17 August 2017

Charlottesville, August 12, 2017

Today on my way down to Charlottesville for the counter-protest I find myself listening to Joel Orsteen radio.  He’s a southern televangelist, a radio-evangelist I guess.  I figure it’s good preparation for a counter-protest sponsored by the clergy.  And also I forgot to download any podcasts.  

I’m listening defensively; I’m waiting for the sexism and homophobia and racism that I am sure is coming, but it doesn’t.  Joel’s simple message, repackaged twenty different ways over three hours of driving, is that God is in control.  We can all basically relax.  

I do not exactly feel relaxed.  As I drive, I field phone calls from various family members imploring me to turn around.  They are home watching CNN and things are not looking good.  My sister and I confer over the phone and decide to press on - she has heard from the ACLU’s twitter account that the Nazi protest has been disbanded, and the clergy-sponsored counter-protest is regrouping.  There’s like, singing and drums and stuff.  It seems the danger is over.  I finally arrive at the edge of UVA’s campus. Casey calls me again.  

"Where are you?"
"Almost there," I tell her.
"Ok, stay in your car," her voice sounds tight and I can hear her breathing in short little pants like she is running. "We just saw a car drive into a whole group of people. Oh watch out, car! CAR! Shit, I'll call you back."

My heart drops into my stomach and then keeps on going.  My hands shake against the steering wheel.  I turn off Joel, even though he was about to tell me how God could get me out of debt.

Despite my declared pacifism, my thoughts turn immediately to violence.  'I will drive down there, leap out of my car, beat Nazis senseless with my bare fists, whisk my sister to safety, and get the fuck out of town,' I think to myself.  

Then I remember that I'm not Rambo or something, but a pudgy thirty-three year old mother of two.  I amend my violent fantasy: 'I will go home, join a gym, and get really buff so next time I can beat Nazis senseless with my bare fists.' Even in my fantasies I know there’s going to be a next time.  

I drive through Charlottesville knowing this terrible thing has happened, but I guess no one else knows.  Joggers, sorority girls, and dog-walkers are all going about a totally normal Saturday.  Surely they know about last night's tikki torch march, though? I literally haven't seen a single police officer. A pair of private security guards loiter under the bridge at 14th street, and on the other side some guys in polo shirts walk by, undisturbed.  I realize with a sickening chill that I don't know what a white supremacist looks like.  And then I further realize that they look a lot like me.  

I arrive on the scene about seven minutes after the crash.  After the attack.  The scene is chaos, people walking and limping everywhere, a snarl of ambulances and police cars and fire trucks in the middle of a crowd of people.  I park my car and jump out with my little first aid kit and jog towards the fray.

It is awful.  It’s like a diorama about human frailty; about how bodies just . . . break.  My fantasies of violence are not compatible with this.  I can't stand here and think I am powerful, my body is just as fragile as these people lying all over the damn road.  It will still be fragile even if I do crossfit.  It will still be fragile even if I have a gun, or an army, or a nuclear bomb.  I am this soft, delicate, thing. All of us are.

And all I can think is, ‘God is in control.’ We are not in control and we cannot be.  And that does not make everything ok, because things here are very, very not ok. But maybe it is just enough to give us the courage to keep going.  To not curl into a ball right here on the asphalt.  To get up tomorrow and go to another rally.  

Mercifully, I can retreat into doctor-mode.  I haven't even reached the first cop car when I get to the first victim. He is lying on the ground being tended by street medics.  I offer up my help, which at this point mostly involves keeping him talking.  There's a zigzag cut over his left eye that might turn into a pretty cool Harry Potter scar.  His right leg bends out at an unnatural angle.  The street medics have put gauze and an instant ice pack on it and both are steadily turning red.  I stabilize his C-spine and say encouraging things as the ambulances drive by, one after another, passing him for the more seriously injured.  Some folks in Black Lives Matter shirts and a couple clergy members in robes hold a banner over him, shading him from the sun; I hand them water bottles from my backpack.

Finally his number is up.  Since I'm a fancy doctor, they let me count to three as we log-roll him onto a backboard and then again when we transfer him onto the stretcher.  I stand as the EMT's ferry him away onto the ambulance, and Casey suddenly materializes next to me.  Relief washes over me like an actual wave. We hug and her frame feels small in my arms.  It occurs to me that her skeleton probably looks like a child’s skeleton.  

Casey and I on a different, but safer, adventure.

We linger for a little while, taking in the surreal scene.  Antifas in combat boots and ministers in robes, police in riot gear, EMT’s in red and black uniforms, right wing militiamen in fatigues, lots of white dudes in polo shirts who could be anybody really.  There’s the crowds that show up at any protest about anything - the anti-choice bus with pictures aborted fetuses and the topless white women with dreadlocks who are against globalization.  It looks like a natural disaster has struck a really weird American history themed LARP event.  

I spend a lot of time that day trying to get myself together enough to drive home.  My residual terror has manifested particularly in my GI tract and I spend a lot of time in the bathroom while I try to take deep breaths.  Near nightfall I drive back into town, to the Harris Teeter where I used to buy wine for study breaks, and buy a bouquet of flowers.  I shoulder past a swarm of reporters and news cameras to place the flowers at the police barricade.  A single line of police behind their clear plastic riot shields look on.  I say a prayer and return to my car.  

I drive home in silence.  I’m still sitting with “God is in control.” I'm going home to snuggle my kids and get up again tomorrow, and I can’t stomach anymore Joel Orsteen tonight.