Hate came to Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, and it refused to be ignored.
Hate screamed racial epithets while wielding batons and shields. Hate roared into throngs of protesters in the form of a speeding vehicle. Hate pledged to make good on the promises of Donald Trump. And when the bullhorns were silenced, when the pepper spray was gone, when the angry voices grew still, a woman lay dead because of hate.
Like so many others, Heather Heyer, 32, had come to speak against the scourge of hatred. A Charlottesville native, her voice ran counter to those that fought the removal of Confederate symbols from the city. For Heyer, a white woman caught in the midst of a struggle to control the narrative on race and slavery, the decision to stand for racial equality would prove deadly.
Twenty-year-old James Fields allegedly killed Heyer and injured 19 others when he plowed a car into a crowd of protesters rallying against the white supremacists. He was charged with second degree murder, and he created an unlikely martyr.
Heather Heyer’s death will bring the kind of attention to the movement that the deaths of black men women and children never did. The media will not blame Heyer for her own demise, as it did with Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, or Sandra Bland. America will not second guess her actions, as it did with John Crawford or Walter Scott. No, Heyer, will be feted as a brave soul who died for what she believed. And that is exactly how she should be remembered.
Heather Heyer is a hero. But in a movement where blacks have fought fiercely for self-determination, the struggle to balance Heyer’s sacrifice with the fight against racism will require us to focus on the truth. White supremacy is present, it is empowered, and it is fighting to return us to a time when blacks were emotionally, if not physically, enslaved.
If we are not careful, Heyer’s brave sacrifice will be used to argue that racism is not as bad as it seems. It will be used to argue that every white person is as selfless and as heroic as she was. It will be used to keep us from having the difficult conversations that we must. Unfortunately, Heyer’s death could be used to shield our leaders behind a wall of empty words.
We cannot allow that to happen.
We’ve already seen President Trump refuse to directly denounce white supremacists, choosing instead to blame “many sides” for the chaos.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides,” Trump said, hours after the Charlottesville protests turned violent. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”
Other politicians made stronger statements, but in my view, they are equally meaningless.
If House Speaker Paul Ryan condemns white supremacy on Twitter, but oversees a system that snuffs out black lives with impunity, his words mean less than nothing. If Vice President Mike Pence makes a statement against racism, but pushes voter suppression to silence black voices, his words are hollow and empty. If Republicans and Democrats jointly denounce the president’s failure to condemn white supremacy, but fail to challenge Trump’s support of police brutality, their words are like feathers on the wind.
And if we are willing to accept empty words, the countless people who have died in the struggle will continue to be treated as if they’re nothing.
We must move beyond trying to force people to make empty statements, and we must make a statement of our own.
African Americans must use our $1 trillion in annual economic power to bring racist companies to their knees. We must surpass the 16.4 million ballots we cast in 2016, and bend politicians to our will. We must never settle for words that don’t bring about change.
The lives of our people are worth far more than that.
It’s time for us to stand up as one and act like it.
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