CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are no visible scars on Charlottesville. It remains a beautiful, leafy town of 50,000 residents with a thriving core, great restaurants, a bustling nightlife, and the cultural and intellectual amenities of being home to the state’s signature university and a major hospital.
Charlottesville has spent the better part of the past 12 months remembering and recovering. It also has been taking stock and placing blame. There has been plenty of that to go around. Blame for law enforcement that didn’t protect its citizens. Blame for the city council and the local and state government that planned ineffectively. Blame for the university that didn’t communicate the danger to its community. Blame for President Trump for not speaking out unequivocally to condemn the marchers who had spewed their racist views.
The real damage has been to the city’s psyche and the sense of itself, residents say. They realize Charlottesville is now known as the site of America’s largest white-supremacy gathering in decades. And they know their community is defined to some extent by the racial violence that erupted downtown Aug. 12 during the “Unite the Right” rally and the night before, when 200 self-proclaimed white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Our blood, our soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
Coming to terms with that has meant different things to different people. Some residents want to put it in the past and focus on reclaiming the city’s reputation. Others want residents to engage in difficult conversations about race and the city’s history with slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.
“A lot of people here were uncomfortable with what happened on Aug. 12 and said, ‘Let’s just unite and move forward,’ ” said 17-year-old Zyahna Bryant, a student activist about to enter her senior year at Charlottesville High School. “But there hasn’t been the work to go back and reckon with white supremacy. Before we can move on and heal as a community, we have to reckon with that.”
For Bryant and others, that means addressing gentrification and the paucity of affordable housing in the city, ending stop-and-frisk policing, improving educational opportunities, and importantly, Bryant said, “amplifying the voices and experiences of people of color who are disproportionately affected by racial violence.”
It also means acknowledging that institutional racism exists as a potent force here. The more outspoken critics say that while modern Charlottesville prides itself on being a progressive and liberal city, it has never reconciled its present with its racist past. They say the city and university have not come to terms with their history of being built, enriched and sustained by enslaved people and remaining, for much of the 20th century, segregated institutions that celebrated the vestiges of the Confederacy rather than casting them aside.
The violence of last August shattered the conceptions some here had of their home. There was a desire to look at the white supremacists as invaders and outsiders, even though two of the organizers, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, were U-Va. graduates and Kessler lives in the city. The city had to more closely examine what it represented.
“We lost our naivete,” said Kathy Galvin, 62, a city councilwoman who has lived in Charlottesville since 1983. “It is easy to kind of take comfort in all the accolades we got up until that point. ‘Most innovative city, the happiest city.’ But there were many of us who knew that we had entrenched pockets of poverty that were also aligned by race and were legacies of Jim Crow.”
While the process has been difficult, it has also been illuminating, Galvin said.
“We can’t presume to think that we have turned a corner or that we are beyond blame,” she said. “So it gave rise to introspection and soul searching.”
It also gave rise to anger and protests. Fallout from Aug. 12 is everywhere. The city’s police chief resigned. The city manager’s contract was not extended. Scathing reports criticized the response by the city and the university. In November, a leading city council critic, Nikuyah Walker, was elected to the body and chosen by other members as the city’s first black female mayor.
The tension ebbs and flows, but it does not let go.
City council sessions have been repeatedly disrupted by those who believe that their concerns aren’t being addressed. Residents report warnings that the white supremacists are plotting a return. Kessler tried to obtain a permit for an anniversary rally. He withdrew that request and is hoping to hold one in Washington that day. There was widespread relief in Charlottesville that he abandoned a plan for a rally here, but a residue of uncertainty and fear lingers.
“I’m not going outside that day,” said Nydia Lee, 25, who lives in a public housing development just south of the city’s downtown and watched last year when white supremacists passed nearby. “We got a preview of what our ancestors went through, and it was scary. It was overwhelming.”
City was a hellscape
Sophie Schectman was in a celebratory mood. She and a large group of like-minded protesters had stood up to the hundreds of white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers who had descended on her hometown, forcing their rally to end before it began.
Charlottesville, that hot summer morning, had been a hellscape. The marchers filled the air of the typically quiet college town with racist and homophobic chants and jeers. The protesters shouted back. There were chemicals sprayed and pitched battles in the streets. Fists and bricks and bottles flew. City police and Virginia state troopers decided not to intervene. The country and the world witnessed the unchecked rage and violence play out on television and Twitter.
By a little after noon, quiet was returning.
“It felt like we had won on that day,” said Schectman, 22, who grew up here and graduated this spring from U-Va. “We had showed up to make it clear that their racist and white supremacist ideology was not welcome in Charlottesville by the people of Charlottesville.”
Schectman was feeling joyful as she walked up Fourth Street, just off the city’s downtown pedestrian mall. She turned to give a friend a hug. She never heard the car roar down the street, headed directly at the crowd.
In an instant, Schectman, a track athlete, was struck. When she came to, she was lying on the sidewalk. Blood spilled from her forehead, and she felt a searing pain in her legs. She suffered a concussion, two broken legs, bruises and blood loss. It would take two surgeries and months of rehabilitation before she could walk again. She may never be able to return to running.
James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio resident with Nazi leanings, is accused of deliberately driving his car into the crowd of unsuspecting protesters, injuring Schectman and dozens of others. One, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed. The already violent day had turned deadly, and in the course of a few hours, Charlottesville had become synonymous with racial menace.
Fields is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges and has been charged with federal hate crimes, for which he could face the death penalty.
Sitting in a downtown cafe a block from where she was run over, Schectman betrays little emotion but says she is angry that her city and her university failed the community. She’s angry, too, that there have been no apologies issued or responsibility accepted for those failures. And though her injuries were severe and life-altering, her focus is not on herself.
“It has become more clear to everybody that we need to be fighting oppression in all of its forms,” she said. “And we need to be fighting white supremacy that shows itself in everyday life here in Charlottesville.”
'Call out racism'
Charlottesville can’t rewrite its history of last year any more than it can of the past 250 years. But people who live here say they have learned lessons, had their eyes opened to truths they previously weren’t forced to face.
Caroline Polk and her husband, Forrest Swope, are longtime Charlottesville residents who went to witness the white supremacists march on their town. They were prepared for demonstrations but not for the venom.
“Look, we’re white. This stuff doesn’t affect us every day,” Polk said. “If I get pulled over by a cop, I don’t worry about getting shot. I just hope what happened last year motivated people to be better allies and call out racism when they see it.”
Wes Bellamy said he hopes the discussions and awareness borne by last year’s violence will be transformative for the city. Bellamy, 31, is a city councilor who helped push the city to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. The decision to banish the statue resulted in death threats and hate mail and, in part, is what led to the white supremacists deciding on Charlottesville as the location for their rally.
For now, that statue remains, caught in a legal limbo. But this is not the time to back down, Bellamy said as he sat at a table outside Mel’s Cafe in Charlottesville.
“If we skirt around the issues, we’re not going to get anywhere. Let’s put it on the table. That’s what I think we’ve done in this community,” he said. “Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it.”
On Aug. 12 this year, Bellamy said, he wants people “to be out there and celebrate that we’re a year stronger.”
“We took a punch to the face, but we weren’t knocked out,” he said. “We’re going to win this fight. But we have to be resilient.”