About a hundred people are walking north from downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, the scene of a white supremacist rally and riot this month, to Washington, D.C., 111 miles away. The journey—a nonviolent response to the violence of the hate groups that descended on Charlottesville—is expected to take ten days.
They are led by the Reverend Cornell William Brooks, a civil rights lawyer and former president and CEO of the NAACP.
The procession wound its way on Monday afternoon through residential neighborhoods, along a main commuter corridor and up a highway. Some carried signs. Chants of “Black lives matter!” were met with the honking of horns and cheers from hundreds of passing cars. Charlottesville City Police, still under investigation for their failure to protect people at the deadly August 12 rally, provided an escort of motorcycles and squad cars and helped the large group safely cross busy streets during rush hour.
As they approached their stopping point for the evening (an enormous oak tree along Route 29), the group began singing a hymn, “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed On Freedom),” led by Brooks, who spoke through a bullhorn.
“After the nation became an eyewitness to a hate crime and an act of terrorism, now the nation has the opportunity to be an eyewitness to the making of nonviolent history,” Brooks said as he stood in the shade of the oak. “That is to say, a city that was visited by the most hateful of crimes can rise up and literally walk through what happened and what continues to Washington to make their concerns known.”
Brooks’ nonviolent approach comes as many in the anti-white supremacist and anti-fascist movement has rejected the doctrine of nonviolent resistance employed by civil rights activists in the 20th century.
Speaking on behalf of the other marchers—who spent Tuesday walking in the rain—Brooks listed three demands. Brooks wants President Trump to issue an executive order that brings federal resources to bear against hate crimes; he wants Congress to take action to ensure funding for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes; and he demands fair treatment for children of undocumented immigrants.
“We’ve heard the president have any number of racial do-overs,” Brooks said. “He’s attempted to speak to the situation. He’s spoken out against hate crimes and racial terrorism and then done it over and taken it back …. He’s not talked about issuing an executive order against hate crimes against a whole variety of groups. Against Jews, against African Americans, against Latinos, against folk in the the LGBTQ community, and certainly against Muslims.”
“We have to stand up and stand for the children of the undocumented,” Brooks said. “There’s a close correlation between the President’s nativist, white-nationalist-lite rhetoric and the rise in hate crime. So marching from Charlottesville to D.C. gives us an opportunity to state affirmatively our American values. Those values being equality, justice, a shared humanity.”
Racial justice organizations such as Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), the Women’s March, and the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) are supporting the march. Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director and president of CPD, told Rewire this is a critical moment in the country’s history.
“Many of us often have grown up thinking of what we would do if were were in the middle of the civil rights movement or if were in the middle of World War II as the Nazis were preparing for mass extermination. I think this is the moment where we are living with that reality, that potential, every single day,” she said. “For many people in this country, Charlottesville was the moment where they woke up to the very real threat of white supremacy but for tens of millions of others, we have been living with and responding to that threat for generations.”
Epps-Addison said she hopes the march is a call to action to people across the country to get off the sidelines, take a stance, and fight for their values. “We hope that people sacrificing their bodies, putting themselves on the line as they make this march towards Washington will put a spotlight on the fact that we can all do more, we can all give more to the fight for justice and freedom in this country,” she said.
She hopes the march will spur conversation about what the manifestation of white nationalism spouted by radicalized white men looks like and what it means for vulnerable groups, both nationally and globally. “That is white supremacy in action,” Epps-Addison said. “It is something that’s extremely dangerous and it is something that puts the lives of people in our community at risk.”
Cornell Brooks Jr., a student at Amherst College, is also marching. Like his father, he is a native of Northern Virginia who came to Charlottesville to show support.
“I think we’re the greatest when we come together, as we are doing today,” Brooks Jr. said as the procession turned onto Route 29, which will carry the procession most of the way to D.C. “Being from Virginia I wanted to give a better representation of Virginia …. If people feel that what they see on TV every day is wrong, as most people should, do something about it. Be helpful. Be vocal.”
Supporters are invited to join the march when and wherever they can along its route. “The hashtag is #cville2dc,” the elder Brooks said. “We encourage everyone to go on social media, join the march … please join and encourage your friends to join.”
The march has been carefully planned with support vehicles carrying personal belongings and picnics prepared along the way. A network of volunteers is helping to provide lodging. The marchers are depending on the continuing protection of police along their route.
“The police have been very helpful thus far and we expect that to continue,” Brooks said. “We’ve been in touch with the governor’s office and the state police have been very helpful as well …. It’s been safe thus far. We expect that.”
A silver sedan pulled over ahead of the procession and a young white woman rolled down her window.
“What are you guys marching about?”
A young Black man began to respond with a list of social issues.
“Wait, what?” she responded.
“To resist!” he shouted, smiling.
“Awesome!” replied the woman before driving away.
“We had people using cars like terrorists. Against American citizens. We had a young woman lose her life in a beautiful town, a town that has a reputation for a world class institution, the University of Virginia, a town that has a reputation for being progressive,” Brooks said. “To have that happen here, that says something about what is going on in the country.”
The procession is expected to end near the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963.