The effects of August 12 are both visible and unseen. Palpable and elusive. Deeply felt and formative. Last week, Fourth Street—where Heather Heyer was killed while marching alongside other counterprotesters to let white nationalists and the watching world know that hate has no home here—was renamed in Heyer’s honor.
The international spotlight that shone on our city following that weekend was undoubtedly blinding, and it brought to light deeper truths about our town and ourselves that we have sometimes shied away from. But growth is birthed from pain. And by confronting our past and present, we are collectively moving toward a stronger and more unified future.
For the last issue of the year, we collected essays from local residents, faith leaders, activists, students, teachers and government officials who told us how August 12 impacted their lives—then and now.
David Vaughn Straughn
Member of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville and Solidarity Cville, artist, writer, community organizer
The Downtown Mall is where my father worked, where I worked, where I’ve had countless drinks countless times, and where I met my first high school girlfriend. There was a lot of joy linked to this place, and I identified Charlottesville as a haven of warmth and security even when living elsewhere. Now it’s almost impossible to cross Fourth and Water without a chill down my spine; to not feel the pangs of anxiety, hypervigilance, resentment and the desire to isolate.
The air is still thick with particles of tear gas and smoke.
The streets are still stained in blood.
It still stings.
However, these horrible experiences brought a community together to eliminate hate and defend our hometown, and I have met so many extraordinary, powerful, beautiful people who hold profound values of devotion and who fight valiantly for the most marginalized.
To these people I am incredibly grateful that I am learning how to honor all people sincerely and respectfully, be they queer, trans, disabled or otherwise marginalized; that I am connecting more deeply with the people of color in my community, as we celebrate blackness and the complexities that lie within it; and accepting that I am (as we all are) a product of a pervasive, white supremacist heteropatriarchy, and being willing to unlearn toxic social beliefs and practices.
Also to truly know what it means to believe that All Black Lives Matter, not only in the general sense, but that the very existence of all of the black people we speak with and come in contact with on a daily basis matter. All of these various feelings, emotions, concerns, fears and viewpoints absolutely matter; that not only Trayvon, Sandra, Eric, Michael, Tamir and other lives already lost matter, but also that my neighbor’s life, words and presence matters.
Also, in that belief that All Black Lives Matter, I believe that my life matters.
Standing in the midst of this visceral hate within these tragedies, this anger and seething vitriol in front of me, in the midst of almost being crushed by a car in an act of terrorism, I am finally ready to live. I am finally ready to persist and thrive; to not just float down the stream of life, but to row with fervor and passion, fueled with the fire of those before me who dreamed of the chances I have today, and who died for the rights I have yet to receive.
The incidents of the weekend of August 11 and 12 prove that the right to live as a person of color in this country, truly free, without fear of harassment, subjugation or violence, is a right that has yet to be allowed to us.
Author, activist, artist
The Summer of Hate undoubtedly affected all of us. The thought that there are people whose main objective is to harm others is alarming; the idea that they’d travel hundreds of miles to hurt people they’ve never even met is almost too difficult to fathom. Life before this past summer in Charlottesville was, for many, the idyllic picture that most people outside believe. Inside, for people of color, life in Charlottesville is the same as it ever was. The veil of unspoken racism was made transparent on July 8, 2017. It was shouted from the throats of City Council, police officers and, yes, Ku Klux Klan members. On August 12, 2017, that veil was ripped down by a car purposely driven through an unsuspecting crowd, killing one woman and injuring many others.
Those who were inches from that act of terror are still dealing with the ramifications. Ones who weren’t standing on Fourth Street are dealing with the guilt that they weren’t inches from it with their friends. I plunged myself into art, into work. After directing Jitney by August Wilson at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, I accepted a role in Seven Guitars, also by August Wilson and produced at UVA, with no break. I dove in, trying to make sense of my guilt, my own terror. It took me months to walk the Downtown Mall again. I’m still uneasy because I know that the hatred did not come from out of town. It is home. It lives in the same place I have called home for my entire life.
Walking down a Charlottesville street was always a tricky thing for me. My brown skin feels like a bull’s-eye painted on me. That target is just as bright for me today as it was the afternoon of A12, when I was being ushered into a safe house…just in case. Now, I feel I have a moral responsibility to walk these streets to show all of the people who were standing next to Heather when she died that I respect the sacrifice they made for me. I walk these streets to send a message to people who hate me for something I cannot control: They will not take my life from me, they will not take my town.
I was fortified with the words of a dear friend and fellow activist who spoke to me through tears on A12: “This will not stop me. I will go harder. I will not stop.” In that moment I realized I could not let them fight this alone. I had to stand with them and for them.
I deal with the hatred by doing art that continues to show people of color as human. I will lift up those stories to show people that humanity is universal. I will make white people understand that the same lie that created racism in this country has hurt them, too.
Moving forward we have a common goal of ending racism in America. We have people whose eyes have been opened. The journey may be hard; it may take time. For me and for my fellow activists and artists, we are determined to stay on this road until the end. I lean on my friend’s words whenever I think the road is too hard, or this fight will be too long. I repeat them to myself, like a mantra: This will not stop me. I will go harder. I will not stop.
Senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, member of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective
It was a little bit shocking for many people in the congregation to see that openness of antisemitic signs, using chants and slogans and symbols. Most of us had had some encounters with antisemitism, in the course of growing up and being a minority and, in most cases, it was probably what I would call the garden variety antisemitism, statements being made out of ignorance, but not always. But I don’t think anybody had really expected to see this kind of hate, and the youth and the vigor and the excitement of those people and the signs that they carried—for many people, it was disorienting. In the aftermath, it made us sit back and question some of the assumptions that we have about how comfortable we should or could feel in places we do feel comfortable in and that we do feel very much a part of.
We are right in the center of everything here at Congregation Beth Israel. One block from Emancipation Park, one block from Justice Park, one block from the courthouse where all these cases are being tried. In some ways, it has really changed the way we think about our own safety in a way that, I would say, we never have before. And that’s sad.
On the other hand, at the expense of going through this as a faith community—we had a very strong sense that the synagogue might be under threat—it really reminded people how much they care about this place, this community. How much they care about our building, how much they love to pray in this place, and how much they value this tradition as a source of comfort and strength—and resilience.
I was just at a clergy conference in Boston and people asked quite often, “Have you healed? Has Charlottesville healed?” And I think the answer is, well, not yet. As long as these court cases are still going on, there’s still a desire for justice, there’s still a desire for accountability. The question of the monuments is not settled. Charlottesville comes up quite often in the language and conversation of some of the haters out there. And we ourselves are not rushing to say, “This is all in the past, let’s just go back to the way it used to be,” because the discussion about the monuments and the role of City Council, all that did reveal—and continues to reveal—are some deep issues that our community has to deal with. I’d like to think that that’s going to have a positive result in the end. I’d like to think that some of those conversations will be seen as more necessary, and that we’re really going to pay attention to and hopefully find some solutions and work forward on them. That’s the good part about not healing too fast; it leaves open that desire to get to the root of things.
Senior manager for diversity, inclusion and global outreach at the Mind & Life Institute, therapist, yoga teacher
I should begin by saying that although I was present for the rallies in May and July, I was abroad on August 11 and 12 and my perspective on the events of the summer exists within this context. The magnitude of the chaos, trauma and intensity of A11/12 was conveyed to me via news outlets, social media, friends, family and in the interpretations of the people I encountered across Europe and Botswana where I was traveling. The juxtaposition of attending a conference reflecting upon the African philosophy of ubuntu and exploring our shared humanity while my home was in turmoil can’t be understated.
In the midst of this dissonance, I received numerous emails and telephone calls requesting clinical presence for individuals and groups affected by the alt-right presence, violence and domestic terrorism. Most of these calls were for queer, trans and POC [people of color] affirming care, which can be difficult to come by or assess in our community. Since coming home, I have been providing ongoing support to many who have experienced trauma in the wake of A11/12, but also working with local organizations and groups to bolster awareness of the underlying issues that have permeated our community prior to the events of the summer. People often inquire as to what is different about my work post-A11/12, and the reality is that for many of my most vulnerable clients and the way I support them, much remains the same. The underlying societal imbalances that contributed to the trajectory of events over the summer is interwoven into the very fabric of our town.
In many ways, Charlottesville, in the shadow of Monticello, represents the birthplace of the American contradiction: life, liberty and freedom—for some. This contradiction extends into our major institutions and services for education, medical care and mental health. There exist disparate health outcomes for many marginalized groups in Charlottesville and very few providers that reflect the demographics of the community. The events of A11/12 in many ways highlighted these issues and my hope is that in the wake of this ongoing tragedy, our systems become better able to support those disproportionately affected by institutionalized oppression, but also create systems of accountability to help redress power imbalances.
In the work I do for groups and organizations, I love talking about ways of providing critical services such as education, medical care and mental health treatment in culturally responsive ways. This type of care reflects the potency with which culture impacts our ability to be successful in life, centers the individual’s culture as the frame of reference for offering help and is representative of the community it serves. This model works toward empowering communities from within, building capacity for historically under-resourced groups to build equity in their own health and wellness. Numerous community agencies have extended significant resources to respond to this crisis…this is not an indictment of their work. But as I reflect on what I have learned over the summer, I am also called to reflect on the work of the activists and community organizers who laid significant groundwork for us to question the validity of existing structures and to harness the energy of community to respond nimbly. As painful as these events are, the people who are seeking help have the opportunity to heal, not just from this trauma but from other traumatic experiences.
I have seen some internal barriers to vulnerability breaking down, and I’ve seen people really wrestling with the beautiful struggle of claiming and understanding one’s identity. By the time someone comes to see me, they’ve already done the hard work, and my job is to bear witness. It’s been a remarkable opportunity for me to be of service.
Lead organizer of Congregate C’ville
I lend many thoughts to embodiment, always considering what it means to live and express faith in a bodily, present way. Faithful presence was the focus of my summer and the reason I showed up to counteract overt, violent white supremacy.
Both on July 8 and August 12, within the turmoil and the conflict and the exhaustion and the complete despair, I experienced what it means to be embodied, what it means to know something in my bones. I felt the evil of white supremacy to an extent I had never previously encountered.
I had witnessed white supremacy with my eyes. I understood it with my mind. I even prayed about it and lent my spirit and time to dismantling it. But I hadn’t encountered violent white supremacy in my bones.
In White Christian America we like to think about things and pray about things. We look at oppression and supremacy and evil, we mentally process oppression and supremacy and evil, we pray for the end of oppression and supremacy and evil, and we institute programs to address oppression and supremacy and evil. But we don’t actually experience oppressive supremacy in our bones.
There’s a striking difference between perceiving oppressive evil in our minds, seeing oppressive evil with our eyes, feeling oppressive evil with our flesh and actually knowing oppressive evil deep down in our bones. When a truth lodges itself in our bones, reality begins to shift.
We can’t simply think and pray and write checks and create programs and expect justice to flow like a river. Our reality will transform once we allow uncomfortable truths to lodge deep down inside of our bones. Goodness and justice will flow when we learn how to be present in the face of evil and oppression, when we experience, in our bodies, the very thing we hope to change.
May we show up. May we practice presence. May we learn how to accompany one another, not just with our thoughts and prayers, but with our bones.
Johnson Elementary School art teacher, writer
I tried to prepare. I braced against it. Still, August 12 in Charlottesville shifted something in me. When those men raised their Klan-marked Confederate flags, I felt like I could not breathe. When they chanted “Jews will not replace us!,” my mind flew back to visiting Germany in high school. Our school group took a day trip to Auschwitz. Sixteen and standing in that fallow place, the truth of history felt far away, as if a curtain of time shielded me from all the obscenities that had occurred there.
This summer, when those men aimed their rage at brown and black bodies, at immigrants and refugees and Jewish people, I felt overwhelmed with grief. By glorifying brutality and genocide, they proved my teenaged self wrong. The symbols they brandished, the chants they resurrected, made those historic atrocities feel close in the cave of my chest. Just like that I understood there was no distance. We could do terrible things. Terrible things could be done to us.
In the weeks afterward, I couldn’t sleep. I watched colleagues and students tearful and exhausted as the school year started. I wrestled with the fact that this spectacle of hate was now part of my son’s understanding of the world. Signs of anger, fear, stress and depression were more visible in our civic discourse and on my Facebook feed. Folks seemed to be retreating into smaller inward-looking circles, distrustful even of those who have a slightly different point of view.
But lately, I’ve noticed that people have grown more committed too, more determined. It’s as if they are also thinking what I’ve come to know. If there is no wall of time to protect us, then there is only us. If those men could position their bodies to do harm, then we can angle ours to do good. Those men offered us a rare close-up view of where tribalism and intolerance lead, but the legacy of August 12 is still forming in our hands. What if we manage to work together to define ourselves in blindingly stark contrast? What if we channel our new anxious energies toward fostering equity, diversity, decency? We face real challenges in this town and on this fragile boat of a planet. August 12 convinced me, we need each other more than ever now.
I believe our city’s reputation as an open and welcoming community made us a target for white supremacists seeking to aggressively oppose our ideals. Their actions on the weekend of August 12 revisited the worst demons of America’s past and reinforced the sad reality of the continued hate and discord among some Americans.
While the horrors of that weekend were the direct result of hate-filled visitors pouring into our city, the response of our government revealed systemic issues that have been present for some time. These include a lack of communication, coordination, responsiveness and an unwillingness to leverage external resources effectively. If we cannot handle the day-to-day responsibilities of government well, how can we expect to handle extraordinary situations?
This summer’s events have galvanized many of us to address the systemic flaws in our city. I believe that in order to accomplish this we need to focus on how our local government is structured and identify changes that make it more effective and more citizen focused. We need to educate ourselves so we understand how a strong economic base supports so many of the community’s needs. We need to work with our state leaders to influence decisions currently not in our direct control. Finally, we need to create mechanisms that enable us to develop a mutual understanding, working together to be effective problem solvers.
In the months that have followed August 12, I have heard from more and more people who want to be part of a meaningful path forward, yet ironically the public discourse that has been shaped by the rightful anger from the summer’s events is preventing the change we all want and need. This goes against what I believe our community wants to be—open to each other and our differences. I believe there is something to be learned from everyone, whether they speak loudly or softly, whether one may agree with them or not. It is important for voices to be heard by their government but it is also important that we maintain a respectful atmosphere where we treat and speak to others as we hope they would treat and speak to us.
It is hard for me to put into words how much my life has been enriched the past year by going into spaces less familiar to me and engaging with such a diverse and passionate set of voices. This experience has given me a new lens from which I now view our community, its diversity, its history and its future. I could not be more excited about the potential we have as a community to come together, build relationships and leverage our collective resources as we write the next chapter for our Charlottesville.
Third-year UVA student, current managing editor and incoming editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily
I can’t walk around the Rotunda without imagining the heat of the torches from the racists marching past me, or pass through the Alderman Library parking lot and not think of how white nationalists threatened to break my camera as I saw them throw a man to the ground and pile tiki torches into the back of a U-Haul truck.
When I walk downtown, I have flashbacks to choking on chemical irritants and militia men patrolling the streets.
I can’t forget looking down from the top of the Water Street Parking Garage on the scene of the two other vehicles hit in the car attack, surrounded by posters and fliers victims dropped as they fled the scene.
The events of August 11 and 12 still haunt me, and because the news never stops—reports being released, UVA students making demands of the administration, court hearings—I haven’t had much time to reflect. Journalists—yes, even student journalists—have a responsibility to follow the stories.
I’m still traumatized by what happened to the city where I’ve lived for my entire life, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone who was injured on those days, or a member of a minority community targeted by the white nationalist movement. But I can listen.
August 11 and 12 taught me that journalists must listen to the wide range of perspectives in our communities and approach our work with more empathy. For example, I saw reporters and cameramen step on the flowers at Heather Heyer’s memorial. That was troubling, to say the least. In October, we also saw a local news station air an interview with a white nationalist leader who described torch rallies as “mystical and magical,” just days after the community’s wounds were reopened with another torch-lit rally.
The events forced me to think critically about my own work. I interviewed Richard Spencer for a piece about his time at UVA that The Cavalier Daily published earlier this year, and even though I made it clear he holds racist beliefs and included perspectives of people critical of his movement, I wonder if the potential harm of that article outweighed the importance of the question of how UVA shaped him. I stand by the reporting, but the ways in which we cover white nationalism demands reflection, and a willingness to admit we can and should do better.
A key challenge moving forward is engaging citizens and leaders to ensure the events of this past summer never happen again. From a journalistic perspective, that means providing students and community members with the information they need to get involved, whether it be at a student council, Board of Visitors or City Council meeting. It also means getting leaders on the record, and keeping them accountable when they fall short.
Civil rights attorney
In my six-plus decades of life, I have been at many demonstrations, protests and marches, but I had never seen such a spectacle of hate as graphic as that displayed on August 11 and 12. I was, however, glad to be there among so many people outraged by this scene and condemning fascism, white supremacy, homophobia and xenophobia. I was also happy to see so many people reject the idea, proposed by most of our city leaders, to leave the Nazis alone, on the misguided notion that they will just go away.
Never before had I seen police refusing to stop violence, ignoring pleas to intervene. Nazis were simply allowed to roam the streets of our city, threatening and intimidating and finally killing and maiming. Learning that the state police were ordered to stand down and that even the Charlottesville police were told to intervene only for serious bodily injury or death was shocking. I am representing people in seven different cases arising from July 8 and August 12, as well as incidents leading up to both events. In most cases, the defendants are demonstrably innocent and their arrest (even if they are ultimately acquitted) constituted punishment for exercising their free speech rights.
The aftermath of August, however, has also seen a positive and significant shift in the understanding of racial oppression in our community. Racial oppression, after all, is the flip side of white supremacy. Discussions about low-income housing, disparities in wealth and income and the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice and social service systems are all on the table and enjoying widespread support. We even elected [to City Council] a native of Charlottesville, an African-American woman and independent who sees through lies and hypocrisy. We have many moons to go to achieve true racial equality, but I think Charlottesville may be ready.
Charles Weber Jr.
Attorney and one of seven plaintiffs who brought a lawsuit against the city to stop the removal of the General Robert E. Lee statue
I am an optimist by nature. I would like to think that three watershed events of 2017 might present opportunities for change that could benefit all of the people of Charlottesville.
First, City Council, in reckless disregard of Virginia law, voted to remove our two historic Civil War monuments from our public parks, sparking the most serious political crisis in recent memory. In contrast to the overheated rhetoric and actual violence of the public demonstrations, the lawsuit filed against the city has proceeded respectfully and with the dignity required of legal proceedings.
Prediction: The city will lose the case and be ordered not to remove or interfere with the monuments. City Council will be forced to face reality. Some will not be happy with the result, but most of the public will understand that the rule of law prevailed and will more deeply appreciate the deliberative process of Virginia law.
Second, the city’s planning and real-time responses to the demonstrations and counter demonstrations over the summer have exposed inherent flaws in the structure of our local government. The purpose of democracy is to legitimize power and provide political accountability for those who exercise it.
Unlike the Constitutions of United States and Virginia, our city charter merges both legislative and executive power in one body, a city council composed of five part-time legislators. The city manager is an employee of City Council and not directly accountable to the voters.
So who can the voters hold politically accountable for shortcomings, real or perceived, in the executive branch of government this past year? Answer: no one really.
City Council met in executive session and emerged with a litany of mea culpas but no answers to the question of executive responsibility. A leader can always delegate authority but never responsibility.
The Heaphy report stands as Exhibit A for the proposition that a committee of five is structurally unfit to wield executive power. The people of Charlottesville would be better served If executive power were vested in one person, a full-time mayor elected by and accountable to the people.
Finally, on election day, the good people of Charlottesville, in a clear rebuke to the dominant Democratic party, handed Nikuyah Walker a historic victory—the first independent to be elected to City Council since 1948 and the first time in the history of Charlottesville that two African-Americans will serve simultaneously. What took so long?
Our charter specifies that all city councilors shall be elected at-large. In some localities, at-large elections have been found to violate the Voting Rights Act. In Charlottesville, at-large elections were adopted in 1922, at the height of the Jim Crow era, and were intended to disenfranchise as many impoverished people, including most African-Americans, as possible.
Until this past election, only seven African-Americans had ever been elected to serve on City Council in the entire history of Charlottesville as an independent city, the first being elected in 1970.
In 1981, a referendum calling for ward elections was passed by the voters, However, the Democrats on City Council nullified the vote and scheduled a second referendum. The second ballot initiative failed.
I believe that the people of Charlottesville, regardless of their skin color, will benefit by electing their councilors from smaller electoral districts. Doing so would alter the way in which the average citizen relates to his or her local government and could fundamentally improve the political culture in Charlottesville.
Member of the Charlottesville City Council since 2009. Her term will end at the end of December.
When I ran for office eight years ago, I was fresh off the Obama campaign, and had become convinced that many of the things I’d heard from folks at the doors while canvassing—the desire for racial equity in education, for affordable housing, for living wage jobs and for access to government—needed to happen at the local level as well as in Washington.
I campaigned on those issues, and I have kept my focus on them ever since.
Before joining City Council, I was inspired by the work of the Dialogue on Race, instituted by Councilor Holly Edwards the year before, and had served as a facilitator to one of the Dialogue groups. The group’s focus on action as well as talk gave me—and many others—hope that the changes folks at the doors had wanted would be implemented.
And many have. The action items coming from that process have led, with City Council support, to Charlottesville’s Human Rights Ordinance and Commission; the keeping and sharing of racial data regarding police stops to be able to track and address racial inequities; the opening of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center; the founding of a Promise Neighborhood—the City of Promise; creation of a job readiness/training/hiring program for people who have long been unemployed or underemployed; and a commitment as a Second Chance City for people with felony records.
Council also created and recently doubled the affordable housing fund and adopted policies to increase the production and preservation of affordable housing and counter pressures of gentrification. We have welcomed immigrants and refugees into our midst and celebrated our cultural diversity.
And yes, we voted to remove the Confederate statues that dominate our downtown parks—although a Circuit Court judge has issued an injunction keeping us from removing them.
But the work that made our city more fair and equitable was part of what brought white supremacists raging and screaming into our midst. Our commitment to move toward equity infuriated them, even as it fell short of what others had hoped for. And although I am heartbroken at the violence and the loss of lives the white supremacist rage inflicted, I cannot be sorry to live in a community that they object to.
The events of May 13, July 8 and August 12 have shaken this community to its core. The violence and our flawed response left many feeling unsafe and threatened, searching for who to blame. Council has heard fear and frustration and anger from every perspective: those who feel the changes haven’t gone far enough and those who feel they’ve gone too far.
I am hopeful that in the coming year we can recommit ourselves to building bridges, to listening, to talking to one another rather than at one another, acknowledging that we are all flawed and trying to be better. Vitriol and rage have their place, but they will not help to build up a community where all can feel safe and valued.
There’s a lot to do to make this the kind of community we know we should be. Overcoming 300 years of racial injustice and inequality in income, education and opportunity—along with supporting a thriving economy, keeping everyone safe and maintaining our infrastructure—are challenges that now face the next Council and the people of this city. I am confident that they are up to the task.
Mayor of Charlottesville
I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist after this year in Charlottesville. While I do have a combination of outrage, fury, disappointment, sadness and regret for what we were forced to endure, and for the many failures of our city and state governments documented in recent investigations, I answer that I’m still an optimist. I firmly believe we will overcome this dark chapter in our country’s history just as we did other dark chapters, whether McCarthyism or Jim Crow, through the very values and principles that make us Americans.
To the extent Charlottesville revealed a city, and a nation, that are vulnerable to this year’s firestorm, the years ahead will require the work of any village protecting itself from blazes. We have to address the inequities laid bare by this terrorism, and to make sure that such horrible events never happen again. This is why Charlottesville’s recent actions are so important, from creating more than 200 new units of affordable housing, to overhauling our permitting system, to suing the armed paramilitary groups who invaded us to prevent them from ever threatening us again, to the city manager announcing reforms for how the police approach these events.
I also take heart from political developments. In the recent statewide Virginia elections, candidates running on Trumpism were defeated by an unprecedented surge of activated voters. This stunning wave showed that, through it all, American constitutional democracy is alive and kicking. We are being stress-tested, and while it’s painful, we’re presenting the resilience and dynamism that leaders from James Madison to Martin Luther King Jr. saw as the heart of American democracy. The alternative of a passive and cynical populace just giving up would be much, much worse.
And so I believe that the year 2017, and the expansion in the resistance to Trumpism that followed Charlottesville, will ultimately rank as one of this country’s greatest constitutional moments, on par with the period of deep democratic self-reflection that occurred in the 1930s, as democracies in Europe fell one by one to tyranny, and as Sinclair Lewis wrote the best-selling novel It Can’t Happen Here.
To paraphrase many others, there’s nothing that’s wrong with us that what’s right with us can’t fix. But nothing will happen because of arcs of history or pendulums swinging on their own. It comes down to us—to individuals and organizations working hard to strengthen democracy, to embody the resilience that is the soul of American democracy.
How has the summer affected me? Well, I’m heartened by the way the community has come together. July and August affected everyone in Charlottesville, and it’s amazing how people have reacted to it. In all, the community is in sync with the idea of bringing love back to Charlottesville. The whole thing has been dubbed “the summer of hate” and it’s amazing how people have come together to try not just to restore Charlottesville, but to be honest about the realities here and to build a better city. This city is my home. This is the place I came to as an immigrant a decade ago. I’ve never lived anywhere else in America. I love this city. And it’s my honor to be a small part of telling the story of my city. I’ve been following the rise of this white supremacy in Charlottesville for a few years now. I feel I know the story. I feel I am the right person to help tell it. And yet nothing prepared me for August. I wish I could have taken one photo that would have conveyed everything that happened that day. It was unreal.
And of course even as I appreciate how the community has come together, August has also helped me to name realities I’ve always sensed about Charlottesville but that I know some of my lighter-skinned friends don’t like to talk about. The tensions between black and white Charlottesville, the lack of diversity downtown—I see these issues more now. It has made me look at everything, at every person, in a new light. It has changed the way I see my environment now. Especially that day—being out there and seeing well over 1,000 people who came to Charlottesville all united in one thing: hate. You could see the hate on their faces, and the interesting thing about that is that these people didn’t actually know us at all. They just came into this town in order to hate us. These are adults, not just kids, not just youth who have lost their way. Some of them are old, grown men. Family men. You could tell that these guys have careers, they are professionals. The guy who punched me in the face, he looked like a family man. A man who has kids. And he came to my town with a shirt that has Hitler on it, and you could see the look on his face when he punched me, looking at me as though I was a thing. All of that has affected me in ways that I probably don’t even understand now. It has changed me.
I’ve been attacked online several times. I’ve been doxxed. I’ve always heard this before, but I never knew it to be true that black people look alike. Really, we do? A white supremacist picked a black face in the crowd and said I was the person, and he published my name next to the photo. He declared that I was a violent photographer and should be arrested. I looked at the photo and I look nothing like that person. My name was also on this list of dangerous antifa in Charlottesville that was published on a Nazi site, right alongside Tom Perriello. I guess I should be proud to be in the big league. I guess those guys just upped my status.
The impacts of August are ongoing and pervasive. As a photojournalist I go to every event I hear about. I go to all the City Council meetings and witness the confrontations over and over again, and I’m thinking, “Is this really Charlottesville?” I get it—people are angry, they have a right to be angry—I don’t want to say they shouldn’t be. But it has just changed everybody. The slightest thing will just tick people off. And it also has affected me. As much as I try to stay neutral, I have to admit that I’m still a black person. I’m still a black photojournalist. I’m still documenting the fallout. There are traces of August everywhere. There is no passing week that I’m not in a space or a conversation or an action that doesn’t remind me of that day. The mark of that day is never going to leave this town.
I haven’t been able to take a breath since August. I have been working non-stop. I’ve noticed in my everyday life that my capacity for patience just in general has been worn down. It is hard to live with this pressure for such a long time. To be perfectly honest, I could use a vacation.
But I also want to focus on the positive. I have made so many new friends since that day. In the few weeks following August 11 and 12 I probably made 500 new friends on Facebook. I see a lot of people downtown now who say hi to me. The summer of hate has actually helped me to build a bigger community of people in Charlottesville. I do love this city.