A Dubious and Translucent Parallel

About a week after the events in Charlottesville, my wife and I went to dinner at our friends’ home. Like us, they are immigrants from Romania. They came to the USA in the early nineties, and enjoyed solid careers and remarkable professional growth. Their other guests were their two nieces and a young man, the younger sister’s boyfriend, all three from Romania, and in their twenties. Talented and creative, the older sister graduated from Oxford, and works as an architect in London. This was her first visit to the US. The younger sister and her boyfriend are students in New York City (she studies psychology, and he computer science), and had come here to study two years ago. The three of them talked with gusto, and shared their impressions of America and the world without reticence. Good food and champagne contributed to the sparkle of our conversation.

Unavoidably, the subject of Charlottesville came up. Our young visitors expressed dismay and disappointment with the events. They didn’t say it, but I understood that for their entire short adult lives, they had looked to the West, and specifically America, as a model society, an attractive and just place, a moral compass to be held high and admired, and an important engine of the world’s development. They had dreamed to come here and study. Were they wrong? Has America lost its rudder, and put a president at the helm who flips and flops and can’t gather the inner moral strength to categorically refute white supremacists? Blaming both sides seemed an incongruity. Marching with torches and yelling ‘Jews won’t replace us!’ didn’t belong in the streets of America, and our young friends, filled with hopes and ideals and fresh as spring flowers, whether immigrants, students or tourists, could not accept that reality. There is a little America in each of the people of this world, and they cannot accept it either.

Our hosts remembered an episode from their own lives before coming to America, in the early summer of 1990, about six months after the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. The power vacuum, left by tyrant Caușescu’s fall from power and his summary execution, was filled by a provisional government called the National Salvation Front (FSN in Romanian), and lead by Ion Iliescu, a one-time loyal Ceaușescu lieutenant and lifetime communist. The FSN governed until the spring elections, in which it was not supposed to participate. But Iliescu changed the rules, and, given his control of the state media, he won the elections. Unhappy with what some people, most of them students and intellectuals, viewed as one dictatorship replacing another, a large number of protesters gathered in University Square in the center of Bucharest. They demanded the implementation of the 8th clause of the popular Proclamation of Timișoara, which stated that communists and former communists (including President Iliescu himself) were prevented from holding official functions. Some started a hunger strike. Riots broke out. When the police was unable to contain the protesters, Iliescu played a trump card from the communist regime playbook and ‘invited’ the miners of Jiu Valley (Jiu is the river in the most significant coal mining area of Romania) “to save the besieged emerging democratic regime.” Over ten thousand miners armed with bats and pickaxes filled special trains destined for Bucharest. During the two days that followed they terrorized the population of the capital, beat people in the streets, forced them into vans that were driven to unknown destinations, vandalized and destroyed the offices of the new free press and of the opposition political parties. The miners, wearing tattered, dirty work clothes, their faces darkened by soot, marched through the streets of Bucharest yelling slogans like “We work, we don’t think!” and “Death to the intellectuals!” The event was later called the Mineriad.

Our hosts witnessed this occurrence first hand. They were peacefully walking on one of the main streets in Bucharest, when miners descended on them because they looked neat and nicely dressed (like intellectuals), and ordered our friend to give them her purse. They wanted to check the contents, “to make sure it did not contain illicit materials.” She hesitated. They pointed to a van parked across the street. “You’ll end up there in the next minute,” they threatened. Her husband urged her to comply. When she did, the miners emptied the purse on the sidewalk, snatched a bottle of perfume, and, satisfied, left to find the next victim.

When the Mineriad ended, the victims of the violence were buried in common graves. An official death toll was never released. In a public address, President Iliescu, under mounting pressure from the international community, condemned violence on all sides, and thanked the miners for their spontaneous and voluntary participation. That year our friends immigrated to America. Many years later, parliamentary inquiries in Romania confirmed the role of the Government and Secret Police in leading and coordinating the miners.

“We’ve heard about the Mineriad from our parents and grandparents,” our young visitors said. “You don’t mean to equate it to the events in Charlottesville?”

We left their question unanswered. There is plenty of hope in America today and plenty to worry about as well. When someone kicks off a presidential campaign by calling immigrants from Mexico ‘rapists’ and criminals, it is clear why he had a hard time condemning clansmen, racists, and fascists.

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