She was 32 years old, her favorite color was purple. She was a waitress and a paralegal. She lived in an apartment with her chihuahua, Violet. She loved people and wanted the best for everyone she encountered. She felt the world so deeply that any story of hate or oppression could bring her to tears. She stood up for the things that she believed in. And because of this, she was killed- one week ago today the world lost a beautiful soul to the hands of hate. Her name was Heather Heyer; she was murdered when a car intentionally plunged into a crowd of counter-protestors who were ensuring that their own voices would drown out the hate spewing from the white supremacists who had charged into Charlottesville.
I didn’t know her, but I’ve known countless like her. Her death strikes a deep chord with me because she could have easily been one of my friends, my family, myself. She was one of us; she had a compassionate soul which left her no choice but to feel the beauty and pain so evident in this world right down to the core of her being. She was one of us; she never hesitated to stand up for those who couldn’t, give help and strength to those in need. She was vibrant and beautiful, inside and out. She followed her heart, even when it led to her death; she was one of us.
She was only a few years older than me. She worked in the same field as I do; and anyone in legal will tell you that it takes a very special type of person with a very odd sense of humor to handle what you see. She got the job because of who she was, because of how hard she worked- she got the job with a high school diploma and elbow grease, as the saying goes; just like I did. She wanted to help people, she went to rallies and protests and gave a voice to the things that mattered to her; it could have been me standing there, it could have been my sister, my mom, my friends. We have all marched in those lines, we have held our signs and chanted those words. We have all looked at this world of our and tried to make it better. She was one of us.
Some days I feel like I’m lost in Oz, in a land full of tin men who have lost their hearts and scarecrows who don’t know how to think for themselves. The only problem is that they don’t realize it. I remember when relatives and friends were posting sentiments to social media about ramming cars into crowds of protestors because “if they are in the street stopping traffic, they deserve it.” I remember being shocked (and from a girl who has spent ten years in the court system, very little still has the power to shock me). I remember trying to have conversations with them about it- every time they deflected with jokes that they thought were so damn funny- until now when they’re not. Jokes and laughter can be an outlet, but they can also normalize behavior and give people ideas that they are better off not having. My heart broke back then, and it’s breaking now because of the silence exhibited by these same people. They were so quick to laugh and makes jokes at the idea, and yet now that it is once again a poignant reality- they view the subject as too serious and taboo to touch. So they are silent.
The other day a woman who I have known and respected for years made a snide comment about the death of this beautiful woman. “You can’t get killed in a protest if you are at work.” I am still in shock at the callous response from someone who claims to be a good, religious woman, someone who is an involved member of her community, someone who used to bring bright smiles to my day when I was running short of my own. How do you respond to that kind of hatred? How do you react when someone shrugs their shoulders and points the finger at the victim? What happened to our hearts? If it had been me- someone she has known for years, I wonder if her reaction would have been different. I wonder if she would have been sad, or lit a candle in my memory. I wonder if she would have decried the hate that took the life of someone she had known for a decade. Or would she have shrugged her shoulders, thinking I was partially to blame for simply being there. Would her response have been different? And if it had- why? Why would one life matter more than another?
People keep telling me that you can’t look at Charlottesville as if it is a microcosm; you must view the whole picture, and the whole picture isn’t full of that much hate. They tell me that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that these people- the ones who marched through a town carrying torches and screaming Nazi slogan- they are rare, and as such should not be given the attention that we have shown. While I agree with this to a degree- I am still too cautious to nod my head and look the other way.
You see, there were lessons to be learned from Charlottesville, and yet a lot of them were ones that did not present themselves until days later. I agree that most people will denounce the type of open racism we saw last week. And yet in the days that followed I still saw a lot of shoulder shrugging, a lot of jokes, a lot of excuses and red herrings, a lot of people who turned away and found something else to distract them. In the days that followed I saw our bigger problem; and it is in the subtle actions that decry our lack of compassion, our biases that reside just below the surface, our heartless responses to moments of pain and fear. It is etched into the complete lack of empathy for anyone who is even remotely different from those we view as being a part of ‘our tribe,’ whether we chose religion, race, sex, philosophical viewpoints, etc- as the markers for that tribe. We have lost our sympathy and our compassion for anyone outside of our bubble. The river does not need to become a tidal wave to cause damage; it is usually the calmly flowing stream that can erode the banks and change the flow of the river entirely. Our problem is not solely with the blatant hate and prejudice that we saw last week; it is the more subtle daily interactions we have with one another. It is the way people respond to someone different, in the way they so easily dismiss another’s concerns. It is in the fact that members of my own family thought it was funny to joke about how satisfying it would be to ram their car into a crowd of protestors knowing that I have been in those crowds. It is in the fact that I can bring this to their attention- and they will dismiss my words and my concern. They will refuse to have a simple conversation; they will dismiss me and say they were only joking. It is a cold world that will find this funny.
There’s this interesting concept in the world today where people seem to think that they can dictate how others should interpret the world around them. You don’t get to tell someone that what they experienced wasn’t racism. It’s not your job to roll your eyes and tell her she was mistaken- that wasn’t sexism. You don’t get to tell people what lenses they need to view their life through. Your job is to ask a question, to open a dialog and figure out why they feel that way. Perhaps both parties will learn something new about the other. You see, our backgrounds, our appearances, our modes of speech and residence will create the life experiences that shape the lenses we view the world through. It’s easier to be blind to racism or sexism- or any other ‘ism’- if you do not have to experience it yourself. It was easy for people to tell me that sexism wasn’t a problem- and yet I remember when my friend’s boss openly told her that they almost didn’t hire her because she was a woman. People rolled their eyes and said that age discrimination wasn’t a thing- but I still remember the day that a customer refused to let me help him because I ‘looked too young to know what I was doing.’ So instead he waited for the older woman next to me to be available- ironically, she was the woman I was training at the time. It was easy for people to tell me that racism wasn’t a problem; and yet they never stopped to listen when I repeated the stories from my biracial cousin. We share the same blood, we were raised the same way- and yet the world treats us in very different ways. The last time a cop stopped me it was to ask if I was okay and if I needed anything. And yet when he would get stopped, he would be questioned and treated with suspicion- every time. Just because you do not see something through the same lens as another person does not give you a right to discount their experiences. That is not a decision for you to make.
Tonight I am angry, I am sad, and I am at a loss for what to do. There has been so much hate; some more blatant than others, but the subtle kind has been just as dangerous. The problem with our problems is that people want to remain blind. Admitting that there is an issue means admitting that we all have a part to play in it. I’m exhausted with the perpetual hate. I am so damn tired of everyone pointing the finger in a hundred different directions instead of where it belongs. We did this, and we have to fix this. We have to look within ourselves and confront our own monsters and biases. We have to own our experiences and accept that there are a million different viewpoints out there; each one as credible as your own. We have to stop dismissing one another and turning our backs to the problems that we believe don’t directly effect us. We have to find our hearts again, we have to have compassion and empathy. We have to start wearing each other’s shoes and walking for miles through their complex and beautiful lives. We have to stand up and speak out when something is wrong. We have to be patient enough to have meaningful conversations, and above all we have to learn how to listen. We have to share our stories so that people can begin to see the world through another lens. We all have something valuable to add to this conversation, we all have a responsibility to one another to speaks our truths.
Tonight I ask two simple things; if there is nothing else you ever take away from me or these words I’ve tossed out into the world, I pray you take these to heart. First: remember those brave souls like Heather Heyer- those courageous lions who got up every single day with their hearts on their sleeves. Remember the people who felt compelled by their own compassion to go out into the world and attempt to make it better than it was yesterday. Remember them tonight- these real flesh and blood people who deserved more than what they got.
And the next thing I ask: emulate them. Just because the world can hurt you, just because the pain can be so overwhelming- please, don’t ever stop feeling. Don’t ever turn your head away- witness this. Both the beautiful and the painful deserve to be seen and remembered. See this world for what it is and also for all of the potential that it holds. Be kind, be compassionate, tell stories and listen, please for the love of all that is good- listen to the words of others. Don’t dismiss them, talk to them. Be kind. Be human. It is a blessing and a curse to feel the world so deeply- never stop feeling it. That is the only thing that will change all of this. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to throw some kindness back into the world, to shine a light into all of its dark places. Be a lightning rod for change, use your own kind words and gentle actions to force others to see you and what you are doing. Remind people that there is hope and good still exists. Don’t ever let them forget.