In the US, freedom of speech is a sacred right. But the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend was not about people exercising that right. What I saw at the University of Virginia, where I am a professor, was an organized campaign to terrorize American citizens and suppress the rights of others.
First of all, white supremacists at “Unite the Right” mobilized against a town that had democratically decided to move the statues of Confederate rebels to less-prominent locations. There is no Constitutional amendment dictating the types of statues a municipality must display in its town square. At one time, this city chose to erect a statue of General Robert E. Lee, which was legal and their prerogative. At another time in history, we chose to move the statues to another part of the city. This is also within the rights of Charlottesville and its residents.
Second of all, the clear intent of the “Unite the Right” rally was to incite violence. Its participants mobilized knowing that they were in breach of their permit for 400 people in the small square of Emancipation Park in the center of town. The city, in the interest of public safety, asked them to move to a larger park, where they could exercise their first amendment right to speak their mind. They sued the city to keep the protest in the center of town. There was no way that number of people in such a small space would end peacefully, especially after the alt-right told their people to bring shields and weapons. They came with assault rifles and bullet-proof jackets, ready for battle.
Third, at a peaceful prayer meeting I attended Friday night, where citizens from every faith, denomination, race and sexual orientation, were gathering together to pray, support each other and reaffirm the American values of liberty and justice for all—the white supremacists came with torches. Screaming that they “will not be replaced,” “sieg heil” and “end immigration,” they barred peaceful parishioners from leaving the church where they congregated.
Fourth, mobilizing early in the morning on Saturday, long before their noon-sanctioned assembly time, they started walking the streets toward the central square with guns, AR-15s and shields. Before the demonstration could even get underway, they started punching counter protestors in the face. Violence escalated and Virginia declared a state of emergency. Fearful that the torch-bearing neo-Nazis would come back to campus, the University of Virginia was forced to cancel an entire day of peaceful, civil dialogue programming organized to promote a “peaceable democracy.”
Every American has a right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. The “alt-right” white nationalists want to deny Americans that right. Carrying firearms to rallies, blocking peaceful counterprotestors from leaving the place where they are gathered, and driving full-speed into a crowd are all distinct choices aimed at inciting fear and making Americans stay silent, afraid to leave their homes. Now white supremacists are trolling counterprotestors online and posting the home addresses of witnesses. These people are not calmly expressing their beliefs about fiscal conservativism or small government. They believe that their fellow Americans are lesser citizens, and they are trying to take our rights away. The white supremacists must be held accountable.