I listened. NOW HEAR THIS:
This piece in response to the Listen First project was submitted to Solidarity Cville by a community member.
Solidarity Cville has not intervened in or shaped these comments beyond minor edits and emphasis for clarity’s sake. The views in this piece are the author’s own (though many of them reflect our own with far greater patience). Enjoy.
Tl;dr: His framing of the problems we face in Charlottesville is completely wrong, and his naive prescriptions for how to fix them only perpetuate harm in our community.
OK, I listened first. Here are my thoughts:
Introductory speaker: “So I get the coolest introduction of the day. One of the things I’ve learned about Pearce is that he just does not take “no” for an answer. He doesn’t. I’ve said it several times, and he doesn’t.”
This is true. Godwin can’t take “no” for an answer. When Mayor Nikuyah Walker told him she wouldn’t participate in his event, he used her picture on his website anyway. When she asked him to take it down, he used the opportunity to continue to pressure her to participate. When Don Gathers made the decision — which was his to make — to withdraw from the event, Pearce accused the activists who organize with Don of manipulating and bullying him. When Zyahna Bryant said no to this event, Pearce responded by harassing Zy with messages. A person who can’t take “no” for an answer doesn’t understand consent. His inability to take “no” for an answer from these three local black leaders and the vast majority of the Charlottesville activist community isn’t admirable. It’s gross. White men with privilege need to learn to take no for an answer. I mean, duh.
“And, you know, the truth is, as we close today, that is what we have to do. That’s what all of us have to do. That is the mountain that’s ahead of us. We have to not take “no” for an answer. As we continue to talk and listen, this day, this weekend, would not have happened were it not for someone like Pearce, who refuses to take “no”, that that’s where we have to be.”
No, it’s not. When you have a “great idea” for a traumatized community, and the community doesn’t want your idea, you should be able to take “no” for an answer.
“If there is a heart to this work, if bridging divides has a heart, it’s in Pearce. [Applause]. I just truly never met someone so deeply earnest about doing this work, and so willing to dedicate himself to it. We need to all have your heart, Pearce. Thank you for doing what you’ve done to get us all here. It wouldn’t have been possible in other hands. It wouldn’t have happened. Thank you. [Applause].”
OK, so how much money did you have to raise to have your ego stroked in front of an audience of dozens?
Pearce: “I hope it’s been an impactful experience for you; it certainly has been for me this afternoon. I think we can all agree that the United States is facing a crisis. Now many of us have our own particular view, of course, of what that crisis is and who’s to blame, but there’s broad agreement that something is terribly wrong.”
If you can’t name what that is, or if you sincerely believe that the fundamental problem is that we dislike each other, then why are you holding this event in Charlottesville? What we need is people who are willing to name capitalism and white supremacy as the violent foundations of our country that they are. You aren’t willing.
“The events here in Charlottesville last summer left no doubt that we are in trouble. Increasingly in America today, you know, we don’t just disagree, right? We distrust, we dislike, we despise one another because we see the world differently.”
Some people are Nazis; some people are anti-Nazi. Some people believe that black lives matter; some people don’t. Some people oppose systemic racism; some people refuse to acknowledge that it even exists. This is not just a matter of seeing the world differently. We despise Nazism and white supremacy because they are hurting and killing our friends.
“Animosity for positions is becoming disdain for the people who hold them. Difference and disagreement are deeply personal as we are raging against, and also recoiling from, those we see as enemies across these divides — be they political or racial or religious, or any divide you can think of.”
How about the divide between people who want genocide and people who don’t want to die? That’s the divide that we saw on August 11 and 12. Why are you asking those two groups to be nice to each other?
“Now 75% of Americans tell us that this problem that we’ve been talking about today has reached a crisis level, and unfortunately, 56% of us think it will only get worse. I’m feeling a little bit better after this afternoon, how about you guys? [Applause].”
What about the afternoon makes you feel better? That a bunch of people got up and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all got along?” Your naïveté in believing that talking about getting along will lead to a material improvement in people’s lives, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed, doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. It makes me dread the thought that the white liberals of this country will buy into the idea that being nice to people will lead to liberation. You are selling snake oil.
“Research has found that we now fear — fear — those on the other side and view them more and more coldly.”
Yes, I’m sometimes afraid of Nazis. Don’t try to tell me that that’s a bad thing. Don’t try to tell me we shouldn’t fear those on the other side until those on the other side have shown they’re prepared to murder you and your friends.
“I love Pew’s question on that, right? It’s a thermometer, and it asks Republicans and Democrats, ‘On a thermometer of zero to one hundred, how do you feel about the other party?’ Ladies and gentlemen, the parties agree: it’s 24 and 23 degrees. Not much distance there. Bipartisanship is alive and well. A majority of us also see fewer things that bind Americans together than in the past. I love how Liz puts it. ‘We’re not hanging out together.’ And that, in large part, has created the situation we are currently in.”
No, it hasn’t. Systemic injustice, the legacy of white supremacy, capitalism — these have created the situation we are currently in.
“I just don’t think that a healthy and vibrant society can go on like this.”
The United States has never been a healthy and vibrant society.
“The future of our democracy is at stake, and dammit, it is time to do something about it. The loss of relationships and understanding plagues our nation as a whole, as well as individual communities such as Charlottesville. One of many places, as we’ve heard from others this afternoon, that have been devastated by division in recent years [fighting back tears]. The horrific events of last summer [crying] in which marches escalated to murder continue to have a profound personal impact on the Charlottesville community.”
Right, but the violence wasn’t caused by loss of relationships and understanding. It was caused by Nazism. These marches did not escalate to murder. They were marches of murderous people espousing murderous ideas which predictably ended in murder. We tried to tell the city and the world that this is what would happen, but we were ignored. In fact, we were criticized for our lack of civility and decorum as much as the Nazis were criticized for being Nazis. So you might understand why, at this point, we resent the fact that you’ve parachuted into Charlottesville to bring civility and decorum to a community that needs it.
We don’t need civility. We need to smash white supremacy.
“Can we please recognize Susan Bro for being with us now [still crying. Applause].”
“As I’ve learned in listening to Susan and so many other people in this community, fresh wounds were created and old ones re-opened. Trust was severed across communities and institutions alike. The ongoing challenges here in the Charlottesville community epitomize the depth of division that is plaguing communities all across this country. Over the past year, the rest of the nation has looked towards Charlottesville for all the wrong reasons.”
No! People across the nation have looked to Charlottesville for all the right reasons.
Because of our resistance to white supremacy, Durham took down their confederate monument. Many other communities are doing the same. Because of Charlottesville, people in Boston showed up in the thousands to disrupt a Nazi rally. Because of the disaster that was August 12, the Traditionalist Workers Party and other white nationalist groups are imploding. Because of Charlottesville, organizers in Newnan, Georgia, disrupted a Nazi rally in spite of an incredible application of state violence in service to white supremacy.
We have been modeling what it looks like to resist fascism and white supremacy, just not in a way that’s comfortable for you.
“My hope is that in this display of humanity, in the conversations that went on today, you, Charlottesville, and the many people who are here supporting you, are writing new headlines and are painting a starkly different picture right here, a picture that can inspire and lead, as the city on the hill, the rest of America. [Applause]. And this event, thank God, is only the beginning.
For many people in Charlottesville, our lives will always be divided between pre-August 12 and post-August 12. Apparently, you think that because of your event, we will now understand Charlottesville in terms of pre-Listen First and post-Listen First. I’m sorry to break it to you, but Listen First is not even a blip on the radar when it comes to the history of this city. This event is not the beginning of anything! Your white savior complex is staggering.
Local activists in Charlottesville have been fighting hate and bigotry long before August 12, and have continued to do so since. Just not, apparently, in a way you can support. You’re not here to start anything. You’re here to fix something you are in no position to fix.
“Listen First in Charlottesville is integrated with a number of initiatives going on in this community, specifically, among others, we’re supporting the Charlottesville Community Leadership Council — CCLC — which was formed in response to last summer’s tragedy. We’re excited about CCLC’s ongoing, neighborhood-driven conversations that are beginning Thursday night.”
Yeah, no one I know had any idea what these were about, and the few people I know who went said there was hardly anyone there. You may be excited about your big CCLC idea. Apparently, hardly anyone else is.
“CCLC members, who have let me into what I’ve joked to many of you seems to be a fight club because they then underground [?] as they did the important work of building relationships amongst themselves — an unbelievable diversity of every stripe, every creed you can imagine representing this community that is prepared to lead this community in healing and conversation and be ready if hate ever tries to come here again.”
Again, you don’t get it. Violence did not spontaneously erupt in Charlottesville on July 8, August 11, and August 12 and then leave.
We live with the violence of white supremacy every day. Our commonwealth’s attorney, in cooperation with Nazis and Neo-Confederates, prosecutes black men who dared to assert their humanity on August 12. Nazis sue us and drag us to court. Local anti-racist activists are doxxed and receive death threats. People’s jobs are threatened. People’s children are threatened. Police enter people’s homes in low-income housing without warrants. The Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force terrorizes communities of color. Our jail voluntarily sends notifications to ICE when someone with an immigration detainer is about to be released, risking funneling them into deportation proceedings and destroying families. More than 70% of stop-and-frisks are against black residents, even though the population of Charlottesville is only 20% black. The city still hasn’t given the community any answers in the disappearance of Sage Smith. They haven’t given any answers in the murder of Faye Tinsley. White supremacists come armed to city council meetings and threaten black women. White supremacists flyer the downtown area with violent quotes by Stonewall Jackson and other racist imagery.
But maybe if we listened more, none of that would be true. I could go on and on. The point is, hate isn’t coming here again because hate never left. Your white privilege allows you to be ignorant of that fact.
“Thursday night they’re gonna have those conversations, and for those of you here, you can talk to your neighborhood associations about the details of those meetings. Now, I’ve thrown some numbers at you. We’ve heard a lot about what’s going on across the country, and it ain’t good. But despite these destructive trends we’re seeing, I still have hope. I still have hope, and I refuse to give up that hope because I see that it’s individual people moving together that created the problems of inequality, injustice, in-group bias, and hatred of the other. Individual people, therefore, moving together, can, and must, take us down a different path. What do you say we be those people? [Applause].”
No! What do you say we white men, you and me, learn to follow the path that has been forged for centuries by people of color in this country, black women in particular?
“Even in today’s hyper-polarized and tribal society, we can turn this tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations, the kind of new conversations that we saw here today. New conversations that bridge divides, that move from this us versus them to me and you.”
You frame the fundamental problem in the United States not as Nazism, white supremacy, or capitalism, but as rancor, thus painting one tactic that has proven effective in combating these forces — directing our rancor at white supremacy — as being antithetical to fighting injustice.
What ever made you think that those of us who have been active here in Charlottesville wanted to come listen to you tell us how being more civil towards oppressors would fix the problem, when that’s all we’ve been hearing for over a year?
“Each person who listens first to understand tips the scales towards a stronger future for our nation — one built on the relationships that only a conversation or two or three or a hundred can create.”
Speaking of scales, you seem not to understand the imbalance of power at play.
The history of white supremacy is the history of concentrating power in the hands of a white minority and preserving that power. To prescribe that marginalized folks can undo that legacy by having a hundred conversations is to ignore the fact that conversation never happens in a vacuum.
And again, stop, as a privileged white man, telling marginalized people that all it takes to end their oppression is a hundred conversations with bigots.
“I’m encouraged by some other survey findings: that 75% of Americans are willing to set a good example of engaging the other in these kind of conversations. 66% of us would encourage friends, family members, and colleagues to do the same. More than a third of Americans — 36% — a little back-of-the-napkin math, that’s more than a hundred million people, want to see a national campaign promoting this behaviour. Indeed, a listen first movement, encouraging conversations, that prioritize understanding.”
You seem to believe that if you hadn’t suggested it, people never would have considered conversation as a pathway to liberation.
People have considered it. People have tried it. Its effectiveness is rare.
“With that in mind, I’d like to invite you to join the nearly ten thousand people across America who have taken the listen first pledge, and this week, which is now underway — thank you Debbie Lynn for this amazing idea of a national week of conversation in which over a hundred partners from across the country, coast to coast, — we’ve even filled in the map on the flyover states — will be hosting conversations, and each one of these participants will be asked to take this simple pledge: ‘I will listen first to understand and consider your views before sharing my own. I’m gonna prioritize respect and understanding in that conversation and encourage others to do the same.’ If this is a pledge you are willing to adopt as you leave here today, raise your hand.
Really, you’re asking people to accept conversation as their personal Lord and savior?
“Next time you raise your hand, I hope it has the latest fashion accessory in Charlottesville, Virginia, a listen first bracelet, on that wrist [giggling].”
I also struggled not to laugh. But I guess no salvation is complete without a WWJD — I mean LF — bracelet.
“They’re all back there at the table. Y’all, let’s continue this conversation. Let’s listen first to understand one another, and perhaps we can strengthen this community, and as we say for national week of conversation, revitalize America together. Thank you so much.”
Wow, did you really just end with “Make America Great Again?” I can’t even…
Thanks to this author for their careful listening and expressing views with patience and grace.