What happened in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, Aug. 12, when white supremacists and counter-protesters violently clashed — leaving a counter-protester and two state policeman dead and at least 36 injured — should give all of us here in Dallas pause.
The protest rally — staged by members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white extremists — erupted in an armed battle between the alt-right groups and anti-fascist activists and other civil rights proponents. They met in a city park, recently renamed Emancipation Park, where a statue of the park’s former namesake, Gen. Robert E. Lee, still stands — for now.
Law enforcement quickly ordered everyone to clear the Virginia park when it became clear both sides arrived ready to fight. But the melee merely moved to the streets of the small college town.
Television coverage of the riot showed both sides engaged in savagery, with baseball bats and other weapons drawn.
Before the day was over, one of the white supremacists drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one woman, and a helicopter carrying two state policemen monitoring the riot crashed.
Police arrested the driver, who had marched with one of the white supremacist groups, on a murder charge, and his compatriots immediately started distancing themselves from him for legal liability reasons.
Was the carnage preventable? Maybe.
As efforts to rename Dallas’ Lee Park in Oak Lawn , to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from that park and to remove other Confederate monuments in the city, including one near City Hall, gain momentum, we could find ourselves in a similar crisis. And it would probably dwarf the riot in Virginia because of our city’s greater size and long-simmering racial tensions.
I have long resisted the idea of removing the statue and renaming Lee Park, because the older I get the more important preserving history is to me. Anything built before my birth in 1949, I would like to see left standing when I die. And I am a Southerner.
Also, prominent African-Americans, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have advocated leaving names and monuments in place as a reminder of progress.
“I want us to have a look at the names and recognize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and have a sense of their own history,” rice said in an interview with the New York Daily News earlier this year.
I thought that the monuments might be modified to better explain the history of slavery, the Confederacy and the Civil War — something to make them less offensive to African-Americans whose ancestors suffered in slavery.
At least, that’s how I felt before the horrific events in Charlottesville. My feelings changed the day after the riot.
Looking at an image of Lee on his horse on television I saw it in a different light. It had become sort of frightening, considering that it had inspired white supremacists to rally.
Of course, getting the monuments removed without more violent confrontations could be a challenge.
I’ve noticed younger civil rights activists these days seem to be more prone to the idea of engaging in warfare to achieve their goals. And white supremacists seem to be more aggressive than in recent decades past, when they began a public relations campaign to sway public opinion in their favor.
These white supremacists now seem more emboldened to act brazenly during their rallies, which are designed to attract more white people to their cause. They want large, jeering crowds of counter-protesters because it gives them more publicity in newspapers and on television programs.
Charlottesville was a bonanza for the white supremacists.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in an editorial the day of the Charlottesville riot that President Donald J. Trump energized the radical right movement from Day One of his presidential campaign with his racial and xenophobic rhetoric.
He noted that David Duke, a longtime leader in the white nationalist movement, views Trump as a champion of the alt right.
“This is a fascist movement that threatens not only extremist violence but our democracy as well,” Cohen said.
SPLC, which has monitored white supremacists for almost a half-century, recommends that counter protesters not engage with the groups at their rallies, but instead hold peace rallies in separate locations. Law enforcement should create a buffer between opposing groups to help prevent confrontations that begin with name-calling and quickly advance to shoving and the throwing of projectiles, that organization adds.
If they descend on Dallas, we should gather somewhere else for a big picnic — lots of fried chicken, potato salad and iced tea should be on the menu. Let the white supremacists eat crow — alone.
David Webb is a veteran journalist with more than four decades of experience, including a stint as a staff reporter for Dallas Voice. In 2016, he received the Press Club of Dallas’ Legends Award, bestowed in large part for his work with Dallas Voice. He now lives on Cedar Creek Lake and writes for publications nationwide.