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Vine and Fig: Charlottesville

fig tree

Charlottesville is my hometown. I grew up there from the age of seven, went to the public schools, was part of the active Jewish community as a kid, a UVA student, a young working adult. After last weekend’s events, I’m still struggling for what to say.

The Jewish recipe for fearlessness and a decent society is a lot different from the “blood and soil”,  “exercise your 2nd Amendment option” and other noxious fantasy slogans of the radical right, and it’s also different from the laissez-faire governmental and police attitudes that led to the violence in Charlottesville.

It’s  this:

“Everyone shall sit under his vine and fig and none shall make them afraid.”

Does it sound less believable than “blood and soil”? Less heroic? Which world would you rather live in?

Vine and fig sounds like a pretty simplistic recipe–only two ingredients, maybe three or four if you squint–vines, figs, sitting in your own garden without being disturbed or threatened.

Some people have confused the Vine and Fig model as passive, cowardly, sheltered, privileged. Not so. Ask anyone who grows grapes–or any food crop– for a living. To take it literally, growing plants for food successfully requires hard work. It takes looking ahead and choosing your actions today to improve your future–will you have plenty or will you have waste and starvation? Will you get to eat? If you forget to water–no crop. Overwater–rot at the roots. Plant at the wrong time of year, no crop. If you don’t transplant seedlings, your plants don’t grow and you get a late crop or none. You sure won’t get wine.

I’ve learned these things the hard way in the microcosm of my own backyard by trying them out.  I think they hold some lessons for society as well.

Everything that happened last weekend was magnified to national and international coverage one way and another. The news has been chewed and rechewed and comes down to the ugly fact that Virginia’s government, its laws and its court system failed all its residents badly, as did the federal judge who accepted the ACLU’s argument that out-of state white hate groups’ claims to first and second amendment rights and the right of free assembly should somehow outweigh the fundamental rights of local residents to be safe in their own community from threats of violence and harassment.

It’s not just the Confederate statues, which were the bald excuse. It’s not just the open-carry laws and the confusion of hate speech with free speech, for which the ACLU has taken one in the eye over the violence in Charlottesville and said they’re not going to continue defending hate groups for that in places like the Bay Area (where they’d have a lot less chance of winning, or is that by the bye?) Those arguments subverted the value of the first and second amendments as civil rights and turned them into excuses too.

It’s the favoritism and the vastly unequal application of the law. By any reasonable definition, the KKK, neo-Nazi and other white hate groups are gangs. They may not be running drugs or prostitution rings, but they’re certainly peddling open violence and amassing guns–plus explosives, plus caustic chemicals, plus plus plus. They’ve done most of their recruiting, paying, supplying and organizing online. It doesn’t sanitize them.

The white hate groups are not secretive about their aims to commit acts of violence and intimidation against minority groups and whole towns. Richard Spencer called on his online followers to harass and threaten a woman in his town in Montana a year or so ago because she’s Jewish. They’re gangs, and they should have been treated like gangs by the police, the city of Charlottesville, and the federal judge who I sincerely hope will have to account for his callousness in the ruling he gave.

Gangs do not get unfettered right of free assembly. They don’t get to amass weapons and carry guns anywhere they feel like and point them at whoever they feel like. They don’t get to throw caustic chemicals at people whose towns they invade or deface people’s property. They don’t get to run people over and  swarm around houses of worship during services, guns in hand.

Regional police and sheriff’s department networks typically collaborate extensively on gang-busting operations, often with state and federal help. Panting to participate–it’s pretty high-profile.

Unless the gangs are white, conservative, Christians, khaki-pant-wearers, perhaps? Unless the targeted victims are not?

Virginia gave the outside white hate groups a free ride and a red carpet, over the objections of Charlottesville residents, the University of Virginia and the city’s municipal government, until something bad enough actually happened. As it was bound to–who the hell couldn’t have predicted that white hate groups carrying guns and torches might actually commit acts of violence they’d been saying they wanted to commit? How else would it add up?

Last weekend, Charlottesville’s Jews were singled out by several of the out-of-town haters on Friday afternoon, before Friday night services and apparently in preparation for the march the next day. Three of them stood just outside the synagogue, sieg-heiling and waving semiautomatic weapons, pointing them at the doors several times. The synagogue had hired an armed guard, something they haven’t done regularly but which is standard for my congregation here in southern California, where Jewish community centers and synagogues have been attacked by gunmen in the past 20 years.

Saturday morning, Congregation Beth Israel had to usher its worshipers out a back exit away from the larger and riotous parade of the white hate groups, who were carrying even more guns openly as they swarmed through the downtown blocks and marched toward the synagogue’s front doors shouting death and destruction to Jews. The police were not visible on the scene. Yes, they were occupied elsewhere with active casualties, especially after Field drove his car into the crowd, but a token presence is one of the more effective tools our local police force lends us in Pasadena for as a deterrent. Even one or two police cars are an indication that the law is taking notice and that arrest is a possibility.

There appeared to be no major collaboration with other towns to send enough police to help handle the demonstrations. No significant restrictions on the permit terms. No other strategies that might have helped Charlottesville create a serious deterrent to violence. The police barriers were sufficient only to protect the rallyers, not the townspeople. That’s a really bad message to send.

If the out-of-state rallyers had been unarmed African Americans, or protesters demonstrating against violations of minority and women’s civil rights by the government, or taking away healthcare benefits, you know the state and federal response would have been a lot different. Protesters and reporters who confronted Republican congressmen or federal appointees earlier this year have been assaulted and arrested for “shouting,” asking questions at town hall meetings, even laughing.

This has been going on ever since–well, for a very long time in a wide variety of excuses and guises.  Open-carry gun laws and a long run of reactionary Republican leadership at the state and federal level have made it a lot worse, though.

I grieve for Heather Heyer and her family, and I’m grateful for hers, and her mother’s, forthright bravery. I grieve for the other local people who were injured by the rallyers last weekend, and I’m grateful for all the people who stepped forward to counter the white hate rally. They don’t deserve to have a bunch of out-of-town louts (or local ones) marching around brandishing guns and torches and harrassing them, using some generally ignored park statues as a poor excuse for the occasion.

However, the specific insult and harm that had already been done to the African American and Jewish communities in Charlottesville has gotten lost or ignored at the national level of op-eds and commentaries, and some of them have actually had the nerve to blame the African American residents and Charlottesville’s deputy mayor for the whole fracas because they dared to object to Confederate statues in their public parks. That’s shabby and fundamentally dishonest.

Last night’s Charlottesville city council meeting was disrupted by residents angry at how badly the city, the police and the mayor failed them. Police arrested three of them for disruption, but the protesters were numerous enough to insist they be released or they wouldn’t let the council meeting continue. The three were released. Mike Signer, the mayor, came in for the loudest blame, and shouted back that he tried, the city council tried, but the federal court made them allow the white hate rallyers in.

It’s true, technically. But they could have done more if they hadn’t been thinking so strictly along legal lines and had used some vine-and-fig strategies while the case was going forward.

Signer and Terry Sullivan, UVA’s president, had few obvious choices for what to do given the legal system in Virginia and the ACLU lawsuit that awarded white supremacist types the right to a march permit. Signer has since called for changes to the open-carry laws to give local jurisdictions more commonsense control over where guns can and can’t be carried. That will take a lot of time and pressure at the state level if he succeeds.

In the meantime, he and the city council could reasonably have made it a lot less attractive for hate groups to come to Charlottesville and cause trouble, no matter what the judge ruled. Charlottesville’s police force is limited but it could have done more, and so could the university. They had time to strategize beyond simply fighting the permit lawsuit. Some possibilities:

Checking all rallyers one by one for valid in-state gun licenses and out-of-state IDs before letting them onto the rally grounds at UVA and downtown. Ticketing and fining every violator, confiscating out-of-state weapons and all ammunition, not just the one concealed gun. A public ordinance barring all guns–or at least the ammunition–from any public demonstration within 500 feet (or the reasonable bullet range, whichever’s bigger) of any building. Stationing some police cars near vulnerable churches, the synagogue, and downtown residential areas and setting boundaries to keep marchers at least a certain distance from those houses of worship.

Second, take the toys away if you’re taking them away. Get those statues moved promptly.

Third–Lawn and Park Maintenance. A modest proposal:

The University of Virginia. For the love of G-d, didn’t Sullivan know students were arriving soon? The Lawn has always been kind of threadbare after Commencement–and much of the year. It requires maintenance. So does Charlottesville’s much-trodden downtown.

Well-timed Lawn Maintenance 101 calls for tilling, fertilizing, reseeding, watering, and posting some nasty little string fences at shin height, with signs saying Keep Off the Grass, Violators will be Prosecuted and various Uni policies and city ordinance numbers. Also signs with Closed for Spraying–Aegypti mosquitoes, ticks, black widow spiders…take your pick. A “closed to the public” date range of about a week and a half should ensure no one gets exposed to anything too toxic.

If you’re really trying to make a point, plant some flamingoes at close range. The pink detracts from the macho menace of tiki torches and head shields in all those Instagram photos.

But really, the key point is to support local family farms and cottage industries with a large purchase of manure. That plus strategically timed watering could have made the difference. It’s a lot less fun to try exercising all that white-makes-right brand of politics when you’re stepping in it. Those splashes are really hard to get out of khaki.

And speaking of…after this complete week of raw sewage in the news, an unnecessarily large pile of it coming from Donald Trump, I am sorely tempted to send a gift-wrapped roll of bath tissue (it’s the “paper anniversary,” still, isn’t it?) to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a card attached.

“President Trump, it’s obvious from your comments that you’re in way over your head and can’t tell which end is up anymore. Please, wipe your mouth.”

But I’m not really laughing, because as disgraceful as he’s been, and as much as he, the GOP, Bannon, and the white hate groups have all lost face over the events in Charlottesville, any and all of that has already come at too high a price.

My mother’s gone back down to Charlottesville this week to be with family and friends and try to help. She was the fiercest person I ever knew growing up and is still one of those people who can cut to the chase and get things done when everybody else is shrugging and wringing their hands and insisting it can’t be done. She’s a self-proclaimed short Jewish babe of almost 76, but who’s counting, she eschews all forms of khaki pants (don’t ask what she did to my dad’s that one time while he was taking a nap), and she’s a lot braver than any of the white hate groupies: she’s not schlepping a gun.

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