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Charlottesville teen goes from targeting a statue to taking on the system

Why We Wrote This

For high school activist Zyahna Bryant – whose petition to remove a Confederate statue sparked events leading to last summer’s violent protests – what happened in Charlottesville, Va., was not a turning point, but it revealed entrenched injustices that have yet to be addressed. Second in a series of profiles of individuals whose lives were changed by Charlottesville.

Norm Shafer/ For The Washington Post/Getty Images
Teen activist Zyahna Bryant wrote a petition in 2016, when she was a high school freshman, asking the city of Charlottesville, Va., to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee.

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Life’s been busy for Zyahna Bryant since the events of Aug. 12, 2017. A year before, Ms. Bryant, then 15, started an online petition to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from downtown Charlottesville, Va. She had no idea her appeal – which started as a school assignment – would lead to a deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters. Nor did she realize what effect that one decision would have on her own life and advocacy: Though not yet a senior, Bryant has since become the kind of activist who wins awards for her work and is featured in national news outlets. But to her, what happened last summer is about far more than taking down a memorial or even decrying the violence that engulfed her hometown and shocked the nation. It’s about reclaiming the story of the city and elevating the voices of the people in it who are least heard. “White supremacy [in Charlottesville] existed way before Aug. 12,” she says. “It’s not at all anything compared to the racial violence that black people have been dealing with since the beginning of this country.”

This series continues tomorrow. 

Life’s been a lot busier for Zyahna Bryant since the events of Aug. 12, 2017.

A year before, Ms. Bryant – then 15 – had started an online petition to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park in downtown Charlottesville. It wasn’t her first foray into activism: she was just seven when her grandmother took her to campaign for Barack Obama. As an elementary school student, she quickly realized that she was one of only a handful of black students at the private academy she attended. By the time George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Bryant was fully versed in what it meant to be black in America today.

Despite that, she had no idea her petition – which had started as a school assignment – would spur a series of events that would lead to the deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters at the very park where the Lee statue stood. Nor did she realize what effect that one decision would have on her own life and advocacy.

“Before the 12th, I didn’t call myself an activist,” she says. “The work just felt so natural and so necessary, more than just me wanting to do it.”

Today Bryant’s a known figure both in her community and beyond. Vice News has published a profile on her. CNN invited her to participate in a debate on gun control. She’s received awards for her community and social justice work, which includes founding the Black Student Union at her own Charlottesville High School. When we spoke by phone on a Thursday afternoon – it was her third interview of the day – she was on her way to a meeting of the local school board, where they would announce her new position as student representative.

“My days are crazy, I’ma tell you,” she says.

Rather than distracting Bryant, the attention has helped her find her focus. To her – and to many progressive activists, especially local ones – what happened last summer is about far more than taking down a Confederate memorial or even decrying the violence that engulfed her hometown and shocked the nation. It’s about reclaiming the story of the city, and elevating the voices of the people in it who are least heard.

Charlottesville’s black communities have long suffered displacement and discrimination, Bryant says, pointing to how the majority-black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for “urban renewal projects.” African Americans still make up the bulk of stop-and-frisk cases in a city where they constitute only 18 percent of the population.

“White supremacy [in Charlottesville] existed way before August 12,” Bryant says. “It’s not at all anything compared to the racial violence that black people have been dealing with since the beginning of this country.”

The past year has prompted a kind of of soul-searching that’s caused the citizens of Charlottesville no small pain. On the Monday before the rally’s anniversary, residents packed the hall where the Charlottesville city council held its bimonthly meeting. Some carried signs that said, “Transparency,” “Arrest Kessler,” and “Unmask the Illusion” (current Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s campaign slogan). Police chief RaShall Brackney and fire chief Andrew Baxter fielded questions from council members about safety and security for the coming weekend as some in the audience clapped or hissed. Some asked questions out of turn. Public comments, which came at the end of the meeting, went on past midnight, says Allison Wrabel, a reporter who covered the meeting for The Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local paper.

“Suddenly people who have never been to a city council meeting ... are showing up,” says Bryan McKenzie, who also works for the Progress. “People who have never felt they had a voice or never even thought about having a voice – who thought, ‘This is just my life’ – are going, ‘Maybe it doesn't have to be this way.’ ”

For Bryant, getting that message out to the broader public has become central to her work. Though she’s still interested in organizing, she’s more focused on bringing to light the long history of white supremacy and racism in the city. She’s calling for more resources for community organizers who are leading the charge toward social justice and equality, but whose jobs often don’t pay enough for them to make rent. She’s urging journalists and others to seek out the advice and stories of local activists of color, many of whom have been organizing for years.

“The Trump era has diminished the work of so many women of color,” Bryant says. “I’m passionate about centering them and making sure they are at the front.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for Bryant in the past year is how she feels about the statue that started it all. Though it was shrouded in a black tarp for a while after last summer’s rally, these days the monument looks much the same as it did when Bryant first published her petition. In July, a local judge signed an order indefinitely extending an injunction that protects the city’s Confederate monuments while the lawsuit plays out in court. 

“It needs to go,” she says. “There's no way you can contextualize years of racial terror. No platform for white supremacy.”

Corrections: George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. Mayor Walker's slogan is "Unmask the Illusion."

Part 1: A new life for mother whose daughter was killed in Charlottesville

Part 3: Charlottesville pastors see protest as an act of faith

Part 4: Jason Kessler and the 'alt-right' implosion after Charlottesville

Part 5: For people of Charlottesville, a long year of reckoning

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