On the weekend of August 12, 2017, Charlottesville, Virginia, became a metonym, thus joining that select fraternity of cities whose meaning is tied to singular events.
By now those events are familiar. There was, on the night of August 11, the torchlit gathering of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist protesters; hundreds of young white men marching across the grounds of the University of Virginia to claim the Rotunda as their own. Evoking the fiery rituals of the Ku Klux Klan, these men adopted the violence of their forebears as well, surrounding and terrorizing counterdemonstrators, with little response or intervention from authorities.
There were the clashes that marked the morning of August 12, where the racist provocateurs of “Unite the Right” confronted an array of counterprotesters, from local clergy to the much-discussed “Antifa” (short for antifascist) that met force with force. They gathered in the city’s Emancipation Park (neé Lee Park) where a monument to Robert E. Lee still stood, and where costumed far-right protesters—clad with makeshift shields and waving white supremacist standards—faced their opponents.
There was the spectacle of it all. Thousands crowded the narrow streets of downtown Charlottesville. Nazi flags flew high while camouflaged men marched past shops and restaurants with assault weapons and body armor. Riot police broke up fights and eventually broke up the gathering itself, firing tear gas into crowds.
And tragically, there was the violence. Some of the young men who came to Charlottesville to march for the “alt-right” may have seen this as a game; a chance to provoke enemies, commiserate with friends, and proudly voice the taboo beliefs that define this online community of bigotry and hate. But at least one young man took the rhetoric seriously. And using his car, he drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring more than twenty people, and killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, who had come to challenge the neo-Nazis and white supremacists that had gathered in her city.
Her death is what makes Charlottesville unique. Civil unrest has marked multiple cities over the last several years, but Charlottesville is the only place where someone was killed in the chaos. It’s what defines it in the public eye. For the foreseeable future, “Charlottesville” will be a warning, a cautionary tale for what happens when local governments and institutions fail to stop hate groups in their tracks. It will represent that moment when organized hate made a bid for the mainstream, and found some success in the fact that the president of the United States wouldn’t condemn their actions in full.
The proximate cause for this upheaval was that statue of Robert E. Lee, erected almost a century ago as a monument to the supremacy of white Americans and the white South. After years of debate, Charlottesville’s city council voted to remove it, citing that history. The backlash was swift. Republican Corey Stewart, then running for the state party’s gubernatorial nomination, rallied around the statue, making it and other Confederate monuments a part of his campaign. Soon, white supremacists joined the fray, in demonstrations that culminated with “Unite the Right.”
At the same time, the Lee monument is something of a MacGuffin. A pretext, not a cause. The cause is more complicated. Charlottesville isn’t a model town. Its cultural openness and natural beauty obscures stark inequality and deep division, products of a history of discrimination and exploitation, from massive resistance to the midcentury “urban renewal” and destruction of Vinegar Hill, a black business district in the city. But in fits and in starts, Charlottesville has tried to grapple with this history, to understand it, and even make amends. It’s that work that led to the vote against the Lee statue, and it’s that effort—a liberal town, trying to live up to its liberalism—that made it a target for hate.
The weekend of August 12 didn’t just mark Charlottesville as a symbol. It demonstrated the urgency of the fight against white supremacy, and showed how these views still survive—and even thrive—in our society. In a survey taken in the aftermath of the protest, substantial numbers of white Americans endorsed racist ideas, from the 30 percent who disagreed that “all races are equal” and the 35 percent who said that the United States must protect and preserve its “White European Heritage,” to the 47 percent who said that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
All of this has shaken many people out of their complacency. Criticized for his inaction prior to “Unite the Right,” Mayor Mike Signer pledged aggressive action to keep white nationalists out of the city after Richard Spencer, a major figure in the movement, made a third appearance at Emancipation Park at the beginning of October. Which is to say that this push and pull will continue. But as Charlottesville works to grapple with this new normal, perhaps eventually it will stand less as a warning and more as a model for how to fight back, how to recover, and how to give meaning to sacrifice.
— Jamelle Bouie