Charlottesville

Yesterday was a driving day. From Parkersburg, West Virginia to Richmond, Virginia to pack up an exhibit at University of Richmond.

We stopped at a rest area just across the border into Virginia and I looked at the map.

“We’ll go right past Charlottesville,” I said. “We should stop and see if we can find the place.”

It was just about dusk when we rolled in. 60 degrees and clear skies, which feels pretty good to a Minnesotan in November. I guess it feels good to Virginians too, because the streets were full. We parked a few blocks away and walked to Market Street Park, where a statue of Robert E. Lee still stands.

In 2016, the Mayor of Charlottesville called for its removal. There have been various efforts made to do so, but the decision is tied up in lawsuits and the statue still stands, surrounded by plastic fencing and signs that say “No Trespassing.”

On August 20 last year, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville to preserve the statue. A few blocks away, counter protesters gathered. James Alex Fields, Jr. drove a car into the crowd of counter protesters and Heather Heyer died.

As we walked around the statue, a 2-person film crew followed a young black man through the park. I caught just a few words…  “What was it like that night?” they asked. “This brings it all back,” he said. He turned to face the statue and shook his head.

I wanted to hear more. I suspected he was there last year. But the light was fading and I knew the film crew needed to get their footage. I was curious but I didn’t want to slow them down.

So we walked a few blocks away to where the counter protesters were hit by the car. It was a quiet street where a spontaneous memorial had sprung up for Heather Heyer. Messages of encouragement, love and strength were chalked on every inch of the brick storefronts that lined the street. The messages were for Heather, but also for the idea that we can work towards a world where we can all live better together.

People walked by, on their way to or from somewhere else, and stopped for a few minutes to read the words. We did the same. It was quiet and people seemed to make room for one another. I’ve felt it before, in places like the 9/11 memorial and the Oklahoma City memorial, where strangers stand side by side, trying to understand the meaning of the place…sometimes making eye contact and acknowledging the weight of the grief…the bond of shared space…the connection of humanity.

Eventually we left and walked back to the truck along West Main Street, a pedestrian mall alive with street musicians, vendors, cafes and people lined up to view film festival screenings. At first it was jarring, to go from the solemn and reflective memorial for Heather into the boisterous bustle of a beautiful Saturday night. It felt almost disrespectful.

But as I walked through the crowds, I watched the people enjoying one another. I saw that they were black and brown and white. They were old and young, gay and straight…a beautiful mix of who we are as humans…all side by side…living and loving and laughing together.

And then I thought, in fact, this sort of life together is the perfect response to hate.

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