The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

5 years after deadly rally, Charlottesville wants to tell its own story

Community activists shift the focus to how they resisted the actions of white supremacists and how others might do the same

Photographer Ézé Amos stands for a portrait on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville on Aug. 10. Amos is the author of an exhibit commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in an effort to acknowledge those who stood against it. (Zack Wajsgras for The Washington Post)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — One image shows a Black man wearing headphones surrounded by White protesters carrying the Confederate flag. In another, a woman stares at the camera, expressionless, her face illuminated by a single lit candle. A sea of college students assemble on a field in a third image, a sign peeking out from the crowd that reads: “take back the lawn.”

Many of these photographs, hanging on giant banners among the willow oak trees in this city’s downtown mall, were taken during the summer when neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended here for the deadly Unite the Right rally five years ago. News stories broadcast around the world that weekend brought attention to the racist chants and men in khakis hoisting tiki torches and raising their arms in Nazi salutes.

But when the city’s residents look up at the newly-placed banners, they won’t see any of that. Instead, the camera focuses on residents who fought against that hate.

“I want us to be able to tell our story as a community,” said photographer Ézé Amos, 47, who put together the exhibit “The Story of Us, a collection of 36 images he captured of fellow residents. “We need to take back the narrative that the world has of Charlottesville.”

Photographer Ézé Amos created a photo exhibit about the 2017 Charlottesville violence. He hopes his art will help the community heal by sharing their stories. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

For much of the nation, the Unite the Right rally was a brazen display of racism and bigotry that awakened many people to the growing threat of far-right violence. Videos of white supremacists brutally beating a Black man and of a neo-Nazi ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one of them, became synonymous with this Central Virginia college town.

As far-right extremism continues to fuel violence — with mass shootings in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Buffalo, and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — Charlottesville’s activists and artists say it is more important than ever to hear from those residents who stood up in their city.

Community members also say they have grown tired of outsiders using their town’s name as a shorthand for hate. This year, through a candlelight vigil, an archival exhibit at the University of Virginia and Amos’s interactive photo installation, they want to focus on how they resisted and how others might do the same.

“We got rid of our racist Confederate statues. We got rid of those Civil War participation trophies. But the white supremacy that held them in place is still active here,” said Lisa Woolfork, an anti-racist organizer and U-Va. professor.

Woolfork, who witnessed the car attack that killed 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer and injured more than a dozen others, wants people to resist falling into apathy. Fighting white supremacy, she said, is everyone’s responsibility.

“America is at a turning point,” she said. “We need to decide what kind of country we are going to choose to be.”

An archive of activism

In a poster introducing the U-Va. exhibit, tiki torches have been concealed from a photograph of angry white supremacists surrounding students at the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus. In their place: wildflowers.

“We are trying to reframe and re-center the narrative of that summer and that weekend on the people that were resisting,” said Hannah Russell-Hunter, 24, a co-curator of the exhibit. “They’re trying to build a better and more joyful world where there are no white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and that’s symbolized by the flowers and the growth.”

The exhibition, which is on display on the first floor gallery of U-Va.’s special collections library through Oct. 29, highlights historical campus activism, artifacts from students standing up to neo-Nazis in 2017 and the ways community members continue fighting white supremacy. The exhibit also includes then-high schooler Zyahna Bryant’s 2016 petition to remove the city’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Curators highlighted the ways students researched, spoke out and counterprotested white supremacists ahead of the Unite the Right rally weekend. One of those warnings, a report compiled by local activists detailing the ways rallygoers talked about plans for violence and presented at a July 2017 council meeting, is included in the exhibit.

A report released by U-Va. the month after the rally found that the school was ill-prepared to respond quickly and adequately. The report questioned why police did not act sooner when white supremacist marchers descended on the Jefferson statue and surrounded students, many of whom were attacked. A separate report by a law firm hired by the city to assess the response to the white supremacist events, sharply criticized the police department, the Charlottesville City Council, attorneys from the city and state, U-Va. and the Virginia State Police.

Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by reading materials that include a guide for what people can do when neo-Nazis come to their town.

Kendall King agreed to display her protest plans as a "genuine snapshot of the chaos" on the University of Virginia campus and in Charlottesville in 2017. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Zack Wajsgras for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The co-curators, including U-Va. graduates Russell-Hunter, Kendall King and Natalie Romero, who was directly hit and suffered a skull fracture during the deadly car attack, hope those who see the exhibit are inspired to keep learning about the university and city history, and are inspired to become involved in local social justice issues, like advocating for affordable housing.

“We don’t want students to forget all the terrible things that have happened because it’s easy for us to be blind,” said Romero, who was a plaintiff in a recent federal civil suit against white supremacists and neo-Nazis associated with the rally. “We’re not hopeless. We are not powerless. Things are in our hands and we have a lot of work to continue to do.”

A rise in far-right violence

Since the rally in Charlottesville, there have been 131 killings committed by individuals either motivated by white-supremacist ideology or affiliated with a white-supremacist group or movement, more than 400 white-supremacist events and more than 16,000 incidents of propaganda, where fliers promoting hate are plastered across the country, according to Oren Segal, the vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.

Ahead of the anniversary, residents in neighboring Albemarle County said they had received plastic bags at their homes filled with birdseed and white-supremacist fliers that promised to “restore a white, Christian nation.”

“I don’t think anybody today would be shocked if the events of 2017 happened this weekend,” Segal said.

Sherry Kraft, a long-time Charlottesville resident, expressed that five years after the violence, it's gotten “more and more frightening.” (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

When the mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, believing then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, insignia and symbols of hate in the nation’s capital were some of the same as those seen during the Unite the Right rally. There are people and groups who were in Charlottesville that weekend who joined the insurrectionist mob, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch reported.

This week, within hours of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s supporters began calling for violence — something Unite the Right rallygoers spoke of in messages planning the event in Charlottesville.

Last fall, a jury found the white supremacists and hate groups who participated in and organized the rally liable, and decided they should pay $26 million in damages to the plaintiffs, including Romero.

“I don’t think we can we can overemphasize the pervasiveness that the methods they used have become the modern day playbook for extremists everywhere,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney Roberta Kaplan. She pointed to messages organizers shared with each other before the rally, including slurs against Black and Jewish people and violent fantasies of cracking skulls and driving into crowds, and the ways those plans turned into real-world action.

Her co-counsel Karen Dunn added: “There’s really not a day that goes by that you don’t see something in the world that is evocative of what happened in Charlottesville. … Everything that’s happened since has demonstrated that it was not a fluke. It was one stop on a larger journey that we’re all still on, and nobody knows where that goes.”

An exhibit for the community

For many of those who stood up against the white supremacists five years ago, the anniversary has been one to avoid, not observe.

Will Jones, 39, who is featured in one of the photos hanging downtown, said he is taking his kids to ride roller coasters at King’s Dominion. Bryant, the then-highschooler who started the petition to take down the city’s statue of Lee, tweeted that she is engaging in “radical rest” and ignoring emails about Aug. 11 and 12.

“I know it was five years ago, but it really always feels extremely present in life,” Romero said. “You think it's just a date but it's not. Quite literally, your body remembers that trauma and it lives with us and it's something that you never get over. You have to learn to live with it.”

Neo-Nazis marched past their synagogue chanting ‘Sieg Heil’

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she planned to stop doing media interviews days before the anniversary. She misses her daughter, she said, and feels the weight of that grief every day.

Charlottesville resident Will Jones, who witnessed the 2017 violence firsthand, believes it's important to challenge hate to inspire the next generation. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Zack Wajsgras for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

“There's work. There's handling the press. There's handling the family. There's cleaning the house. There's talking to friends,” Bro said. “But then out of the blue every so often, it will just slam me: I used to have a little girl.”

Amos, too, said that it has taken him plenty of time to heal from the events. A Charlottesville resident since 2008, he was punched in the face while documenting the rally.

But inside a public library in Charlottesville on Wednesday evening, he led a small audience through a slide show of the 36 images he had selected to display on the downtown mall.

Each photograph is paired with an audio account of the moment he had captured, as told by one of the people in it: U-Va. students and professors, pastors, activists, city officials and victims of the attack.

“These stories would not sell papers or make the headlines,” he explained, “and that’s why I wanted to go to these people and get their story so we can learn something from them.”

Some of them, he told the crowd, were people he had met in the aftermath: He got to know Jim Mooney, pictured in his Charlottesville police uniform standing at a vigil, as the former assistant chief tracked down the man who had punched Amos in the face.

He photographed another man at a vigil just days after the rally. Amos said the man told him he had unknowingly rented his Airbnb to white supremacists who came to Unite the Right.

Then Amos flipped to a photo he took a few weeks later, on the site of the car-ramming attack, where residents had created a memorial with candles.

He kept going there every night — to meet people and to photograph — and always wondered how exactly the candles were always lit. Finally, he saw the woman behind the flickering lights. They made eye contact, he said, and “she just went on doing her thing.”

He still has no idea who she was. But he knew the nameless, expressionless woman captured in his photograph was part of the community — and had to be part of the story, too.

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