Fifteen months ago, on August 12, 2017, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville by a white nationalist. Communities across the country reacted with shock, grief and despair. The rising tide of white supremacy, racism, antisemitism and misogyny was being re-legitimized, and we were watching in real time.
There was a strong sense of urgency among people to respond boldly and make it clear to the world that hate is not an American value. San Luis Obispo was no different. A number of local groups came together to organize the “Outshine the Darkness” vigil in Mission Plaza. Close to 2,000 people came out in support. Collectively, we declared that love is louder. We lifted each other in the time of need. We kept our hearts open to peace and refused to let fear reign.
Yet hatred found us the next day. A written threat to kill, in response to our peaceful vigil. A threat made by a man with a long history of racist rants and calls for violence. A man who was the owner of three guns, one of which was an AR 15. “i suggest you racist subhuman sh*tbags start contributing something useful. i will kill every one of you and make you like it.” After 15 long months, the purveyor of this hate was finally convicted on Oct. 30.
Words matter. Whether in person or on social media, they have a profound impact on people’s lives. We hold responsibility not only for our actions, but also for the words we speak or type, because they set the stage for what comes next. We have seen this over and over again.
Ours is the small town story of homegrown hatred seen in communities across the country. Although the national arena fuels white supremacy and has re-legitimized and structurally propped it up, this is not where the roots lie. Hate grows from the bottom. It starts around dinner tables, amongst friends and behind closed doors.
It festers when speech that isn’t “bad enough” to report, or “just a joke” lingers unanswered. It spreads when people feed off comments on social media, calling each other names, disregarding their shared humanity.
What we plant will grow. Our words can grow kindness, or they can grow hatred. The choice is ours. White supremacy, racism, bigotry and misogyny can’t go unchecked. We know what happens when it does. A car driven into a crowd of activists. A mass shooting in a synagogue. People executed in the supermarket because of the color of their skin.
Heather Heyer’s last Facebook post before she was murdered read, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” We are paying attention. And we’ve made our choice. Fear will not define us. We will not be silenced by threats. The vigil we organized was called “Outshine the Darkness” for a reason. We will keep building a positive and just future for all. We will keep shining the light.
Submitted by Women’s March San Luis Obispo organizers Andrea Chmelik, Dawn Addis, Terry Parry, Jen Ford and Pat Harris, and Heather Gray, club president of Democrats of San Luis Obispo.