As you’ve probably been aware, things have been rather, well, difficult in these parts over the past few days. Living in State College I quickly learned that when you find your town on the front page of the New York Times and Washington Post things are probably not going particularly well, and here in Charlottesville I’ve learned that if you get that attention plus the lead article on The Economist Espresso app, things are really not going well.
As my initial grist for this entry, I’d written a good 5500 words meticulously employing appropriate theories of collective action and the usual obtuse historical analogies—those to whom I owe a couple of reports, sorry—but with the utterly mind-boggling levels of craziness pouring out of the White House, the subtleness of any detailed analysis would be lost to the winds, to say nothing of potentially misinterpreted. And on further reflection, this is not a time for analysis, but neither is it a time for silence, and consequently I’m just going to go with my gut.
A few hours ago I attended, along with about a thousand other people, the public funeral for Heather Heyer, the woman killed on Saturday in an act of domestic terrorism. And yes, terrorism is precisely what it was, by every known definition of the term. Coming out of that event, I can say with certainty that Heather is not someone who died because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, Heather Heyer was murdered because she was exactly where she wanted to be, as a witness to the causes of justice, tolerance and equality to which she had been fiercely committed her entire life.
But that funeral brought home another message that I think is even more important, and too easily missed. That strength and commitment were shown not just by Heather but by the entire network which took to the microphone to speak in her memory: her father, pastor, friends, boss and, dramatically, her mother Susan Bro who transcended the pain and grief of losing her only daughter to make a powerful and impassioned statement for the values Heather had lived by.
And who were these people? Heather had only a high school education. She was raised by her single mom and her grandparents. The accents we heard were the soft tones of rural Virginia and the powerful cadences of African-American churches, not the carefully refined language of Ivy League eating clubs or the arrogant bombast of TED-X talks. Her African-American boss managed a bankruptcy firm and had hired Heather when she was a waitress, telling her that she had smarts and a work ethic, and he could teach her what she needed to know to become a paralegal. Smarts, a work ethic, and deep reserves of empathy, as he related a story of watching Heather gently work with a dual-career couple with multiple advanced degrees who, nonetheless, found themselves filing for bankruptcy.
Heather Heyer, with just a high school degree, and growing up in central Virginia, is the sort of person who would be completely invisible, totally beyond even the remotest consideration, to those of us in the tech community.
Heather’s funeral was held at the Paramount Theater, the largest venue in the downtown. As it happened, the last time I’d been in that theater I’d been listening to the rants of a foul-mouthed misogynistic venture capitalist, later exposed as one of the most notorious serial sexual harassers on the West Coast, who had been brought in with taxpayer assistance to be glorified as an exemplar on whom we should model our lives. The ersatz “tech festival” sponsoring him went on in a similar vein for days—perfect people with their perfect accents, perfect degrees, perfect bodies, perfect LinkedIn profiles and perfect access to Other People’s Money. And yet in the one hour of Heather’s funeral, I heard more wisdom than I found in three days of that earlier celebration of education and entitlement.
Charlottesville is a wonderful place to be a tech developer, and I want that to continue. But there is more to life than technical acumen, advanced degrees, and knowing the right people. Charlottesville, and the world, is not just tech and venture capital, but people like Heather Heyer and her amazing family and friends, and their profoundly deep values, moral strength, and commitments. Let’s not forget that.
And to the heavily-armed jokers who descended upon our quiet community to march in Nuremberg-style torchlit parades chanting “You will not replace us”: we will replace you. Oh, most assuredly we will replace you.
And it is on the strength and convictions of people like Heather Heyer and Susan Bro that we will replace you.