The Pulse

Charlottesville is more than Unite the Right. But many Americans won’t see it that way.

By: - August 22, 2022 3:44 pm
The memorial to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2018, in Charlottesville, the anniversary weekend of the deadly white supremacist rally that left one dead and dozens injured. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Selma. Kent State.

Both are known to history, at least on first blush, as loaded euphemisms for notoriously violent upheavals, characterizations that blemish the goodness of those places and their people.

Just over five years ago, another city joined the list of those that need no state name, datelines that stand alone in implied infamy. Charlottesville.

It was nothing the modern city of Charlottesville wanted, and it’s absolutely nothing it deserved. The images, sounds and descriptions that saturated every form of media as it happened showed almost medieval-style fighting incongruously set against the backdrop of the quaint, open-air mall that gives the city its cozy, cultured, college-town character.

White people, mostly men, brought flags of Nazi Germany, the Confederacy and neo-fascist banners to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, where they bellowed their hatred and ignorance to a global audience.

Before the sun set on the sickening events of Aug. 12, 2017, 32-year-old Heather Heyer lay dead and dozens were maimed after a neo-Nazi sped his car through a downtown street and into a crowd of counterprotesters after the day’s worst fighting abated. The assailant, avowed Hitler acolyte James Alex Fields Jr., was sentenced to the equivalent of centuries in prison for a litany of federal and state felonies including hate crimes and murder. Adding to the heartbreaking carnage, two Virginia State Police troopers who had monitored the riot from a helicopter, Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton and Jay Cullen of Midlothian, died when the aircraft crashed near Charlottesville in the late afternoon.

A night earlier, hundreds of white nationalists carrying decorative lawn torches designed to burn citronella oil and chanting “Jews will not replace us” as well as the Third Reich mantra “blood and soil” marched through the grounds of the University of Virginia and around its centerpiece structure, the Rotunda, before instigating a brawl with counterprotesters who had gathered around a statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Why? Because Charlottesville, a progressive island in a sea of conservative rural Virginia, was planning to remove from a city park a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of an army that waged war against the United States in support of a government premised on human enslavement.

To an unholy coalition of protofascist extremists that included, but was not limited to, neo-Nazis, Klan members, Confederate sympathizers and neo-Confederates, that was intolerable. They descended on Charlottesville armed and angry.

In televised comments the afternoon of the riot, President Donald Trump drew a moral equivalence between the belligerent combatants who turned out for the Unite the Right rally and counterprotesters. He denounced an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

It took Trump two more days to call out the neo-Nazis. A day after he did that, he gave those groups more rhetorical cover during a White House news conference when he praised Lee as “a great general,” sympathized with efforts to block removal of his statue and, most memorably, said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

Joe Biden, who would defeat Trump’s re-election bid three years later, cited Trump’s response as his reason for entering the presidential race. Biden’s victory would unleash many of those same far-right forces, all loyal to Trump, in another violent siege, this one on the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to block Congress from confirming Biden as the rightful president-elect.

All of this took a deep toll of anguish and internal acrimony on Charlottesville, which struggled to regain a sense of community in the riot’s fractious aftermath.

Bob Gibson spent a distinguished career as a top state government and politics correspondent based in Charlottesville at its newspaper, the Daily Progress. Nobody understands the city’s pulse and history better.

“Charlottesville was a victim, no question, and the city’s name is still, unfortunately, tarred too much by those who brought their violence to our town,” Gibson said last week. He had put his own thoughts on the issue into print in a monthly column he still does for his old newspaper and the Roanoke Times.

Fair or not (and it’s not), the city’s name may bear that stain for a long time.

Selma, a quiet town in southeastern Alabama, labored for decades under the ugly image of state troopers bludgeoning Black people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” the start of a march in 1965 to the state capitol in Montgomery in support of voting rights. A leader of that march, future Congressman John Lewis, would often recall that after a nightstick cracked his skull that day, “I thought I saw death.”

The first returns of a Google search of “Kent State University” are accounts of the May 1970 antiwar protest in which four students were killed and nine were injured when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed students. Neil Young helped cement the notorious moment into an entire generation’s memory with his antiwar anthem “Ohio” and its unsettling refrain: Got to get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down. Should have been done long ago. What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?

Over the past five years, Charlottesville residents have bitterly debated the torpid response by local and state governments to events that, after the previous night’s brownshirt-style torchlight march and confrontation at the university, were wholly predictable.

Gibson was among about 600 people who at the time the march began was attending a speech by Yale University lecturer and leftward political activist Cornel West at St. Paul’s Memorial Church across University Avenue from the Rotunda. He grasped the meaning of the gathering and the impending crisis.

“We got out of that church service about the time those folks, 200 to 300 strong, were marching around the Rotunda with tiki torches and yelling ‘Jews will not replace us.’ It was an ugly, ugly, ugly scene and we were told that they had weapons. They used their tiki torches to throw at the students who were at the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda that night,” Gibson said.

City officials had ordered the “Unite the Right” rally out of downtown and into a park outside the city center. Its organizers challenged the city’s decision in court and had it reversed, returning the event to a more congested, urban and combustible setting.

Police had assembled in sufficient strength but were inexplicably held back as battle lines formed and the fighting commenced. By the time officers were fully deployed, the situation raged out of control.

Likewise, Virginia National Guard troops waiting outside of downtown were not summoned as protesters set upon counterprotesters.

In the aftermath, city government was convulsed by the wrath of its residents.

“Five years ago, everybody was blaming the political leadership as well as the police,” said Gibson, who directed UVA’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership for eight years after his journalism career. “Charlottesville was a very divided place. City Council meetings were so disruptive that you couldn’t go there and expect to be heard with the yelling and screaming and demanding more change than you could do in a day.”

Five years and a pandemic later, things have calmed, but the tragedy of Aug. 12 will never disappear. It shouldn’t.

The street corner where Heyer was murdered is the scene of constant impromptu memorials. The totems erected after Reconstruction that glorified secessionist “lost cause” narratives have been removed subject to the due process of law. The familiar rhythms of the tranquil city at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains are returning.

Those who call Charlottesville home know that. Most Virginians do too. But mention the city’s name to folks in, say, Long Beach, California, or Chicago, or Fort Worth, Texas, and it’s the gothic brutality of that day that springs to mind.

So, as Gibson rhetorically asks in his most recent column, “Where does Charlottesville go to get back its good name?”

Good question. Unfortunately, there’s no good answer.

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press and is now a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, which first published this essay.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.