace vigil in Oberlin, a response to what happened in Charlottesville, and didn’t want to go without bringing candles extras to share.
Before I left my husband told me to be careful. “What worries me,” he said, “is you believe everyone is a good person.”
That’s true. I just believe the core of humanity is a great deal harder to find in some people.
I don’t know anyone who isn’t worried about what’s going on in the U.S. The weekend’s mayhem was a microcosm of the whole. While white nationalists and neo-Nazis wreaked havoc in a beautifully diverse southern city, state troopers and police watched but did not intervene. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said the majority of white supremacists were carrying semiautomatic weapons, so officers couldn’t engage without escalating the situation. Although dozens of people were badly injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, the governor commented on the success of police inaction, saying, “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”
As I headed from our little township to Oberlin, I drove through a rural community even smaller than ours. And there in an open field I saw several pickup trucks parked nose to nose, sporting large Confederate flags upright in the beds. Men were outside the trucks talking.
This was a shocking sight.
It’s sometimes hard for a quiet progressive like me to live in an area that voted resoundingly for Mr. Trump, but it’s also a see-both-sides gift because I have many conservative friends and neighbors who are caring, dedicated people. I have literally not heard a bigoted attitude expressed by people in my township for well over a decade. (Perhaps the peace flags on my porch are the magic charm.)
I slowed down. My first impulse was to pull over and talk to these men. I wanted to establish some kind of rapport, a few moments of innocuous conversation, then ask in a confused way, “So what’s up with the flags?” I’ve found asking an innocent question in an innocent way can spark a moment of genuine discussion. And I was honestly curious about what they’d say. After all, it’s not as if northerners can claim any historic fondness for such a flag. These guys were standing in a field less than 20 miles away from our country’s northern border of Lake Erie. Our area is rich with Underground Railroad sites and abolitionist history.
I thought, maybe my excuse to stop could be asking for directions. Or maybe where the nearest gas station might be. I had an initial presumption that I’d be protected by my white skin and nonthreatening middle aged-lady self. But then I remembered my husband’s concern. And I remembered a report that the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer posted a crude celebration of Heather Heyer’s death, writing that she “deserved” to die. So I drove on.
The vigil in Oberlin was quiet and respectful. We walked, we sang, we listened to speakers like Peace Community Church pastor Mary Hammond who said “We need to offer a public response to what has happened, not just the last few days but the last few centuries. It is on us…” and to professor A.G. Miller who said, “The forces of evil have been unleashed. We have to stand strong with love and tenacity and courage, and we have to push back.”
I know the practice of nonviolence asks us to get involved and to do so using time-honored tactics. Nonviolence asks us to recognize and deal with hate speech before it escalates. It asks us to look for ways to find the humanity in people like those men with their Confederate flags before acts of hate happen. Open dialogue with the very people she condemned is what inspired Megan Phelps-Roper to renounce her membership in the extremist Westboro Baptist Church. It’s what led neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini to stop spreading hate and work to lead others away from such ideologies. It’s how Daryl Davis, as an African American, befriends Ku Klux Klan members in hopes they will have a change of heart.
Yes, I realize it was best that I didn’t stop for a chat with strangers displaying Confederate flags. Not the right moment for a lone woman driving a rusty Honda with a Bernie sticker.
But I know we have to look for ways to speak up and when we do, to speak up for all of us. That means people who don’t look like us, pray like us, think like us, live like us, or vote like us. After all, that’s what allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” really means.
I encourage you to read and share this Southern Poverty Law Center information: “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”