Four Years After ‘Unite the Right,’ Charlottesville Still Struggles to Move On
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — On a recent Monday night, portions of the virtual meeting of the Charlottesville City Council felt more like angry exchanges of shouting and broadsides than a consideration of city business.
At the meeting, which rumbled along for hours, some residents attacked council members by name about plans for reorganizing the police. Others decried a proposed zoning change to build more apartments for affordable housing. And council members debated yet again the fate of the statue of Robert E. Lee that had been removed from public view in July.
“I will mute myself,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker snapped in exasperation from her home office after a councilor upbraided her for interrupting. “Go ahead, knock yourself out.”
After the far-right rally in August 2017, which turned Charlottesville into a national battleground over issues of hate and extremism, many residents hoped the liberal college town would become an example of racial reconciliation. It hasn’t happened.
Instead, the divisions roiling Charlottesville have been pushed into the forefront over the past four weeks during a civil trial in federal court over who is responsible for the events of 2017. Nine plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for injuries sustained during deadly clashes that erupted when some 600 white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers gathered to protest the proposed removal of the Lee statue. Closing arguments are due to begin on Thursday.
And even with four years of efforts at reconciliation, many residents say some of the same issues that the rally exposed over race and history still plague the city. As the trial plays out, what began in Charlottesville as a battle over the Lee statue has helped amp up passions and differences shrouding the issues of the present.
“It definitely continues to reverberate,” said Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia who led an independent review of the events and is the chief lawyer for the University of Virginia.
“It brought to the surface a lot of issues that were always there but kind of erupted in August 2017,” he said. “There are breaches within this community that have not been healed.”
A two-block stretch of downtown Charlottesville was named Heather Heyer Way after the counter protester who was killed during the rally in 2017.Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times
The City Council meetings first exploded right after the rally. Angry residents demanded answers from the Charlottesville Police Department and City Hall about lack of planning and intervention to prevent the violence.
Some residents still harbor considerable anger and distrust toward both the police and the Council because of their response.
Charlottesville has churned through six city managers and two police chiefs amid the rancor. Chief RaShall Brackney, the city’s first Black female chief, was fired in September. Sharp differences within the police and the city over what changes were needed to build a more open, accountable force led to her dismissal. Ms. Brackney has sued, calling it unjust.
A vociferous debate has also erupted over a proposal to rewrite the zoning laws to permit greater density in neighborhoods limited to single-family homes, which highlights racial tensions between some Black and white residents.
Opponents argue that high-rises will mar Charlottesville’s leafy, historic character. Supporters want affordable housing for lower paid workers who have been forced out of the city in recent years. Some of those backing the change accuse richer, white homeowners of balking at rectifying longstanding housing discrimination against Black residents because it threatens their property values.
The city of some 47,000 people is about 70 percent white, 18 percent Black, 7 percent Asian and 5 percent Latino. The University of Virginia enrolls around 20,000 students.
In the aftermath of the rally, one of the key divisions to emerge among residents was between those who blamed outside agitators for inciting unrest and derailing the city’s sense of harmony, versus those who felt that it exposed the need for change.
Dom Morse, 29, who grew up in Charlottesville and just won a school board seat, called the portrait of the city that emerged from 2017 exaggerated. “I think there is a misconception that we just have Klan members hanging around Charlottesville,” he said.
But others disagree. Bruce McKenney, 53, who works in renewable energy, said that when it came to racial issues, the rally had been akin to someone grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. “I think if that event hadn’t happened, we would have the same problems,” he said, “but I don’t think that they would be on the surface.”
During the trial over the past few weeks, spectators were barred from the courtroom as a Covid precaution. Only a few demonstrators have gathered outside. A live feed has streamed some of the hateful rhetoric the defendants have spewed as they try to defend themselves using the First Amendment argument.
In an open letter to Congregation Beth Israel, whose synagogue was a target of far-right demonstrators yelling antisemitic slogans outside in 2017, Rabbi Tom Gutherz warned that the trial would not end matters. “There will be closure when we figure out as an American people how to combat these trends,” he wrote.
Mayor Walker, whose term ends in December, said disappointment over a lack of change had diluted interest in the trial. “The Black community in Charlottesville has said repeatedly since 2017 that this is our normal and please respond to that, and those pleas have not been heard,” she said. (The title “mayor” goes to the person elected to the role by the five city councilors. A city manager, who is appointed by the City Council, runs the city day to day.)
Last spring, Ms. Walker tweeted a poem she wrote characterizing the city as a rapist, lacking a moral compass. “Charlottesville is anchored in white supremacy and rooted in racism,” read one line.
“The conversation around race — that is not a gentle conversation — most people do not want to be brought together on it,” she said in an interview.
The poem dismayed some fellow Democrats. “The mayor has been a spokesman for a lot of that anger and vitriol,” Frank Buck, a former Democratic mayor, said. “It would have helped to have a mayor who was able to bring people together.”
Understand the Charlottesville Rally Trial
What happened in Charlottesville? On Aug. 12, 2017, there was a white supremacist rally, called “Unite the Right,” in Charlottesville, Va., in protest against the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, The event saw participants clash with counterprotesters and culminated with the death of one woman.
Were there any criminal cases? Four white nationalists were sentenced to jail for beating a Black man. Several protesters and counterprotesters were convicted on various charges, including assault. James Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi, was sentenced to multiple life sentences in federal prison for killing Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd.
What is this civil case? This trial takes aim at the organizers of the rally with plaintiffs seeking damages for the injuries they sustained. Lawyers are relying on a federal law from 1871 designed to protect the rights of free slaves against the Ku Klux Klan.
Who are the plaintiffs? The nine plaintiffs include an ordained minister, a landscaper and several students. They are seeking damages for injuries, lost income and severe emotional distress.
Who is being sued? The defendants in the Charlottesville rally civil case are drawn from a range of white nationalist or neo-Nazi organizations, and include far-right figures like Richard B. Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell. They do not have a uniform defense.
Why does this case matter? The trial will revisit one of the most searing manifestations of how hatred and intolerance that festers online can spread onto the streets. The plaintiffs say they decided to act after there was no broader federal or state effort to hold the organizers accountable.
Conservatives accuse some Democratic politicians of keeping the city polarized. “People make political hay with it, and they don’t want to let it go,” said Mike Farruggio, a 27-year police veteran who pursued an unsuccessful bid for the City Council as a Republican in 2013.
Arguments over equity and equality in Charlottesville are rooted in history. In a city that bills itself as the land of the founding fathers, the facade of City Hall features statues of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, all area residents.
Just uphill, in Court Square, statues of Gen. Stonewall Jackson and a Confederate soldier have been taken down. The slave block for auctions once stood amid the federal red brick townhouses. A printed piece of paper taped to a lamppost in one corner reads: “In memory of those who were bought and sold.”
“If you really start digging into the history of white supremacy in your community, it’s going to get contentious because it starts getting close to home,” said Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the university and an organizer for Black Lives Matter who helped to lead the effort to remove Confederate monuments. “The closer you get to the present, the more vociferous the discussions get.”
The Confederate statues that helped to incite the battles were moved into storage last summer, but their fate, like so much in Charlottesville, remains unsettled.
City Hall solicited offers for two towering bronze equestrian statues of Generals Lee and Jackson. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the only local organization among six bidders, proposed melting down the Lee statue into bronze ingots that will be transformed into a work of art. The project remains at the proposal stage.
The other offers came from several museums as well as a Los Angeles art gallery and a Texas landowner who wants them for his ranch.
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, described the differences in Charlottesville as more between the old guard versus the new rather than splitting the Black and white communities.
“It is mostly about those who think that Charlottesville is just fine as it is and those of us who know different,” she said.
Mr. Heaphy says the city has yet to implement the changes his report recommended, including more community engagement by the Charlottesville police and the City Council. He understands why people remain agitated.
“There are legitimate complaints about August 2017, about things that the city has or has not done, and the issues that have surfaced are real,” he said. “The way to approach them isn’t yelling, but listening. We are not doing a lot of that.”