The past few months have brought eerie echoes of that day. Right-wing, white-supremacist paramilitary groups have invaded communities, seeking to bait activists and government officials into open conflict — as in Charlottesville. Cities from Portland, Ore., to Minneapolis to Richmond have seen clashes between left-leaning anarchists and police, with local officials stymied as to how to stop the violence — as in Charlottesville. Activists seized on the removal of Confederate statues and names as a public statement that Black lives matter — as in Charlottesville. And, in the background, President Trump has sought not to calm things down, but to throw fuel on these fires, while taunting government officials in “liberal” areas — as in Charlottesville.
No surprise that Charlottesville has become a kind of cultural touchstone, featured in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Joe Biden’s campaign videos alike. But at this third anniversary of the rally, I believe that Charlottesville’s most powerful legacy is political, presenting an early microcosm of painful dilemmas bedeviling American communities today: how to counter an emboldened white-nationalist movement, how to make more than symbolic progress on issues of race and equity — and how to manage intense civil unrest amid these reckonings.
Charlottesville marked an inflection point in America’s confrontation with systemic racism. Reports by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine revealed that the Trump administration’s failure to counter hate groups was, at best, rooted in complacency and, at worst, in deliberate noninterference with a cornerstone of the political coalition that brought Trump to power. After the rally, the federal government was forced to focus on white supremacists as central causes of political violence. Charlottesville also forced a reconsideration of the neo-Confederate symbols of our country’s Jim Crow past. As mayor, I decided to follow the recommendations of a robust contingent of local African American leaders, who argued that such statues should remain as “teachable moments” that should be “recontextualized,” not removed. The “Unite the Right” rally changed my mind: Removing such icons seemed like an important intervention against such ascendant white nationalism, even as the question of what came next — how to achieve real anti-racist gains in schools, our criminal justice system and the economy — gnawed at me.
Our city’s experience also offers a difficult lesson about the responsibility of local leaders when groups seek to confront either each other or the police.
Upon becoming mayor in January 2016 (a mostly ceremonial part-time position, with the executive city manager in charge of policing), I became acquainted with the raucousness of our city council meetings. Rancor, heckling, taunts and even “takeovers” of meetings were the rule, especially when we broached issues of race and poverty. Even with gavel in hand, I sometimes found it nearly impossible to calm things down. We were caught off-guard when the next year brought not one but three white-nationalist invasions: in May, when white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer surrounded the Robert E. Lee statue with 100 acolytes bearing tiki torches; in July, when the Ku Klux Klan came, and dozens of “antifa” activists clashed afterward with police; and finally, in August, when the “Unite the Right” rally brought white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” to town. We were a small city of just under 50,000. We buckled under siege.
An internal investigation we commissioned after the rally revealed dozens of missteps in the security plans, leading to a situation where the groups were allowed openly to brawl with each other — before, during and after the rally. That report also provided useful recommendations for how cities could plan for events at risk of boiling over into conflict, including by firmly separating groups through “stadium plans” and running “tabletop” rehearsals among officials.
Another post-rally measure we took was to pass an intricate ordinance to prevent tiki torches from being used at hate events in public parks, but still allow candlelight vigils (cities such as Lynchburg have done the same), and to prevent the introduction of weapons into permitted events. That change was later magnified by the Virginia General Assembly, which in 2020 voted to allow cities to ban firearms at such events. These seemingly technical changes, the very stuff of often-boring local and state government meetings, have gone a long way toward defusing potential violence.
We also employed novel legal tactics against the most violent groups, joining with Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) to successfully sue the paramilitary groups that had invaded the city. We made use of a Virginia constitutional provision, dating to the Founding Fathers, that effectively banned organized militias. Our lawsuit led to powerful consent decrees preventing the armed hate groups from returning to the city. The strategy has been recently replicated in Dayton, Ohio, and Albuquerque to counter violent white-nationalist groups invading each city.
Charlottesville also forced many of us to question rigid First Amendment doctrines: It was a painful lesson in how they can tie the hands of local leaders trying to keep their cities safe. Four days before the rally, a Department of Homeland Security memo warned, “Domestic Terrorist Violence at Lawfully Permitted White Supremacist Rallies Likely to Continue.” The University of Virginia hospital canceled all elective surgeries, anticipating injuries from a public clash. And yet, when we tried to relocate the event from the crowded downtown, the American Civil Liberties Union sued and won.
The shock wave from Charlottesville rocked civil liberties groups like the ACLU, which announced that it would no longer represent white-supremacist groups bearing weapons. More recent court decisions, like when the Virginia Supreme Court allowed Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to ban weapons from a potentially violent Second Amendment rally, are allowing governments to take a more pragmatic approach to balancing citizens’ rights and public safety.
The ancient Greek playwrights had an idea, “agon,” to describe the strange process in which harrowing conflict nevertheless produced forward movement in their tragedies. This applies to our politics, too. America changed after Bull Conner turned water cannons on peaceful protesters; it enacted the Civil Rights Act. It changed after Dylann Roof attacked Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, with Republicans across South Carolina supporting the removal of the rebel flag from the State House grounds. And it has changed since a police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis, with Black Lives Matter becoming the largest protest movement in American history.
Across our country, communities have been shaken by civil unrest, violent clashes between the far-left and far-right, and between both groups and police. Leaders and citizens alike have to do the hard work of turning away from the Trump era’s endless cycles of rage and retribution, and of recommitting to practices essential to democratic government: respect, listening, deliberation, accountability. Charlottesville’s excruciating experience underscores the urgency not only of confronting evil and injustice, but of channeling the agonies of our turbulent new age so that democracy can bring real solutions to the failures that infuriate us.