2 Years After the Riot, Charlottesville Struggles to Move Forward

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia–Both hands holding shopping bags at the outdoor Historic Downtown Mall, Denzel Clark says he doesn’t want the city to get rid of Confederate statues.  

“I honestly don’t,” Clark, a 23-year-old African-American, tells The Daily Signal, even as he remembers the violence exchanged by white supremacists and “anti-fascists” in the city two years ago. “A lot of people I know got hurt, and I think we should hurry and move on.”

Clark says the divisions from the unrest two years ago over removal of statues honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson continue to dog the city where he has lived for five years. 

“After the University of Virginia won the NCAA, there were people claiming it was rigged to cover up for the Nazi march. That’s mind-blowing,” Clark says. “They had slaves in Egypt, but that’s all the way in the past. We are coming up on 2020; maybe we should stop looking back.” 

He recalls his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, to state why history and monuments in context are important. 

“As a kid, I saw the statue of Martin Luther King in Raleigh, and my mom said I cried. That’s the power it had,” Clark says. “If you start getting rid of everything that offends somebody, people will even come after MLK, because everybody has to go.”

The disputed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. (Photos: Fred Lucas/The Daily Signal)

Residents of Charlottesville, rich in history but wrestling with its past, have varying opinions about how their city is moving forward two years after self-professed neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and neo-Confederates descended on the city for the “Unite the Right” rally Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.

They chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and clashed with violent Antifa counterprotesters in a weekend that ended with death and more than 30 injuries. 

‘I Didn’t See Any Police’

Jacob Roth, who was a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, recalls seeing the Aug. 12 rally unfold from the window of his first-floor downtown apartment. 

“People were throwing bricks at each other and Coke bottles and I didn’t see any police,” Roth, who no longer is a Charlottesville resident, tells The Daily Signal in a phone interview. 

“It seemed there wasn’t adequate separation of the two sides,” he says. “I wasn’t shocked by the rally itself. If you get enough chuckleheads together from across the country, you can get a march going. The violence and that someone died was shocking.”

Among the key criticisms in an independent report: Police did not separate the violent white nationalist and Antifa factions, and city and state officials weren’t prepared for violence. 

Roth says he didn’t waste too much time in getting out of his apartment, and stayed at a friend’s place outside downtown.  

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, as well as University of Virginia, the school he founded, had been a flashpoint for years for residents who want to protect the war memorials of Confederate generals and activists who can’t abide those who led a war defending slavery being honored on public property.

“We’re in the place where history is deep, but we are also very progressive. So, there is that tug-of-war,” Charlottesville Vice Mayor Heather Hill tells The Daily Signal while sitting at a table at the pavilion just outside City Hall on a hot afternoon. 

At the time of the clashes in August 2017, Hill was a candidate for City Council. 

“You have to strike the right balance,” she says. “History is our history. We want to learn from our history, but you know what, there are parts of our history we don’t want to continue to elevate.”

“There are certain parts of our community we should hear in a weighted fashion from, because they have been affected by the systemic racism that tends to permeate our community–not just our local community, but our national community,” Hill adds.

‘Charlottesville Was Targeted’

Numerous peaceful counterprotesters opposed to the white nationalists but not associated with Antifa, were also present two years ago, including some in the faith community. 

White nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others. Fields was convicted of hit-and-run and first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Two Virginia State Police officers–Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates–died in a helicopter crash en route to provide security for the tumultuous event.  

A total of 33 nonfatal injuries occurred, authorities said. 

In interviews with The Daily Signal, numerous residents are quick to point out that extreme elements–both white racists and Antifa–came from outside Charlottesville two years ago. 

The event originated with Jason Kessler, a resident of Charlottesville who aligned with alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who previously attended the University of Virginia, to sponsor a pair of rallies that May and August. 

Police had to break up the May rally with tear gas. Then the August rally turned violent and deadly. 

“Charlottesville was still targeted,” Hill says. “Someone had a voice and took that leadership role upon himself, and that was someone who has resided here and went to school here. There are people who came from far and wide and left this all behind, and here we are continuing to work through it.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker makes a point during the City Council’s retreat.

Hill is one of four Democrats on the Charlottesville City Council. Mayor Nikuyah Walker, an Independent, is the city’s first black female mayor

Hill and Walker were elected in November 2017, just over two months after the rally. The mayor declined to talk to The Daily Signal.  

In Charlottesville, voters elect candidates to the council, and the resulting body then picks the mayor from among its members. The city of 45,000 has a city manager form of government, meaning the council acts as a policy-making board of directors and hires a manager to do executive and administrative tasks.

‘Take a Step Back’

All sides should “take a step back” to recover from the events of two years ago, says Janette Boyd Martin, president of the Albemarle County-Charlottesville NAACP. 

“There seems to be an effort for the community to understand what happened, and people seem to want to try to move forward and find out what happened,” Martin tells The Daily Signal in a phone interview. 

“It’s never going to go away. It’s a permanent stain,” Martin says. “Every media story and the current administration in Washington is going to be something that will keep reminding America of what happened in Charlottesville.”

Martin, a retired teacher, recalls teaching elementary schoolchildren about the Civil War and teaching them factually, keeping her opinion out. She took a University of Virginia course in Civil War history. 

Martin thought her students who were genuinely interested in facts and wanted to listen could be a good model. 

“I think everybody goes into their corner with their boxing gloves on. It gets to be a we-versus-they thing,” Martin says before referring to Heyer’s death two years ago. “It’s better to understand from the historical perspective and it’s less controversial. … Both sides need to take a step back. A child got killed, and it was unnecessary.”  

In March 2016, then-Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, who remains a council member, called for taking down the Lee statue. That set in motion a council vote later that year to remove not only the Lee statue from Lee Park, but the Jackson statue from Court Square Park. 

The statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville.

Lee Park became Emancipation Park from June 2017 to July 2018, then was renamed Market Street Park.  Court Square Park, formally called Justice Park, is also known as Jackson Park.

“I’ve spoken with several different people who have said they have refused to step foot into that park because of what that statue and the name of that park represents. And we can’t have that in the city of Charlottesville,” Bellamy said in May 2017. 

Bellamy, who is black, is the author of  the book “Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue,” released in January. 

‘Weaponized and Nationalized’

The City Council named a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race Monuments and Public Spaces to study the matter. The commission presented two options in November 2016, one to relocate the Lee or Jackson statute to McIntire Park, the other to make changes to the existing locations. 

After an initial vote to relocate the statues, the council voted 3-2 in April 2017 to sell the Lee statue. 

Other communities in Virginia and across the South are debating Confederate war memorials. But it was local politicians who “weaponized and nationalized” the issue, drawing radical elements into the city, says Rob Schilling, the last Republican to hold a seat on the City Council and now a conservative talk radio host. 

“The lawlessness and the recklessness of the elected body at the time is what led to a lot of problems … and the divisiveness of this, and frankly the death and mayhem that followed,” Schilling tells The Daily Signal from his radio studio.

Schilling, who regularly has local political leaders from all sides on his show, is referring to the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Monuments and Public Spaces, which suggested adding a plaque to each monument to provide context. 

“Most people I know who revere those monuments, who have family history, would have been perfectly fine with a plaque providing context, Schilling says. 

Schilling specifically blames what he considers the weak leadership of former Mayor Michael Signer, a Democrat who is still a member of the City Council. 

Signer voted against both relocating and selling the statues, but after the riot two years ago he advocated removing them and has defended the city’s position on doing so. 

Disunity Over ‘Unity Days’

Signer, noting that a city manager runs municipal government, contends that Charlottesville is moving in the right direction with Unity Days, which feature events aimed at bringing the city together. 

The City Council designated the second weekend of August–and Aug. 12 when that date falls during the week–for the annual Unity Days

For this inaugural year, plans included art, concerts, and lectures from May through August. Each month had a specific theme: May was about the community’s history of race relations, June focused on “breaking down institutions of oppression,” and July centered on “honoring community and neighborhood leaders making change.”

August was set to be “four days of activities focusing on education, honor, inspirations, and solemn remembrance.”

Events were scheduled for downtown, including Market Street Park, Court Square Park, the Downtown Mall, and Fourth Street, where some of the rioting occurred in 2017.

“As anybody saw, there were a lot of outsiders that came to Charlottesville in 2017,” Signer tells The Daily Signal during a break at a City Council retreat. “And one of the challenges and opportunities has been to let the people who live here take back their story and create their narrative and talk about their work and their values. I think that’s what Unity Days is doing.” 

Signs for Unity Days are posted around the city. 

“Unity Days” is one of the city’s attempts to foster a stronger sense of community in Charlottesville.

However, at the first council meeting in August, residents heckled and insulted council members, calling some “racists” for voting 3-2 against spending $35,000 to pay for rapper Wale to perform at a Unity Days event Aug. 18 , The Daily Progress reported. 

Council members in the majority noted that guidelines for Unity Days require paying only vendors and not artists. 

But the optics of three white council members voting one way and two black council members voting the other was enough to prompt an outburst from a crowd that already was upset. 

One resident called the three white council members “Hitler’s best friends,” despite the fact that Signer is Jewish.

‘Bold and Necessary’ Report

After the riot two years ago, Signer says, he pushed for a “bold and necessary” independent report by a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, Timothy J. Heaphy. 

“It was an honest account that was very critical of many parties, including City Council, city staff and the state police and the office of the governor,” Signer tellsThe Daily Signal.

“There were certainly things the City Council and I could have done better. There were many things the city staff and the city police could have done better,” the former mayor says. “Throughout, I thought it was really important for the public, through the process, to understand the form of government we have.”

City Council member Michael Signer, who was mayor when the violence erupted two years ago. during the council’s retreat.

Signer called out then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a fellow Democrat and author of a new book with the title “Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism.”

“The governor is a friend of mine, and I was glad to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in condemning extremism and hatred,” Signer says. “I thought it was striking that his book didn’t include any references to the Heaphy report and only included references to the report that his office oversaw.”

“It was a real bold and courageous step to subject all of our decisions to this sort of exhaustive scrutiny,” Signer says. “I thought it was a notable omission that his book didn’t have any reference to that report.”

Heaphy’s independent report states that McAuliffe said before the rally that state police were “just there for park security.” 

In a timeline section, the report notes for Aug. 2, 2017: 

Governor McAuliffe calls Mayor Signer and suggests certain safety measures on August 12, including legally impermissible ban on firearms; Governor tells Signer that [state police] will provide list of recommendations; list never delivered.

McAuliffe did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.

Days after the riot, the City Council voted 5-0 to shroud the Lee and Jackson statues in giant black tarps, since a court injunction meant the city couldn’t remove or sell them. 

Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore ruled in February that the city had to remove the tarps. 

Suing Over Statues

The statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues still stand where they were, despite the council vote to remove them. Both are in parks filled with homeless people. 

That’s because, so far, Moore has issued an injunction against removal or relocation of the statues. The judge thus sided at least temporarily with the Monument Fund, which brought suit claiming the City Council’s 2016 vote to remove the statues violated a state law that prevents removal of war memorials.

Signer says he is confident about the city’s legal argument. 

“It’s a challenging area of law, but the law’s job is to evolve along with the society which it is in,” Signer says. “These preemptive laws, like state statutes that preempt localities from doing what they want to do, are retrograde and they are not particularly democratic. Those laws need to evolve.”

Signer says he believes the city ultimately can access multiple venues to get around the state law keeping the statues in place. 

“Either an act of the Supreme Court to limit the scope of the Virginia statute or local judges or the Virginia legislature, or the Virginia governor. There are many parties that can exert pressure to change those laws,” the former mayor says. 

The plaintiffs who sued to keep the statues in place look at the loss for the city of Norfolk, Virginia, which tried to remove a Confederate statue. There, a judge recently dismissed a lawsuit by activists suing to get rid of it. 

“I thought the coverage [of the Norfok ruling] was a little overdone because it was a different constitutional argument from the ‘equal protection’ argument,” Signer says, adding:

The ultimate venue for these may be the Virginia Supreme Court. We don’t know how they are going to hear them. There was also a very favorable outcome in Alabama, where a local judge ruled in favor of removing statues on freedom of expression grounds.

Charlottesville lawyer Charles Weber is among those suing the city to stop removal of Confederate war memorials.

What the Law Says

Near the courthouse is the law office of Charles Weber, a lawyer for the plaintiffs supporting the statues and a veteran of another controversial war–the Vietnam War. 

“We have a Vietnam War memorial, one of the first in the country,” Weber tells The Daily Signal. “If the City Council has the authority to remove those Confederate memorials, they have the authority to remove that one too.”

“I have a personal friend whose name happens to be engraved there. I also happen to be a Vietnam veteran. It’s kind of personal when you start dealing with war memorials.”

Weber notes that a statue of Robert E. Lee stands at Gettysburg, as the Confederate general was respected in the North. Many died under Lee’s command, he says, so the general means different things to different people.

“The law says they can’t take them [war memorials] down, and I would think even those who argue that they should come down would at least agree with us that we need to go to the [Virginia] General Assembly and get the law changed,” Weber says, adding:

That is a different argument on whether the law is a good law. My view is that the law puts a fence around war memorials, as opposed to all memorials. It recognizes the fact that wars are contentious. They are always argued about, whether we should be in them or not be in them. By putting a legal fence around war memorials, they are shielded from the shifting tides of public opinion.

Weber is a Republican and his office displays a painting featuring GOP presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. He is annoyed that Spencer and the alt-right movement even call themselves right wing.

“I’ve read their philosophy,” he says. “Richard Spencer is as far left as anybody I’ve ever seen, in terms of what he wants. He just happens to think we ought to have a white state as opposed to a black state.” 

Moore ruled that the Lee and Jackson statues are war memorials, which would bring them under the purview of the state law. The judge also granted legislative immunity to members of the council, so they can’t be sued for their related votes. 

At issue is whether the state law that protects war memorials complies with the state and federal constitutions. 

The Upcoming Trial

During the July 31 court hearing, Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson argued that the 1904 state law protecting war memorials was passed during the Jim Crow era, and thus violates the 14th Amendment. 

“At a minimum, we are suggesting heightened judicial scrutiny is what the court needs to apply when considering the erection of these statues,” Robertson argued. “I don’t know how you reach any other conclusion than that the 1904 legislation was enacted as a part of Jim Crow.” 

Moore hasn’t made a ruling, but a three-day trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 11. 

Charlottesville resident Pat Napoleon has a personal connection to one of the monuments. 

“My great-great-grandfather served under Jackson in the Charlottesville artillery. It was a time of war,” Napolean, who at one point led a movement to recall the entire City Council, tells The Daily Signal during an interview in the rooftop restaurant at The Graduate hotel, where diners can see much of Charlottesville. 

“This is part of my culture. This is part of my heritage,” Napolean says. “We went to church with people of different political persuasions. What has happened, they are trying to tear down our history.”

He says a great-great-grandfather was captured and held at Point Lookout in Maryland, one of the Union’s prisoner-of-war camps. 

“Thomas Dabney Rhodes. Private. Captured and placed in Point Lookout,” Napolean says. “He survived.”

Even regrettable aspects of history shouldn’t be hidden, he says. 

“I think about the Colosseum  in Rome. I think about the pyramids in Egypt. They’re there,” Napoleon says. “They are teachable moments. Horrible things happened.”

‘Like Plowing Up the Graveyard’

Richard Lloyd, a Charlottesville resident who ran in 2015 for the Albermarle County Board of Supervisors, notes that Civil War statues went up across the country in the decades afterward. 

Often, Lloyd says, this was seen as a way to honor the dead from both sides because many soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. The statues of generals under whom these soldiers served was a way to honor their memory. 

“You take down those statues, it is exactly like plowing up the graveyard,” Lloyd says. “Where do the families go to say, ‘My family served in the artillery,’ ‘My family died there.’ Without monuments, there’s no trace of these people. They are all buried far away in unmarked graves, some in mass graves.” 

Paul Goodloe McIntire, a stockbroker and investor, paid for the Lee statute in 1917 and it was erected in what at the time was a whites-only park. McIntire also paid for the Jackson statue, but it wasn’t finished until 1924. 

McIntire purchased the property used for the park from the family of Confederate Col. Charles Venable, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

These are factors to consider, the NAACP’s Martin says.

“Those statues were there every day for years. It seems like people started to notice in the last few years,” Martin says. “We should research the man who put them up for a reminder. It’s not about the statue. It’s more about his intent in doing it. The statutes were put up to remind people of certain things.”

The Charlottesville city government isn’t addressing issues that matter, says Leonard Harris, 54, as he rolls his bike through the outdoor pedestrian mall. 

“The city is not moving a finger to help people get jobs,” Harris tells The Daily Signal. “The town caters to the upper-class white people. I’m a felon, but I changed my life. The statues are just a distraction with bulls–t.” 

Still, he adds: “The people in Charlottesville are nice. They look out for each other.”

Vice Mayor Heather Hill pays attention as City Manager Tarron J. Richardson speaks during the City Council’s retreat.

Council Chaos

The City Council convened July 31 at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center for a “retreat.” Senior staff sat at a rectangular table to discuss administrative matters, including how to run more efficient meetings after years of heckling and protests. 

City Manager Tarron J. Richardson gave a presentation about his first 80 days on the job. 

In a brief interview with The Daily Signal just before the retreat began, Richardson says he was ready for a “daunting challenge.”

The city manager previously served for a decade in the same job in DeSoto, Texas, after working as deputy director of public utilities in Richmond, Virginia. 

“I think the city is moving forward,” Richardson says of Charlottesville. “As far as healing, I think that is going to take a significant amount of time.”

“It’s a work in progress. I don’t think you solve that overnight,” he says. “A lot of things happened. It takes time for people to get to that point.”

The council’s 9 a.m.-to-4 p.m. meeting wears on as Schilling’s noon-to-2 radio show is heard around the region. 

Schilling, who routinely talks about the “silly clowncil” on his show, says he considers the council’s inability to control meetings a big problem for the city. 

“If you’re talking about appeasing violent leftists that were showing up in City Council meetings and raising hell and disrupting the ability of government to do its work, some of them have definitely been appeased,” Schilling tells The Daily Signal after finishing up his show. 

“There are a lot of other people that feel completely disenfranchised in this community,” he says. “They won’t even go down to the City Council chambers anymore.”

‘Is This Where We’re At?’

Schilling notes one quantifiable example where this was a setback for city residents:

I’ve seen it happen to developers that are Democrats and left-leaning and donated their money to Democrats the whole time they’ve been here. But since they are now developers, making a business presentation before the council, they are just getting derided and screamed at. This [one] guy took his $50 million and went home. So a huge project went right down the drain.

At least on this point, Hill, a Democrat on the council, seems to be in some agreement with the conservative radio host in diagnosing some of the city’s lingering issues. 

On one hand, Hills says, many residents are engaged with their government. But there is so much shouting and so many insults that others are discouraged from participating, she adds:

We had someone talking about construction in a downtown area a few months ago, and they were just upset about the pedestrian right-of-way being taken away. After that, someone just came up and basically just blamed their privilege for them to have that complaint.

It’s like, we’re a city, we have to provide good infrastructure. Frankly, we should be providing great infrastructure. So to demean someone who came up to share that perspective just threw me. Is this where we’re at?

These are small factions. But when they are there, and they are vocal, people are watching on television and wondering, ‘Why do I want to be in that environment?’

Ballamy, the council member and former vice mayor who is one of the most ardent opponents of the Confederate monuments, takes another view. 

“We have action-packed meetings, and not just from the theatrics, but we do a lot of work,” he says during the council retreat July 31. 

City Council member Wes Bellamy, author of the book “Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue,” at the council retreat.

Bellamy initially seems open to an interview with The Daily Signal, then declines in a phone call, and then emails to see if it is too late. In the end, he does not answer phone calls. 

At their retreat, council members discuss conduct during their meetings. Walker, who presides as mayor, says she doesn’t want to be strict with those who attend because underrepresented residents should have a right to speak. 

In December, The Daily Progress quoted Walker as saying: “Everything that we’re talking about, especially on council, we’re dealing with a white male perspective—what is considered to be civil, those kind of things.” 

‘Something Has to Change’

Last Monday, heckling broke out at a council meeting regarding allegations of racism about a Unity Days event. 

Afterward, the former mayor, Signer, criticized the current mayor, Walker, in an email reported by The Daily Progress. 

“We just had a retreat where we agreed to enforce our rules against disruption from the floor and profanity,” Signer wrote to the newspaper. “Only the mayor can enforce these rules, but she’s not, and this chaos is the result. Something has to change.”

More than a dozen Charlottesville residents interviewed in the pedestrian mall want to talk about how the city is recovering over the past two years. But quite a few don’t want The Daily Signal to use their name, or at least not for some portions of what they say. 

“The community has resilience,” Tiffany Polychrones, 35, says. “I’m hesitant to say the City Council is helping. There is still a lot of work to be done.” 

Lorenzo has lived in Charlottesville for 25 years, but doesn’t want to give his last name since the statue issue is contentious. 

Still, Lorenzo questions whether it’s worth the public expense to move statutes.

“It was serious and eye-opening,” Lorenzo says of the riot. “The whole thing was nuts. Those type of people have always been around, but they used to be underground.”

“Then, they apparently felt like they could jump out and show themselves,” he says. “I’d like to know how they got permits to do what they did.”

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