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Four Years After ‘Unite the Right’, Charlottesville Is Still Struggling To Move On

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. – On a recent Monday night, parts of the virtual meeting of the Charlottesville City Council felt more like angry exchanges of shouting and advertising messages than a consideration of city affairs.

During the hour-long meeting, some residents attacked councilors by name over plans to reorganize the police force. Others rejected a proposed zoning change to build more apartments for affordable housing. And councilors again debated the fate of the statue of Robert E. Lee that had been removed from view in July.

“I’ll mute myself,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker snapped annoyed from her home office after a councilor accused her of interrupting. “Go ahead, knock yourself out.”

After the far-right demonstration in August 2017 that turned Charlottesville into a national battleground over issues of hatred and extremism, many residents hoped the liberal college town would become an example of racial reconciliation. It didn’t happen.

Instead, the divisions surrounding Charlottesville have been brought to the fore over the past four weeks during a civil lawsuit in federal court over who is responsible for the 2017 events. Nine plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for injuries sustained in fatal collisions that broke out as some 600 white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers gathered to protest the proposed removal of the Lee statue. The closing arguments begin on Thursday.

And even with four years of reconciliation efforts, many residents say some of the same issues the rally exposed about race and history still plague the city. As the trial unfolds, what began in Charlottesville as a battle over the Lee statue has fueled the passions and disagreements that mask the problems 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 lead attorney at the University of Virginia.

“It brought up a lot of issues that were always there, but which were sort of an eruption in August 2017,” he said. “There are violations within this community that have not been cured.”

City Council meetings exploded for the first time 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 a lot of anger and mistrust towards both the police and the Council for their response.

Charlottesville has churned 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 disagreements within the police force and the city over what changes were needed to build a more open, accountable police force led to her resignation. Ms Brackney has filed a complaint calling it unjust.

Loud debate has also erupted over a proposal to rewrite zoning plans to allow for greater density in neighborhoods limited to single-family homes, highlighting racial tensions between some black and white residents.

Opponents argue that high-rise buildings will tarnish Charlottesville’s leafy, historic character. Proponents want affordable housing for low-paid workers who have been forced out of the city in recent years. Some of those who support the change have accused wealthier white homeowners of having trouble rectifying longstanding housing discrimination against black residents because it threatens their property values.

The city of about 47,000 people is about 70 percent white, 18 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 5 percent Latino. The University of Virginia enrolls approximately 20,000 students.

In the aftermath of the demonstration, one of the main divisions among residents was between those who blamed outside rioters for inciting unrest and derailing the sense of harmony in the city, and those who felt it was necessary to of change revealed.

Dom Morse, 29, who grew up in Charlottesville and just won a seat on the school board, called the portrait of the city that emerged from 2017 exaggerated. “I think there’s a misconception that we only have Klan members in Charlottesville,” he said.

But others disagree. Bruce McKenney, 53, who works in renewables, said that when it came to racial issues, the meeting was like someone grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. “I think if that event hadn’t happened, we’d have the same problems,” he said, “but I don’t think they would have surfaced.”

During the trial in recent weeks, spectators were banned from the courtroom by Covid as a precaution. Only a few protesters have gathered outside. A live feed streamed some of the hateful rhetoric that the defendants have expressed as they try to defend themselves using the First Amendment argument.

In an open letter to Congregation Beth Israel, whose synagogue was targeted by far-right protesters who shouted outside anti-Semitic slogans in 2017, Rabbi Tom Gutherz warned that the trial would not end the matter. “There will be an end as we as an American people figure out how to combat these trends,” he wrote.

Mayor Walker, whose term ends in December, said disappointment at a lack of change had diminished interest in the process. “The black community in Charlottesville has repeatedly said since 2017 that this is our normal course of business and that we please respond to it, and those pleas have not been heard,” she said. (The title “mayor” goes to the person chosen by the five city councilors for the role. A city manager, who is appointed by the city council, runs the city from day to day.)

Last Spring, Mrs Walker tweeted a poem she wrote characterizing the city as a rapist, without a moral compass. “Charlottesville is entrenched in white supremacy and rooted in racism,” read one line.

“The conversation around race — that’s not a gentle conversation — most people don’t want to be brought together,” she said in an interview.

The poem stunned some fellow Democrats. “The mayor has been a spokesperson for a lot of that anger and vitriol,” said Frank Buck, a former Democratic mayor. “It would have helped to have a mayor who could bring people together.”

Conservatives accuse some Democratic politicians of keeping the city polarized. “People are making political hay with it, and they don’t want to let it go,” said Mike Farruggio, a 27-year-old police veteran who overturned a failed 2013 city council bid as a Republican.

Arguments about equality and equality in Charlottesville are rooted in history. In a city that considers itself the land of the founding fathers, the facade of City Hall features statues of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, all natives of the area.

Just uphill, in Court Square, statues of General Stonewall Jackson and a Confederate soldier have been knocked down. The auction slave block once stood amid the federal red brick mansions. A printed piece of paper taped to a lamppost in one corner reads, “In memory of those who were bought and sold.”

“When you really dig into the history of white supremacy in your community, it gets controversial because it starts to get close to home,” said Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the university and an organizer of Black Lives Matter, who is a member of the community. helped to lead the effort to remove the Confederate monuments. “The closer you get to the present, the noisier the discussions get.”

The Confederate statues that helped fuel the fighting were moved to storage last summer, but their fate, like so many in Charlottesville, remains uncertain.

City Hall called for two towering bronze equestrian statues of Generals Lee and Jackson. Jefferson School’s African American Heritage Center, the only local organization among six bidders, proposed that the Lee statue be melted down into bronze bars that will be transformed into a work of art. The project remains in the proposal phase.

The other offers came from several museums, 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 being more between the old guard and the new rather than splitting the black and white communities.

“It’s mostly about those who think Charlottesville is fine the way it is and those of us who know otherwise,” she said.

Heaphy says the city has yet to implement the changes his report recommended, including increased community involvement by the Charlottesville Police Department and the City Council. He understands why people remain agitated.

“There are legitimate complaints about August 2017, about things the city has or hasn’t done, and the problems that have surfaced are real,” he said. “The way to approach them is not yelling, but listening. We don’t do much with that.”

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