Maybe the biggest lesson we learned from, what might have been, the world’s most uneventful pro-Confederate rally is no matter how civil dialogue is during a protest, concrete progress can’t be made when no one is actually listening.
Protests do little to change public opinion. They’re all about shouting. They’re about being heard but not being listened to. Everyone talks at each other, not to each other. Everyone is set on their own opinions and make little to no effort to hear what anyone else has to say, which prevents us from making any changes. They’re a metaphor for where we are as a country. After witnessing what took place that day, I don’t know how progress is going to be made.
I walked with the crowd down Broad Street to Main Street before ending up on Monument Avenue in Stuart Circle directly surrounding the Robert E. Lee statue. After hearing a few chants and witnessing a screaming match between protesters, the focus shifted to a woman and a man having a discussion.
A White, middle-aged man with a gun in the holster attached to his belt came out to show his support for the monuments. A Black, middle-aged woman wearing a lime green “Madea Gets a Job” t-shirt came out to show her support for the removal of the statues and stand in solidarity with other people of color. The two stood face-to-face, shook hands and introduced themselves before they began speaking.
They started by discussing why they were there. He argued the statues are a piece of history that represent the accomplishments America has made and therefore should not be removed. She argued the statues represent oppression and are a constant form of disrespect.
“To the majority of us out here it represents something negative. After everything that happened in Charlottesville, it’s here now so we’re exercising our right,” she said.
Freedom of speech quickly became the topic of discussion as both sides practiced their right to speech while arguing they were being discouraged to do so.
“When I was trying to assert my first amendment right over there what did I get? I got nothing but yelled at,” he said. “You all want me to respect you but you turn around and won’t let me execute my constitutional right.”
Someone to my left yelled that the man wasn’t a victim. While he may not have been “the victim” in the situation, the man’s statement was valid. Regardless of how different the opposing viewpoints are nothing is accomplished when there’s nothing but screaming. You can argue that his viewpoint was wrong, racist or ignorant and I’m not saying we have to be agreeable with nazis or White supremacists but nothing will change if there isn’t any real dialogue.
They moved on to discuss what would happen to the monuments if they were removed. The general consensus was that the statues should go in a museum where people who want to look at it can and those that don’t, don’t have to.
“Just because it’s been here a long time doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s a win/win situation if it goes into a museum,” she said.
The man expressed his concern for the end result of putting them in a museum, arguing that protests will still occur and the statues will have to be erased completely.
“We’re not erasing anything. A museum is a place of choice, this is not a choice,” she said. “This is forced on us.”
The sentiment of the statues is what the man argued he was in support of. He said he didn’t care about the “racial stuff” these statues represent and sees them as a way to honor men that fought in this country. The “racial stuff” he was referring to is exactly what the woman was trying to get across to him.
The woman was the key facilitator of this conversation and ensured that everyone’s voices were heard. She listened to the man and let others speak and responded directly to what was said. It wasn’t just a jumble of angry thoughts that she couldn’t wait to get out. It was intelligent and organized and was different from anything I’ve ever seen during a protest.
When the conversation was over, the police thanked everyone for being peaceful and thanked the woman for taking the situation into her own hands. The man and woman hugged before exchanging goodbyes and the crowd dispersed.
While much of the conversation was civil and some good points were made without anyone raising their voices, very little was actually accomplished. At the end of the discussion the man explained that while he respects the woman and the counter-protesters his opinion is not going to change.
People are still angry, the statues are still here and everyone went to sleep that night comfortable with where they stand on this issue. Every time we get close to some kind of breakthrough there’s one common factor that’s always present — the act of listening.