Violent protests a year ago in Charlottesville, Va. left three dead, 33 injured, and the country stunned at the ugliness of white nationalists carrying tiki torches protesting the removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. More disturbingly, Charlottesville was a flash point for the suspicion, hatred, violence, and racism that our president – through words and actions — has encouraged since his election. Trump's rhetoric around immigrants, people of color, and others created a space for white supremacists to dominate last year's protests, and his comments immediately following Charlottesville gave comfort to those who hate.
Confronting that underbelly of hatred and racism that has larded our history for decades was still shocking. We were forced to address a tough question: Did Charlottesville show us what we've become, or what we've always been?
We can find part of the answer in an investigation that occurred 50 years ago following a series of riots in U.S. cities. The Lyndon Johnson administration assembled the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate the riots and provide answers for the future. What's striking is how familiar it still sounds:
"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.
"Reaction to last summer's disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of America life; they now threaten the future of every American.
"This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.
"To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.
"…Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice…"
It's sobering to realize these words were written 50 years ago. By some measures, we have evolved. But, as Charlottesville showed us, ugliness remains.
One ray of hope amid the divisiveness in this country has been the actions of cities stepping forward to push back against violence, racism, and fear.
Philadelphia in particular has taken pains to stand its ground against immigration policies and to speak out against racism. The city has steadfastly remained, through court battles, a sanctuary city and recently ended an arrangement with ICE that would no longer grant them access to arraignment data. And when the national conversation focused on Confederate statues, the city and Mayor Kenney were quick to begin a process of review following councilwoman Helen Gym's suggestion that the Frank Rizzo statue be moved from the Municipal Services Building. That's why last week's report revealing that the Rizzo statue won't be moved anytime before 2021 or 2022 is such a disappointment.
Mayor Kenney has taken pains to publicly underscore the value of our city as welcoming and diverse. That's a message undercut by the delay in moving the controversial statue that for some stands for oppression. That it was confirmed so near the anniversary of Charlottesville is sadly tone-deaf — especially at a time when better listening is critical.