Strangers in the Park

Creative Nonfiction by Gerry Moohr

Strangers in the Park

You probably know about the violence that struck Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. Demonstrators from thirty-five states rallied in Lee Park to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Army. I saw a lot of what happened that day.

*

For reasons I don’t myself understand, I’ve always felt Charlottesville was where I belonged, where I should be. I lived in this university town once for six years, returned often for shorter periods, always tempted to stay. Now retired, I spend every summer here in a condo a half block from Lee Park.

I’m in the park twice a day walking my dog or hurrying to the downtown pedestrian mall to shop, eat, or see a movie. It is a small, very small park. Bound by four streets, Lee Park measures one hundred of my short paces in each direction. A wide border of trees, bushes, flower beds, and benches further reduce its interior space.

Lee’s statue occupies the park’s center, impossible to avoid. Diagonal paths direct your eyes to a twenty-six feet high, twelve feet long, eight feet wide stone and bronze ensemble. In 1924, sixty years after the war ended, a local philanthropist gave the statue to the city to honor Lee’s courage and leadership. Many southern cities received similar monuments during the Jim Crow era, and over time they bred myths extolling an honorable fight for a noble cause. Such stories obscured the real reason for this war, slavery.

Today Lee Park is – usually – a busy place, filled with people sharing its peace. Office workers eat from brown bags, mothers push babies in strollers, readers head to the library across the street. I pause to nod hello, stop to exchange weather words with strangers whose faces are familiar from frequent encounters. Teens with tattoos and piercings sit together, warily watch our approach. Their sour expressions change when my dog bounces forward to meet them and their smiles meet mine. Not far away, a few homeless men and women relax on the curved seats of wooden benches, bags of belongings at their feet. We exchange greetings, chat a bit about my dog and the pets they once had.

One man stayed a stranger that summer, although he was there every day, all day. He reclined on a concrete bench away from the others, faced the street. The pose made clear he would not welcome casual conversation or even a nod. Somehow he looked comfortable, even graceful, on the uncompromising bench. A thick concrete plank, the bench is a brutal thing, somewhat softened by a large maple. An odd place to make a home.

He disappeared for a few weeks, just wasn’t there. I wondered if he had returned to family or just moved on and silently welcomed him back when he returned to his bench. I supposed I’d missed him. He was no longer a stranger. How could he be? We don’t miss strangers.

*

Should Lee’s statue be removed from Lee Park?

In 2016, a teenager’s letter to the editor asked this question, city council took it up, and community activists kept it alive. Divided, Charlottesville residents engaged in earnest debate about the issue. People on all sides agreed that the statue was symbolic but could not agree on what it symbolized.

Many residents view Lee’s statue with respect, even affection, as a symbol of courage and moral victory in defeat. They want the monument to stay where it is. Others see it as a symbol of a shameful past, oppression, and continued betrayal of promises made. They argue for removal. Perhaps most residents fall somewhere between these positions. One group who opposes removal favors adding a second memorial to mark the city’s slave-holding, lynching past.

In January 2017, a divided city council voted to remove Lee’s statue and to change the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park. Community debate intensified, and peaceful demonstrations for and against removal were held in the park next to the statue.

By May, debate had flared into controversy. A protest against removal made national news when over a hundred white supremacists circled Lee’s statue in the night. They wielded flaming torches designed to spark memories of white robes and burning crosses, listened to a brief speech, and posted dramatic photos of the event.

In July, controversy escalated when forty Klan members from North Carolina gathered at the statue and were outnumbered by residents with different views. Police quickly dispersed the visitors and, inexplicably, used tear gas against counter-protestors and bystanders. This brought national news coverage.

White supremacist leaders immediately seized the news cycle and organized a protest against removal for August 12. Richard Spencer, national leader of the movement, and Jason Kessler, a graduate of the University of Virginia, aimed to create a potent political force of nationalists, white supremacists, Confederates, Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other sympathizers.

*

On that sunny Saturday morning of August 12, 2017, I stood on my balcony and watched hundreds and hundreds of white men and some women march toward Lee Park. They kept to the sidewalks, walked two abreast in an unending line, and crossed Jefferson Street exactly where I do. Definitely in my space.

Many of the marchers wore shirts embellished with Nazi symbols and others dressed in full military camouflage. Most carried something: stout wood batons, swastika embellished shields, Confederate and Nazi flags on long poles. Almost all of them wore ominous boots – heavy boots made for kicking. I thought of George Orwell’s definition of Nazi jackboots, footwear for those who “want to behave tyrannically." The strangers walked between the Jewish Synagogue and the Catholic Church, oblivious to former adversaries who now share an intersection. It took a long time for them to pass.

I considered the police chief’s plea to stay away from the park, to stay home. It was reasonable advice. Last night in the dark, some three hundred white supremacists – without permission or notice – carried flaming torches through Mr. Jefferson’s university. They chanted Nazi slogans and chanted “White Lives Matter.” When their march ended at the Rotunda, they used flames and mace against UVA students gathered there. Even so, my desire to see the crowd, to hear what they had to say, simply to bear witness, was too strong to resist. I left for the park, didn’t take my dog.

Police barricades blocked my way to the park. Second Street was closed to public use and filled with squad cars, a big black van, and a tank-like vehicle. Officers crowded into the north side of the park, wore black uniforms and helmets, held shields and truncheons. Surprised and uncomfortable with this police presence, I also found it reassuring. The authorities took the threat of danger seriously.

I walked the long way around the park to Market Street and joined bystanders and counter-protestors, young and old, women and men, black, brown, and white. We watched in silence as marchers shuffled up six steps to enter the park. The sun shone in a soft blue sky, a gentle breeze moved treetops. Surely it was too pretty, too beautiful a summer day for anything bad to happen. Yet I was relieved to see that the stranger was not on his bench.

Then I saw the guns, not many, but enough. Long guns pointed over shoulders and black, stick-like weapons made familiar by television and movies nestled against chests with fingers splayed across trigger mounts. Two men had flung their guns across their backs, leaving arms and hands free. Somehow this casual stance was the more menacing.

As I registered shock and apprehension, the marchers began to chant.

“You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”

Sound rose, flowed over us into streets, houses, churches, impossible to ignore. Loud, deep, male voices became a rhythmic roar.

“You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”

And again, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.”

And again, and again, and again.

That’s when I got it. They were not here to voice an opinion about a statue or to form a political movement. They came to intimidate, to assert superiority, to claim their rights over the rights of others. Their words were meant for me and those with whom I stood, to all who did not share their beliefs. Stung, I registered their animosity.

Who were these strangers whose values differed so drastically from mine? I couldn’t imagine a way to cross the chasm they had exposed. Distress and fear closed my throat, dried my mouth. I moved behind a stop sign, seeking the protection of its slender pole.

When the park could hold no more, marchers filled the intersection and flowed into Market Street. The ten-foot strip of asphalt separating counter-protestors from marchers soon disappeared. From my stop sign, I heard verbal challenges, insults, foul words. Saw when words became pushes, shoves, fists. Saw water bottles hurled in the air, batons raised over heads, metal poles swung at the fallen. Transfixed, I watched as though at a movie, a slow-motion movie.

Someone shouted in my direction, “Back up, back up, they’re surging this way.”

Another shout, “They’re using gas.”

Time for me to leave.

I took the safest and longest way home, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. I walked the length of the lifeless, silent mall. Shops, restaurants, and bars were shut tight, some windows covered with plywood.

You may have heard how the day ended.

Heather Heyer, an anti-racist activist, was killed when a marcher from Ohio drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters. He injured thirty-five people, nineteen seriously, some permanently.

State troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates flew above the scene, monitoring the rally. They saw the car crash into the crowd and reacted in horror. Minutes later both died when the helicopter crashed. Their recorded exclamations helped convict the driver of murder.

DeAndre Harris, a young black man, was beaten by six white marchers at the entrance to the city parking garage next door to the police station. The marchers used boots, a metal rod, and their flag poles. They ran away when people came to Harris’s aid. I wondered, one had to ask, would they have killed him?

Yes, they probably would have.

*

Nine days after the rally, I again watched strangers walk past my balcony on their way to Lee Park. They held those cardboard glasses for watching a solar eclipse and carried blankets, snacks for children, chairs for grandparents. I hastily fashioned a primitive viewer from a Shredded Wheat box and joined them. This time I took my dog.

These strangers made room for one another, crowded together to make space, welcomed me. We stood with our backs to Lee’s statue, looked up to a cloudy, overcast sky, cheered when the clouds cleared. We shared the moment the moon almost obliterated the sun, united by awe and thoughts of eternity.

Was the darkness a portent of disaster? Maybe.

When the sun slowly reappeared, we shared that, too.

A glimmer of hope? Probably not. Too much hate released, too much to contain, too much to forget.

When the moon moved away from the sun, it began to rain. Soon I was alone in the park. Just me and General Lee. I looked at him, long and hard.

By natural inclination and a legal education, I usually weigh the merits of controversial positions, identify complications, revel in ambiguity, search for compromise, step back from judgment. Not this time. In the soft rain, I considered who Lee had been, a man who fought for the right to enslave human beings and profit from their labor, killing those who objected. I saw who he is now, a poisonous symbol of twentieth-century hate.

No, I can’t find a way to live with Lee, cannot accommodate all he and his statue represent. Maybe Charlottesville is not where I should be, is not where I belong.

*

In the months that followed the rally, Virginia’s legislature wrested the management of war memorials from local control. It seems that Lee is here to stay, frozen astride his horse, gazing into a vacant distance.

Charlottesville retreated. A newly elected city council again changed the park’s name. The evocative “Emancipation Park” became harmless “Market Street Park.” At first, I was disappointed that the city abandoned this single change, a symbol of incremental progress. Eventually though, I came to support the decision, if not the reasons for it.

Emancipation does not exist as long as the statue stands.

About the Author

Gerry Moohr

Gerry Moohr lives and writes in Houston and Minneapolis. As a law professor she wrote academic essays for law reviews and now writes creative essays for literary journals. Her work has appeared in Shards, JustVibe Houston, and Gray Matter.