Why Charlottesville?

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Note: During and after last weekend’s terrorist attack on Charlottesville, I received dozens of texts and emails from friends. They were immensely comforting in a difficult time. But besides offering words of love and sympathy, my friends wanted to know Why? Why was Charlottesville the target of this assault? Why did Heather Heyer have to die?

Here’s what I wrote to a South African friend a couple of days after the attack. I’ve edited the letter to remove personal details about my friend.

It’s been awful. Physically, I’m fine, but I’m battered emotionally — we all are, I think. This is a city full of people who are in mourning, people whose sadness is inexpressible, people whose anger is suffocating.

I’ve been on the verge of tears, off and on, for the last couple of days. When I read an open letter from black University of Virginia alumni to incoming first-year students, my eyes got wet again. The alums told the class of 2021 that although “each of us… has experienced or witnessed racism and prejudice [at UVA]… racism, prejudice, and discrimination are not values honored by the University of Virginia.” Platitudes, of course. Aspirations, not facts. But we cling to them and want them to be true of our city and our university, especially now.

We’ve been terrorized. It’s as simple and as awful as that. Well organized, well armed bands of white supremacists, eventually totaling in the hundreds, invaded our city and our university, intending to spread terror. And they did. Some wore military-style clothing and carried assault rifles (legal here if not concealed). Others, dressed in white shirts and khakis, marched through the university’s grounds, on that Friday night, carrying torches (tiki torches from Lowe’s). Downtown on Saturday, they strutted and menaced. They shouted racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and anti-semitic slogans. They attacked counter-protesters. They killed Heather Heyer, a young activist. And they seriously injured many others.

Meanwhile, the heavy, militarized police presence that was supposed to keep the peace and protect the city utterly failed to do so. Piling tragedy upon tragedy, two Virginia State Police officers, who had been working as aerial observers, died late in the day when their helicopter crashed.

I don’t mean to say that all of this has left us cowering. It has not. Even during the white supremacists’ rally, the counter-protesters never left the streets. Clergy members and ordinary citizens attended protest meetings, interfaith prayer services, and outdoor vigils for the victims. Local members of Black Lives Matter led chants of “Whose Streets? Our Streets.” Anti-fa activists protected the clergy from white supremacist thugs.

But, still, we were terrorized, even if most people don’t want to use the word. We were reeling — anxious, angry, distracted, disoriented, and impossibly sad. To some degree, we still are. Just as we think we’re doing better, the monster in the White House finds a way to pour salt on our wounds.

On Sunday, the day after, the streets were still eerily quiet. People largely stayed close to home, close to family, church, and friends. Things began to seem more normal on Monday. You had to go to work, after all. In the evening, several hundred people — black and white, young and old — packed the auditorium at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to talk about where the city should go from here. More importantly, we wanted to gather as a community to assure ourselves and the world that we’re still here, and we haven’t been defeated. Solidarity.

Journalists have been calling and emailing. They all want to know — Why Charlottesville?

Short answer. White supremacists capitalized on the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee from a park in the center of the city.

Longer answer. The presence of the statue in a park that’s downtown Charlottesville’s most important gathering place has been an issue off and on for years. When the controversy came to a head in 2016, city council appointed a commission to make recommendations about the fate of the statue and a statue of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. I was vice-chair. We were also charged with suggesting ways to tell a more inclusive and accurate public history of the city. That meant, in essence, finding ways to tell the story of people that public sculptures and markers ignored (or, in the case of Native Americans, depicted in defeat.)

Among other things, we recommended that the park in which the Lee statue stands should be renamed (it’s now Emancipation Park) and that the Lee statue should either be removed from the park or physically transformed to sap its visual power and open it up to reinterpretation. The statue, we said, was and is a symbol of both the myth of the Lost Cause, which glorifies the slaveholding South, and the triumphant white supremacy of the early-twentieth-century Jim Crow, when it was erected.

City council then voted to remove the damn thing. (The process has been delayed by a legal challenge, brought by people who want the statue to remain, untouched.)

I saw a headline the other day that said something like “Charlottesville Is Us.” Hell, yes. These last few days have held up a mirror to America.

When Jason Kessler, a local white nationalist blogger, called for a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park to protest the decision to remove the statue, he understood that many of the white supremacists know fuck-all about Lee and the Civil War. But he also saw that the statue was a symbol of white male supremacy around which a diverse constellation of racist, neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and white nationalist groups could coalesce. It was a clever ploy and an effective one.

Kessler is small potatoes. But his plans received a boost when Richard Spencer, a UVA graduate, who’s a celebrity in the world of white nationalism, joined the campaign. And it struck a chord nationwide.

The fact that Charlottesville is a small city with and even smaller black population also matters. After all, it’s hard to imagine similar terrorist attack happening in, say, New Orleans, which very publically got rid of its Confederate memorials last spring.

But there’s a second question that that’s even more to the point. Why Not Charlottesville?

I saw a headline the other day that said something like “Charlottesville Is Us.” Hell, yes. These last few days have held up a mirror to America. We’re a nation still defined by white male supremacy. In 2016, a majority of white voters — male and female — elected someone to the presidency who they knew is deeply and unapologetically racist and sexist, someone who demonstrated those truths time and again in the most grotesque ways imaginable. During his campaign and in office he has surrounded himself with people just like him.

Those people, and his enablers in Congress, help us see through the comfortable illusion that white supremacists are only the folks who burn crosses or carry tiki torches. Jeff Sessions and Paul Ryan might never have worn Klan hoods or shopped for torches at Lowe’s, but they’re doing the work of white supremacy every day of the year.

Fact is, Trump isn’t the aberration. Obama was.

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About the author

John Edwin Mason

John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He’s published books on slavery in colonial South Africa and the politics of South African popular culture. He’s now working on a book about the American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks.

View all posts by John Edwin Mason →

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