Three years ago, in a moment that will forever be seared into the collective consciousness of our community — and by extension the nation itself — scores of white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through Grounds carrying tiki torches. These individuals desecrated the very space that we call home with their racist and antisemetic bile — rhetoric that is strikingly reminiscent of what was heard at the height of Jim Crow and in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. The hate in their eyes and veins bulging from their necks were not shrouded in white robes. Instead they were plainly visible. Indeed, the sheer audacity and callousness of their actions seemingly underscored the empowerment which these white supremacist groups felt in the wake of President Donald Trump’s electoral victory ten months earlier.
At a time when any other leader — Democrat or Republican — would have strived to bring the country together in a moment of national unity and reflection, the president instead remarked that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” To characterize these comments as a dog whistle would be an understatement, to say the least. Rather, they were an overt and unmistakable air horn blast by a president who has, from the very moment he announced his candidacy, fanned the flames of hate and division.
For our community, these remarks carry an especially profound meaning as the painful memory of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 has yet to fade and still remains viscerally present. Trump’s equivocation was more than a damning soundbite — it was an outright denial of the unspeakable horror that our community experienced firsthand.
The very idea that someone would label white supremacists and counter-protestors alike as being “very fine people” is both morally repugnant and unfathomable. Before the entire world, these men chanted slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter” while brandishing tiki torches, swastikas and semi-automatic rifles. In the carnage that ensued the following day, three people — Heather Heyer, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates — lost their lives. White supremacists like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler — who terrorized our community — are the antithesis of “very fine people” and should be regarded as nothing short of the pure embodiment of evil itself.
Three years later, Trump has still refused to apologize for these remarks along with those he made in the immediate aftermath of the violence, in which he stated in equally abhorrent terms that there was an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” In fact, the president has actually doubled down on his earlier remarks, describing them as “perfectly” delivered. He claimed that he was actually alluding to those exclusively in favor of preserving the statue of Robert E. Lee in Market Square. However, this claim is undermined by the very fact that the rally itself was explicitly organized and attended by white supremacists and in no way was affiliated with other groups like the Monument Fund, which have argued that the statue should be preserved for historical reasons. To make matters worse, the president has lacked the decency to even visit the community in the wake of the violence or provide at least some semblance of sympathy and support.
As such, it should come as no surprise that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have not only embraced the President but have also felt emboldened by actions in the aftermath of the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Indeed, during the first presidential debate several weeks ago, when asked to condemn groups like the Proud Boys, President Trump refused to do so and instead called upon them to “stand back and stand by.” Over the past four years, divisive and thinly veiled comments like this have become commonplace at the White House and have ceased to capture the same disgust and horror that they rightly deserve.
Perhaps this is what is most frightening about the prospect of another four years of this administration. We as a country have gradually become numb to the unspeakable horrors that have occurred before our very eyes — horrors that have taken place with increased frequency.
Charlottesville is more than just a political buzzword, just as the Lawn is so much more than a backdrop in a campaign ad. The individuals who were attacked by men wielding tiki torches were more than just figures on a screen — they were members of our very own community. The destruction which this administration has inflicted on the very fabric of our democracy should be felt by every member of this community — students, faculty, staff and alumni alike. Over the past three years, we have witnessed firsthand the incredible resilience of our community. While there undoubtedly remains more work that needs to be done, we cannot forget the incredible damage which the Trump presidency has caused here, especially when at the ballot box this November.