I know that’s hardly news to anyone; we’ve all got calendars and the ability to keep track of time. And yet, I wonder.
The Aug. 12 murder in Charlottesville, Va., of Heather Heyer weighs heavily on the mind. Heyer, 32, was among those who turned out by the scores to counter actual neo-Nazis marching in public, sans clown —er, Klan — hoods. These racists were angry that a Confederate statue was to be removed from public property.
What happened next is disputed, though it should not be. There is video evidence and it is crystal clear. It shows a crowd of counter protesters clustered in and around a street. From a great distance away a vehicle accelerates, hurtling down a clear part of the street, and plows through the crowd, ramming another car into the pedestrians.
The suspect, James Fields Jr., went to Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Confederate monument. He was not as spinmeisters and conspiracists quickly asserted, a member of the “anti-fa,” or anti-fascist movement, who mowed down Heyer and injured 19 others in a bid to “discredit” the racist Unite the Right rallygoers. (Newflash to Nazi sympathizers: No effort is required to discredit that hateful movement. It does it all by itself.)
Another questionable notion is that the driver of the car, allegedly Fields, was “just defending himself.” Again, the video clearly shows the driver racing toward a crowd of people and striking them. The bottom feeder Richard Spencer suggested the driver just panicked and floored it after someone hit his car with a bat — a thin excuse the video refutes. The car was clear of any traffic when it appeared in the frame, and zooming toward the protesters. If someone had bashed it with a bat, the driver was clearly able to get away — and had plenty of time to stop before reaching the crowd.
Even more distasteful responses have been those suggesting Heyer was some kind of paid disruptor who somehow got what was coming to her. The milder form of this response is also distasteful, as well as chilling: That motorists should somehow have the right to run over protesters who are in their way.
That’s no exaggeration. In 2017, roughly 20 state legislatures proposed bills restricting protest rights, and some also proposed measures that would provide protections to motorists who hit protesters.
According to summaries from the American Civil Liberties Union:
Under a bill in North Carolina, motorists who hit protesters blocking traffic would be immune from penalty, unless the protest had a permit. Hello, North Carolina — Slippery Slope is calling! Florida and Tennessee had proposed bills with similar provisions.
An Arizona bill (died in the House) would have allowed anyone who participated in a protest that turned into a riot to be punished, regardless of whether the individual’s conduct rose to the level of rioting. It would also have allowed their assets to be seized.
Four states actually passed protest-restricting bills and according to the ACLU three more had them in session as of June. (And those who are inclined to bash the ACLU should remember the organization has also defended the rights of white supremacist groups to demonstrate.)
Let’s be clear: It doesn’t matter what you think of protests. Providing the shield of law to those who use their vehicles as weapons against protesters is immoral, unconscionable, and chilling. Motorists who accidentally strike protesters should be afforded fairness and protections, of course, and laws could be more narrowly tailored with respect to blocking emergency vehicles. The evident problem with motorist immunity laws, though, is that they sanction the murder of fully fledged human beings. In 2017.
Also in North Carolina, a legislator said he wanted to introduce a bill that would criminalize the heckling of politicians. As cowardly and anti-American as this sounds, recall that Desiree Fairooz was convicted of disorderly, disruptive conduct and obstructing passage on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Fairooz’s “crime”? She laughed during the confirmation hearing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Her conviction was later tossed and, according to published reports, a new trial was ordered on the basis the government had improperly argued her laugh alone was sufficient for conviction.
Again, what you might think of her and her viewpoint is not relevant. She exercised her rights and was nearly imprisoned for doing so. She still faces a trial. In 2017.
No one, not even white supremacists, should be imprisoned for merely offering an unpopular point of view. But when one of them actually murders another U.S. citizen, that is, obviously as unacceptable and reprehensible as thinking folk find white supremacy to begin with.
We are also, in 2017, arguing over the display of Confederate monuments on public grounds. I’m not referring to cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried, or even plaques mentioning those who died as prisoners of war. If you want a statue of General Lee on your own property, go right ahead. But as I discussed at length in a 2015 column about the Confederate flag, what Confederate monuments represent is systemic racism, revolt and treason. That’s nothing to celebrate. That’s no loss worth mourning.
Removing these monuments does not scrub out history. Racism is a permanent stain on the pages of history, a stain that remains visible — and affords teachable moments aplenty — without having monuments erected to those who practiced it and who (in contrast to slave owners like Washington and Jefferson), staged an armed insurrection to preserve their “right” to own other human beings.
More simply put, no one is going to forget the Civil War, General Lee, or Stonewall Jackson if Lee is not cast in marble and perched over the town square.
History has not forgotten George III simply because colonists pulled down one of his statues. We have not forgotten the Revolution because no Union Jacks are flying on capitol steps.
We have not forgotten World War II just because no public schools are named for Hitler, and no swastikas are displayed on public government buildings in the name of history.
The information is there, in books, museums, and even at concentration camp sites in Europe. These preserve reality, without celebrating those responsible for inflicting the most monstrous crimes in history. It is one thing to remember victims of racism and anti- Semitism. It is another to place — literally — perpetrators on a pedestal.
And yet, we debate whether it is OK to remove statues of those who led — and lost — an armed revolt against the United States. In 2017.
Dear America. Take a long, hard look in the mirror and hold it up to your soul. We have lawmakers attempting to criminalize protests. We have people who confuse acknowledging dark chapters with celebrating them. We have Nazis and their sympathizers marching in our streets, and blaming victims for their own murders.
And it’s 2017.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.