Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, an RD contributor and trans queer Latinx public theologian, is currently in Charlottesville, Virginia, as part of the faith-based response to the white supremacist and neo-Nazi convergence on the usually bucolic college town.
Dr. Robyn, who uses they/them pronouns, was inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Friday night when torch-bearing white supremacists surrounded the church, trapping congregants who had gathered for a prayer service ahead of Saturday’s planned “Unite the Right” rally. On Saturday, Henderson-Espinoza and Rev. Traci Blackmon were outside Emancipation Park offering prayerful presence and witness when neo-Nazis, fascists, and unhooded Ku Klux Klan members descended on the intersection, unleashing violence that caused the security detail protecting Blackmon and Henderson-Espinoza to literally yank Rev. Blackmon off-camera during a live interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid. (Video from that segment can be found below.)
Just a few hours later and only blocks from where Blackmon and Henderson-Espinoza had been standing, counter-protestor Heather Heyer was dead and 19 others were injured in an act of domestic terrorism when a white supremacist rammed his Dodge Challenger through a packed crowd that was marching peacefully down a narrow street.
I spoke with Dr. Robyn on Monday morning, asking for their first-hand account of the chaos white supremacists unleashed on Charlottesville this weekend. Henderson-Espinoza was clear about the roots of this violence, and particularly the silence—from the Trump Administration and white clergy members—that continues to embolden neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and proud racists to terrorize communities, all with no notable intervention from state or city police and members of the National Guard, who were on-site for the entirety of this weekend’s planned and unplanned actions.
A brief note: I spoke with Dr. Robyn hours before President Trump issued a statement that called racism “evil” and did include one explicit mention of “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups” who inflict “racist violence.” But that statement, like other equivocating comments from the White House this weekend, also took pains to condemn all “violent criminals” … “regardless of skin color,” and offered no tangible solutions, aside from vague admonishments about “love” and “equality.”
Sunnivie Brydum: What was it like to be in Charlottesville this weekend?
Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: I arrived on Thursday from Detroit, [where I was] doing work with the National LGBTQ Task Force, and it was somber—sort of a sleepy feeling. There was a stillness about it.
We gathered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, for training and a legal briefing. And then we had an interfaith worship service. During that worship service, I was getting security briefings and updates that white supremacists were having their torch rally, and were moving toward the church. And that some of them were gathered outside the church.
So in the middle of a peaceful worship service, a prayer service for the city of Charlottesville, I was unable to be present in the work that I had been brought in to do because of safety concerns. Along with that, a member of the so-called alt-right had infiltrated our worship service. And so there were lots of things happening at one time. Security became a real concern; not just for those of us who were in clergy-wear.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church probably seats 2,000 people, and there was standing room only. It was packed. I don’t know how many people it seats, but there were a shit-ton of people there. And then, when the worship service was over, we could not release people into the streets, because white supremacists were gathering a block away.
It was unsafe for people to leave the church, so essentially, we were held hostage in a place of worship—and it was not safe.
What was the pastoral response like in that moment, when you couldn’t allow parishoners and congregants outside? As a member of the clergy, how did you navigate that moment?
Well, you have to take every precaution. When we learned that white supremacists were outside the doors, we invited people to sit down, so that they were not standing or congregating around windows. And then you work your best to keep people calm.
And there was a point where these white supremacists surrounded the church, correct?
Could you hear them? Were they chanting?
They were chanting down the sidewalks and what-not. But during the church service, you couldn’t hear anything. At some point, there were lots of bright lights outside that might have been tiki torches or something, but I was only told: “They’re out front, and we can’t go out.”
Friday really initiated a level of concern: we realized these people came to fuck people up. And that is what we experienced on Saturday. These people were carrying bats as weapons, and sticks as weapons, and fire-burning tiki torches.
And I will say that [despite] the police presence on Friday—there was no intervention by police.
Throughout the weekend?
Well, on Saturday police were inside the barricades. State troopers and city police were inside the barricades downtown. At Emancipation Park, where the rally was being held, police were inside those barricades.
And demonstrators were outside the barricades, presumably?
That’s right. Demonstrators, nazis, counter-protestors, were in the streets. And here’s the deal: it looked like a fucking Roman games scenario. These people were just beating each other to a pulp until someone fell to the ground. So when antifa [anti-fascist] and other counter-protestors encountered nazis, it was just an outright battle. It was a war scene—a war zone.
Also, let me make clear that without antifa and anarchists being present in the streets, I may have been killed at the hands of fascists and white supremacists. This is important. [Dr. Cornel West said the same thing when speaking to Democracy Now! on Monday.]
And the uniformed officers stayed behind their barricades during these violent confrontations?
That’s right. They did not engage.
From your perspective, who was inititating the violence and the beat-downs there?
I was standing at 2nd St. and Water St., and I was with Rev. Traci Blackmon—we were together, holding public witness at the corner—and the violence just erupted. I can’t say who initiated. It just erupted. When oppositional forces would meet each other in the street, violence would erupt. You had armed militia there, standing, with assault rifles—you know, the Three Percenters were there in their camouflage and assault rifles.
What happened as you were standing at that intersection on Saturday afternoon?
It was late-morning, early Saturday afternoon. Rev. Traci Blackmon and I were holding public witness. We had been in the streets, just speaking to people, to everyone. We were in full clergy gear—my stole had a resistance fist on it, and “Black Lives Matter.”
Traci’s interview was ready to happen with Joy Reid, and our security detail was standing over us. nazis charged the intersection of 2nd and Water, in our direction, in a violent, rageful manner.
And it happened within seconds—our security detail literally picked us up and moved us. I’m almost losing my shorts, because I can’t hold on to everything. And then they just put us inside the press barricade, where uniformed police officers and state troopers were not doing a damned thing.
At that point, projectiles started being thrown through Emancipation Park. We don’t know what they were, but we were told that these nazi groups were taking soda cans and putting concrete in them, and using them as weapons. So there we were inside the press barricade, and as things heated up at that intersection, which I should also say, is where the clergy presence took space—at one of the entrances of Emancipation Park. And there were roughly 40 clergy people. And white supremacist protesters barricaded through them.
So neo-Nazis rammed through the group of uniformed, collared clergy inside the barricade?
While uniformed police officers stayed inside the barricade.
Rev. Traci Blackmon’s interview with Joy Reid interrupted (at 2:30 mark). Dr. Robyn can be seen in the background, facing away from the camera, wearing their yellow stole, and turning to run when the neo-Nazis arrived.
Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: The nazi groups just kept coming and coming. This is an exaggeration, but it felt like there were a million nazis, to like, 100 counter-protestors. That’s an exaggeration, but I’m just saying, that the number of nazis compared to counter-protestors was unreal. I’m just like, where in the hell did all these people come from? They took over the fucking city.
So as things were heating up, we saw riot gear enter into our barricade, where we had been secured. And it was advised to leave that location and go to a secure location. And so, at that point we left that barricade and went away from where violence was happening, and then went to the safe space where clergy were gathering—and that was at Escafé in downtown Charlottesville. We just checked in with people and provided a presence for people who had been on the streets and what not.
Sunnivie Brydum: Much of the violence was centered in downtown Charlottesville, but that was not the only location where white supremacist protesters were inflicting violence, is that correct?
That’s right. These people had literally taken over the fucking city, and were beating people up in their neighborhoods. What amazes me is that these white supremacists are filled with so much hate and rage, that they just dominated the city. And our current administration did not condemn white supremacy. They were complacent and silent about it, which means that our administration gave consent.
I think that that is what is so amazing to me: these people are filled with so much hate and rage, that they can’t just have a rally. They have to take over a city, colonize the city with their violence. And that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.
You mentioned that it felt like there were a million neo-Nazis. I’ve seen some commentary about the fact that “the hoods were off” in this moment where their hate and rage was so apparent. From where I was sitting (safe in another state), it looked like these white men were proud of that rage. They were proud of the terror they were inflicting. Is that what it felt like on the ground?
Yeah, I mean, this is white terrorism. This is white terrorism in the aesthetic of “Proud Boys.” They may be dressed up in their bow-tie and khakis, but that shit is white supremacy.
In the wake of the violence, we’ve seen a fair amount of collective “shock” that something like this could happen in 2017, even though groups attending the “Unite the Right” rally clearly intended to incite a riot. I think that surprise reflects a whole lot of white privilege.
Let me just say this: This happened in part because the state is complicit in white supremacy. The police being behind barricades, or inside Emancipation Park, smiling and laughing, while people are getting the shit beat out of them, is not just a reflection of the police “pulling back,” it is a reflection of their being complicit.
And we, as counter-protestors, and as people who were trying to provide a presence to shift the narrative of hate and violence, we were subject to the state’s violence. I want your readers to be real clear about that: State systems are complicit in the violence that happened on Saturday.
Charlottesville is hurt and broken. But this is not just about Charlottesville: this is a resurgence of white nationalism that is being supported by our current administration. And as much as we are trying to address the needs of the community here, I also want to acknowledge that people were holding vigils all over the country for Charlottesville, and responding to this crisis. And that also, people are protesting white supremacy across the country. So I don’t want to Balkanize this moment.
What happened on Saturday has been happening for 400 years or more—we don’t need to single this out as some sort of unique moment. This is a catalyst for us, and we need to respond to it.
The other thing is, this is a personal plea to white clergy—we didn’t have the numbers. White clergy did not respond to this.
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What does that feel like for you, as a trans queer Latinx, who is also public theologian and activist working in these spheres? What does that absence from white clergy signal to you and others who hold intersectional identities?
It makes me think that white clergy are only caring about themselves. At St. Paul’s on Friday night, when we were barricaded in, [representatives from] the church were concerned about vandalism to their building. Meanwhile, I am trying to get people out safely. So movement people who had come in, to support and show up… are simultaneously hearing a concern about the building, while hearing my concern for the bodily safety of my people.
And I said this at Sojourners United Church of Christ [on Sunday]—white people need to get real serious about the parasitic relationship between Christian supremacy and white supremacy. And if white clergy are preaching about social justice on Sunday mornings behind their pulpits, and refusing to get into the streets, to hold the hand of a dying person who has been pulverized by a car—or refusing to stand side-by-side with the antifa who were opposing the nazis, then they need to stop preaching about social justice on Sunday morning.
My plea to white clergy is: Stop preaching empty rhetoric from the pulpit, if you’re not willing to get into the streets. This is my entire orientation as an activist theologian, and as a public theologian: If you care more about maintaining the image and safety of your Sunday morning 11:00 service, than you do about the reality that Charlottesville, and several years ago, Baltimore, Ferguson, and how these cities turn into a war zone? Then you’re actually just preaching a theology of white supremacy. You’re preaching a logic of dominance.
And emboldening the neo-Nazis who are surrounding the church, who believe that they, too, are Christians.
Right. I have said this on RD before, I have said this other places: This refusal to move into the streets and stand with those who are opposing white supremacy—refusing to do that—is capitulating to the logic of dominance and capitulating to a theology of white supremacy. It just is.
This is not about whether you voted for Trump or not. This is about: are your theologies and ethics aligned with the logic of dominance and white supremacy, or are your theologies and ethics aligned with those who are most affected by those systems? And if it is not the latter, then you are capitulating to a logic of dominance, of white supremacy.
Thank you for being there. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If I can just [reiterate] my plea to white clergy. As a trans queer Latinx and public theologian, my plea for white clergy, and for white people of conscience, is this: please take your body out of the safety of your worship places and your churches, and move into the streets. Please. People are dying. People are dying because white clergy, in particular, refuse to speak out against white supremacy and white nationalism.
And what that has done is create a religion of white nationalism. The liturgy of white nationalism is this culture of violence. And the outcome of that religion and liturgy is death.
And my earnest plea—it’s what I teach my students, it’s what I teach in the movement, as a public intellectual—is that we cannot hide behind our pulpits, or our theories, or our Bibles, or our sacred text. We cannot. Because if we do, we are consenting to violence and domination.