For people of Charlottesville, a long year of reckoning

Why We Wrote This

Reconciliation is a process, not a switch to be thrown. But Charlottesville, like the nation, shows that exposing the roots of a divide is a healthy starting point. Last in a series of profiles of individuals whose lives were changed by Charlottesville.


Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
A shop's wares are put to clever use in a sign displaying civic pride outside Fitzgerald’s Tires in Charlottesville, Va. The city is still grappling with the fallout from last year’s protests, which exposed divides along issues of class and race in this quiet college town and across the nation.

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This is the story of what last year’s Unite the Right rally meant to the people of Charlottesville, Va., how it changed their lives and outlooks, and how they’re striving to address the divisions the protests exposed – individually and as a community. “This is a fight you get into and you go 10 toes deep into it, and you can’t let go,” says Tanesha Hudson, a community organizer who is working on a documentary. Zoe Padron, a high school teacher, lost her fear of getting fired and is pushing her mainly white students to consider the different ways racism manifests itself. Charles Weber, a criminal defense attorney and spokesperson for The Monument Fund, is among the plaintiffs in a legal challenge to preserve historical monuments, including the Robert E. Lee statue whose proposed removal precipitated the protests. “As horrible as the experience was, and as violent, and as brutalizing for the people who live in my city,” says city councilman Mike Signer, who was mayor during the rally, “I think that to the extent that the event lifted the veil on the violence at the heart of this marginal political movement … it served a purpose in waking the country up.”

To view our full Charlottesville series, you can click here. Also, former white supremacist Christian Picciolini offers a unique view into how to counter hate. Read our Q&A with him here

The best seats are already taken half an hour before the Charlottesville City Council is due to start.

With less than a week to go until Aug. 12, the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right rally that devolved into violence, the city is braced for a reprise. Residents file in with signs bearing the name of the new African-American mayor, Nikuyah Walker, and her slogan, “Unmask the illusion.” Others say simply, “Transparency.” One woman, in front row, holds one that says, “Punish Nazi’s not residendts” [sic] on one side and “Arrest Kessler” on the other, referring to organizer Jason Kessler.  

When Ms. Walker walks in, the crowd claps and cheers. There are scattered boos and hisses when she is followed by her predecessor and fellow city councilmember Mike Signer, who was mayor during last year’s protests and the consequent fallout.

By the time the meeting kicks off with the Pledge of Allegiance, the room is packed. As everyone says, “… liberty and justice for all,” someone says loudly, “All?”

Over the next five hours, residents step up to confront the city council and new police chief, RaShall Brackney, the first African-American woman appointed to the job, with questions about the coming weekend. It’s clear there’s a lot that hasn’t been resolved since last year, especially around accountability.

“They have to do a  full thorough investigation of everything that occurred ... and come up with some type of way to move forward,” says Tanesha Hudson, a longtime community organizer who attended the meeting. “We’re nowhere near any type of healing or moving forward.”

The tense meeting at City Hall is in many ways a microcosm of a city still grappling with the fallout from last year’s protests, which exposed fault lines along class and race in this quiet college town – as well as the nation. Even as white activists have sought to become more effective allies in the fight for racial justice, and African-Americans have watched their white neighbors wake up to issues they have long been acquainted with, few are ready to talk about rebuilding or reconciliation.

And while almost universal opposition is expressed to the ideology espoused by the white supremacists and white nationalists who marched into Charlottesville last summer, there are still divisions over the place of free speech and historic monuments in a city and country grappling with its heritage – and its future as a multicultural society.

This is the story of what last year’s rally meant to the people of Charlottesville, how it changed their lives and outlooks, and how they’re striving to address the divisions the protests exposed – individually, and as a community.

“This isn’t a fight you get into for six months, or a year,” says Ms. Hudson, her voice hoarse after staying at City Hall until 12:30 a.m. “This is a fight you get into and you go 10 toes deep into it, and you can’t let go.”

Hudson is working on a documentary, “A Legacy Unbroken,” to tell the city’s untold stories about people of color. Zoe Padron, a high school teacher, has lost her fear of getting fired and is pushing her mainly white students to consider the different ways racism manifests itself – not just interpersonal bigotry, but systemic injustice, too.

Sarah Kenny, the University of Virginia student body president at the time of the protests, wrote her senior thesis on the role of women in the alt-right, and intends to study conflict resolution in graduate school. Newly minted College Republican chairman Robert Andrews, a distant relative of Robert E. Lee, is planning to hold bipartisan dialogs on campus this year.

Charles Weber, a local criminal defense attorney and spokesman for The Monument Fund, is among the plaintiffs in the Fund’s legal challenge to preserve historical monuments – including the statue of Lee whose proposed removal precipitated last year’s protests.

And Mr. Signer, the former mayor, has spent a lot of time reflecting.

“As horrible as the experience was, and as violent, and as brutalizing for the people who live in my city, physically and emotionally,” he says, “I think that to the extent that the event lifted the veil on the violence at the heart of this marginal political movement … it served a purpose in waking the country up.”

Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
Activist and community organizer Tanesha Hudson stands on the Downtown Mall on Aug. 7, in Charlottesville, Va. Ms. Hudson, who was born and raised in Charlottesville, says that the violence that erupted in her city last summer is just one episode in a long history of marginalization of black communities and people of color.

Through the eyes of a 4-year-old

Seth Wispelwey’s daughter was 4 when he took her to a Smithsonian exhibit on 50 years since the civil rights movement, and 150 years since the end of slavery in America. The exhibits at her eye level included black children shackled in chains.

Soon after, he recounts, he was taking her to the library in Charlottesville, right next to the park where stands the soaring statue of the Confederate general.

She asked, “Who is that a statue of?”

He told her, “Oh, you remember that war we talked about? The one that ultimately ended up in the ending of slavery? Well, he was a general in that war.”

And she said, “Oh, so he fought for the side that wanted to free all the slaves?”

No, he explained, Virginia was part of the South. “We seceded, so he actually fought for the side that wanted to maintain slavery,” he said.

There was a long pause.

“So why is there a statue then?”

He didn’t have an answer.

“So this is where I don’t get when people are like, ‘Oh, it’s just a statue,’ ” says Mr. Wispelwey, a pastor with the United Church of Christ. “It tells a story, and all you have to do is have the eyes of a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old to understand that … monuments and statues valorize our values.”

It was teenage activist Zyahna Bryant’s petition that led the city council to vote to remove the statues of Lee and fellow Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and sparked last summer’s Unite the Right rally.

More than 600 white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists converged on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, along with even larger crowds of counterprotesters. Brawls broke out, and counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when a protester drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd, and 29 were injured. Two state troopers died in a helicopter crash that is still being investigated.

Mr. Weber and other conservatives in the city say they unequivocally denounce the protesters and their message.

Mr. Andrews, who was part of the College Republicans executive committee that put out a statement ahead of Aug. 12 denouncing the alt-right gathering, was dismayed to see protesters rallying around the statue of his ancestor and namesake, Lee.

“He would not condone any of these individuals’ actions,” he says. “They tried to tie themselves to the statue and it was really wrong.”

“None of us at The Monument Fund supports anything that they do,” agrees Weber, referring to the protesters. “We’re focused on the law.”

Virginia state law makes it illegal “to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” That applies not just to Confederate memorials, he stresses, but all memorials. He himself is a Vietnam veteran.

“There’s a powerful storyline of how this country came to be,” says Weber, sitting in his quiet Charlottesville law office. “I don’t think telling the full story requires us to throw all that out, any more than I think the quest for better forms of justice requires us to throw out the Constitution.”

‘Worse than anything we were told’

The weekend of Aug. 12, Signer says, was worse than anything he’d had to face before as mayor.

“The government was not aware they would come armed as a militia, with shields, insignias, command structures, and weaponry,” Signer recalls. “That was worse than anything that we were told.“

In the aftermath, the former mayor drew some praise for calling out President Trump for his rhetoric, which Signer said emboldened far-right activists.

But he was castigated when he tweeted, days after the rally, that Charlottesville was “back on our feet, and we’ll be stronger than ever!” The post included a photo of himself jumping in front of an oversized “Love” sign downtown.

“I saw my role as trying to cheerlead for the city and project an upbeat kind of, ‘We’ll be back, better than ever,’ message,” Signer says.“To a lot of folks, and I get that now, it seemed like too much, too soon.”

In December, an independent report on the Charlottesville protests by a former US attorney for Western Virginia, Timothy Heaphy, found considerable fault with city government, particularly the Charlottesville Police Department.

“When violence was most prevalent, CPD commanders pulled officers back to a protected area of the park, where they remained for over an hour as people in the large crowd fought on Market Street,” the report said. It also quoted two close associates of Police Chief Al Thomas as hearing him say, “Let them fight.”

Chief Thomas, the first African-American appointed to the post, denied the comment but resigned.

In January, Signer declined to place himself on the ticket for reelection, instead voting for Ms. Walker, a local activist who was among his critics.

All this happened as Signer, who is Jewish, was facing a slew of anti-Semitic attacks. “Someone sent me a cartoon of Robert E. Lee pushing the green button on a gas chamber with my face Photoshopped on it,” he says.

Signer says he absolutely feels changed after the events of last summer.

“I’ve spent many, many months personally reflecting, praying, trying to listen to critiques more than praise,” he says. “It’s constant work, to make people feel heard in their anger and their disappointment, to not be defensive, to try and gain some wisdom that can help servant leadership in this really tough time.”

Stephen McDowell, a conservative who lives on the outskirts of Charlottesville, sees faith as the answer to that anger and hatred, which he says is the central problem to be addressed.

“If that’s not dealt with, you can never really deal with the problem of racism,” says Mr. McDowell. “I believe the only ultimate way is to give them a change of heart, which only the Christian faith can do.”

Just one episode in long history

The air is still heavy from a thunderstorm when Hudson, the community organizer, shows up at the public library in downtown Charlottesville. Across the street the Lee statue glistens with rain, but Hudson doesn’t want to talk about monuments. She doesn’t want to talk about Jason Kessler or Heather Heyer, though she acknowledges the tragedy of her death. Hudson doesn’t even really want to talk about this weekend: only that she’s still deciding whether to stay in Charlottesville or head to Washington, where Kessler plans to hold Unite The Right 2.

As far Hudson is concerned, last year’s protests were just one episode in a long, ugly history of white supremacy and patriarchy that has kept communities of color and especially the black community “at the bottom of the barrel,” she says. Her fight – to build up black and brown folks in her city – didn’t change on Aug. 12.

If that violence jolts white folks out of their comfort zones, Hudson says, then it did the progressive movement some good.

“I’m not asking any of these white people down here to apologize for the legacy of Thomas Jefferson or slavery or Jim Crow.” She gestures to the folks strolling up and down Main Street, about a block from the library. “What I’m asking white people to do is pay attention to the systems that were built and that they choose to maintain and benefit from.”

Some white progressives here have spent the past year wrestling with that mandate.

As UVA’s student council president, Ms. Kenny’s first instinct was to follow the lead of Signer and then-university president Teresa Sullivan. She issued a statement urging her fellow students to resist engaging the white supremacists’ ideas and stay away from downtown during the protests.

“I definitely received some pushback,” Kenny recalls. “There were some upset students who said, ‘You can’t tell me how to best confront evil.’ ”

She’s since struggled to figure out her role. “One of the biggest weights I felt was to keep the white student body engaged and angry and committed to racial justice … and to make sure that our majority white population didn’t try and just tie a bow on it and walk away,” Kenny says. “So many of our classmates didn’t have that choice.”

Ms. Padron, the high school teacher, has found herself playing a more active part in educating her students about race and privilege. Throughout the school year, her mostly white students came to her with tough questions about institutional racism and their own latent biases. “I’ve always been a gadfly, but last year I upped the ante,” she says.

“People of color are uncomfortable in so many circumstances so many times. There’s no reason somebody who’s white should feel good all the time,” she adds. “And as someone who is coded as white here” – Padron is Jewish, and married to a Hispanic man – “I had privilege I could use and should use.”

“A lot of them are just starting to pay attention,” says Hudson, back in downtown Charlottesville. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m over here and I’m black and I’ve been telling you that this is happening and y’all weren’t listening.... But now, you listening.’ ”

Christa Case Bryant contributed from Boston.

Correction: Mike Signer did not step down from the office of mayor. In Charlottesville's form of government, city council selects the mayor from its members.

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

Part 2: Charlottesville teen goes from targeting statue to taking on system

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

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

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