When Joe Biden announced last year that he was running for president, the first words he uttered were “Charlottesville, Virginia.” The campaign video that followed featured footage of the Unite the Right rally overlaid with a voiceover from Biden, responding to President Trump’s infamous comment: “[You] had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Throughout his campaign, Biden has continued to bring up the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, most notably during his first debate with President Trump—yet he has not visited Charlottesville, or reached out to city residents since announcing his presidential bid. Those who were closest to the violence have noticed.
“Don’t use us as a prop,” says activist and deacon Don Gathers. “[The rally] is a very sore spot for many of us. It’s painful reliving that weekend.”
After neo-Nazi James Fields rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, “I stood there on the corner and watched the [EMTs] feverishly working on Heather…I literally saw life leave her body,” he says. “You just can’t get that sort of thing out of your head.”
Though Gathers will be voting for Biden, he believes the former VP still owes Charlottesville a visit, even if it’s after Election Day.
“He needs to have a public forum with some of the activists here,” Gathers says. “He needs to hear how we feel…We have got to make people [know] that we are more than a hashtag, more than just a blip on the troubled racial history of this country. We deserve better than that.”
UVA library employee Tyler Magill was also frustrated with Biden for using the rally as a talking point, but now tries to not let it bother him too much.
“When he first mentioned Charlottesville, I was originally very angry…but it’s going to happen,” says Magill. “The powerful will use my trauma…It is another thing that is taken from me, that is taken from us.”
Magill attended the August 11 torch-lit rally on the UVA Lawn just to observe. But after seeing the crowd of white supremacists and neo-Nazis surround and attack a group of student counterprotesters, he stepped in to support them. Magill was threatened, doused in gasoline, and hit on the neck with a torch, which damaged his carotid artery. A few days later he suffered a stroke.
Though Magill has largely recovered from his injuries, he still has a small blind spot, and a “difficult time having new memories stick,” explains his wife, Charlottesville Vice Mayor Sena Magill. “We’re still dealing with PTSD. He gets triggered all of the time.”
“I wouldn’t not do what I did,” says Tyler Magill, “but there are days I feel it has ruined my life.”
Like Gathers, Tyler Magill will be voting for Biden, but wishes the former VP had reached out to rally victims, as well as Black Charlottesville activists and residents.
“It would be nice if people would come to us,” he says. “Don’t say you fucking care…if you’re not asking people.”
While Sena Magill does not like seeing Charlottesville continuously brought up as a symbol of hate, she believes it’s important to note why Biden talks about Unite the Right so much. The rally is a crystal-clear example of Trump’s repeated failure to condemn white supremacy.
“The fact that hundreds of people thought…that they could have a Klan rally in 2017, and the president of the United States did not 100 percent disavow and say how horrendous that was…We have to use that to change,” says Sena Magill.
If not for the death of his son Beau and the pandemic, Magill believes Biden would have paid a visit to Charlottesville before the election. “We need to give the man a little more grace for that, for not coming here in 2017 and 2018,” says the city councilor.
UVA alumna Alexis Gravely doesn’t think there is a reason for any political candidates to use Charlottesville as a part of their campaign, unless they personally experienced it. As a reporter for The Cavalier Daily, Gravely trailed the neo-Nazis and white supremacists during the torch-lit rally on the Lawn, and witnessed their violent clashes with counterprotesters on the Downtown Mall.
“There were very few public figures, if any, who came to Charlottesville, and offered support to those who’ve been affected and the community,” says Gravely, speaking solely for herself. “So for me, anytime Charlottesville comes up in politics, it’s very disingenuous…They had nothing to do with that day, [or] picking up the pieces in the months and years afterwards.”
“Three years later, August 11 and 12, that whole week is a very difficult week for me,” she says. “To have to constantly relive it, just because I am tuned into politics, it’s not that great of a feeling.”
“Regardless of your party, Charlottesville isn’t a talking point,” she adds. “It’s a real event that happened.”