I Am Not Forgetting Charlottesville

I gave birth to my youngest son in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia hospital on a beautiful April morning with dogwoods and red buds in bloom more than twenty years ago. I have spent thousands of happy hours with my children and family in Charlottesville, walking on the downtown mall on hot summer evenings, melancholy fall afternoons, blustery winter nights, ate delicious meals at the many restaurants abundantly strewn all along the mall, the university corner, the Belmont area. My younger son attended the university of Virginia and my older son recently got married in Charlottesville on a glorious summer morning. I attended concerts where my own son played his inspired music at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, saw beautiful plays at the Live Arts theater, attended and participated in film and book festivals. My sons even have a picture with Dave Matthews on the downtown mall.

Last Sunday’s visit to Charlottesville which I consider a home as much as my own home town of Lexington an hour away, was filled with grief, horror, anger. My son and daughter in law found themselves in the crowd of courageous counter protesters on Saturday, only feet away from the gruesome and deadly accident, and my daughter in law broke her hand when she saw a good friend lying unconscious on the pavement.

Last Sunday I stood for a while at the vigil site for Heather Heyer, the woman brutally murdered the day before, holding sweaty hands with strangers gathered there to pay homage to the victims and find solace in each other’s company. People wrote loving messages on the pavement, there were flowers and helium pink balloons. I even wrote a favorite line by the poet W.H. Auden “we must love one another or die.” The man who held my hand on the right wearing a sign with “hate has no place here,” shook my hand warmly in silence as he left the site, the woman on my left hugged me warmly when I left the site. All in silence. Silence was soothing and the only appropriate response at that point as words felt inadequate for the horror and absurdity of what had happened.

And yet as I was sitting on the outdoor patio of one of my favorite restaurants on the mall, Citizen Burger, a profound sense of hopelessness washed over me. Rage too, indignation, terror, all together. It felt wrong to be sitting there sipping my gluten free beer and nibbling at my beets and walnuts salad, when a couple hundred feet away a beautiful young woman had lost her life, a couple of dozen others were injured including my own daughter in law.

Yes vigils are nice, important, they bring solace and closure to the living. We gather, mourn, feel a sense of solidarity with one another, shed tears and move on. It felt like that was not enough though. I frankly would have liked to have seen the entire city in mourning and all businesses closed in protest like the one business called Angelo that was exactly that: closed in protest. It felt that everything pretty, colorful, flowers, drawings, balloons following a gruesome act of terrorism was in some way normalizing it despite all the best intentions of all of us participating in such vigils. I wanted darkness, silence, mourning, stark refusal. A radical and national waking up moment, uncompromising and unflinching.

The comparisons to Hitler, Nazis and fascism are no longer figures of speech, they are a blatant reality: Hitler loving people heavily armed chanting blood curdling slogans about burning people inside ovens, threatening peaceful citizens, ramming a car into peaceful protesters, killing, injuring. And this was happening in one of the cities known as among the most liberal, educated and safe cities in Virginia and the country.

The signs about “love trumps hate,” “love always wins,” that I have seen in marches and demonstrations since the women’s march in January are sweet, necessary and hopeful but as a survivor of one kind of brutal dictatorship I have news for all American liberals and democrats: love doesn’t always trump hate and love doesn’t always win. For Heather Heyer and her devastated family, love certainly didn’t win. She didn’t “give her life,” as I’ve heard it said, she didn’t ask to be crushed under a fascist’s car, she hadn’t signed up for the army and to fight in a war, she was truly expressing her freedom of speech on the street of what used to be known as a lovely safe city and was brutally murdered for it. She was peacefully protesting and was killed for it. A beautiful passionate young woman at the height of her promise!  She didn’t “give her life” but her life was brutally taken away.

Wake up Americans and face the hideous truth in your own backyards: we are living a fascist takeover spurred and supported by the very president of the United States and his white supremacist cabinet. White supremacists and rabid racists ARE in our government right now, they are living and working in the White House. The main forum for the elaboration and proliferation of fascist ideology, Breitbart news was created by the president’s ex chief advisor, the grotesque Steve Bannon. He openly stated that he aims for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Meaning the destruction of democratic institutions that would eventually become powerless in the face of extreme ideology and would stop protecting us from random acts of abuse, oppression, violence in the name of what exactly? Of America and of America being great again, of “taking the country back,” of “unity,” and of god bless America? Which America exactly is supposed to be great again, be taken back and blessed by a god whose name is being used for hideous purposes? Bannon’s departure from the White House is only a ploy and a trick used to actually strengthen the power of white supremacy. The chaos in the White House is deliberate and desired in order to distract us and create a deafening noise throughout the entire world of news and media while behind the chaos very well thought out plans of replacing democratic processes and institutions with fascist rule are being carried out.

Love is great and indispensable but love is not enough! Fierce determination, unshaken resistance, uncompromising denunciation, wide eyed lucid thinking, strength and firmness need to join up with love. And education education, education. Teaching children from as early as they can talk to have zero tolerance to intolerance, teaching them the correct history of their own country, critical thinking and an inquisitive spirit. A police force that does not side with fascists would be really nice too! Very little has been heard about the young black man De Andre Harris who was beaten into a pulp with sticks last Saturday by Nazi vigilantes in a parking structure in Charlottesville. I would like to see a police force that unlike the police that I saw in Charlottesville last weekend is not standing in heavily armored gear as bystanders to violence as if on parade for their impressive uniforms and not to protect citizens. There were passionate pleas to the Charlottesville city council and to the police force to not allow the fascist rally to take place. None were listened to. Furthermore all blame is cast on outsiders from Charlottesville. While it is true that most Nazi demonstrators came from outside of town, the event was organized by local Nazi sympathizers of whom the local blogger had a crucial role in setting up the event. Wake up Charlottesville as well – there are plenty of white supremacists and nazis in your very midst and the outsiders are coming into your town with help and support from these insiders.

I’m sick of hearing the line uttered by even the most inspired and liberal political figures or political satirists that they would fight for the right of even the types of rabid fascists that killed Heather to have their freedom of speech so they can chant their vile hate. I’m sure as hell not fighting for their freedom to do that and I denounce it as a sickening and illegal abuse of freedom of speech. Speech can also be action. Hate speech leads to hate action. Heavily armed people chanting violent threats to Jews and people of color are not exercising their freedom of speech, they are a threat to freedom of speech and to all of our freedoms and safety. Hitler’s youth who were chanting in the streets of German cities hateful slogans in 1939 and 1940 were also among those who turned on the gas to gas chambers where millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, anybody deemed short of the Arian standard of humanity were hideously murdered, men women and children. Hate won big time there!

Yes, I applaud the initiative to out white nationalists and fire them. Go ahead and fire the fascists! They are not “the other side” whose views we also “need to hear” and have a dialogue with. Really? We need to have dialogues about the pros and cons of burning and killing people who don’t look or think like that bunch of screaming angry white men? Should we maybe have dialogues about the pros and cons of bringing back slavery, of killing people based on the color of their skin or their religions? There are no two sides here, there is an evil side and there is the side standing up to the evil one. Similar to World War II. Half a million Americans died fighting fascism in World War II and without D Day and the British and American intervention in Normandy, German might be the official language imposed in France today and in many other countries with svastikas as a national symbol. No we don’t need to have those dialogues, we don’t need to listen to “the other side,” unless we want to see again the actions called out in their hateful expression of so called freedom of speech.

The reason our so called president cast blame on “both sides” is precisely because he and his cabinet of white supremacists are supportive of the rhetoric of those groups and their calls to action. Make no mistake, without the still standing American institutions, the separation of powers, the somewhat still free press and the push back from variouspeople, communities and institutions, this president and this government would be precisely an American version of Kim Jong Un, Hitler or Trujillo, a ruthless dictatorship killing and silencing any opposition by any means at their disposal. If any of the hopeful people with “love wins all” signs think it can’t happen here, think twice and look around you: it’s already happening. Militias supported by the government are beating and killing people in the street, there have been numerous attempts by the president and his cabinet to criminalize peaceful protests while violent fascist rallies are being allowed to happen, fact checking and fact reporting are being delegitimized, white policemen are acquitted in courts of justice for brutally murdering innocent Black men and women, actions of the government to obtain private information of private citizens are sustained and conducted nation wide, as are initiatives to undermine voting rights for minorities, and threats to punish leakers and critics of the president have been launched since his inauguration. We are already in a dystopian and dictatorial regime that is trying hard to close in on us, squish our freedoms, our right to dissent and to eradicate our diversity. They haven’t completely succeeded thanks to what is still left standing of the constitution, of the democratic institutions created by the founding fathers, and of the brave citizens and communities who are and have been standing up and pushing back.

Yet even the most trustworthy of the reporters, journalists or media outlets cannot help themselves from interviewing and broadcasting the words of people like the head of the KKK in order to sensationalize their news reports. After the Charlottesville events Vice had a detailed interview with one of the most rabid of the white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville last Saturday wearing more weaponry on him than if he was fighting on the front lines of war combat. Do not give these people a platform, do not interview and broadcast their interviews on national news, they do not deserve that exposure and it only gives them more publicity! You did the same in the pre- election season, all of you media outlets, from my beloved NPR to MSNBC to CNN, across the board from the left to the right, and you gifted DT with billions of dollars in free publicity. You thus played a crucial role in the results of the election by enhancing his visibility. Try acting a little bit less in the interest of ratings and a bit more in the interest of our country.

I entered on American soil on a cold December day in 1983 with great hopes of creating a new life in freedom. I believe I largely achieved that goal and I consider America still as my country despite everything. Still. It is here that I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies, gave birth to and raised two beautiful sons, who are of course American citizens by birth and not by naturalization like myself, I made a family, a career, wrote books, buried my father on American soil, bought property and planted trees, drove thousands of miles across its beautiful expanses from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from Lexington Virginia to Chicago to New York to the beautiful beaches of the outer banks or the cornfields of Indiana. It is on this land that I matured from the young idealistic and confused refugee I was thirty four years ago to the woman I am today, a proud mother, a passionate writer, professor, creative artist, still idealistic, even more uncompromising in my disdain for bigotry, injustice and hate, with a few more wrinkles, battles won and battles lost and the patchwork of scars from these battles to prove it. I am more knowledgeable of American slang, pop culture, history and music, hoping to be a grandmother to American born grandchildren. And I’m not yet going anywhere, this is my country too. I am not leaving it yet, as I’ve heard many Americans proclaim. I’m not a patriot, I have never been, but for all practical reasons this is where I made my home and I intend to keep it until all hope is lost. I hope that day never comes and I hope I don’t have to take the road back to where I left thirty four years ago other than on business trips, vacations or fellowships like the one I’m going on this fall to teach at the university where I once was a student.

One should never underestimate the surprises and ups and downs of history. My parents survived World War II, the Stalinist terror of the fifties and I together with them survived the dictatorship of Nicolas Ceausescu and the trauma of displacement. And I could say that I even thrived from that trauma, painful as it might have been. I am not going anywhere yet, heartbroken and terrified as I may be of what is happening in my adoptive country. I take solace and find hope in the knowledge that thousands of activist organizations and groups have emerged following the presidential inauguration, in the powerful and numerous protests, rallies, marches, town hall meetings that have blocked, delayed or undermined many of the awful and unjust initiatives of this administration: the travel bans, the repeal of the affordable care act, the doubled commitment of mayors, governors and business CEOs to the rules of the Paris accord despite the president’s exit from it. I am still holding on and staying put on the barricades in my adoptive country. As much for my American born children as for myself and for everything I still love about it. And what I love most about it is precisely that which is the target of hate and violence by the new born and old born fascists: the stunning rainbow of colors of our nation, the gorgeous mosaic of the most diverse humanity that throbs from one American coast to another.

In times of intolerable violence and injustice, I have acquired a bizarre strategy of survival. I read or think about books I have read by War and genocide survivors. They teach me how to survive and stay whole in the midst of political tsunamis and when everything seems to be collapsing around me. How to hold on to my core. One such testimonial that I keep going back to is called Wounded I Am More Awake, written by a survivor of six concentration camps during the genocidal war of the nineties in the Balkans. He tells of how during the terror, torture, pain and squalor of those camps, his foremost concern was to survive without losing his humanity. He did so by helping his weaker fellow camp mates since he was a doctor, thinking about his family and reciting poetry together with his fellow prisoners. He survived to write the book and acquire the realization that “wounded” he was “more awake.” This is my wish for you too America: while wounded, be more awake!





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