“There is no room for violence in a civilized society.”
Such statements make a nice quote after a tragedy. Slap it on a photo of a pacifist martyr—doesn’t really matter who—and you’re in the social media sweet spot.
But it’s not something people actually believe without exception. Although we preach nonviolence and exalt peaceful resistance, we don’t completely buy in, for ours is a violent species and we are a violent society. Consider that we authorize soldiers, the state, police officers, prison guards and civilians to kill in certain circumstances—or that the same are privileged to use nonlethal violence when it is “justified”—or the continued popularity of violent past times such as contact sports, game hunting and corporal punishment.
Based on such evidence, the civilized society to which we strive seems unattainable. And that may be true; utopia may never come. Viciousness and brutality may just be integral to the human condition.
On the other hand, considering the thousands of years of recorded history, it really was quite recent that public executions were fun for the whole family, when we tortured people to death to adjudicate guilt or innocence, when quartering was a thing … and it had nothing to do with making change, at least not the shiny metal kind. Today we consider such acts so appalling that one could say there is no room for them in civilized society. If that’s not progress, what is?
Thing is, progress is not the straight line we’d prefer; in the best circumstances, it’s a perversion of a Paula Abdul song: one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, one step back. In the worst instance, a nation backslides into civil war, anarchy, chaos, a brutal dictatorship.
In which direction is America headed? You don’t need to read the studies or follow the news 24/7 to know intuitively that violence, that hallmark of the uncivilized society, is on the rise. There’s an escalation of anger, a sense of rage twitching beneath the surface, itching to breach the thin veneer and burst out into the world.
That’s precisely what happened again on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a car smashed into a crowd counter-protesting white supremacists rallying against removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed; 19 others were injured.
As terrible as the events in Virginia were, the aftermath has seen people come together in shows of unity and love that were nothing if not sublime. In our own Memorial Park in Riverside, a candlelit vigil brought tears; in Amelia Island’s Main Beach Park, people similarly gathered to mourn and show support. As twisted as it may be, reprehensible acts often inspire our greatest moments.
On Monday, Jacksonville City Council President Anna Lopez-Brosche declared her intent to propose legislation to remove all the Confederate memorials, markers and monuments from public property in Duval County. In a statement, she said that the Aug. 12 tragedy in Charlottesville was in part her inspiration.
It was a bold, courageous move, long overdue, that has the potential to symbolically unite us as one people. It could also lead to violence, even death, just as happened in Charlottesville. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
All over the country and right here at home, there are people who, angered by being marginalized by the wealthy and watching the American Dream wither even as they tried to grasp it in their hands, are embracing bigotry and hate as an outlet for their simmering malcontent. It is this cauldron from which spills a 20-year-old behind the wheel of a weaponized Dodge, a 21-year-old murdering churchgoers in a hail of bullets, a closeted gay man killing 49 innocents on a Saturday night, a Navy-veteran-turned-KKK-Grand-Dragon to toss hateful fliers in front of homes, synagogues and parks.
It’s unlikely, but at least possible, that removing Confederate memorials from Duval County and relocating them to museums or other educational facilities, as is Brosche’s intent, will incite such individuals to commit terrible acts. It would be easier to just ignore the statues and go on with our lives. But symbols matter, and these symbols are constantly reminding us of a bitter, shameful part of our history. They also exalt that which should never be celebrated: slavery.
Not so long ago, just last week in fact, there was little, if any, momentum to finally scrub our city of these monuments. Perhaps in an ideal world, it wouldn’t take the death of an innocent young woman for our city to finally pull down the vestiges of a hateful legacy. But ours is not a utopic society—it’s just barely civilized.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try.