This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists went on a rampage, beating a man named Deandre Harris, murdering a woman named Heather Heyer, and attempting to terrorize everyone. They failed. The good citizens of Charlottesville refused to be cowed by the confederate-nazi’s infantile displays of historic insecurity, and threw down, creating a bright line between goodness and evil. Within hours, hundreds of rallies were held across this great nation to respond to their terrorist attacks. I went looking for a rally that I’d heard was happening in the Mission somewhere.
People were drifting down 24th street in the way they do now, clutching a cup or cone of Humphrey Slocums in their hands, possessing little purpose, looking clueless and undisturbed. So not a big rally I thought. These people are still lollygagging. It’s not a rally until bystanders start whipping out their iPhones, ostensibly to film things, but mostly to throw up some imaginary barrier between themselves and the action. I’m not a part of this, the gesture says. I wouldn’t put it past them to do this even if they got charged by some psychotic supremacist.
I found the rally, which fit neatly onto the southwest corner of 24th and Mission (or 24th and BART, as I call it). I saw Frank Chu. He was carrying a new sign: the front was the usual meaningless 24 galaxies-1,000,000,000 population babble and on the back was an ad for Expensify. “Expense reports that don’t suck!” it said. I glared at him. Frank, I wanted to say, now is not the time.
A scruffy older man was speaking laboriously into a battered megaphone, which had clearly been through many rallies. It was barely functioning. (Don’t we have better technology by now, people?) He was hairy, pot-bellied and avuncular, your classic elder-hippy who gets stoned and talks about Allan Watts and Phish. Why the fuck is this guy talking, I wondered. The rally was off to a desultory, mansplaining start, which was a bad contrast to the frenetic displays of irrationality I’d been watching all weekend.
NBC was interviewing a tall African American man wearing a tee shirt printed with the words “Black Swag”. I sidled over to listen, which was hard to do with Mr. Natural droning on about the summer of love, of all things, in the background. Shut up, I wanted to shriek. I’m trying to listen!
“I grew up in Atlanta,” the tall man said to the NBC reporter. “None of this is a surprise. I didn’t see a lot of them (he meant white supremacists) but I knew they were around. I definitely saw a lot of confederate flags as a kid. People are waking up,” he continued, “and that’s a good thing. But they need to remember that this is nothing new. And Trump isn’t the point. They need to focus on more than just him. These people didn’t just wake up yesterday and decide to be racists. This has been going on for a long time.” The NBC reporter was nodding his head vigorously. “Trump stirred the pot to unify his base. That’s what he did,” said the tall man. “You can see that in his refusal to respond to the racists directly. David Duke? I don’t know who he is! That kind of thing.”
In the meantime, the megaphone was handed to another woman, who was inaudible. No one could hear her. “Speak up!” the crowd demanded. I felt my eyes roll around in my head. Why are the first ones to grab the megaphone always people with no rhetorical skills? I caught the words “speak out” and realized anyone could take the megaphone, which is a great thing or a very bad thing, depending.
I looked to my right and saw Heather Heyer’s smiling self-assured face, floating above the crowd, framed against a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Her last selfie, I thought. You could see the tiny golden crucifix nestled into the base of her throat.
A scrawny guy with a ponytail took the floor and got megaphone fever immediately. This is what I call that state of elation when you realize that you finally have the megaphone and that everyone can hear you, whether they want to or not. He started off slow, but the feverish elation grew in him until his skinny body shook. “We must take our country BACK NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” he screamed into the battered megaphone. Take the country back to what? I wondered. Isn’t it the past that’s getting us in trouble?
An African American woman walked over and took the megaphone with assurance. She started speaking. “Heather Heyer,” she said and her throat constricted and caught. She started again. “It takes people,” she said, “it takes people to face down and defeat racism. That means you have to come to meetings, you have to make phone calls. That means,” she said “that you have to struggle. With People. That is the only way that things will stop. Not impeachment. Not special councils. People are the only thing that can stop other people from doing harm.”
She had a ten year old son, she said. “I worry everyday about his future. I drove here today and I saw a white man in a truck with an American flag and I thought who are you? Do I need to be afraid of you?” She paused. “I have to tell you. I’m afraid of white men. I know there are brothers and sisters here who do the work, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of white people. Don’t let them represent you! Don’t let them do that to you! Turn out! Get out on the streets! You have to do this. Because understand: they want you to stay home, feel fear! Are you gonna get your head cracked? Are they going to hurt you? That’s what they want. They want you to shut up, to back down. They want you to be afraid! Don’t give them that! Take the streets! Hold the streets! Don’t back down!” The crowd—it had grown and was now twice as big—roared.
An older woman wearing tweed cap and a purple Trans March hoodie spoke. “I’m a sixty-year old Jewish Lesbian! And I will not allow anti-semitism happen again! Not like it did in WWII. Do you know why it happened in WWII? Because people let it happen! They decided to be Good Germans! Well, I’m not gonna be a Good Fucking German! And you can’t be either!”
The last speaker was the tall man wearing the Black Swag shirt. His name was Allen. “People ask me why black people aren’t angry,” he said. The crowd groaned in dismay. “Why aren’t black people angry?” Allen repeated. “And I say this. I have a job I have to go to. I have shopping I have to do. I have to live my life. What am I supposed to do? Show up at the office and when someone says good morning, Allen, ask them what’s so good about it? That’ll kill the water cooler talk. Catch you later, my co-worker might say. I can just see them saying, oh not that way. Not like slavery! I go shopping, they ask me paper or plastic? and I say I brought my own damn bag!” He meant to be humorous, and he was. He reminded me of Dick Gregory.
“But,” he went on. “Listen. I can’t be angry all the time! ” He laughed briefly and then said “White people. You gotta stand up. You have to.”
The rally organizer took the megaphone, mentioned a conference on November 4th—“NOVEMBER 4th,” he repeated admonishingly, and then segued into a denunciation of Trump and his attacks on reproductive rights. Ye shall know that you are at a RCP-sponsored rally by the mention of a conference and legal abortion in the same breath, I thought sourly.
Back in 2003, after the San Francisco Archdiocese organized the largest anti-choice march in the West, a few of us tried to start a grassroots abortion-rights organization, the small fish chasing the big fish. Real basic stuff. We quickly found ourselves embroiled in a turf war between various socialist factions. People bailed; the organization faltered, and consequently there was no meaningful grassroots response to the theocrats at the Archdiocese.
This was a thing, I quickly found out, after talking to more experienced organizers. Groups like the RCP disrupt and infiltrate grassroots groups to grow their membership which, as far as I can tell, means paying “dues” and selling more newspapers. I felt pissy listening to this guy list the ways in which Roe v Wade has been damaged. You’re only saying these things to get people to your conference, I thought and remembered a day back in 2004, when a reproductive rights rally failed to materialize—at the last minute— because of the ISO and its cultish bullshit. But that’s a story for another time.
I left the rally and walked home down 23rd street. Scattered across the sidewalk were the stamens from a bottlebrush tree growing nearby. The sidewalk was covered in bright red.
I remembered a Halloween night in 1994. I was at my grandmother’s award-winning small house in Columbus, Ohio. The door bell rang. She opened the door. A small boy stood there with a superman cape draped around his shoulders. He had the joyful smile that only a small boy wearing a superman cape could have. He was African American. His eyes were big in his small face, and his hair was closely cropped. You could see his shapely little head, balanced on his thin, delicate neck.
My grandmother made the requisite fuss over him, ooo-ing and ahh-ing and agreeing with him that he was superman and that his cape was magnificent. She shut the door. I could see she was crying. I was startled. Neither of my grandmothers were easily moved to tears.
“Carmen,” I said “why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“That little boy,” she relied. She was distraught. “What’s going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to that beautiful little black boy?”*
Dedicated to with love to Deandre Harris, Heather Heyer, Corey Long and everyone in Charlottesville who stood against hate. Please know: I’ll get my people.
*I prefer to believe that that beautiful little boy grew up to tear down confederate statues.