This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of a violent display of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. Like most Americans, I watched in shock last August as white nationalists and alt-right supporters marched with tiki torches, sporting KKK regalia at the “Unite the Right” rally. American flags waved, homophobic slurs were hurled, and people of color were told to “go the F* back to Africa.” When it was over, three innocent lives were lost and our entire country found itself soul searching.
As a veteran, I love America and I understand that the constitution I swore to protect affords us the right to assemble — no matter what we have to say. As a black woman veteran, it was hurtful and terrifying watching fellow countrymen who I defended overseas assemble proudly and shamelessly to defend racism.
Still, Charlottesville seemed far away. Until it wasn’t.
Less than six months later, on a quiet Saturday in Lawrence, I began receiving messages from friends concerned for my safety, warning me to stay away from Downtown. I watched on social media as angry (mostly) men flooded sidewalks, blocked traffic, waved confederate flags, and turned our peaceful community into a hostile environment. Most of us were horrified to witness this in Lawrence, Kansas — a town that literally burned to the ground in Quantrill’s Raid during Kansas’ courageous battle to enter the Union as a free state.
The Republican candidate for Congress in Kansas’ Second District, Steve Watkins, reacted differently. He joined in and proudly marched with them. In a Facebook post he said: “I was proud to march with some great patriots today and #DefendOurFlag.” For him, patriotism meant surrounding himself with white nationalists.
As a veteran, this could have been an opportunity for Mr. Watkins to talk about the diverse men and women he served with, and how there is no place for this kind of hatred in Kansas. Mr. Watkins could have led by example. Instead, he embraced racism and nationalism. That choice cannot be undone by deleting a Facebook post.
We can’t control the beliefs of others, but we can control who will speak for us in Washington. We can control what kind of leadership we demand in troubling times. I thank Mr. Watkins for his military service, but as a Kansan, a veteran, and a woman of color, I say “no, thank you” to Steve Watkins serving as my voice in Congress. Anyone who chooses to embrace symbols of white nationalism and would seek the support of those who want to divide us is not worthy to represent my congressional district or anyone else’s.