Toward Resilience in the Face of Hate

Reposted from VIRGINIA LAW WEEKLY, September 13, 2017, Toward Resilience in the Face of Hate

By Baruch Nutovic (President of the LDB Law Student Chapter at the University of Virginia School of Law; UVA Law ’19)

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At first, my parents did not know what to make of the dreams. Then, it dawned on them: my grandmother’s stories.

She had been deported to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ largest concentration camp, with her family in the spring of 1944. After days in a cramped cattle car without food or water, they arrived. One of her brothers was shot in front of her. Her younger brother, after whom my brother is named, was sent with her parents to the gas chambers. I grew up hearing her stories.

I can only imagine what she’d say if she were alive to hear of white supremacists marching by the thousands through the streets where I live.

That my wife and I were going downtown to join the counter-protests was never in question. It was a surreal scene. White supremacists in militia outfits with military gear.  David Duke, former head of the KKK, spewing hate. People wearing shirts quoting Hitler, calling for the subjugation of black people. Fights breaking out in the streets between the white supremacists and Antifa. It felt like we had been transported back in time, as though we were in the old Jim Crow South or 1930s Germany. Charlottesville was not the Charlottesville we know and love on that weekend.

But it is precisely that which gives me solace. That weekend was the antithesis of what Charlottesville is about. We believe in equality for people of every race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation. We are tolerant of political differences and stand for reasoned debate in a spirit of goodwill. Charlottesville’s great coming-together after the Unite the Right rally, the candlelight vigil on the Lawn, demonstrated our unity in the face of hate.

I’m also heartened by the size of the Unite the Right rally. I don’t want to be misunderstood; a few thousand white supremacists marching through Charlottesville’s streets is a few thousand too many. But when you compare the rally, billed as the largest hate rally in America for decades, to the estimated crowd of 1.8 million at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the contemptible weakness of the white supremacist movement comes into focus. This is a small movement at the fringes of society, almost universally despised, condemned by the leadership of both major political parties. Even our vacillator-in-chief, though he managed to create the perception of ambiguity with his bumbling response, condemned them. The media spotlight that the white supremacists garner may make them seem powerful, but in reality, their movement is politically diminutive.

Their aim is to terrorize us and create a false perception of strength. The best insult we can pay them is to refuse to be intimidated or change the way we do business, except insofar as we reaffirm our core values as a community.

During the chaos that followed the dispersal of the rally, I was distraught to find Antifa extremists beating people up, as they have done at similar counter-protests across the country in recent months. We need to exorcise from our ranks those who would cede any part of the moral high ground and disregard the great Martin Luther King, Jr.’s example of nonviolence. Antifa extremism provides recruiting material for the alt-right and makes it much harder to persuade white supremacists of the error of their ways.

We should also not allow the white supremacists to appropriate the debate over historic monuments. Before the white supremacists inserted themselves into the conversation, the debate was a respectful dialogue between people of good will on both sides, a model for the rest of the South to follow as it reckons with its tragic past.

At its core, the divide on the monuments is one of perception. To some, the monuments are a statement of white supremacy, a relic of the South’s evil Jim Crow history. To others, the monuments are a tribute to those who fought with valor on behalf of their home, hearth, and state; a set of fixtures in the landscape that evoke a mystical sense of the region’s history, not the evils of racism. So it’s no surprise that the former group passionately believes the monuments must go, and the latter that they must stay. The white supremacists should be viewed as extraneous to this debate and should not be allowed to influence it.

If we’re to be true to Charlottesville values, we must work to bridge this divide and reach a shared understanding on what the monuments mean, rather than bulldozing opposition. The main reason our country is so polarized, hateful, and divided is that people of good will have lost the capacity to understand and respect those with whom they disagree. Those seeking to take the monuments down are not on an Orwellian mission to destroy history, and most of those in opposition disagree for legitimate reasons.

Irrespective of how one feels about historic monuments, I think all can agree that the South needs more monuments marking milestones in its history of integration. We should never forget that the University of Virginia was once a segregated institution. It’s high time the Law School reckoned with its Jim Crow past and honored the trailblazers who broke the color barrier here. Gregory Swanson, the first black UVa law student, and John F. Merchant, the first black UVa law graduate, merit large, prominent monuments on our campus. I can’t think of a better rebuke to the white supremacists.

Ultimately, I don’t feel the same distress I did when I was having those nightmares. I take heart from the currents of history. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The white supremacists will go the way of the dinosaurs if we fight the good fight, as I know we will. The future belongs to us.


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