I have no right to talk.
Days have elapsed since the Unite-the Right rally, aimed at bringing together members of the Alt-Right, KKK, and other white supremacist, ethno-nationalists, tore a hole through the Charlottesville community. In that time, social media posts from UVa students, friends, colleagues, Charlottesville residents, late night television hosts, news networks, and prominent congressional Republicans (if not presidents) have denounced the hatred and commended the countering bravery on that day.
I have not.
I wasn’t at the counter-protest against the white nationalists either. Throughout Saturday’s events, and even Friday’s unplanned white nationalist Torch March through UVa grounds, I remained indoors, heeding the calls for safety issued by University officials and by my employers in the office of Housing and Residence Life.
HRL training began on July 29 in Charlottesville, and I have been living on grounds since then.
I was not in Charlottesville, however, on July 8th when the Ku Klux Klan held a protected rally to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from what is now called Emancipation Park. Many brave students and citizens attended a counter protest where this photo of Officer Darius Nash of CPD was taken.
Nash is seen with a bowed head in protective formation backgrounded by a robed KKK wizard, a man in Nazi salute, and a man holding a Confederate flag. The picture is meant to capture the tension between professional responsibility and personal moral impetus. The yellow police tape acting both to separate the white nationalists from the protestors as well as serving to magnify Nash’s assumed desire to cross his professional line and react emotionally.
I first came across this picture several days after the rally, as Charlottesville residents debated the significance of Nash’s actions. Blue Lives Matter supporters commended Nash for his professionalism, a few profiles featuring black profile pictures critiqued him for his compliance, and I swore that I wouldn’t ever be caught dead using professionalism as an excuse to avoid morally imperative confrontation.
After all, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, appears to make clear an individual’s moral responsibility in condemning injustice anywhere as a threat to justice everywhere. He writes the letter in response to moderate church leaders in Birmingham who professed support for his cause but reprimanded him for moving too quickly on his progressive agenda.
These were the thingfirst-gradegrade teacher, my great aunt, and my college professors taught me. These were things my parents taught me.
These were the same people who texted me, called me, and prayed for me on Saturday, August 12, encouraging me to be safe, to do what was right. Instead, I stayed safe and did what was wrong—what I believed to be wrong. I stayed in training.
As updates rolled in on twitter and news media outlets, I encouraged my staffers to go about their training routine, which was, ironically, a day of practice scenarios in case they needed to be first responders to residents. After that, we went back to my air conditioned apartment and talked about how we would create an inclusive living space for our inbound residents.
That was while bands of white nationalists scoured Charlottesville after being dispersed by law enforcement.
I knew all twelve of my Resident Advisors were looking at me for guidance. In fact, I could feel the eyes of staffers in other parts of the program looking at me, waiting to see what I would do or say. If I, as a black person, could remain diligent to my professional responsibilities in lieu of hate speech, crimes, and threats then so could they.
I couldn’t help but think of Officer Nash.
The true significance of the picture became suddenly apparent to me.
Earlier this summer, I had read some of Harvey Young’s Embodying Black Experience, a book that explores moments of subversive stillness. Events such as boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to literally cross a line and volunteer for Vietnam, serve to highlight Young’s claim that the black people have used stillness as well as active protesting to subvert societal expectations of them.
A modern example might be Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to sing the national anthem on Monday Night Football in 2016.
But Officer Nash’s stillness, and my own by extension, complicates Young’s argument. Indeed, our stillness seems to speak to an obedience arising out of our inability to spurn the respective forces telling us to obey authority figures and their calls for deference when protest is required.
Instead of leaving me dejected, this realization forced me to reckon with a more challenging reality. The problem is not that Nash remained calm in the face of adversity; it is that Jill Mumie, the photographer knew that she could capture a controversial picture by waiting for the right moment to unfold around Nash. Thus, regardless of action that he takes, Officer Nash becomes the object of analysis, dissection, and exploitation. His assumed moral dilemma is put on display to be interpreted and reinterpreted by the viewer.
Regardless of action, black people are seen as the litmus test for arguments surrounding racism. They are used as pawns, and their experiences as tokens, in what should be a larger conversation about capitalistic exploitation, neocolonialism, and historical erasure.
This type of exploitation does nothing to combat the actual causes of these diseases; instead, it resorts to victim blaming, as if analyzing a black person will answer the deficiencies of white power structures.
This level of analysis renders the object unable of taking real agency. Our movements are analyzed, our stillnesses are analyzed, the reality of which left me paralyzed.
Simply put, the events in Charlottesville this past weekend left me dumb.
Silent in the face of injustice.
Complicit in violence by not taking action against it.
Wondering how I will justify my inaction to my future children.
Unable to process the events because I was safe when others were not.
But now, I’m processing them the best way I know how.