Opinion

What I Discovered About White Supremacists While Protesting Alongside Rabbis in Charlottesville

I came to Charlottesville this weekend as a nonviolent counterprotester because I know we can't stand by when white supremacists gather to spew hate and perpetuate violence

Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017. JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

“Blood and soil. Blood and soil. Blood and soil.”

They chanted the slogan in sync with the sound of their combat boots hitting the pavement. And they weren’t shouting; it was a mantra spoken robotically. I could hear it because they passed right in front of me yesterday as I stood with my fellow clergy along one side of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville: a long line of young white men dressed in khakis and polo shirts, but also helmets and mouthguards, and wielding batons and wooden shields, and holding Confederate and Nazi flags. In place of a helmet there was the occasional telltale red hat: “Make America Great Again.”

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“Blood and soil” is the English equivalent of Blut und Boden, a Nazi ideology that emphasizes an ethnic identity based on only blood descent and the territory in which an individual lives. It was absolutely chilling to hear it uttered by marchers a mere foot away.

I came to Charlottesville this weekend, as a nonviolent counter-protestor on Shabbat Kodesh, the holy Sabbath, because I know that we cannot just watch when an unholy alliance of white supremacists gather to spew hate and perpetrate violence.

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The night before, hundreds of people of faith gathered in St. Paul’s Memorial Church for an interfaith service, where Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon of St. Louis reminded us that “prophetic resistance is only possible for those who can still dream.” That dream was tested as the service ended, when we were held at the church because right across the street -- on the lawn of the University of Virginia, around a statue of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, our slave-holding third president -- had gathered hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists. We later skittered back to our car to the terrifying sounds of the shouting mob.

The next morning I locked arms with ministers and pastors and rabbis alongside of a park that until recently had been named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the removal of whose statue was the ostensible reason for this so-called “Unite the Right” rally that we were protesting.

People started pouring into the street where we stood. Two entrances to the park -- most of it blocked off by metal barricades -- were at either ends of our line of about 50 clergy. Eventually we found ourselves surrounded: White supremacists on the hill above, private militia between us and them, and anti-fascists facing us all. The antifas chanted, “Nazi scum.” The white supremacists yelled back, “Commie scum.” The militia muttered nervously into their comms, hands on the triggers of their machine guns. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling turned to me: “I’ve been protesting for 50 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

I am grateful to the local leadership of Rev. Seth Wispelwey and Rev. Brittany Caine-Conley, who made the decision at that point to end the action. We beat a hasty retreat, and minutes later the melee began. The police absented themselves, yielding the space to let everyone beat each other up.

We spent much of the rest of the day in Escafé, a local business a few blocks of the square. The owner and his boyfriend gave us the run of the place and gave us food and drink at no charge. (If you are ever in Charlottesville, I urge you to patronize this restaurant.) We watched the violence unfold on television, law enforcement finally showing up in full riot gear.

Later in the afternoon, Seth stood up and called out, “Whoever is willing, come now. There’ve been terrible injuries.” We all ran down the street several blocks and stopped at intersection with a car wreck, the aftermath of a terrorist attack by a white supremacist who deliberately drove into a crowd of pedestrians. We watched as at least a dozen people were carried on stretchers off the street into ambulances. We prayed, we comforted witnesses, we blocked the street so that passers-by stayed on the sidewalk, we surrounded the injured to give the medics room to work. At the end of the day we tried to have a prayer vigil in another of the city’s parks, but we had to leave there quickly, too, because of a threat of more violence.

Earlier that afternoon, sitting in Escafé with the news on mute, someone shouted for the volume: The president appeared on screen. Said the man who never fails to display his monumental unfitness to lead: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” We gave a collective shout of anger.

There are not “many sides” in the displays of hate that his candidacy and his presidency have emboldened. Whenever they happen, as Jews and as human beings we must insistently oppose them in words and deeds. And we must name them for what they are: manifestations of dangerous and violent white supremacy. We must do this for ourselves and for the many other communities at which this noxious ideology is aimed.

I’ll continue this fight, and I ask you to join me. After all, we’ve seen this before. As The Who song goes: “I'll get on my knees and pray / We don't get fooled again.”

Meet the new Nazi. Same as the old Nazi.

Salem Pearce is the Congregational Organizer at T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and is in her final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College.