Why Charlottesville drew hundreds to a South Jersey street corner

The day after the tumult in Charlottesville, several hundred people spontaneously but purposefully converged on the corner of Collingswood and Haddon Township.

They filled all four sides of the busy Cuthbert Boulevard-Haddon Avenue intersection, hand-lettered signs waving and spontaneous chants arising — a heartfelt display of anger and grief that elicited a mostly supportive cacophony of car horns.

Innocent blood had been spilled on the streets in Virginia, and ordinary folks in South Jersey wanted to take to their streets (or more accurately, the sidewalks) to be seen and heard.

And on a lovely summer evening in the leafy, neighborly, progressive bubble of what some call “Haddonwood,” they could do so without fear.  Or visible opposition.

“A lot of people who had basically been in their houses feeling very depressed had an opportunity to get out … and do a little bit of healing,” Jen Rossi, who lives in Collingswood with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, said Monday.

I’m not sure that shouting “Love Trumps Hate” in unison against a backdrop of a Wawa, a Walgreen’s and a Krispy Kreme (to name three of the corner’s landmarks) is a balm for the spirit.

The post-Charlottesville demonstration Sunday in Collingswood attracted a variety of people, many of them carrying hand-lettered signs. 

But the crowd certainly was exuberant, multi-hued, and energized; senior citizens waved next to  the tattooed hipsters standing by the couple who looked like they’d just stopped by on the way home from the mall.

Several demonstrators had made posters that displayed a heartbreaking photo of earnest, idealistic Heather Heyer, the young woman killed when a car plowed into a crowd of opponents of the “alt-right” forces gathered in Charlottesville.

An allegedly Hitler-obsessed Ohio man identified as the driver of the car has been charged with second-degree murder, and the exhaustive media coverage of the awful incident — airborne bodies, fascist paraphernalia on parade through a picturesque American city’s heart  — was profoundly unsettling.

Like scenes out of The Handmaid’s Tale, except that Charlottesville is not the setting for a dystopian TV drama.

“People needed a chance to talk to somebody else” face-to-face, said Rossi, a digital marketer, noted. “They needed comfort.”

It’s true: Sometimes simply hitting “Like” on yet another Facebook post isn’t enough.

So despite being loosely and hastily organized — and lacking speakers, major political figures, or a program of any sort — the event drew far more people than organizer Michael Scheinberg expected.

Demonstrators united by concern about the Charlottesville, Va., violence stationed themselves on Sunday at four corners of an intersection where Collingswood meets Haddon Township.  

“As an individual, you can’t do anything,” he said. “With a group, you can accomplish a lot.”

Scheinberg credited months of grassroots and social media organizing in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory with helping create a network of organizations to support the Collingswood event. South Jersey Women for Progressive Change and the South Jersey Democratic Socialists of America were among the many with members participating.

“I’m heartened, of course, by the turnout,” said Scheinberg, who described himself as a 40-year veteran of progressive causes.

“But it’s going to be a process. The crux of the problem is that corporations and the very wealthy control almost everything, and people feel powerless.”

One could argue that the power of standing on a street corner and holding up a poster is no match for, say, a Hitler wannabe with dead eyes and a weapon.

In other words, what difference can it make?

But I do remember some telling scenes from the ’70s: Gathering with others of my tribe and our allies, marching along Fifth Avenue, making our voices heard on behalf of what was then quaintly referred to as gay liberation.

I vividly recall the strength our numbers gave me and the freedom that came from knowing I was capable of showing up, taking a stand, being counted — and being no longer alone.

I was reminded of all this on Sunday evening as I interviewed Jane Shelton-Yosko in Collingswood.

When the Cherry Hill resident brought up Heather Heyer, she suddenly became emotional.

But then she added, “I’m not afraid.”

Me either.