After a deadly weekend, the country must find a way forward – a task complicated by what some see as a vacuum of moral leadership at the top.
Charlottesville is the picture of a liberal American college town. Sidewalk cafés jostle for space with designer burger joints on a bustling pedestrian mall and the windows of the well-appointed redbrick buildings are adorned with rainbow signs and Black Lives Matter stickers.
But for one deadly weekend, it found itself in the maelstrom of the racial currents roiling the country: an increasingly openly violent white-supremacist movement, and a battle over the monuments to Confederate generals that stand in cities across the South. Hundreds of neo-Nazis, Klansmenand other extremists descended on Charlottesville, Va., for two days of protests that turned into riots and left three people dead.
Now, both the city and the country must find a way forward – a task complicated by what some see as a vacuum of moral leadership at the top. Many in Charlottesville blame U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies and “America First” rhetoric for encouraging the white nationalism on display in their city.
Mr. Trump, who has regularly derided Muslims and Mexicans as he clamps down on immigration, initially refused to explicitly condemn white nationalism. On Saturday, he spoke only of “violence on many sides” – appearing to equate the actions of anti-racism activists and neo-Nazis.
“It was an invasion – they don’t like our land of leftists,” said Tod Gorman, 42, a Charlottesville restaurant server who attended counterprotests against the demonstrations the day before. “This is a fringe element that’s been lying in the sewer for decades and is bubbling up because they’re empowered by our President right now.”
Charlottesville, a city of 50,000 about a two-hour drive from Washington, became a target for white supremacists this spring when the local council voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. White nationalist Richard Spencer, an alumnus of the University of Virginia with a wide following in online far-right circles, made the matter a cause célèbre for racists: He organized a torchlight rally at the statue in May. That was followed the next month by a gathering of the KuKlux Klan.
Then, a local white nationalist blogger named Jason Kesslercalled for a “Unite the Right” rally this past weekend. With the backing of Mr. Spencer and former KKK leader David Duke, the event attracted hundreds of swastika-waving neo-Nazis and Confederate battle-flag-wielding white supremacists from around the country. Two days of demonstrations turned violent as white supremacists brawled in the streets with counterprotesters.
On Saturday afternoon, the driver of a grey Dodge Challenger rammed into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesvilleparalegal. Two state troopers working the protest, H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, were killed when their helicopter crashed elsewhere in the city. James Fields, Jr., a 20-year-old Ohio man, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in Ms. Heyer’s death.
As the city grappled with the aftermath Sunday, tensions boiled over.
When Mr. Kessler tried to give a news conference outside city hall, mere blocks from where Ms. Heyer had been killed a day earlier, he was drowned out by a crowd of shouting “Shame!” and “Nazis go home!” After five minutes of non-stop booing, the crowd began to close in and Mr. Kessler fled through a flower bed. As he tried to escape, Mr. Kessler was chased down the street by the townspeople, one of whom tackled him into a bush. Riot police broke up the melee, pushing the crowd back.
“We don’t want his message in town. We don’t want his message in this country,” said Kathleen Quinn, 54, a health-care consultant, who attended the protest with a placard reading “Love is all you need.”
Added her wife, Kate Fraleigh: “In front of City Hall, with the flags and everything. He was trying to claim some sort of validity. We didn’t want him to have that.”
Earlier in the day, at the Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke the words Mr. Trump had not, calling Ms. Heyer’s killer a “terrorist” and admonishing “the neo-Nazis who came to our beautiful state yesterday.”
“The political rhetoric in this country today is breeding bigotry,” he said, as the 200 congregants in the hall leaped to their feet and greeted him with shouts of “Amen!”
Greeting congregants after the service, Pastor Alvin Edwards, a former mayor of Charlottesville, reflected on how he hoped to move the city – and the country – past the events of the previous day.
For one, he said, he planned to hold a “reconciliation event” in the fall in Emancipation Park in the shadow of the Gen. Lee statue. He also believed the sheer overwhelming numbers of good people in the city would ultimately defeat the racism of the weekend.
“Every time you go through something, you have to use it as a stepping stone and not an obstacle. The only way you can solve problems is by talking to people and understanding them,” he said. “It’s a little pocket of people. The 99 per cent can drown them out and that’s what I intend to do.”
Others in the congregation, however, wondered if a solution is possible as long as Mr. Trump remains at the helm.
“The alt-right and the neo-Nazis who were here this weekend were directly inspired by this current President,” said Steven Thomas, 40, a community organizer from Harrisonburg, Va., who travelled to Charlottesville for the protests the previous day.
While he said he regularly encounters day-to-day racism – in the form of profiling by police, for example – Mr. Thomas said the sight of rifle-brandishing white supremacists openly shouting racist slogans was a shock.
“So many armed, white-nationalist neo-Nazis were walking the streets of Charlottesville. Never in my life have I seen so many armed, unregulated, wild, uncontrollable individuals put a community at risk,” he said.
Under pressure from across the political spectrum – including the President’s own Republican Party – the Trump administration played damage control Sunday. In a statement attributed to an unnamed spokesman, the White House said Mr. Trump condemns “all forms of violence” which “includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
To some, the best solution is not to back down on the battle that so riled white supremacists in the first place. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, led a successful campaign earlier this year to take down a statue of Gen. Lee in his city. And Lexington, Ky., Mayor Jim Gray announced in the wake of Saturday’s violence that he would push for two Confederate monuments to be dismantled in his city too.
“Taking down the statues helps because it makes a statement – it tells radical racists that this isn’t acceptable in society at all,” said Amir Berhannu, 36, a friend of Mr. Gorman, the restaurant server, visiting from Washington, as they stood a stone’s throw away from the sculpture of Gen. Lee.
Mr. Gorman, for his part, took comfort in the strength of numbers he saw on the weekend.
“Even with the white supremacists’ march being as disturbing as it was, I still have to look at the fact that we outnumbered them by thousands,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that we’re watching the last dying breath of the ugliest part of America.”
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
LAST UPDATED: MONDAY, AUG. 14, 2017 6:17AM EDT