THE BUZZ 2: Silence and Complicity

By on August 23, 2017

Local and state leaders have been mostly quiet about the deadly events in Charlottesville.

White supremacists who marched in the violent Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally have ignited important national discourse, yet local leaders have remained silent.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – While national media outlets had all eyes on Charlottesville, Virginia, where a motorist that drove through a group of counter-protesters opposing white nationalists killed a woman, Wyoming residents and politicians have kept their eyes on the sky. In Jackson, the events have yet to enter the public dialogue, though they have reignited age-old conversations about race across the country.

A recap: the evening of August 11, hundreds of people carrying tiki torches, Confederate and Nazi flags marched through Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. They were met by a group of counter-protestors. Things escalated Saturday morning, prompting Virginia governor Terry McAucliffe to declare a state of emergency. Then, at 1:45 pm, a car drove through a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The driver, 20-year-old James Field of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder, five counts of malicious wounding, three counts of aggravated malicious wounding, and failing to stop at an accident that resulted in death, CNN reported. Two police officers also died in a helicopter crash. 

Politicians and influencers across the country seized the opportunity to condemn white supremacy, violence and hate. McAuliffe immediately told the protesters to “go home” and “stay out of here.”

Congressman Greg Gianforte–R, Montana, who has gained recent notoriety for allegedly assaulting a reporter, spoke out on MTN News, calling “white supremacy, neo-Nazism, racism and bigotry … un-American.” 

In Wyoming, state representatives took to Twitter—days after the event—to share their thoughts. Rep. Liz Cheney called it a “domestic terror attack.”

“Vile white supremacist/neo-Nazi hatred has no place in America,” Cheney tweeted August 13. 

Senator Mike Enzi echoed Cheney’s thoughts a day later. “White supremacist notions, hate and violence have no place in our society,” he tweeted.

Senator John Barrasso was more tepid in his tweet. Unlike Cheney and Enzi, Barrasso did not call out white supremacy, but instead condemned “violence and hatred” in general. In response to an inquiry by PJH, however, his press secretary Laura Mengelkamp provided a more resolute statement from the senator:

“I’m extremely saddened by what happened in Charlottesville. Let me be clear, there can be no equivocation. The members of the white supremacist group who organized and participated in the protest, and inspired this hatred and violence, are responsible for what happened in Charlottesville. Racism and bigotry must always be condemned, it can never be condoned.”

The latest statement appears to be a direct response to President Donald Trump’s series of reactions to the events, where he first blamed violence “on many sides,” then condemned neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, then doubled back to his original statement that there was blame on both sides. He argued that “alt-left” groups were also “very very violent,” and that among the white supramcists, “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

But Barrasso’s statement, however resolute, has not yet been publicly issued, Mengelkamp said. It has been sent to the Casper Star Tribune and the Associated Press, and now PJH by request.

Such has been the statewide response to Charlottesville.

Governor Matt Mead had not released a statement, on Twitter or otherwise, and his office did not return requests for comment.

Hole silence

Locally, a group of concerned residents took to the streets last week in solidarity with Charlottesville. But the events have yet to enter a political public dialogue. Neither the town council nor the board of county commissioners have talked about Charlottesville—not for lack of interest, said County Commissioner Board Chair Mark Newcomb, but for lack of time.

“I want to review everything that happened,” Newcomb said. “None of my board members have said that they’d like to [make a public statement], partly just because we were overwhelmed this week. I’m not going say no, I just don’t know exactly what we would do.”

Newcomb says any condemnation or position at this point would be “playing with politics,” but also fears the consequences of failing to take a stand. “I’m deeply concerned that we have neo-Nazis making such an impact now at this national level,” he said. “To not immediately react, and state flat out that neo-Nazis represent an ideology that is the farthest from my ideology, is really problematic.”

Newcomb also wonders if Jacksonites feel a sense of immunity to such issues. “There might be a sense of, ‘oh that can’t happen here,” he said.

But the events in Charlottesville have forced him to reflect on how these things transpire, both nationally and in small communities like Jackson. “That’s my concern, where, as a nation, from the top down to very local institutions, are we creating a situation where young people think it’s the right thing to do to become a neo-Nazi?” Newcomb said. And then, he added, what institutions can counteract that?

“I ponder family structure, I ponder local educational and religious institutions, I think there must be something that we can do better.”

“The thing I emphasize over and over is supporting opportunities for everybody to pursue well-being,” Newcomb continued. “Creating that space for individuals to thrive.” His job as an elected official, then, is to  “protect our community from any one group threatening that.”

County Commissioner Paul Vogelheim, chair of the Teton County Republican Party, did not respond to PJH’s request for comment.

Mayor Pete Muldoon confirmed town council has not collectively discussed Charlottesville, but as mayor, he has his own message: “The Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists and those who sympathize with them are beyond the pale of any decent society,” Muldoon said. “Let’s all make a renewed effort to reach out to those members of our community whose very humanity is being denied by these groups and remind them we are all brothers and sisters, that we stand with them, and that the people of Jackson are unafraid to fight for the rights of all Americans. Silence is complicity.” 

But not everyone is so concerned. Bob Culver says his board at Jackson Hole Tea Party has not discussed the events, nor will they. For his part, Culver has been too busy preparing for the eclipse, and volunteering in town helping to direct lost visitors.

“It has been a non-topic,” Culver said. “It’s really one that doesn’t affect us. That kind of stuff doesn’t occur around here.”

Besides, Culver said, only Fields, the driver of the car that killed Heyer, should be responsible for what happened. “That act by that individual should not be accountable to, or reflect upon, either of the two groups,” Culver said. “The one group egged [Fields] on to do something irrational. He rose to the insults that were being thrown at him. Free speech didn’t cause that person to drive that car.”

A myth of insulation

But racism, hate, violence, all the things that erupted in Charlottesville, are absolutely things that affect Wyoming, Gillette resident Tanya Krummreich said. Krummreich founded the group “Gillette Against Hate” as after the construction of a mosque in Gillette fueled protests from anti-Islamic residents who didn’t want “Jihadis” in their neighborhood, NPR reported.

Krummreich says she is not surprised by what happened in Charlottesville. “I have watched these forces of hate become increasingly angry and emboldened,” she said. “Here in Wyoming we have seen some blatantly hateful activity, and an incredible number of people sadly indifferent to it.”

So what does Wyoming have to learn? “I think we have to alleviate the fears that drive both hate, and indifference to it,” Krummreich said. “Fear of change and loss is especially strong here.”

Even if Jackson feels largely disconnected, or insulated, from the ills that plague the rest of the nation, local pastor Inger Hanson says Jackson residents cannot forget their existence in the world at large. “We all have connections to the wider world,” Hanson said.

Which is why she chose to talk about Charlotteville in her sermon at Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church. Borrowing ideals from famous theologian Karl Barth, Ingor said she always preaches “with the bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. My faith is relevant to my life as I live it. It’s not disconnected, not an escape from my world at all.”

Hanson recognizes that much of the national discussion around race right now “happens on a black-white narrative.” That might not resonate with Jackson’s demographics, she said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. “With both our tourist community and our modern world’s network, even though Charlottesville is very far away, its experience still affected Jackson,” Hanson said. “I do hope that in my parishioners’ and my own future conversations about race, we engage the needs and concerns of the demographics of our region and town.”  PJH

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