Moral Trauma

Late on Friday, August 11, as armed and torchbearing white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia, I found myself standing guard at the front doors of the mass meeting where Traci Blackmon and Cornel West were speaking. How did a religious studies professor end up in that position? A few hours earlier Charlottesville police had suddenly pulled back the officers initially promised to the church where the meeting was held, so organizers had asked some allies for security help. One of them texted me — not very imposing or experienced in security, but nearby and trusted. By then organizers knew that there would be a torchlit rally at the Rotunda, which was across the street from the church, and there was chatter on alt-right social media that intimated threats to specific people inside the church. There were about ten of us on watch, all unarmed.

As the torches came into view at the Rotunda across the street, someone sprinted up to us with an urgent message: students were holding the Jefferson statue at the bottom of the Rotunda steps with no one to defend them. She pleaded with us to send help. The lead organizer said no. There were hundreds of people in the church and no police in sight; we were not to leave them. The messenger cursed us in frustration and ran back. As it turned out, of course, the torches stopped at the Jefferson statue and encircled the students, who were first threatened and then assaulted. Police arrived some long minutes later.

I am haunted by that moment. Of course we should not have relayed to a church full of mostly untrained people, many already fearful, an invitation to confront an armed mob, and of course all of us standing guard could not have abandoned our post. But I alone of those standing guard was a faculty member and those were my students. I implicitly trusted that university police (who, surely, were monitoring the situation) would step in before any harm came to our students. That trust turned out to be naïve and I now regret that I did not ask leave to go stand with the students.


I have talked with many others who participated in various actions of that weekend and who now feel conflicted about what they did or what happened. Some wish that they had made different decisions in particular moments, or that they had acted with more courage, or more discipline, or more creativity. Some who spent weeks planning and training wish that they had prepared differently. A few who saw distinct protest groups spontaneously merge together into the joyful street procession that became a terrorist’s target have regretted that they did not somehow act to prevent that vulnerability. Some who found unlikely heroes in antifa, militias, or anarchic networks of care find their trust in formal civic orders shaken. Some who saw police allow thugs to attack unarmed citizens in public spaces, or were themselves attacked, find themselves rethinking mutual protection. Some who worked unseen in the background find their contributions unacknowledged in the stories churning from Charlottesville; others feel misgivings or even shame when praised. Many are reeling from seeing white supremacy show itself so proudly in public and institutions so hapless to oppose it.

We are experiencing, I think, a kind of moral trauma. The commitments that compelled us to testify against white supremacists and the ideas that shaped the diverse ways in which we did are now haunted by what actually happened those two days. Events have bruised those commitments and ideas, and we may wonder if, beneath the contusions, fractures have opened in our moral worlds. That Friday and Saturday refuse to settle into a consistent pattern of interpretation and so irritate us into reconsidering the implicit trusts that shape our sense of a world, the practices by which we engage it, and the lexicon we use to give an account of it.

Not everyone who experienced that weekend has been morally shaken, of course. I know two participants long weathered by injustice who were in fact confirmed in how they regard the world and in the practices through which they struggle with it. Yet I have also heard from many others, including some quite experienced, that they are rethinking certain ideas, haunted by particular events, or unable to find language to settle A12 into memory. If for no other reason than to recognize and support their internal reckoning, I here describe three fissures of moral thought.

Free Speech and White Terrorism

One stress upon participants was created by an absence of moral authority in police, university, and city. Each depicted itself as constrained to privilege that which (leaders of each would be quick to say) all decent people should actually abjure. It is our sober duty to give succor to this dread monster, they said; please stay in your homes while we do. It will surely go away if you ignore our feeding it.

That counsel was not unique to August’s events. Since the presidential election and especially since Charlottesville voted to remove one of its confederate statues, we have been the target for one klan thing after another. Each time the message from authorities has been: ignore this pitiful distraction and it will go away. Each event has been larger and scarier than the last.

In advance of the August rally, President Sullivan sent a message to all UVa students and staff warning us to stay away. Any administrator would rightfully emphasize safety, but Sullivan went beyond precaution to instruct us that “to approach the rally and confront the activists would only satisfy their craving for spectacle.” She then quoted an “alt-right” organizer relishing the prospect of their opponents revealing themselves to be violent, insane enforcers of political correctness, in order to direct us that any form of confrontation would amount to complicity. “The organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.”

I was taken aback. With firsthand knowledge of how long and carefully organizers had been planning for this rally, I wrote to Sullivan pointing out that her message disparaged the several local groups — including an interfaith collective of faith leaders — who had principled reasons to risk confrontation, tactical ideas about how to do so effectively, and training sessions for their members to prepare for the dangers.

Sullivan responded in a curious way. She acknowledged that some might have reasons of conscience to protest directly but went on to insist: “Protest in other venues, including preach-ins, teach-ins, prayer meetings, etc., are also constitutionally protected — and face much reduced risk of danger in other locations.” But whether protest in another location would enjoy the same constitutional protection was hardly a question in which organizers were interested. They were, of course, asking themselves what forms of protest would most effectively oppose white supremacy and most likely protect others from its violence. I declined to participate in the university’s diversionary teach-in for the same reason I did not follow the mayor’s instructions to ignore the event: neither would do a thing to keep these people from transforming Charlottesville into the symbolic capitol of white nationalism.

The fundamental aim of the white supremacists was to show the world that white power could openly assert itself, thus setting the stage for a white nationalist renaissance. There would be, they promised, a new dawn “after Charlottesville.” Everyone who showed up to confront that promise as the terror it was understood that far greater risk lie in staying away than in risking confrontation. The greatest dangers that day were in letting white terrorism stalk the city unopposed.

Sullivan appears to have been following the advice of the Southern Poverty Law Center on what campuses should do about speakers with nefarious views: ignore them and draw attention to a different event. That may be sound advice for individual speakers but does not quite apply to armed invasion by a large group intending to capture your university and then your city. By thinking with the abstract category of constitutionally authorized speech, Sullivan missed the specific threat of white terrorism.

Sullivan, Mayor Signer, and other leaders treated that threat in formal abstraction: white supremacy as a specimen of hate speech, itself a category in derivative relation to the category of free speech. In the past I have allowed that formal treatment of white supremacist speech too much deference in my own thought. It still impresses our leaders; for days after her campus was invaded by men who proved themselves terrorists, Sullivan continued to refer to “alt-right protestors.” Thinking abstractly and ahistorically occludes clear perception.

White supremacy is singular because of its massive historical role in making the world in which we live in Charlottesville, in Virginia, in the United States. Those men were not simply uttering “hate speech;” they were re-enacting the history of white domination in a context still riven by racialized inequalities in matters basic to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They meant to inspire terror. Allying themselves with the symbols and chants of genocidal Aryanism, bristling with torches and guns, and declaring in advance their readiness to kill in order to protect white power, they did not present us with a case of “hate speech.” They presented us with white terrorism, which should be treated sui generis.

Many people recognized that threat for what it was and did not heed official instructions to divert our attention or register our disagreement elsewhere. In doing so, however, some of us felt friction with the respect that we do, after all, hold for free speech. Others may have found themselves wondering to whom to look for reliable description of the situation. Going to confront white supremacy in contravention of official directions required implicitly withdrawing trust from the moral competence of our leaders and from the formal lexicon most often used to frame the situation. In refusing counsels of obtuseness, many had to look for clearer moral vision elsewhere.

The Civic Importance of Incivility

When, that Friday night, several hundred torch-bearing young men transformed UVa’s historic Lawn and Rotunda into a glowing theater of white supremacy, it was not an alien visitation but rather an attempt to revivify a major tributary of the University’s history. The march was led by two of our own alums, who, by focusing their two rallies around the two statues of Jefferson and Lee, aimed to enact the white nationalist interpretation of our founding ideals that has in fact governed the majority of this university’s existence. In doing so, the white supremacists forced us to confront, in the most visible way, how vulnerable our present is to its “past.” White supremacy haunts us still and can quickly irrupt to reclaim its territory. That was precisely their aim.

Another tributary of our history includes ideals of equality and justice that now support a prevailing university ethos in which diversities are valued and cosmopolitan inquiry prized. Maintaining that ethos depends not on forgetting our white supremacist past, but on continually repudiating it and its legacies. The university’s defense of those ideals and our repudiation of their white nationalist interpretation was tested that Friday night. Except for a handful of brave students, we — the university — failed.

No one better understands the conflict of ideas in Jefferson than Annette Gordon-Reed and her article on what was at stake that Friday night gets to the heart of the contest: “the menaced people standing around the statue, no doubt holding many different views about Jefferson the man, symbolize the fragility of…the ideals that animated Jefferson in the Declaration, his insistence on the separation of church and state, his belief in public education, religious tolerance, and science.”

In failing to protect our menaced people, we also failed to protect ideals important to the version of the university’s meaning to which we are committed. Those ideals remain vulnerable to capture by white nationalism, which was precisely the point of such theatrical invasion. On the front pages of papers everywhere, the world saw the image of a university caught in a caesura of commitment, momentarily powerless to avoid being routed by its past. Almost: we owe the students who stood up to them at the Jefferson statue a debt of gratitude for refusing to cede them the university.

In the eyes of President Sullivan, however, those students “bear some responsibility” for a troublesome disturbance. If only they had not been there, seems to be her message, or had showed more deference to the free expression of rival “protestors,” the torchlight would have faded into the night and out of memory. That fantasy depends on ahistorical perception. Administrators have justified the university’s actions that Friday night with tone-deaf explanations about open-flame policies and notification protocols that seem to bracket the historical context of this invasion — and so to miss why its symbolic assault was so threatening to the fragile ideals of our university. The “honor” of our university (which so prizes honor) was, to my mind, defended that night by a few students who understood more clearly than their teachers that the ideals which support the modern meaning of the university cannot accommodate celebrations of white terrorism.

The following day, the city was defended by many people indisposed to extend civility to those whose mission attacks fundamental conditions of our civic life. Some in the defense seem to have been well accustomed to incivility; for others, it was more uncomfortable. Some had trained in civil disobedience in order to draw attention to the jeopardy of those fundamental conditions before white supremacy. Others determined to show in legal, permitted ways how hostile they were to an ideology of violence. Either way, defense seemed to depend on incivil actions.

Students were among those who defended Charlottesville on Saturday, some by marching and holding space, others by providing legal observation and medical care in the streets, others by staffing safe spaces. A university in a city expecting siege might have provided trainings and resources, both for its students and citizens. It might have helped people better understand the risks and their contexts, the available ways of defending civic order with organized incivility. We should want to train leaders who understand the purposes of freedom, not just how to respect its formal rules. There may be times that civic order depends on it.

Religious relations with civility were also stressed. The young upstart clergy who led the most visible forms of holy incivility to white supremacy are now rightly celebrated. Yet their calls to action were not wholeheartedly embraced by local faith leaders, many of whom found that they could not bear association with any form of incivility, no matter how principled. A few pastors (white pastors obviously) even sought to publicly engage the white supremacists in civil discourse, indifferent to the symbolic incongruity with what other clergy were doing and not sensing how appalling that would be to their nonwhite congregants.

Many other religious communities stayed aloof. In those that did participate in the work to prepare for the weekend and in public protests, senior clergy often left such questionable work to their assistants and associates. The senior pastor of one downtown church, which had initially offered itself as an assembly area for faith leaders going out for nonviolent direct action, decided that the church would not admit anyone involved in civil disobedience — including fellow clergy! The church’s resolve to keep itself pure from incivility thankfully broke down in the intensity of the day, as wounded protesters came to their medical station, traumatized people streamed in crying, and finally, at the end of the day, that holy incivility clergy group found exhausted refuge there.

I do not celebrate incivility for its own sake. Had streets been filled with 15,000 peaceable citizens, as happened recently in Boston, the range of possibilities for defense of the city would have expanded — even without any better response from city and state. But when the decent people stay home for fear of appearing indecorous in their opposition to evil, then the options narrow for those not content to cede civic space to white supremacists. Their absence made it more difficult for people of conscience to resist in ways consistent with all that they hold true. Because they were not joined by hundreds of colleagues, faith leaders who did risk incivility to testify against white supremacy found themselves even more exposed — bodily and morally.

Nonviolence Reconsidered

On Saturday I feared for the life of my spouse, who, arms linked with other faith leaders, stood without a weapon against terrorists. In full view of police content to allow a line of nonviolent clergy be smashed by white supremacists, they were charged by men with clubs and shields, only to be rescued from serious assault by a last-moment intercession by antifa. She later described them “as angels” to her in that moment.

I have heard firsthand from several people who were working without weapons to protect people, or who were themselves nonviolent protestors, that they are now reconsidering their commitments to nonviolence. Two have in fact since invited me to join them in training with weapons in preparation for the next time. Their invitation gave me pause in a way that it would not have just a few weeks ago.

Charlottesville that Saturday was a peculiar context to apply the received patterns of reflection on the ethics of war and peace. Government set the stage in a way that showed that it had rewritten the rules of engagement: they would protect white supremacists inside Emancipation Park, but the dozen city blocks around it were given over to whomever could take them by force. Meanwhile, a team of state police snipers watched from above and private militias offered their own on-the-ground policing. I am so relieved that we did not learn what would have caused either force to open fire — but no one really knew. The rules of engagement were hidden from the people they were supposed to protect.

For a time that morning, it seemed to me that there might be enough white supremacists to impose their will on the city. Already they showed a relish for violence that would anticipate the afternoon’s terrorist attack. Interventions of force seemed necessary simply to protect those lawfully and nonviolently registering public opposition to marauding white supremacists. Since the police were not going to do that, I do not regret that others came prepared to intervene on their own authority. How I will accommodate that in my own ethical thinking, I am not yet certain.

Deliberations over just use of political violence are of course ancient to a number of traditions. There are a range of plausible positions which can authorize informal intercessions with violence for the sake of protecting others and possibly even for repelling a noxious enemy. That is not novel; I just mean to indicate that there are people fluent with one or more of those traditions who thought that they knew their place among them, yet who now, because of what happened in Charlottesville, find themselves less sure.

Let me hasten to say that, as one with a primary commitment to nonviolence, I worry about certain directions of that unease. As violence becomes more intense, it seems almost to require dehumanizing enemies as a kind of psychic defense mechanism. The antifa banner condemning “fascist scum” was just a half-step from the vermin epithets that moralize exterminative thinking — not dissimilar from the dehumanization they oppose. I still hold that we must keep faith with the humanity of terrorists, even while directly and uncompromisingly opposing their attempts to terrorize. Moreover, taking up arms in distrust of government competence to keep the peace places one in a frightening political world — one represented by those private militia — where violent actions can be justified by recursively reinforcing interpretations of corrupt government. I am not quite ready to live in that world. But I am much more uneasy with the one I am inhabiting.


The quotidian monster

It should be easy to oppose Nazis when they oblige to identify themselves with actual Nazi flags and carry thuggish accessories. That it was so difficult for us sobers my view of the prospects for treating the underlying pathology to which they gave expression: the disease of white supremacy that spins moralizations and resentment around desperate yearnings for meaning and identity. I am, in a peculiar way, grateful for what those angry men have made explicit. For I have now threatening faces to personify for my imagination the ongoing structures of white supremacy that we must fight with equal determination and courage.

The dehumanizing power that raised monuments to white supremacy in the Jim Crow era continues to coil through U.S. politics, shaping moralizations and resentments to support policies that, in material consequence, continue to inscribe white supremacy into how we are housed, policed, governed, educated, and monied. For once, I viscerally experienced what many others have known earlier and more intimately: what it looks like for police, city, and university to protect that monster rather than those it threatens. That will not leave me unchanged.

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