University of Virginia police stood guard at the Rotunda after hundreds of white nationalists and white supremacists carrying torches marched there in August 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
Michael Signer, an attorney and a lecturer at the University of Virginia, was mayor of Charlottesville, Va., from 2016 to 2018 and currently sits on the City Council. He is founder and chair of Communities Overcoming Extremism: The After Charlottesville Project.

Former vice president Joe Biden began his presidential campaign with a video featuring the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, when hundreds of militant white supremacists converged on our streets, chanting the Nazi-era slogan “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” clashing violently with counterprotesters. A young neo-Nazi domestic terrorist plowed his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, injuring 19 and killing activist Heather Heyer. David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was at the rally. Amid the helmets and shields and swastika-festooned flagpoles employed as spears were bright-red “Make America Great Again” caps. People were chanting “Russia is our friend.” President Trump notoriously stated afterward that there were “fine people on both sides.” In his video, Biden says the event, and Trump’s response, led him to conclude that we were entering a “battle for the soul of this nation.”

In the wave of international publicity that followed that 2017 rally, we in Charlottesville were often told that our city had become a “hashtag” — a symbol. But there was then — and is now — no definitive answer to just what the symbolic meaning of Charlottesville was. Biden was instantly criticized by some local activists who argued that Charlottesville should be reserved for local issues alone: especially the trauma we endured and the battle over equity and against white supremacy that continues. But that’s just one instance of the morphing, multifaceted nature of Charlottesville. To some, Charlottesville means the terrorist attack that killed Heyer. Others see Charlottesville as racism against African Americans. For yet others, Charlottesville means the anti-Semitism that was on ample view. And of course, there were those, such as 2018 U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart, who saw Charlottesville as about Southern and neo-Confederate pride and who ran a campaign featuring the Robert E. Lee statue and Confederate flags (but losing badly to the incumbent, Democrat Tim Kaine). On Friday, Trump echoed that idea when he “clarified” his “both sides” remarks: “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.”

Some define Charlottesville as one of the worst self-inflicted wounds of the Trump administration (even Trump, according to Bob Woodward, said it was the “biggest f---ing mistake I’ve made”). Still others use Charlottesville to denote the many shortcomings of federal, state and local government. For many Virginians, Charlottesville has come to mean the punishing defeat of Republicans across the Commonwealth in legislative elections in the fall of 2017.

In an old Hindu story, an elephant is brought into a dark room. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, believes he’s found a water spout. Another, touching the ear, thinks it’s a fan. Another, touching the elephant’s leg, thinks he’s found a pillar. And so on. It’s understandable that with so many perspectives on what happened in Charlottesville, there will be so many competing if also intersecting meanings — so many parts of the elephant to touch in the dark.

I have not endorsed any candidate and offer these observations only as the city’s mayor during these events. What I found most compelling in Biden’s announcement was his focus on what actually happened. He wasn’t talking about the hashtag, or Charlottesville as a symbol. He was, instead, talking about the whole elephant: the fact that a dozen armed far-right militia groups invaded a small, progressive city, bent on armed conflict with protesters, for the purpose of intimidation, extremism, political violence and terrorism. That groups previously in the shadows of American political life had been invited, through winks, nods, dog whistles and sophisticated social media appeals, into a mainstream political party’s new populist coalition.

We have learned since that the elephant is even bigger and more menacing than we first thought. Last fall, Janet Reitman wrote an article in the New York Times magazine titled “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.” She found that Trump’s strategy against domestic terrorism was, simply put, “broken.” Even though the Anti-Defamation League found that 71 percent of extremist-related deaths in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by the far right or white-supremacist movements, and just 26 percent were by Islamist extremists, the Trump administration has focused almost exclusively on foreign-born terrorists. P.W. Singer of New America told Reitman about meeting with Trump aides at the White House to discuss counterterror policy. “They only wanted to talk about Muslim extremism,” he said.

This is not negligence. It’s malpractice, and it’s malign. The Center for Strategic and International Studies found the number of terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators quadrupled in the United States between 2016 and 2017, and that far-right attacks in Europe rose 43 percent over the same period. From 2017 to 2018, the Anti-Defamation League found a 182 percent increase in the distribution of white supremacist propaganda and an increase from 76 to 91 in the number of rallies and demonstrations by white supremacy groups.

Political violence can spread. The Christchurch massacre in New Zealand bore dangerous similarities to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, both apparently fueled by a toxic combination of white nationalism and conspiracy theories online. Three historically black churches were recently destroyed by arson in Louisiana. Meanwhile, there is a highly disturbing increase in fascist-style parties across Europe, whether Greece, Sweden, Germany or Britain, including rallies and parades disturbingly similar to what we saw in Charlottesville.

The events in Charlottesville also reveal an urgent role for government and for policy. As Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor, has argued, we need a federal domestic terrorism statute (we don’t currently have one). As ProPublica has reported, we need better infiltration of radicalized white nationalist groups. We need to combat the authoritarianism that gives quarter to political violence, here and abroad. We need more alliances and best practices, of the sort being developed through Communities Overcoming Extremism, a bipartisan project I helped found. One example: Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga (a city that experienced a terrorist attack against military installations in 2015 and that has seen over 130 bias incidents in recent years) recently launched a new Council Against Hate, a community group developing action items across several sectors, including businesses, public schools, universities and the police.

The collective quest to define Charlottesville will continue for years, both in and out of the city. It will continue to be a hashtag, with different meanings for many. But this is about more than a town, politics, social media or even a presidential campaign. Charlottesville was a fork in the road for our country. We can go down a path where political violence is not just allowed but encouraged and where authoritarianism gradually replaces constitutionalism. Or we can take a path where political disputes are resolved peacefully, where the Constitution reigns, and where we continually strive for the ideals of equality and human dignity. As Biden aptly noted, these are the ideas of Charlottesville’s very own Thomas Jefferson.