Think on this guest post by Dr. Virginia Sapiro for the upcoming September 19, Student-Faculty Forum: Lessons from Charlottesville. Dr. Sapiro is a Professor of Political Science and Dean of Arts and Sciences Emerita. Stay tuned for more Student Faculty Fora.
In a democracy people are supposed to be able to express and debate about their political viewpoints. That is essential. But sometimes it goes wrong, and there are lessons to be learned from that. The Unite the Right rally scheduled for Saturday, August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee went terribly wrong. Marchers did a nighttime torchlight parade reminiscent of similar events by both the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and ‘30s and the Hitler Youth in the 1930s intended to invoke terror. Chanting Nazi, white supremacist, and anti-semitic slogans, the march degenerated into violence when it met its opposition. On Saturday right-wing demonstrators, some dressed as militia and armed with semiautomatic rifles and pistols and others carrying shields and clubs, met anti-fascist demonstrators, some armed with sticks and shields, chemicals, and paint balls. The police stood back, and skirmishes ensued. Then a white supremacist demonstrator drove his car aggressively through a crowd of pedestrians, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. A right-wing rally in Boston fizzled out the next week, and many others were cancelled. But the extreme right, white supremacist forces have been emboldened, tensions are high, and college campuses, which are vulnerable targets for such conflict, are on guard.
What lessons should we learn from the violent events at Charlottesville and their aftermath? How can we understand the historical legacies of the American Civil War, slavery, and Jim Crow and our relationship to those? Where did the rise of a movement that respects and even reveres violent racist and genocidal organizations come from, and what does that say about American democracy? While most African Americans may not be surprised at the depths of contemporary racism, many white people seem to have been caught unaware; has it been there all along or is it revived and strengthened? How can people of many political viewpoints engage in politics in this polarized and deeply antagonistic era in a way that will be constructive and make a difference? How do people who abhor violence confront and deal with violence in politics? What do our principles of freedom of speech mean, and how should they be invoked when facing people who reject some fundamental principles of democracy? What is the best political strategy to use when confronting people who are scared, angry, and feel rejected and left out? How do we make the right choices in politics, individually and collectively?
These are only some of the questions we might discuss. We will open our discussion with very brief comments from 5 professors with expertise relevant to some of these questions, then open up a discussion among all students, faculty and staff present. The professors are:
- Walter Fluker, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership, School of Theology, with expertise on the theory and practice of ethical leadership and is the editor of The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman.
- Spencer Piston, Assistant Professor of Political Science, with expertise on race politics, public policy, public opinion, political behavior and the politics of inequality.
- Virginia Sapiro, Professor of Political Science and Dean Emerita of CAS, with expertise on political psychology, public opinion, political action, and gender politics.
- Nina Silber, Professor of History, is an expert on 19th– and early 20th-century American history, focusing especially on the U.S. Civil War, history of the American South, and the history of women. She recently published an article in the Washington Post headlined, “Worshiping the Confederacy is about white supremacy – even the Nazis thought so.”
- Jessica Stern, Research Professor, Pardee School of Global Studies, with expertise on violence, trauma and terror in politics; terrorist and extremist political groups, and counter-radicalization.