Chaput calls out 'obscenity' of white nationalism, seeks 'conversion' of racists

Angela Bassetti of Deptford (foreground) at a rally near City Hall in Philadelphia, one of several protests in the region sparked by the deaths and violence linked to a gathering by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.

The deadly rally Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. — where hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members clashed with counterprotesters and a woman was killed and 19 others were injured when a motorist plowed into crowds on a pedestrian mall — brought swift denunciation from Philadelphia religious and civic leaders Sunday and inspired several public vigils in protest and mourning throughout the region.

Racism is “the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus, the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well-warranted,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a statement.

Chaput asked for prayers for the victims, but added that Christians are called on to do more. Charlottesville “is a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed, a collapse of restraint,” he said. “We need to start today with a conversion in our hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.”

Mayor Kenney posted a statement on the city website denouncing “white supremacist rallies and violence in Virginia.”

Rodney Muhammad, head of the Philadelphia NAACP, said he had received messages of outrage from U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), and other elected officials.

Charlottesville “wasn’t a ball game where a fight broke out. This was organized,” Muhammad said in an unusual Sunday news conference, when many of his group’s leaders are typically in church. He said he and other NAACP leaders felt the specter of armed pro-Nazi protesters attacking counterprotesters, reporters, and the public — while police initially stood by — demanded “urgent” public condemnation from a civil rights organization founded in response to white mobs attacking African Americans in 1909.

“The way the white nationalists were dressed, they came for combat, they came for battle, they came to injure,” Muhammad said.

A Pennsylvania man from Lebanon County was among those arrested in Charlottesville. Ian Hoffman, 29, was charged with assault and battery, according to Penn Live. Details about his arrest were not available. The driver charged with killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal from Charlottesville, during the rally was identified as James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio. He is charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit-and-run attended failure to stop with injury, police said.

Muhammad called President Trump’s statements decrying violence in general but failing to call out racist and Nazi sympathizers among the president’s supporters “vague, nebulous, tiptoeing,” and added,  “We expect the president of the United States, of whatever party, to always lift their nation above cheap hatred and hurting people because of the color of their skin, their racial ethnicity, their gender, their class.”

Camera icon Joe DiStefano
Rodney Muhammad (right), president of the NAACP Philadelphia branch, is joined by Shirley Jordan, the group’s treasurer, at a news conference held Sunday morning to denounce the deaths Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

Several events were held by political, activist, and peace groups in the region Sunday in response to the Charlottesville tragedy, including a rally in Media outside the courthouse; a rally in Collingswood; a Wilmington “Stand in Solidarity with Charlottesville” gathering at the Rockford Park tower, a candlelight vigil in Gorgas Park in Roxborough, and a “Vigil for Those Who Stood Against Hate Charlottesville,” by Philly Women’s Rally and other groups at Thomas Paine Plaza near City Hall in Center City.

As twilight descended on the city, hundreds of people — determined, even upbeat, carrying signs with such messages as  “Stop White Terrorism,” waving peace flags or holding lit candles — poured into the plaza.

Marina Cooney, 51, a Drexel Hill psychiatrist, was one of the first demonstrators to arrive. “Sometimes you have to put your heart where your mind is,” said Cooney, who said she became more politically active after President Trump’s election in November. “I’ve been a very polite woman for 51 years … sometimes politeness gets in the way of action.”

A short time later, a helicopter buzzed overhead and there was a sizable police presence on the perimeter of the plaza. A double-decker bus passed the vigil and a gaggle of tourists shouted out their approval, as the crowd roared back.

Therese Obringer, of Philadelphia, said she was there because “I was horrified at what happened” in Charlottesville.

“And his response was despicable,” interjected her friend Sally Barron, referring to the president.

The event was hurriedly organized by such groups as Tuesdays With Toomey and the Women’s March Pennsylvania, some of which have sprung up in response to Trump’s election. Speakers condemned the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville and expressed solidarity with the victims. Asa Khalif, the leader of Black Lives Matter in Pennsylvania, got the most attention among early speakers, holding aloft his chihuahua and singing a gospel-sounding song he called  “Trump, We’re Going to Tear Your Kingdom Down.”

In Collingswood, about 300 people gathered for a spirited but peaceful demonstration just before 6 p.m. at the busy intersection of Haddon Avenue and Cuthbert Boulevard, at the border of Collingswood and Haddon Township in Camden County.

Organized in less than 24 hours by borough resident Michael Scheinberg through social media and the Indivisible Guide online platform, the event lasted about 90 minutes and attracted no counter demonstrators.

“Such a large turnout was overwhelming, and unexpected,” said, Scheinberg, 63. “A large portion of our population, locally at least, is against racism and fascist elements like the KKK and the Nazis. And they’re willing to come out in public and say so.”

Camera icon Kevin RioRdan
About 300 people gathered at the busy intersection of Haddon Avenue and Cuthbert Boulevard, at the border of Collingswood and Haddon Township, to protest the violence in Charlottesville. The demonstration was raucous but peaceful and lasted about 90 minutes.

Many of those who attended were young parents with children in tow; the atmosphere was almost celebratory — many passing motorists hit their horns in a show of support — but the purpose was somber.

“I’m here for my children, and for all these kids,” said Jane Shelton-Yosko, 55, of Cherry Hill, who sells antiques. “They need to know that it’s a minority of people who have such hate in their hearts.”

Carlette Robert, a 68-year-old senior companion who lives in Camden, carried a hand-lettered sign, “Love Trumps Hate.” She became emotional when she spoke about Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville.

“I’m here in honor of Heather. She could be my daughter or granddaughter, ” Robert said.  “We should be able to speak out without fear of murder.”

Camera icon Kevin Riordan
Carlette Robert, 68, of Camden, says she joined a demonstration with several hundred other people in Collingswood late Sunday afternoon because “we need to be able to come together without fear” in the wake of Charlottesville.

 A quote from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has been changed to reflect that he said "real hatreds brutally expressed."