Charlottesville struggles to move on after ‘Unite the Right’ rally
Charlottesville, Va. — On a recent Monday night, parts of the Charlottesville City Council virtual meeting felt more like shouting and an exchange of widespread anger than considering the city’s business.
In the meeting, which lasted for hours, some residents attacked council members by name over plans to reorganize the police. Others denounced the proposed zoning change to create more apartments for affordable housing. And council members again debated the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue that was removed from public view in July.
“I’ll mute myself,” Mayor Nikuya Walker said outraged by his Home Office after a councilor scolded him for interrupting. “Go ahead, knock yourself.”
After a far-right rally in August 2017, which turned Charlottesville into a national battleground on hate and extremism issues, many residents expected the liberal college town to become an example of racial reconciliation. It hasn’t happened.
Instead, the divisions swarming Charlottesville have been pushed to the fore in the past four weeks during a civil trial in federal court about who is responsible for the 2017 events. Nine plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for injuries sustained during deadly clashes, when some 600 white supremacists, neo-Nazis and union supporters gathered to protest a proposal to remove the Lee statue. Closing arguments are due to begin on Thursday.
And even after four years of efforts at reconciliation, many residents say there are some of the same issues that were highlighted at the rally over race and history that still haunt the city. As the trial goes on, what began as a fight over a statue of Lee in Charlottesville has helped to escalate the passions and differences that hide current issues.
“It certainly continues to resonate,” said Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia who led the independent review of the incidents and is the University of Virginia’s chief attorney.
“It brought to the surface a lot of issues that were always there but flared up in August 2017,” he said. “There are violations within this community that have not been fixed.”
The first blast occurred in the city council meeting just after the rally. Angry residents sought answers from the Charlottesville Police Department and City Hall about the lack of planning and intervention to stop the violence.
Some residents are still quite angry and distrustful of both the police and the council because of their response.
Amid the rancor, Charlottesville churned out six city managers and two police chiefs. The city’s first black female chief, Rachel Brackney, was fired in September. He was dismissed because of sharp differences within the police and the city over what changes were needed to create a more open, accountable force. Ms Brackney has filed a lawsuit calling it unjust.
A vigorous debate has erupted over a proposal to rewrite zoning laws to allow for greater density in neighborhoods limited to single-family homes, highlighting racial tensions between some black and white residents.
Opponents argue that tall buildings will affect Charlottesville’s leafy, historic character. Supporters want affordable housing for low-wage workers who have been driven out of town in recent years. Some of those who support the change accuse wealthy, white homeowners of correcting long-standing 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.
After the rally, one of the major divisions that emerged among residents was between those who blamed outside agitators for instigating the unrest and derailing the city’s sense of harmony, versus those who felt That it highlights 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’s a misconception that we just have Klan members hanging around Charlottesville,” he said.
But others disagree. Bruce McKennie, 53, who works in renewable energy, said when it came to racial issues, the rally was like shaking someone by the shoulders. “I think if that incident hadn’t happened, we would have had the same problems,” he said, “but I don’t think they will surface.”
During the trial over the past few weeks, spectators were barred from the courtroom as a COVID precaution. Only a few protesters have gathered outside. A live feed has streamed some of the hate rhetoric that defendants have spewed as they attempt to defend themselves using First Amendment logic.
In an open letter to the congregation Beth Israel, whose synagogue was a target of far-right protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans outside in 2017, Rabbi Tom Gutherz warned that testing would not eliminate cases. “It will stop when we as an American people figure out how to counter these trends,” he wrote.
Mayor Walker, whose term expires in December, said frustration over the lack of change has dampened interest in testing. “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 a person selected for the role by five councillors. A town manager, appointed by the city council, runs the city on a day-to-day basis.)
last spring, Ms. Walker tweeted a poem She wrote, portraying the city as a rapist who lacked moral direction. “Charlottesville is anchored in white supremacy and rooted in racism,” read one line.
“The conversation around race – it’s not a gentle conversation – most people don’t want to get together on this,” she said in an interview.
The poem disappointed some fellow Democrats. Former Democratic mayor Frank Buck said, “The mayor has been a spokesman for that anger and vitriol.” “It would have helped to have a mayor who was able to bring people together.”
Understand the Charlottesville Rally Trials
Conservatives accuse some Democratic politicians of keeping the city polarised. “People make political grass with it, and they don’t want to let it go,” said Mike Ferruggio, a 27-year-old police veteran who pursued an unsuccessful bid for city council as a Republican in 2013.
The arguments over equality and equality in Charlottesville are rooted in history. In a city that bills itself as the land of the Founding Fathers, the façade of City Hall features statues of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, all residents of the area.
Right upstairs, in Court Square, statues of General Stonewall Jackson and a Confederate soldier have been toppled. The slave block up for auction once stood among federal red brick townhouses. A printed piece of paper taped to a lamppost in one corner read: “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 be controversial because it starts getting closer to home,” said Jalen Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the university and an organizer of Black Lives Matter. he said. helped lead the effort to remove the Confederate monuments. “The closer you get to the present, the more vociferous the discussions become.”
The Confederate statues that helped spark the fighting were moved into storage last summer, but their fate, like that of much of Charlottesville, remains shaky.
City Hall asked for proposals for two colossal bronze equestrian statues of General Lee and Jackson. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the only local organization among the six bidders, proposed melting the Lee statue into bronze ingots, which would be turned into a work of art. The project remains at the proposal stage.
Other proposals came from several museums as well as the Los Angeles Art Gallery and a Texas landlord who wanted them for his farm.
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, described the differences in Charlottesville as more between the old guard versus the new than dividing the black and white communities.
“It’s mostly about people who think Charlottesville is fine as it is and those of us who know differently,” she said.
Mr Heafe says the city has yet to implement the changes suggested in his report, which include greater community engagement by Charlottesville police and city council. He understands why people remain agitated.
“There are legitimate complaints about August 2017, what the city did or didn’t do, and the issues that have come up are real,” he said. “The way to approach them is not to shout, but to listen. We’re not doing much of that.”
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