opinion

Why Charlottesville drew hundreds to a South Jersey street corner

Kevin Riordan, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Monday, August 14, 2017, 3:24 PM

Several hundred people filled the corners of a Collingswood-Haddon Township, NJ intersection Sunday in a demonstration of support for the victims in Charlottesville, Va.

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

Angela Bassetti of Deptford (foreground) during a vigil / rally on Paine Plaza, across from City Hall in Phila., Pa. on August 13, 2017. The peaceful Phila. demonstration was in response to the violent gathering in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 12, 2017. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Jamahl Ephraim of Philadelphia lights a sky lantern during a vigil at Paine Plaza across from Philadelphia city hall in response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Binna Ma, of Philadelphia, attends a candlelight vigil on Paine Plaza, across from City Hall. Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer
Attendees of anti-violence rally light tea candles prior to a vigil in response to the violent attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Stephanie Batter of Essington (left) and Shannon McDevitt of Cape May Court House hold up signs at Sunday's vigil on Paine Plaza. Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer
Carlette Robert, of Camden, said she joined a demonstration in Collingswood to remember Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer. "We should be able to speak out without fear of murder." Kevin Riordan
A protester carries a large peace flag during a rally Sunday in front of the courthouse in Media in response to the violence at protest marches in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the death of a woman. Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer
Jacquie Jones, attorney from Boothwyn, PA, addresses the crowd outside the Media Courthouse asking them to join the fight against hate and bigotry and to stand for what is right in America. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Marie Turnbull, of Springfield, PA, with sign asking Americans to choose which version of America that they support at rally outside the Media courthouse. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Ericka Chaves, whose daughter Natalie Romero, 20, was among those injured when a car plowed into a crowd in Charlottesville, is shown at a solidarity vigil Sunday in Houston. Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle
Attendees of a "Peace and Sanity" rally Sunday in New York listen intently as speakers address the white supremacist violence that took place there Saturday, leaving three people dead. Bebeto Matthews / AP
A woman tackles Jason Kessler, organizer of the "Unite the Right" rally, after his news conference was disrupted Sunday by angry protesters outside City Hall in Charlottesville, Va. Andrew Shurtleff / The Daily Progress
Cathi Crabtree holds her "Stop Racism Now" sign high at a rally in Bloomington, Ind., on Sunday. Chris Howell / The Herald-Times
People gathered in front of the White House to hold a vigil on Sunday, a day after the violence in Charlottesville, Va. Salwan Georges / Washington Post
A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of Heather Heyer sits in Charlottesville, Va. Heyer, 32, was killed when a car rammed into a group of protesters. Steve Helber / AP
Photo Gallery: GALLERY: Vigils against Charlottesville hate

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.

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.

“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.

Kevin Riordan, STAFF COLUMNIST

Read full story: Why Charlottesville drew hundreds to a South Jersey street corner

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