One Year Out, Charlottesville Is a Different Place

Aug 8, 2018

If white supremacists return to Charlottesville this weekend, they will find a very different city.  There are new rules in place, new leaders in charge, and an even larger group of vocal opponents.  Those changes would make for a different experience this year.

When white supremacists marched at UVA last summer, officials talked about the need to protect free speech at Mr. Jefferson’s university.  Afterward, the board of visitors approved a series of rules for outside groups planning gatherings on grounds.  Now, says lawyer and activist Jeff Fogel, it’s almost impossible to organize a spontaneous demonstration.

Charlottesville looks the same, but much has changed since the Alt-Right invaded on August 12 of 2017.

“Such as the gentleman who went and dropped his son off at school and then started reading the Bible on the steps of the Rotunda and was told if he didn’t stop he’d be arrested.  I assume you also can’t read Faulkner or Poe," he said, referring to Edgar Allen Poe, who studied at UVA, and William Faulkner who taught there. 

Likewise, the city of Charlottesville has new rules for demonstrators, and there’s a new top cop to enforce them.  There’s also a civilian review board –set up to consider complaints about police conduct.  Jalane Schmidt is a professor at the University of Virginia and a member of Black Lives Matter. 

“Last summer was a disaster in terms of policing here in this community.  We had the tear gas attack at the Klan rally on July the 8th, and then there was the stand-down on August the 12th when the police didn’t intervene.”

In general, she adds, Charlottesville is a more political place since counter-protesters stood up to right-wing extremists.

“In the aftermath of A12, which was a PR disaster for the Alt-Right, different communities around the country took up the practice of counter-demonstrating  and so when the Alt-Right tried to coalesce, for example, in Gainesville, Florida, in Boston, Massachusetts, at Michigan State, Murphreesboro, Tennessee – they were met with an outpouring of opposition, to the point that Spencer, for example, after Michigan State, canceled his campus tours.  He said, “They’re not fun anymore.” 

Today, Charlottesville is home to a group called Standing Up for Racial Justice or SURJ, another called Congregate Cville and  Indivisible Charlottesville. These and other activists supported Nikuya Walker – an independent candidate – for city council.  Hawes Spencer, who wrote the new book Summer of Hate, says her candidacy might otherwise have failed.

“Independents typically lost and lost by huge margins in a town that routinely elected Democrats and nobody else.”

But Walker surprised local pundits with a solid win and was then selected by city council to serve as Charlottesville’s first black, female mayor.

“That aspect of our history looked like justice to a lot of people,” Spencer says. 

With Walker at the helm, city council is now talking a great deal about race, affordable housing and other issues of special interest to low income residents. This is not what Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler had in mind.  He wants more attention paid to the needs of white people.

“There is unequal treatment of white people in this country, because the social justice movement has gone too far.  White people are being discriminated against in employment, in admissions to college.  We are allowed to be attacked on the streets by masked vigilantes.”

That said, he insists this year’s rally in Washington will be peaceful, and he’s disavowed the neo-Nazis who joined in last year’s event.

“This is not a neo-Nazi rally, and they are not welcome!" 

Kessler says he will not be coming to Charlottesville on Saturday, and he won’t predict how many people might join him in Washington Sunday for a late afternoon rally.

“It’s going to be less than last year.  People on my side are scared, because they show up and people want to attack them and they feel like in Charlottesville they  fought back and  were unfairly prosecuted.”

In Charlottesville, those who oppose Kessler plan to show up Saturday for various programs, including a student rally at the Rotunda on Saturday night.  If no one from the Alt-Right is around, they say there will be no trouble.