By Mark Perkins
“He who holds to the truth holds to God.”
— Romano Guardini
A mob is an apocalypse, a conflagration casting fiery light on what was previously in shadow.
On August 12, 2017, we watched scenes of violence in Charlottesville posted to Twitter while we patted and shushed our two-day-old daughter. We shook our heads and tried to make sense of it, speaking in unnecessarily hushed tones. Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Monument was less than two miles from our home at that time, but we heard nothing, not even the helicopters.
The next morning I drove to church alone, and I remember — although in this instance I am not entirely sure if my memory is faithful or if it has been colonized by news stories — I remember that I could still see small clouds of smoke — wisps, really — rising from the site just beyond the trees where the state police helicopter crashed, killing two troopers.
Heather Heyer was killed less than a hundred feet from our favorite record store, a hundred yards from our pizza place. Her killer was arrested a hundred feet from my best friend’s front door.
When I think about that weekend, I most vividly remember an innocuous encounter the night before the main rally, mere hours before they converged on The Lawn at the University of Virginia with tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We needed something, I don’t recall what, so I zipped over to CVS in that near-catatonic post-newborn state.
A month before the “Unite the Right” rally transformed “Charlottesville” into a single-word signifier, the Ku Klux Klan had converged on our town. More specifically, a North Carolina-based group, numbering about fifty, came to protest the intended removal of the Lee statue. They confirmed all my prior assumptions about backwoods Klansmen in the twenty-first century — a ragtag bunch of racists, equal parts grotesque and pathetic. Evil, yes; capable of violence, almost certainly — but a serious political entity meriting national attention? Surely not. Although I was at that very time taking a class on the Black church in American history for my seminary degree, I brushed these Klansmen off as a feeble residuum of a dark past.
They came, they clashed with a much larger group of counter-protestors, and then they melted back into the godforsaken holler from whence they came, at least as far as I was concerned.
I knew that the August 12th rally was going to be larger and different — “alt-right” rather than KKK. Still, our city’s experience with the Klan a month before did not incline me to take them too seriously. On top of that, our second child was due to be born a week before the rally, right when I would return to work at my teaching position and only days after finishing my own coursework. For better or worse, I had other things on my mind.
And so, the night before the rally, I found myself gazing blankly at the overloaded shelves of our neighborhood CVS. There were a handful of other solitary people in the store, along with a family evidently in something of a hurry to get what they needed. They bustled by me, and then a few seconds later this young Black boy came darting back down the aisle, laughing, his mom striding after him. She was not laughing. She shouted at him to get right back here in what seemed to me and at least one other patron an excessively loud and entirely too harsh tone. I saw the boy stop dead in his tracks and turn with a look of aggrieved surprise on his face.
“Mom!” was his only whimpering protest.
“I told you,” she said softly but through gritted teeth, “there are people in town who don’t like us.”
I heard the boy’s query — “Why don’t they like us?” — as they walked to rejoin the rest of the family, but I didn’t hear her response.
It took me a few moments to put together what she meant — much longer to fathom the very different weekend her family was having.
Later that night I started to understand.
A mob can be right-wing, but a mob cannot conserve. A mob can only destroy. The mob that converged on Charlottesville intended to destroy that Black family’s sense of safety and belonging. Likewise, the destruction of Heather Heyer’s life was a direct result of the rally.
Only incidentally did it destroy my confidence in the pastness of the American past. That confidence rested upon illusions of inevitable progress built upon the stalwart solidity of the American experiment in self-government. Though Jim Crow vacated the stage long ago, his performance lives on in concrete — in Charlottesville’s traffic patterns and tree cover, in neighborhoods preserved and neighborhoods long since flattened.
And in the monuments.
They — not just the Lee statue but three others as well — were erected a century ago, at precisely the same time that, in the contemporaneous words of Charlottesville’s newspaper, The Daily Progress, “a legion of white robed Virginians… renewed the faith of their fathers. Which is by way of saying that the Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city. Hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men met around the tomb of Jefferson at the midnight hour one night last week and sealed the pledge of chivalry and patriotism with the deepest crimson of red American blood.”
Although rioting is a work of darkness (Rom. 13:11-14), a mob by nature sheds revelatory light. The torches of mobs illumine that which already exists — but shrouded in darkness. The torches lit late in the night of August 11, 2017 revealed that mother’s fear to be sober-minded, rational, and utterly justified — and exposed my confidence in the Klan’s contemporary irrelevance as naïve, insular, and baseless.
Shortly after a mob invaded the Capitol on the Feast of the Epiphany, an acquaintance suggested that it would all blow over just like Charlottesville — or, perhaps, like the protests of the past summer. To the extent that this proves true, it reveals our own indifference to and insularity from violence and injustice — an apathy that is at odds with our obligations to truth and to charity. Truth and charity demand that we attend to the violence — to its causes and its traumas and its possible remedies.
These three — the riots in Charlottesville, in the Capitol, and those over the summer — are by no means equivalent phenomena, either in their motivations or their manifestations. The summer protests were not themselves a single phenomenon, though often presented as such by detractors and defenders alike. In the relatively rare but highly destructive instances in which they turned violent, the identity of the instigators varied, often involving groups distinct from local protestors with purposes other than racial justice. Each mob tells its own story, reveals its own darkness, and requires discrete explanation.
But the demands of charity in every instance remain the same — fearlessly to contend against evil, to make no peace with oppression, and to maintain justice, to the glory of God and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And to hold to the truth.
The violence in Charlottesville in August of 2017 did not disclose how we might best bind up the enduring concrete wounds of Jim Crow. Mobs cannot prescribe policy or resolve the problem of evil. But they do reveal evil’s reality.
We can retreat from their harsh light. When the fury of the mob abates, when their torches are extinguished, we can avert our eyes from the darkness. To do so, however, fails to honor the God who is the truth, who uses for good what we intend for evil, and who persistently works to bring light even into the darkest of places.
When mobs arise, we must not look away from their conflagrations, and when they subside, we must remember what we have seen.
The Rev. Mark Perkins is curate at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and executive editor of Earth & Altar (earthaltar.org).