Heather Heyer’s death affected everyone in this country, from the vast majority of people who saw her murder at the hands of a neo-Nazi terrorist as a tragedy, to the sick and evil denizens of the alt-right who posted disgusting taunts online after her death. As disgusted as all decent people are at her death, it is Heather’s friends and family that have borne the brunt of the loss and will have to deal with it for the rest of their lives.
Diana Ratcliff is Heather Heyer’s cousin, and her impassioned essay on CNN.com is a must-read for everyone who cares about the state of our nation today. Obviously, Ms. Ratcliff has been through an emotionally devastating experience in the last week, but her grief and anger have only served to focus her thinking and resulted in an eloquent plea to our society to look at what has happened and why.
After beginning her essay with a recap of the horrid events of last weekend, she goes on to put Heather and her family’s background and how it manifested itself in their lives:
“My family — we are not the kind of family that is targeted by hate crimes. We come from a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant background with Appalachian heritage. We have never had to be afraid that someone would target us or lynch us because of the color of our skin.”
“We never had to worry someone wouldn’t hire us because of the way we look. We never have to worry that our children might become victims of someone else’s prejudice. We’ve never been told we can’t live in a certain neighborhood or attend a certain school because of the color of our skin. Until last week, we had no idea what it feels like to lose someone to hate.”
She goes on to describe the experience of sitting in the crowd during the memorial service for Heather earlier this week. She listened as speaker after speaker praised her cousin as a hero fighting for social justice, but there was one speaker whose comments shot through to her core.
She then posed a question that strikes the heart of the issue that Heather was fighting for.
“Why does a white woman have to get killed for you all to become outraged?” All I could think was, “Heather is sitting in heaven right now, shaking her head in agreement.”
“Why is it that the death of a white woman at the hands of a white supremacist group has finally gotten the attention of white folk? Why have we been turning our heads the other way for so long? How many black families, Latino families, Asian families, Native-American families before us have been left broken from this ugly vein of hatred in our country? Too many. And to my non-white brothers and sisters, I am so sorry that many of us weren’t paying attention before Charlottesville.”
She goes on to point out that rather than being a battle between the “alt-left” and the “alt-right”, the events in Charlottesville were a clash between outside political agitators (including neo-Nazis, the KKK, and far-right fringe groups) and counter-protestors, the vast majority of whom were concerned residents of the local community.
Ratcliff continues by saying that these fringe groups don’t belong in our political dialogue.
“There is no space at the political table for them. There is no common ground, and there is no compromise. America has fought and won two wars against fascism and white supremacy already. White nationalists are the KKK rebranded, and they lost their right to free speech the minute they tried to use it to intimidate and incite violence. Which, by the way, was back in 1865. So, stop giving them a voice. There is nothing in our Constitution protecting hate speech.”
“If anyone other than white people had been marching the streets of Charlottesville wielding tiki torches, carrying semi-automatic rifles, chanting racist chants, engendering fear at a house of prayer, and menacing its residents, we’d call them terrorists.”
With the terrorist attacks in Barcelona beginning to eclipse the news from Charlottesville, Ratcliff bemoans the fact that people who have no problem calling those heinous acts in Spain “terrorism” feel uncomfortable labeling the actions of the white nationalist who killed her cousin with the same words.
“That man was fulfilling a call-to-action from white nationalists. He was committing an act of terror….”
“Yesterday, my son asked me, “Mommy, what do terrorists look like?” I answered him, “Baby, they can look and sound like you or me, they can be like any one of us here.” And that is the reality. White nationalists aren’t some uneducated backwater clowns that are going to disappear. They’re loan officers, they’re service providers, they’re professionals, they’re public servants, they’re college students, they’re everyday people. Racism isn’t dying out with an aging population. It’s found new life, and it’s going to get worse if we don’t put a stop to it now.”
Ratcliff concludes her essay with an important question and a powerful call to action that all of us would be wise to absorb and integrate into our lives.
“How did America go from a black President to white supremacist neo-Nazis marching in the street? That is the question we need to be asking ourselves. And if we take a long hard look at ourselves, we’ll find out that it’s because we went into denial. We elected a black person, we made friends with some minorities, and we patted ourselves on our backs, saying, “Well done self, we have eliminated racism.” Clearly, we have not. It’s been lurking in the shadows, waiting in the spaces of the words we say and the words we don’t say. The actions we take and the actions we don’t take.
For example, when someone says, “All lives matter,” what they think they’re saying is, “All lives are equally as important.” However, they’re failing to acknowledge that racism is still a real problem in America. “Black lives matter” isn’t saying that police lives don’t matter. No one is saying that white lives don’t matter. Black folks are simply saying they are tired of being treated like their lives don’t matter.
If there is one positive I have taken away from the loss of Heather, it is that it isn’t the length of your life that is important, it’s what you do with your life that matters. If you truly believe all lives are equally important, then make your life matter.
Let’s hope that as many people as possible get to read the words that Heather Heyer’s cousin has written and are inspired to get involved in changing the world for the betterment of everyone who lives in it. If you believe that all lives matter, start with making sure that your own life matters in spreading that message.
Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music and art.