Commentary
By Whitney Parnell 8-10-2018

On Aug. 12, 2017, I woke up keenly aware that I might die. I reflected on this reality during my drive to Charlottesville, Va., with plans to stand up for love and peace against white supremacy.

I left Charlottesville physically unharmed, but scarred for life. I was scarred by the fact that Heather Heyer had been killed, that people, including friends, were injured in the terrorist attack, that my life had been blatantly threatened numerous times with people who chanted racial epithets and glared at me with their rifles, and that I had personally witnessed such intense vitriol towards my very existence. I drove away convinced that I would never return.

But I did return a year later, with the understanding that Aug. 12 was just day one for Charlottesville residents — local activists and people of color must deal with its effects on a daily basis through constant threats and reminders of the extent to which hatred can go. The national narrative has acknowledged the demonstration of white supremacy as a historic event. It flooded the headlines for a few weeks, but moved on to the next thing. But those of us who were involved are forever impacted. The song that I wrote, “Fingerprints,” articulates that impact, and it is a heartfelt tribute of solidarity to my Charlottesville siblings (proceeds will go to the Charlottesville Resilience Fund).

As I recognize the anniversary of that fateful weekend, and unpack my own resurgence of emotions and nightmares that come with trauma, I find myself navigating four critical truths.

1. The only way to stop a virus of oppression is to diagnose and address it.

Charlottesville was horrible, and a significant aspect of my trauma was due to shock from unfathomable sights of white supremacists freely marching through the city. What shattered me most was seeing blatant symptoms of a virus that has always been here — a wound that was arguably getting worse rather than healing. This country was founded on white supremacy. If we ever want to achieve true healing and equity then we must acknowledge what we are addressing at its root. We must be willing to work toward dismantling systems of harm, so that we can build a better world that we have never known, a world where there is enough for everyone.

2. We need everyone who is on the side of social justice to show up.

We can only fathom achieving a just world if we have enough people actively working towards it. Showing up means publicly acknowledging wrong. I often ask myself what I will be able to tell the younger generation 30 years from now about my actions during this critical point of history when seemingly all marginalized communities were being attacked, civil liberties were being threatened, and hatred was openly emboldened. Will I be able to say that I showed up?

Too often, I hear commentary about agreeing with the cause, but not the tactic, that certain approaches are too divisive or extreme. I think about people who praise Martin Luther King Jr. and simultaneously criticize Black Lives Matter, even though the movement uses Dr. King’s organizing tactics as a template for present-day mobilization, and other ironic statements about what it means to fight for justice. Protesting and physically showing up have value. Activists DeRay McKesson and Brittany Packnett constantly share how protesting is stating the truth publicly and out loud. Speaking truth to power should not be seen as threatening or aggressive. It is critical to working towards our ideal world.

3. Follow and align with those directly affected.

We must let our siblings of color lead the movements. Those closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution yet seem to receive the most criticism when it comes to their approach to liberation work. As a black activist, I realize that even this piece may be met with accusations of aggression or division from those who wish to see justice accompanied with comfort.

Many people who agree with the goals of justice are in until it becomes uncomfortable or requires risk. Allyship does not mean that we should be void of fear; it means we should still show up despite our fear. Allyship means assuming the risk of marginalized, but it also means recognizing that by participating, allies’ presence actually subtracts risk. I am often fearful when showing up in this work, particularly when I am standing up to address my own oppression. A sense of relief rushes over me in settings when I note that the number of white people outweighs the number of black and brown people. Scenarios like that indicate to me that I have more of a likelihood of walking out safely.

4. Love must win.

Our voices must be louder than the hatred. Dr. King did not only discuss love in the form of unity, but the dangers of our complicity. He said, "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Too often, I hear allies state their opinions about justice behind closed doors, but remain silent or inactive when showing up really counts. Well-meaning loved ones who saw my struggles after Charlottesville often questioned my decision to show up, saying that we should not give hatred attention, or even that everyone deserves freedom of speech despite opposing views. I can tell you firsthand that Aug. 12 was not about freedom of speech. People organized with intentions to promote hatred and perpetuate harm, and my response to well-meaning onlookers is that wherever hatred shows up, love must always show up 10 times stronger to demonstrate that love will always win. Proverbs 31:9 says, “Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” If we believe that love should align with treating our neighbors justly, then we cannot do so in silence.

A year after Charlottesville, I find myself having the same thoughts and the same nightmares. But I also a have new feeling of dismay that this has come full-circle — the virus has spread from Charlottesville to my own home of Washington, D.C. Do we really have to do this all over again? Yes. Healing this virus is possible, but will take risk and a whole lot of energy. We cannot sit on sidelines expecting it to be someone else’s battle. We must show up with our full selves as much as possible. This doesn’t always mean putting our bodies on the line, but it does mean trying to align as much as possible with what is asked and required of us by our marginalized siblings. I maintain my hope by believing that more people will show up for good. For love to prevail, it requires our vigilance, diligence, and commitment to this work for the long haul. That must be a daily choice.

All “Fingerprints” song proceeds will be donated to the Charlottesville Community Resilience Fund.

Whitney Parnell is a rising black millennial activist and the co-founder and CEO of Service Never Sleeps (SNS).

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