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Charlottesville Reflection a Documentarian Remembers

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It was August of 2018 and it was yet another scorching summer all around the globe. I was on the road working on a feature documentary project about resurgent anti-semitism that was released last year, "HateAmongUs".

My trajectory of human despair and mayhem took me and my crews to London, Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, New York, Washington DC and Charlottesville. Everywhere we went to film, it seemed like it was 95 degrees, with one-hundred percent humidity. Brutal weather for a brutal subject — in a way it was a real life Dante's Inferno, connecting human hatred from the past, to the anxious present we now live on planet earth.

Each story and interview I covered was intense, visceral and profoundly moving. Some were historic, others contemporary, and then there were those that were both. The entire experience has pointed to one, crystal clear conclusion and that is, you cannot fight antisemitism — without fighting racism.

I am writing this on my birthday. I was born on August 28th, 1961, exactly two years before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington. For my entire life, I've seemed to follow an unconscious theme that connected my personal mission and destiny to that of the struggle for justice for African Americans and justice for all.

No, I am not a politician nor an attorney nor powerful media executive ‘greenlighting’ the next great, big, new thing. I live the life of a documentarian, constantly searching for new insights from people about the human condition.

And yes oftentimes these frames of our lives are deeply disquieting windows into the collective and disturbed soul of humanity. Each city I visited during the summer of 2018 back when things were ‘normal’, had its own, granular story about rising antisemitism.

You cannot fight antisemitism without fighting racism because they are the same issue

In Paris, it was the tragedy of the antisemitic murder of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll; a murder that epitomizes the resilience of trans-generational inhumanity. It is unimaginable that this gentle soul of a woman, who fled the Nazi occupation as a child, would be stabbed to death and burned by two young Arab neighbors whom she had known for years, simply because she was Jewish.

And then Berlin and London, covering stories of renewed acts of antisemitism across Europe and perspectives of those working to counter the trends. And after three weeks of a whirlwind tour, these stories began to connect in ways that were truly astonishing. Although I plan to write about all these experiences in great detail, I want to focus right now on the last stop of my genocide tour of 2018, Charlottesville, Virginia.

I had pre-produced several interviews while on the road in Europe and had only one day allotted to shoot in Charlottesville at the very end of my production schedule.

It was August 2018, the first anniversary of the infamous and deadly Charlottesville, ‘Unite the Right’ March organized by notorious white nationalist organizer, Richard Spencer. It was a quiet morning when we first arrived. The humidity was rising early, along with the incessant hum of cicadas all around us.

Charlottesville Reflection

My goal was to document what happened there 12 months prior, from more of a community perspective.

Was the hatred on display that day that killed counter protester Heather Heyer, two police officers and seriously wounding dozens the real deal? or some kind of aberration? Was it truly the neo-fascist, antisemitic display that was alleged? Or did President Trump state, with reason, that there were ‘bad people on the both sides’ of the street battle that day, August 12, 2017?

These questions feel painfully ‘quaint’ given the realities we see around the country today with the uninterrupted flow of victims of white, racist America only increasing.

The most important lessons I learned that day in Charlottesville, came from two extraordinary Charlottesville women, BLM activist Tanesha Hudson and Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi, Rachel Schmelkin. The first lesson was that you cannot fight antisemitism without fighting racism because they are the same issue, and the second—the perspectives from Black Charlottesville have been invisible.

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There had been so many emotional reports over the previous year on the mayhem, but on the ground perspectives from C-Ville residents who lived it in first person were few and far between. Even more rare were perspectives from Black Charlottesville residents on the impact of having heroes of the Confederacy facing them, day in and day out as a symbol of their humiliation and subjugation in the past and the threat that it could happen again.

Appropriately and perhaps by chance, the first interview I conducted about Charlottesville and antisemitism, took place in Jerusalem in March 2018, earlier in the year while attending the 6th Global Conference on Resurgent Antisemitism.

There I met and sat down for an hour with Mike Signer, former Mayor of Charlottesville during the 2017 melee. He’s a tall and gracious man, articulate and passionate about the struggle for racial justice. He is a Democrat and Jewish and had weathered a tumultuous year since Trump had been elected.

In Signer's tenure as the administrative head of the city, he had to contend with the overt antisemitism, racism, bigotry and threats of armed violence that came from all around the country for months leading up to the infamous Richard Spencer inspired ‘Alt-Right’ march.

At the same time, Signer was taken to task by the progressive left of Charlottesville for what they deemed to be placating the neo-nazi demonstrators and failing to have the police department intervene to defend the C-Ville counter-protesters.

What most never really understood about the ‘March’ was that it had been planned for months from outside of Virginia and the city leadership in Charlottesville, along with various religious and community organizers diligently and frantically prepared for the onslaught that was bearing down on their city like a tsunami of racial hatred.

They came to attack the city of Charlottesville. At the heart of the entire episode then as now, was the proposed removal of Civil War monuments that are found across the city in prominent locations aggrandizing military leaders of the Confederacy.

What’s most striking in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson, is not the heroic statuary of the likes of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan Jackson, but rather the lack of mention anywhere of the African slaves who toiled and built the city while in chains. No mention of the years of indentured servitude of the past and no reference to the descendants of those people who struggle with extreme poverty today.

The past in Charlottesville is as invisible as the present, hidden below layers of denial, and self-serving white privilege. There is one small exception. A five minute walk from Robert E. Lee Park, now officially renamed ‘Emancipation Park’ is a historic late 18th Century structure that once housed a mercantile company that traded in slaves. There in front of the building is a small plaque marking the location from which human capital was traded for generations.

That’s it.

But for the grand icons of the failed, traitorous, genocidal Confederacy, massive bronze statues remain mounted on adorning pedestals, commissioned and installed In the early 1920s six decades after the Confederate States lost the Civil War. It was 'Jim Crow’s' effort to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy and its values of systemic racism.

I just recently went back through my 2018 footage from Charlottesville and analyzed it from our perspective today. There is no doubt in my mind that August 12, 2017 will be remembered as the beginning of the end for America as we knew her.

I am grateful to have been given a small window of insight into what happened that day, given to me by courageous people who had to confront the stark reality of White America’s unremorseful trans-generational hatred, guilt and shame.


I made the film ‘Charlottesville Reflection’ as my monument to the power of reconciliation, through truth.

Robert Corsini

Videocratic Media