“Melee.” The word seems old-fashioned. It fits right in with speech from the 19th century or dialogue from black-and-white films. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “melee” as a “confused struggle,” a “hand-to-hand fight among several people.” Some of its common synonyms are “skirmish,” “scuffle,” “fracas,” “rumpus” and “commotion.” The word conjures images of clumsy brawls in Hollywood Wsterns or among drunken fans at sporting events.
On Aug. 14, Congressman Glenn Thompson issued a statement describing the now-famous events in Charlottesville, Va., as a “melee.” The domestic terrorism in that city over the preceding weekend began as a “Unite the Right” rally. Advertisements for it were emblazoned with white supremacist symbolism. It was a “melee,” Thompson said — meaning, according to the dictionary, a “skirmish,” “scuffle,” “fracas” or “rumpus.” The rest of Thompson’s statement referred vaguely to “events that unfolded,” to unnamed “hate groups,” and to “the young woman who so tragically lost her life.” The woman to whom he referred, Heather Heyer, was murdered. Who killed her? And why? The congressman does not say.
The congressman’s statement on the events in Charlottesville is relevant to residents of Centre County because hate groups exist throughout the 5th Congressional District (and Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the nation in the number of hate groups per state). Thompson’s words explain where he stands on local matters of public safety, justice and equality. Those words indicate how well he understands threats to our communities, including threats to the principles of equality and democracy that govern them.
For these reasons, examining the language that Thompson used to describe the domestic terrorism in Charlottesville is important. After all, white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University Park campus in November 2016 before canceling. He is ideological allies with many of those who organized the “Unite the Right” march. What elements would he have attracted to State College, a university community like Charlottesville, had he kept his speaking engagement? Think it can’t happen here? Residents of Charlottesville probably never imagined it would happen to them.
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Here’s a sample of what some Charlottesville residents experienced. Brandy Daniels, a postdoctoral fellow of religion at the University of Virginia, linked arms with members of religious congregations in a peaceful counter-demonstration to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. A small group of them, she says, “came up with their shields and batons and bats and shoved through us . . . it was terrifying, to say the least.” Daniels and her fellow counter-demonstrators regrouped, at which point “a much larger group of Nazi alt-righters” numbering “at least 100” bore down on them, brandishing weapons, forcing the peaceful protesters to disperse —perhaps to run for their lives — under threat of a mob assault in broad daylight.
Rev. Seth Wispelwey feared for his life from “the tide of men carrying weapons, shields . . . and waving Nazi flags and the pro-slavery ‘stars and bars.’ ” “The white supremacists,” he reports, “did not blink at violently plowing right through clergy, all of us dressed in full clerical garb.” Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel, was forced to hire armed security guards to protect his synagogue as “men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street” or marched past the building screaming “Seig Heil.” “Soon,” Zimmerman said, “we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue.”
Perhaps Rep. Thompson will clarify whether he believes that the droves of white nationalists who terrorized Charlottesville were, as the term “melee” suggests, merely one of many kinds of troublemakers who got carried away when tempers ran high. Perhaps he will discover the best words to explain definitively how he understands what transpired in Charlottesville and what it symbolizes about our current social and political climate. Doing so would be an act of the moral as well as legislative leadership expected from democratically elected officials. It is vital that local officials, in addition to national political figures and all leaders in between, explain their precise positions on these issues.
Thompson’s words are not just words when forces in the commonwealth share the same goals as those who terrorized another university community not so far away from our own. The congressman’s words indicate a capacity for judgment. This is not a request for him to take a particular stand, per se, but an appeal for him to clarify what he stands for in the first place.
Now is not a time for political correctness. Saying that a “melee” occurred and “events unfolded” in response to what happened in Charlottesville amounts to taking no stand at all. This should not be a great test for a democratically elected representative, whether at the state, federal or local level. Let’s hope that Congressman Thompson passes it with flying colors.
Bradford Vivian, is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State and director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation. The op-ed reflects his views and not those of Penn State.