So she was hardly surprised in 2017 when hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended on the college town for a “Unite the Right” rally — an event that transformed Charlottesville into a national symbol of racism and anti-Semitism. But the 61-year-old hoped the violence that left a counterprotester dead and dozens injured would finally jolt local leaders into a commitment to address the city’s racial inequities.
For Johnson, now a member of the city’s new Police Civilian Review Board, that day has not arrived.
“I said after ‘Unite the Right,’ ‘Well, now, hopefully your eyes will be finally open.’ Not! I am very disappointed and plain old sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Johnson, who lives with her two grown sons in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood of Orangedale-Prospect. “I would really like my sons to leave the city. I don’t want them to get stuck in a rut here. There is very little that they can do to better themselves here.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, numerous other Black residents and activists echoed her frustration. They said they are still pressing for change even as racial justice protests grip the rest of the country after George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25.
It matters little, they repeatedly said, that much of the city’s leadership is Black, including the mayor, police chief and city manager/chief executive officer. They say gentrification continues pushing minorities and other low-income residents out into neighboring counties. About 20 percent of Charlottesville’s 47,000 residents identified themselves as Black, Black/Hispanic or other races in the most recent census data.
In Charlottesville, it can even feel like the “Unite the Right” rally never really ended. The Robert E. Lee statue that sparked the rally remains standing amid legal wrangling while Confederate statues are removed in Richmond and other cities.
In recent weeks, “volunteer statue guards” have arrived at night armed with guns to ward off protesters eager to deface the statues of Lee and fellow Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, according to C-Ville, a weekly newspaper in the city. (Last month, the Lee statue was splattered with red paint.) And burning tiki torches were recently discovered outside the homes of two local anti-racism activists. Similar flaming torches were carried by white supremacists three years ago in their march on the University of Virginia campus to the statue of Thomas Jefferson.
“These guys are not going away,” said one of the activists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of safety. “I keep finding alt-right stickers on my mailbox and all around my neighborhood. Did I feel like my life was threatened? After 2017, it’s hard to dismiss something like that.”
Ang Conn, a Black woman who has organized a local movement to defund the police, said she feels like “white supremacy and white nationalists . . . are all around us. You have armed vigilantes up there guarding a piece of property, these two statues, as though it is the water of life. It hasn’t ended. We’re targeted all the time. We have to watch what we’re doing.”
One of the city’s more contentious battles involves the reconstituted Police Civilian Review Board, a group intended to provide oversight to city law enforcement.
The new board, which replaced a much weaker advisory panel, was first proposed in the months after the 2017 rally, prompted by years of public complaints by Black residents about their encounters with police.
After the board was created in 2018, its members spent more than a year researching best practices and then lobbying the city Council for increased powers. On the board’s wish list: the ability to review all complaints against officers from the moment they’ve been lodged with the police department; access to examine raw data whenever police use force or stop residents and frisk them; the hiring of an auditor to analyze those numbers; and a mandate for quarterly community listening sessions by the review board and police representatives.
But when the council approved the board’s powers in November 2019, those requests were rejected. Among the points approved: requiring the police department to justify in writing why it will not accept a particular review board recommendation, and allowing the review board to examine some complaints that have already gone through an initial police review.
“They gave the community an oversight body, but then, when we created what the community wanted under state law, the City Council watered it down significantly,” said Sarah Burke, a White former member of the board. “It’s a symbol of a longer history of the failure to meaningfully address race and equity issues in Charlottesville. Are the police investigating complaints properly? The major criticism from the Black community for years has been the lack of police accountability.”
Brian Wheeler, a city spokesman, said in a statement that the City Council “respectfully disagreed” with the board’s wish list. He said the council had “made clear” that once the review board began operating this year, it could return to council members and “seek adjustments” to the relevant ordinance and bylaws.
Dorenda Johnson said she joined the board precisely because she has seen firsthand what she characterized as the department’s unfairness toward Black people. Shortly after “Unite the Right,” one of her sons rolled through a stop sign near their home and was pulled over in their driveway.
“Two police cars stopped him,” Johnson recalled. “I came out and said, ‘Why is it necessary for you both to be here?’ They couldn’t answer. I told them to leave, but they just stayed, staring down my son.”
In the fall of 2018, just a few months after her appointment as the city’s first Black female chief, RaShall Brackney began publishing statistics on her department’s encounters with citizens. The decision was made, in large part, after public demands for greater transparency.
Police spokesman Tyler Hawn said the disproportionately high number of police encounters with Black residents is largely the result of calls to 911 from community members that require responses; serving warrants; or engaging with victims in the immediate aftermath of crimes. The department says that the number of “officer-initiated” contacts with Black residents is very low; and that some people counted in the data may not live in Charlottesville.
But some statistics are not on the police department’s website — its own demographics, for instance. According to Hawn, only 11 of the department’s 109 sworn officers are minorities, eight of them Black, two Asian American and one Hispanic.
Most sworn officers wear body cameras, including all members of the patrol division and detectives investigating crimes.
As for the civilian review board, Brackney said in an interview that she welcomes independent oversight but stressed that any such board would need training and impartiality.
“Here in Charlottesville, from a personal perspective as well as a professional perspective, I believe there is a movement toward a more just, equitable system throughout the entire city,” Brackney said. “But to say there’s been real progress in three years to dismantle systems in education, in politics and policing, in housing, economics, it’s just near impossible. I think, at best, we can set the vision . . . and set some minor things in place, but the long battle that we’re facing — the win — will not take place for generations to come.”
Bria Williams, 23, a fifth-grade teacher, grew up in Charlottesville and went to historically Black Howard University in D.C. for a bachelor’s degree in urban elementary education. When she returned to her hometown last year, she was struck by the magnitude of Charlottesville’s racial divide and the marginalization of Black people.
“I was wrapped up in blackness in Howard and student-teaching in the D.C. school system, but then I came back here to whitewashed Charlottesville,” Williams said, “where my blackness was kind of misunderstood and not appreciated.”
Like other cities across the country, Charlottesville has seen multiple marches dedicated to the Black Lives Matter and defund police movements and in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But Zyahna Bryant, the teenager who filed the petition for the Lee statue’s removal, said she is suspicious of the White business owners, nonprofit leaders and “elites” in town suddenly dedicating themselves to the cause of racial justice.
“Now everyone’s writing letters and everyone’s taking positions because it’s trendy and now social activism is being rewarded,” said Bryant, now a U-Va. sophomore. “It’s truly funny, but the work does not stop. As an organizer, I am trying to understand how do we take these moments where people are trying to make themselves feel less guilty.”
The fact that two of the city’s top leaders are Black doesn’t make her feel more optimistic about real change, either.
“We have a Black mayor and Black police chief, but they cannot alone outweigh generations and decades of racial trauma,” she said.
Charlottesville, though, has taken some concrete actions. The city recently approved $10 million for the redevelopment of public housing and aid to low-income neighborhoods, and $33 million over the next five years for similar initiatives. Last year it also increased its minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour, up from $13.52. And it is hiring for a new position — deputy city manager for racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
One recipient of the city’s funds is New Hill Development Corp. The Black-led nonprofit recently received $500,000 from the city. Its goal: to make sure that any future development primarily in a 10-acre swath of city-owned land known as City Yard goes toward creating homes and businesses owned by Black people. New Hill is named in honor of Vinegar Hill, a once-thriving Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s.
New Hill’s chief executive, Yolunda Harrell, said she hopes the city gives the City Yard property to her organization.
“Considering the wealth-building of African Americans that was stifled after they took away Vinegar Hill,” Harrell said, “this is the least that could be done to right that wrong.”