Charlottesville struggles to move forward after "Unite the Right" rally

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia. –On a recent Monday night, parts of the Charlottesville City Council virtual meeting looked more like angry ...


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia. –On a recent Monday night, parts of the Charlottesville City Council virtual meeting looked more like angry shouts and broadsides than a review of city affairs.

During the meeting, which lasted for hours, some residents attacked council members by name over plans to reorganize the police. Others denounced a proposed zoning change to build more apartments for affordable housing. And council members once again debated the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue that was removed from public view in July.

“I’m going to put it on the mute,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said with exasperation from his home office after a councilor criticized him for interrupting her. “Go ahead, knock yourself out. “

After the far-right rally in August 2017, which made Charlottesville a national battleground over issues of hatred and extremism, many residents hoped the liberal college town would become an example of racial reconciliation. It didn’t happen.

Instead, the bubbling divisions Charlottesville have been brought to the fore over the past four weeks in a civil lawsuit in federal court to determine who is responsible for the events of 2017. Nine plaintiffs seek unspecified damages for injuries sustained in deadly clashes which erupted when some 600 white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers gathered to protest the proposed removal of Lee’s statue. Pleadings began on Thursday.

And even with four years of reconciliation efforts, many locals say some of the same issues the rally exposed about race and history still plague the city. As the trial unfolds, what began in Charlottesville as a battle for the statue of Lee has helped amplify the passions and differences surrounding the issues of the present.

“It definitely continues to reverberate,” said Timothy Heaphy, a former US attorney for the Western District of Virginia who led an independent review of the events and is chief counsel for the University of Virginia.

“It brought to the surface a lot of issues that have always been around but kind of erupted in August 2017,” he said. “There are breaches in this community that have not been repaired. “

City council meetings first exploded right after the rally. Angry residents have demanded responses from the Charlottesville Police Department and City Hall regarding the lack of planning and response to prevent violence.

Some residents still harbor considerable anger and mistrust of the police and the Council because of their response.

Charlottesville has beaten six city managers and two police chiefs amid resentment. Chief RaShall Brackney, the city’s first black female chief, was fired in September. Sharp differences within the police and the city over the changes needed to create a more open and accountable force led to his dismissal. Ms Brackney has filed a lawsuit, calling it unfair.

A heated debate also erupted over a proposal to rewrite the zoning laws to allow for greater density in neighborhoods limited to single-family homes, highlighting racial tensions between some black and white residents.

Opponents argue that the skyscrapers will alter the green and historic character of Charlottesville. Supporters want affordable housing for the lowest paid workers who have been forced to leave the city in recent years. Some of those supporting the change accuse richer white homeowners of reluctant to rectify long-standing housing discrimination against black residents because it threatens the value of their property.

The city of some 47,000 inhabitants is made up of about 70% White, 18% Black, 7% Asians and 5% Latinos. The University of Virginia welcomes approximately 20,000 students.

In the aftermath of the rally, one of the main divisions to emerge among residents was between those who accused outside agitators of inciting unrest and derailing the city’s sense of harmony, and those who believed it revealed the need for change.

Dom Morse, 29, who grew up in Charlottesville and just won a school board seat, called the portrayal of the city that emerged in 2017 as exaggerated. “I think there is a misconception that we just have Klan members hanging out around Charlottesville, ”he said.

But others disagree. Bruce McKenney, 53, who works in renewable energy, said when it comes to racial issues, the rally looked like someone grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. “I think if this event hadn’t happened we would have the same issues,” he said, “but I don’t think they would be on the surface.”

During the trial in recent weeks, spectators have been excluded from the courtroom as a Covid precautionary measure. Only a few protesters gathered outside. A live stream broadcast some of the hateful rhetoric the defendants spewed out as they attempted to defend themselves using the First Amendment argument.

In an open letter to Congregation Beth Israel, whose synagogue was the target of far-right protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans outside in 2017, Rabbi Tom Gutherz warned that the trial would not end the case . “There will be a closure when we find out as the American people how to combat these trends,” he wrote.

Mayor Walker, whose term ends in December, said disappointment at the lack of change had diluted interest in the trial. “The black community of Charlottesville has said on several occasions since 2017 that this is our normal and please respond, and those calls have not been heeded,” she said. (The title of “mayor” goes to the person elected to the post by the five city councilors. A city manager, who is appointed by the city council, runs the city on a day-to-day basis.)

Last spring Mrs. Walker tweeted a poem she wrote characterizing the city as a rapist, with no moral compass. “Charlottesville is steeped in white supremacy and rooted in racism,” one line read.

“The conversation around race – it’s not a soft conversation – most people don’t want to be together on this,” she said in an interview.

The poem has dismayed some fellow Democrats. “The mayor has been the mouthpiece for much of this anger and vitriol,” said Frank Buck, a former Democratic mayor. “It would have helped to have a mayor who could bring people together.”

Conservatives accuse some Democratic politicians of keeping the city polarized. “People are making political hay out of it and they don’t want to let it go,” said Mike Farruggio, a 27-year-old police veteran who ran unsuccessfully for city council as a Republican in 2013.

The arguments about fairness and equality in Charlottesville are steeped in history. In a city that claims to be the land of the founding fathers, the facade of City Hall features statues of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, all residents of the area.

Just upstream, in Court Square, statues of General Stonewall Jackson and a Confederate soldier were shot down. The slave block for auctions once stood amid federal red-brick townhouses. A piece of printed paper glued to a lamppost in one corner reads, “In memory of those who have been bought and sold.” “

“If you really start to dig into the history of white supremacy in your community, it’s going to become controversial as it starts to draw closer to you,” said Jalane Schmidt, professor of religious studies at the university and organizer. from Black Lives Matter who helped lead the effort to remove Confederate monuments. “The closer you get to the present, the louder the discussions become. “

The Confederate statues that helped incite the battles were put into storage last summer, but their fate, like so many in Charlottesville, remains uncertain.

City Hall has solicited bids for two towering bronze equestrian statues of Generals Lee and Jackson. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the only local organization among six bidders, has offered to melt the statue of Lee into bronze ingots that will be turned into a work of art. The project remains at the proposal stage.

The other offers came from several museums as well as an art gallery in Los Angeles and a landowner in Texas who wanted them for his ranch.

Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, described the differences in Charlottesville as being more between the old guard and the new rather than dividing black and white communities.

“It’s mainly about those who think Charlottesville is great the way it is and those of us who know the difference,” she said.

Heaphy says the city has yet to implement the changes recommended by its report, including increased community engagement from Charlottesville Police and City Council. He understands why people stay restless.

“There are legitimate complaints about August 2017, about things the city did or didn’t do, and the issues that have surfaced are real,” he said. “The way to approach them is not to shout, but to listen. We don’t do a lot of that.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Charlottesville struggles to move forward after "Unite the Right" rally
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