Lessons learned? Former mayor publishes his take on Charlottesville’s darkest days

Photo by Eze Amos Photo by Eze Amos

As mayor of Charlottesville during the violent white supremacist invasion in 2017 that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens, Mike Signer earned a place in the city’s history, and in the national spotlight.

Now, Signer has turned his leadership during the Summer of Hate into a book—one that, like the Charlottesville book written by former governor Terry McAuliffe, will not be launched in Charlottesville. (According to his publisher’s website, a book launch was planned for Richmond on March 10. The ensuing book tour does not include Charlottesville, though Signer says an event is tentatively planned at UVA law school.)

Signer’s arc in the mayorship—from a triumphant declaration of the city as the “capital of the resistance” in January 2017, to decamping from the infamous “Blood on your hands” council meeting post-Unite the Right and being called to task by his fellow city councilors that August—provided a trajectory previously unseen on City Council, one worthy of a flawed hero in a Greek tragedy.

Indeed, the title of his first-person account, Cry Havoc, comes from Marc Antony’s battle cry of “havoc” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The reference to classical tragedy continues in the book’s preface, which lists a cast of major characters from the Summer of Hate.

Signer, who faced a barrage of invective at almost every council meeting during his term from 2016 to 2019 and a parody Twitter account that describes him as “Founder, Capital of the Resistance & really important guy,” has his share of local detractors, some of whom will see his account as self-serving.

His response: “I think they should read the book. I try to be extremely honest and self-reflecting about my mistakes. I talk about the dangers of scapegoating. I talk about how I was tempted to scapegoat others. That certainly wasn’t the aim of the book.”

His intention, he says, was to provide “a useful first-person account from my perspective of this event, which it seems clear is going to be among modern American history’s touchstone events,” like Selma or Hurricane Katrina or Kent State.

He says, “I had a really unique perspective on this.”

And Signer was in the unique position of feeling the hate from both sides. He received enough anti-Semitic trolling from white nationalists that the Anti-Defamation League contacted him and reported it had compiled a file with 800 attacks. From critics on the left, he was dubbed “neo-fascist” and “Hitler’s best friend.”

What happened in Charlottesville, he says, is a microcosm of “democracy under siege” during the Trump era. “I have really deep feelings about Trumpism across the country,” adds Signer, who also authored 2009’s Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies.

In Cry Havoc, he explains some of the “more risky” actions he took as mayor, such as declaring the city the capital of the resistance during a giant press conference that drew hundreds, but also put the city in an awkward position because he didn’t obtain a permit, which made it difficult to cite Richard Spencer for his unpermitted tiki-torch rally later in Lee Park, according to the Heaphy Report.

Among the things he’d do differently now is explain more frequently the limitations of the mayor in Charlottesville’s city-manager-as-CEO form of government, he says.

He doesn’t deny pushing the bounds of the weak-mayor system, and when he blamed then-city manager Maurice Jones and former police chief Al Thomas in a Facebook post for the failures of August 12, he faced censure by his colleagues on council.

In the book, Signer calls most of their complaints “petty or plain false.” He chose to apologize rather than put the city through further turmoil by fighting the disciplinary action, he writes, and he agreed to conditions, such as not meeting with staff alone or making pronouncements as mayor without another councilor with him. However, in the footnotes, he points out that he ended up ignoring most of the restrictions placed on him.

He reconsiders the city’s attempts to discourage counterprotesters from showing up when the KKK came to town July 8, 2017, and the suggestion that locals should “not take the bait.” That could have been cast differently to acknowledge the people who wanted to bear witness to hate, says Signer.

His leap in front of the LOVE sign on the Downtown Mall August 17 is another wince-inducing incident. “It was totally tone deaf,” he concedes.

The book reveals previously unknown details—although not without contradiction. Signer alleges that Bellamy called him after the August 12 debacle to say both Jones and Thomas should be fired. Bellamy denies that he ever said that.

According to Signer, the Virginia Municipal League threatened to cancel the city’s liability insurance after he took aim at Jones and Thomas on Facebook. It also demanded the independent review that became known as the Heaphy Report not be released to the public.

“Thus I was put in a virtual straitjacket,” writes Signer. “I was told in no uncertain terms not to say anything further about the failures that had occurred, lest I expose myself personally to the cost of defending claims.”

One of the biggest struggles from the three white supremacist events of 2017—Spencer’s tiki-torch march around the Lee statue in May, the KKK in July, and Unite the Right in August—was “wrestling with the First Amendment,” says Signer.

He was repeatedly confronted with “First Amendment absolutism,” an interpretation by federal courts that he says made it almost impossible for state and local governments to limit potentially violent events. In his book, he introduces little-known 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who argued for more practical restrictions in the face of “planned imminent incitement.”

Signer, who’s currently vice president and general counsel at local digital product developer WillowTree, defends council’s attempts to move the rally to McIntire Park because of public safety concerns. “I worked with City Council to override the city manager, police chief, and city attorney,” he says, hiring an outside law firm to inform Jason Kessler his permit would be granted for McIntire Park.

Not surprisingly, Kessler sued, and on the night of August 11, just before Kessler’s neo-Nazi cohorts marched through UVA grounds with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” a federal judge ruled the rally would stay in then-called Emancipation Park.

After the attack on UVA students standing in counterprotest around the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, Signer says he got a text from then-UVA president Teresa Sullivan, asking the city to file a “motion for reconsideration based on new evidence”—the violence that had just occurred. But it was too late.

In his penultimate chapter, “Overcoming Extremism,” Signer details some of the lessons learned from Charlottesville’s experience. One of those is to separate antagonistic groups, which didn’t happen here and which “we wanted to do at McIntire Park,” says Signer.

When Governor Ralph Northam banned weapons from the Capitol grounds at the January 20 Second Amendment rally, Signer believes it was because of lessons learned from Charlottesville.

History and conflict are complicated and rarely play out in black and white. The best learning comes from the gray areas, he says, not from Hallmark or Hollywood treatments that neatly tie up events. “There’s a tradition that you see the truth and the learning in the honest account of the messy parts,” he says.

And one of the most valuable lessons of 2017 was it “showed the country how violent the alt-right is.”

At the first City Council meeting after the violence of Unite the Right, on August 21, 2017, furious protesters took over the dais and called for Signer’s resignation. Photo: Eze Amos

‘What is Mike Signer saying?’

“The Hon. Michael Signer” (as he’s identified on his book jacket) says he has tried to be “extremely honest and self-reflecting” in his new book. But it may take more than that to rehab our former mayor’s reputation here in Charlottesville.

In the fallout from the white nationalist rallies in the summer of 2017, complaints weren’t limited to the fellow city councilors who officially censured him or to the residents calling for him to resign. As newly unearthed public records indicate, local Democratic mega-donor Sonjia Smith, whose daughter was assaulted at the rally, also criticized his performance after Unite the Right.

“I’ll add my voice to the voices of many saying, ‘Why did the police stand by and do nothing?’ and, ‘What is Mike Signer saying?’” Smith wrote in an email to public relations specialist Susan Payne.

“Mike is not doing himself any favors in his discussion of the police response,” she added. “I listen to him, and I realize that I will do everything in my power to stop him from being in a position of authority over me and the people I love.”

Payne forwarded the response to Signer, who replied, “This is a problem.”

Laura Longhine

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Joe Knowles

Forgive me, I am new to the area and was unclear about the reference to “Bellamy” in this story. Is this the former city council person Wes Bellamy?