Protest Clashes in Virginia Prompt Church Statements on Racism

Saturday, August 12, a planned “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA turned to violence and tragedy as Ku Klux Klan, National Socialist Party (Nazi), and “Alt-Right” rally-goers clashed with Black Lives Matter and Anti-Fascist (Antifa) counter-protesters.  

Jason Kessler, organizer of the rally and University of Virginia graduate, told a local radio station in Charlottesville that “Unite the Right” was supposed to be a show of support for a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  The embattled statue has been the topic of discussion since March of this year, when the town decided upon its removal.  It is located in Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park.  “We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration,” Kessler said. “We’re trying to show that folks can stand up for white people.”  Kessler denies that he is a white supremacist.  

In response to the announced rally, counter-protesters descended on the park.  “Charlottesville is mobilizing,” said Mimi Arbeit, an organizer of the counter-demonstrators.  “We cannot allow the rise of white supremacy.  Ignoring the Klan in the 1920s is precisely what allowed them to terrorize and murder black people in Charlottesville.  We cannot allow that history to be repeated.” Chaos erupted when the counter-protesters and protesters assaulted each other.

History of Conflict

Charlottesville is no stranger to conflict between these two parties. Just a month previously on July 9, a similar but much less violent rally took place in Justice Park, formerly Jackson Park. The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had 30-50 members who journeyed from North Carolina to protest the city council’s decision to remove the Lee statue in the neighboring Emancipation Park. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and Democratic Socialists counter-protested the neo-Nazi gathering. Small skirmishes broke out, resulting in 23 arrests but no deaths.

A month later, tragedy struck Emancipation Park as Ohio resident James Alex Fields, Jr, 20, allegedly drove a Dodge Challenger intentionally into the crowd of clashing protesters and counter-protesters. The act killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounded 19 others. Fields was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. He was denied bond Monday after the public defender’s office said it could not represent him.

Additionally, a police helicopter crash killed Virginia State Police Officers Lt. Jay Cullen and Tpr. Berke M.M. Bates. The helicopter had been monitoring the violence.

State of Emergency

By 11 am on Saturday, Virginia Governor Terry McAullife declared a state of emergency. This was done moments before “Unite the Right” was scheduled to begin at noon in Emancipation Park. Police declared an unlawful assembly forty minutes later and ordered all occupants to leave Emancipation Park.

In all, the event led to 4 arrests, 38 injuries, and 3 deaths. President Trump issued two statements, first saying, “We all must be united and condemn all that hate stands for.  There is no place for this kind of violence in America.  Let’s come together as one!” He condemned “In the strongest possible terms” the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” and urged, “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order.”  

Because President Trump did not specifically denounce the white nationalists or neo-Nazis, many individuals criticized his response. He issued a second response Monday, stating, “To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered…Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Initial Response From the Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued this response Sunday:

“It is with great sadness and deep concern that we view the violence, conflict and tragedy of recent days in Charlottesville, Virginia. People of any faith, or of no faith at all, should be troubled by the increase of intolerance in both words and actions that we see everywhere.

“More than a decade ago, the late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008) addressed the topic of racism when speaking to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He powerfully and clearly taught this principle: ‘No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.’ For members of the Church, we reaffirm that teaching today and the Savior’s admonition to love our neighbor.

“Our prayers are with those who are suffering because of this intolerance and hatred. We pray for peace and for understanding. Above all, we pray that we may treat one another with greater kindness, compassion and goodness.”

Updated Response From the Church

The Church later followed up with this update to their response:

“It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament, Jesus said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39). The Book of Mormon teaches “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).

White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a “white culture” or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”

Be Not Moved

As Millennial Mormons, we live in a day when it seems hatred and violence are increasing. These weekend protests came on the heels of relatively recent, violent, race-fueled riots that have rocked our nation’s cities. Many feel that race relations are at their lowest point in the United States since the 1960s.  

We are warned in the scriptures that in the last days, “all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men’s hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people.” (D&C 88:91) We must not forget that we chose to come here—this is our time. We cannot choose how others behave, but we have full control over our reaction to their behavior.  It is vital that we remember that by following the teachings of He who calmed raging seas with two simple words, we can find peace and happiness amidst chaos. Let us “stand in holy places, and be not moved” by the tumult around us.

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