Trump Is Wrong. Columbia Isn’t Anything Like Charlottesville

Last Thursday, Donald Trump stood in the hallway of a Manhattan courtroom, where he is on trial for falsifying his business records, and once again attempted to rewrite history. Comparing the antiwar protests now spreading across college campuses to the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, Trump claimed Charlottesville was “nothing…[like] the kind of hate that you have here.” The night before, Trump had written on Truth Social, “Charlottesville is like a peanut compared to the riots and anti-Israel protests that are happening all over our country.”

Meanwhile, Trump has been echoed by a chorus of politicians, including Democrats like Senator John Fetterman (D-PA), who tweeted, “Add some tiki torches and it’s Charlottesville for these Jewish students,” and Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), who opined that, “I know the people saying this aren’t, you know, white Aryan males with tiki torches, but they have the same message.”

From the standpoint of those who lived through these events, the comparison is not only unwarranted. It is not only unreasonable. It is, ultimately, unconscionable.

I survived the deadly violence in Charlottesville, and am now a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia who studies organized hate in America. Between what I, as a Jew, experienced in 2017, and what we are witnessing on campuses today, there is a world of difference.

In the first instance, what I saw was a small army of paramilitaries invading a college town, armed with guns, knives, baseball bats, and chemical weapons, with the blessing of the local courts and the protection of the state police. In the second instance, what we see is a grassroots coalition of college students and campus workers, not unlike the one that defended Charlottesville in August 2017, facing mass arrests, less-lethal munitions, and political prosecutions.

The very same day Trump made those remarks, I was at Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment. There I met the student occupiers, many of them Jewish, calling for the university to divest from apartheid. Among the tents and the tarps and the donated dinners, a pop-up gallery of homemade signs was visible—from “Welcome to the People’s University” to “Columbia Stop Sucking Challenge”—yet none exhibited any trace of anti-Semitism. Intermittent chants for a “Free, free Palestine” could be heard resounding across the Morningside Heights campus, but none carried even a hint of anti-Jewish sentiment. And apart from the pro-war protesters, there was no violence to speak of.

The contrast with Charlottesville could not be starker.

On August 11 and 12, 2017, I watched as a horde of hundreds of anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant activists—some hailing from groups with familiar names like the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist Movement, others from novel mutations like Identity Evropa and Vanguard America—descended on Charlottesville to answer the call from the League of the South: “If you want to defend the South and Western Civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville.”

I, on the other hand, had come to town with a group of anti-racist researchers, as a Jewish graduate student of sociology with a focus on the US far right. I wanted to better understand how it all worked: its logic of action, its repertoire of contention, its strategic interaction with the institutions of government. In Charlottesville, I would go on to learn more than I bargained for.

Flowers and messages are left at a memorial to Heather Heyer ahead of the one year anniversary of 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protests, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 11, 2018.

Jim Urquhart/Reuters

I remember watching the infamous torchlit march—led by neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and others of Trump’s “very fine people”—from the living room of a local elder. “They’re here!” I could hear somebody cry. The chants of “Blood and soil,” of “White lives matter,” of “Jews will not replace us” could be heard echoing up and down the quad, and out into the world. Some of these fine people would later assault, and threaten to burn alive, a group of college students peaceably counter-protesting the fascists’ presence on campus.

The next morning, I remember walking up to Charlottesville’s sole synagogue, a yankee in a yarmulke, to alert those within to the presence of neo-Nazis, who were already Sieg Heiling without. At the time, the sanctuary was packed with worshippers observing the Jewish Sabbath. Yet the Virginia State Police, tasked with “securing the Commonwealth,” was nowhere to be seen. An independent review later found that their help was solicited multiple times, but witnesses were told officers were “not available to assist.”

The independent inquiry blames the law enforcement strategy for “numerous acts of violence” on August 12. As a visible Jew, I would go on to be subjected to multiple such acts of violence. I would be pepper sprayed, point blank, while officers of the VSP stood by, more interested in guarding an armed gathering of white supremacists in Emancipation Park.

I still see the bloodied banners, the shards of glass, the bits of flesh. I still hear the cries for help, smell the scent of burnt rubber, taste the taste of raw terror. Its taken me nearly seven years to recover.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky

Later that day, I would be very nearly murdered when James Alex Fields, Jr., who had marched with Vanguard America (now known as Patriot Front) hours earlier, drove his Dodge Charger at top speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, ending one young woman’s life and maiming dozens more. I remember feeling myself flung backward, something breaking inside of me. I still see the bloodied banners, the shards of glass, the bits of flesh. I still hear the cries for help, smell the scent of burnt rubber, taste the taste of raw terror. Its taken me nearly seven years to recover.

White supremacists have continued their long march across America ever since—as seen most recently last Saturday in Charleston, WV, where Patriot Front was permitted to stage an armed incursion, in military formation, with no police in sight. For the racist, neo-fascist, and white nationalist far right, impunity remains the order of the day, while the anti-racist, anti-fascist, and internationalist left is forced to fight tooth and nail for the simple right to protest.

In retaliation for their part in the campus occupations, pro-Palestinian students and workers have been subject to mass arrests, criminal sanctions, summary suspensions, and housing evictions. Even in the face of repression, the divestment movement has remained remarkably nonviolent. But that hasnt stopped the media and the political class from conflating student dissent with domestic terror—a conflation which goes hand in hand with the Charlottesville comparisons.

To compare Columbia to Charlottesville is to downplay the deadly events of August 2017. It is to excuse domestic terror, and to dishonor the memory of Heather Heyer and others killed at the hands of white supremacists. It is to do a disservice to those who take anti-Semitism and anti-racism seriously. And it is to distract from the vital task of making peace in a world at war.

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