It’s an odd thing, seeing your town become a hashtag. By the evening of August 12, 2017, millions of social media users, in the United States and around the world, recognized #Charlottesville as a metonym for violence and death. None of us expected it. But, then, very few of us expected to spend that Saturday night on the verge of tears or openly weeping or simply in shock.
They’d come before, after all, the preppy neo-Nazis and robed Ku Klux Klansmen. In retrospect, the earlier incidents seem almost trivial. We mocked a crowd that gathered at the statue of Robert E. Lee one night in May, what looked like aging frat boys wearing khakis, carrying tiki torches, and praising Putin. We cursed a sorry band of Klansmen who showed up at the statue of Stonewall Jackson in July. We prayed for them and laughed at them, too.
There was no violence to speak of in May. And in July, the problem was heavy-handed policing, not the Klan. Militarized cops, many of them looking like soldiers in an army of occupation, provoked a confrontation with counterprotesters that resulted in several arrests.
This time was different. Several hundred white supremacists invaded the city, intent on spreading terror. They succeeded. They held a torchlit nighttime procession through the grounds of the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they went. The next day, others, donned in military-style outfits and flourishing assault rifles (legal in Virginia if not concealed), created chaos in the center of the city. They menaced clergy, assaulted counterprotesters, and injured many. They killed Heather Heyer, a young anti-racist activist.
The large police presence that was supposed to keep the peace did not. Late in the day, two Virginia State Police officers, who had been working as aerial observers, died when their helicopter crashed, compounding the tragedy. We were not cowed. We resisted, and since then we’ve shown the world just how resilient we are.
But, yes, like #Ferguson, we’re now a hashtag—#Charlottesville. And we should be.
Hashtags can be useful, of course. That’s why they exist. That Saturday, after leaving the early morning march that Black Lives Matter and the clergy coalition led to McGuffey Park, I used #Charlottesville, with increasing horror, to follow the events as they unfolded just a ten-minute walk from my house. And I heard the sirens and the police helicopter hovering overhead.
But hashtags necessarily compress, and in doing so they distort. #Charlottesville reduces this complicated, exasperating, beautiful city to the events surrounding last weekend’s terrorism. Some of the subsequent analyses of #Charlottesville, by journalists who parachuted in or who never left their desks somewhere far away, have pictured a city that we don’t recognize, or they’ve simply gotten things wrong—the relationship between town and gown, the geography of the city, the names of people and organizations.
For the nation and even for Charlottesvillians, #Charlottesville has also become a metonym for white supremacy writ large. Or, more correctly, white supremacy writ large and the white supremacists’ invasion have merged together beneath the hashtag. This makes it too easy to fall into the trap of believing that addressing the one is the same as addressing the other. But neither kicking the racist thugs out of town nor tearing down the statue of Lee, the symbol of white supremacy that they said they came to defend, will address the problems of systemic white supremacy that so many of the city’s African Americans face every day—which manifests in poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and a racially biased criminal-justice system, among other ways. The spectacle of congressional Republicans rushing to denounce the violent white supremacists of #Charlottesville illustrates the point. These same men and women nominated and helped elect a shameless racist to the presidency and most of them promote policies, such as voter suppression, that objectively reinforce white supremacy.
We saw a far more benign example of the dangers of conflating racist thugs and systemic white supremacy during last week’s candlelight procession at UVA. Thousands of students and faculty members, as well as many Charlottesville community members, gathered at Nameless Field and retraced the path of the white supremacists’ torchlight procession. It was an effort to reclaim the university from the racists whose presence had desecrated it—a secular exorcism, with good spirits driving out the bad. By the end of the evening, hundreds of people had placed their candles at the base of the statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, in front of the Rotunda. The message to the world was one of love and solidarity.
We desperately needed the ceremony. We were battered emotionally. Some of our injured friends were still in the hospital. Coming together as the university community, in solemn assembly and in defiance, we felt renewed. So I feel like a monster for pointing out that Jefferson is one of our problems and that love alone is not the answer.
W. Ralph Eubanks recently pointed out in VQR that “the University of Virginia has long been reluctant to confront” Jefferson’s legacy as a slaveholder; I will add to this fraught legacy his authorship of works that laid some of the foundations for “scientific” racism. It’s far from coincidental that UVA later became one of the intellectual homes of eugenics, one of “scientific” racism’s most malignant forms. And only in the last few years has the school begun to examine its history as a segregated institution that relied on enslaved workers for its construction and maintenance and then on poorly paid African American custodians, porters, and cooks after emancipation.
White supremacy is embedded in UVA’s present as much as in its past. This is reflected in many ways, from the alienation that many black students feel while at the university to its struggle to recruit and retain black faculty members to the less-than-living wages that so many of the African Americans who work on its grounds receive.
That none of these problems can be solved by candles and love is obvious. But many white people fail to even perceive them, and the candlelight ceremony didn’t do much to change that. Because it uncritically celebrated the university and culminated in veneration of its founder, it allowed the extent to which white supremacy pervades UVA’s history and contemporary reality to remain unseen in shadows.
It’s not impossible to imagine ways in which events like this could both heal and instruct. I fear, instead, that many participants left grounds that night feeling that the struggle to banish white supremacy from UVA and its city was over, rather than only just begun.