It’s been two years since the “Summer of Hate,” and Charlottesville, to the larger world, is still shorthand for white supremacist violence. As we approach the second anniversary of August 11 and 12, 2017, we reached out to a wide range of community leaders and residents to talk about what, if anything, has changed since that fateful weekend, and how we can move forward.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think of how Charlottesville, as a city, has responded in the aftermath of A12? What’s changed? What hasn’t?
It’s hard to say what’s changed in Charlottesville. Once heralded as America’s most ideal city, we’ve been outed as a place that is just as flawed as any other town. Having been forced to enter a conversation that has no easy solution, it feels like a collective healing from August 11 and 12 and its aftermath is going to take much longer than any of us want to believe. It’s a humbling and sober thought. That’s not to say there isn’t reason to hope—there certainly is—but I think that the pace of change—real, lasting change—is glacial. I think there’s a way to press on for a better future while extending grace to ourselves and each other.
—Sam Bush, music minister at Christ Episcopal Church and co-founder of The Garage art space
I think the way we tried to respond last year, from a law enforcement perspective, I think it was one of safety, we were definitely trying to assure the residents that no one was going to get hurt in the same way.
I think this year, the planning of Unity Days has definitely given community members a whole new opportunity to figure out how to be engaged about this, how to acknowledge the anniversary, and I think so far it has been a pretty successful effort.
It’s about constantly educating folks about what Charlottesville is all about, because we’re not a one-story town.
–Charlene Green, manager of the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights
I still think it’s a plantation, not a city. I feel that we should be going further with having transparency in the community to be able to work together.
The city hasn’t done anything besides make themselves look good, writing books, getting all these different recognitions for themselves, but nothing for the community.
[A lot of] the activists that were hurt…and that have been the true fighters for Charlottesville, are gone. And then you have some of us who are still left here, but I’m willing to leave, because I’m tired. Because this hasn’t just been going on for me since 2017, this has been going on for me for 13 years now. So I’m tired, because it’s like the more you’re fighting, it’s like it’s not changing.
–Rosia Parker, community activist and Police Civilian Review Board member
It’s difficult to answer, because what people make of that weekend, whether they experienced it directly or not, is up to them, and relies so much on the stories we told about ourselves beforehand.
As a co-creator of Congregate, in our weeks of training, we always emphasized that it was about using the weekend of August 11th and 12th as a pivot point to the long, deep, hard, life-giving work we all can be a part of in dismantling white supremacy. So some people took up that call, and have continued to run with it, learning and growing along the way, and others covered their ears, and wanted to believe that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville or our collective responsibility to one another. And then still others were somewhere in the middle, believing that their ongoing efforts were sufficient, that the status quo was naturally going to lead to some sort of evolutionary progress. We’re a very self-satisfied progressive city.
I think it’s no secret that governing authorities, from City Council to the police force, in the summer of 2017 made choices that left our community vulnerable and exposed and suffering from violence. What hasn’t changed is there still has been little to no accountability for that, and so while people have undertaken their own healing processes, I still believe, even two years on, there’s a tremendous trust deficit between members of the community who saw the violent threat for what it was, and our ostensible leadership, who by and large prescribed ignoring it and left people to be beaten, and then prosecuted some people who defended themselves.
And again we saw that on the first-year anniversary, the over-militarized response. Treating the community and activists as the enemy has been the wrong direction so far. And I don’t think it would take much to repair that trust deficit. “I’m sorry” is free. But that’s going to take some work, and I haven’t seen changes there from city leadership.”
–Reverend Seth Wispelwey, former minister at Restoration Village Arts and co-founder of Congregate Charlottesville
I think in the aftermath of A12, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in civic engagement. More and more people are paying close attention to City Council and getting involved with local community groups. People are trying to understand where we’re at as a community, and how we can create real, lasting change.
The conversation around race and equity has completely changed and there’s an unprecedented level of awareness about local economic and racial inequalities. But we haven’t yet created the level of institutional change needed to fundamentally shift the balance of political and economic power within Charlottesville. We’ve planted the seeds of change, but we have a lot of work left to do when it comes to changing outcomes.
–Michael Payne, housing activist and City Council candidate
Everything and nothing. We’re still very much a city divided. There have been some efforts made…but I don’t think there’s been any real substantive change. We elected Nikuyah, but I’d like to think that that would have happened whether August the 12th ever did or not.
The city’s done a great job with the Unity Days events and that’s a huge start. But we’ve still got such a long way to go.
–Don Gathers, community activist and former Chair of The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces
“I was still new to Charlottesville when A11/12 happened; I had only been here about eight months, so I don’t have a great deal of perspective on Charlottesville before that time. The changes that I have seen, though, I would characterize as a greater urgency around the conversations that Charlottesville and the country as a whole must engage in—conversations around systemic and institutionalized racism, equity, and the historical inequalities that continue to resonate locally and nationally.
One of the things that worries me in the community is that I continue to hear people say things along the lines of, “they (meaning the white nationalists) weren’t from here…” True, some did come from other places, but I think it is dangerous not to acknowledge fully that this is our problem, too.”
—Matthew McLendon, Ph.D., director of The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA
In terms of where we are this year—with no active threat of more violence and a plan for less police presence, I do want to emphasize that there is increased possibility for the beginning of a healing journey, both at the individual and the community level. It was very hard to begin that process that year, as so many people felt unsafe around the anniversary, so that feels to me very different this year.
Mental health-wise, reflecting on the changes over the past few years, there are many more therapists and other people in our community who are prepared to respond to traumatic experiences and to facilitate healing—in particular the establishment of the Central Virginia Clinicians of Color Network.
Obviously, trauma is historical and something we’re still grappling with. On the positive side, our community is looking very explicitly at health disparity and in particular racial inequity around health outcomes for the first time. Everyone’s coming together in our community health needs assessment to say our number one priority is to address inequity in health outcomes. So I think that is a positive change. Has that disparity changed yet? No. So we have a lot of work to do, but awareness is the first step.”
—Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of The Women’s Initiative
I think Charlottesville is working to bring awareness to the citizens and change its image. There have been intensified efforts to shed light on the truth of the past. That’s a good beginning. But the racial divides in housing and education seem to still be just as bad as before. None of us at the Heather Heyer Foundation actually live in town or even Albemarle County. So we are on the outside, looking in.
—Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer and president of the Heather Heyer Foundation
It is always a challenge in the aftermath of a traumatic event, like A12, to move from the initial reactive state to a long-term adaptive state. The city, local businesses, organizations, and citizens responded to the events with a great deal of energy and attention. When we realized that many of us had turned a blind eye to the racism in our community, our leaders took on new initiatives and made demands for change with gusto. But the real trick is what happens in the next 5-10 years.
—Bree Luck, producing artistic director, Live Arts
One huge step would be to visibly and viably take ownership for that weekend and what happened, and the role that they actually played in it. It’s still very much a point of contention that the folks who directly lost their jobs were two men of color.
The council, whatever it may look like on the first of the year, they’ve got a huge task on their hands. The new buzzword of course is civility, and I think that we’ve got to become comfortable in the incivility for a while, because this was so very painful and hurtful for so many people. Now I’m not saying that 10 years down the road folks still should be shutting down meetings because of it. I don’t see the necessity of that. But if something triggers a person…I think we have to allow space for that, and understand it.
They’ve got to figure out how to bring about some level of trust between the city and the community and the police department. Because that’s what’s sorely lacking right now. And figuring out how to do that, that’s the E=MC squared equation. What it looks like and then how to make it happen. That’s something that’s vital to the renaissance, if you will, of Charlottesville, and getting us to a point where we’re not recognized as just a hashtag.
We certainly have issues in this community that we’re working on, but there’s also a lot of great things that are happening. The Chamber of Commerce is in a great position to help with that.
It’s not surprising that the business community [and tourism have] taken some hits from the events that happened in the last couple years. Nobody wants to minimize some of the tough conversations and hard work that’s going on here to build equity, but you can work on those things and also highlight the things that are going really well-—companies that are launching and doing world-class work here, opportunities that are opening up for new careers, that’s the piece that the business community thinks needs to be out there more.
It would be helpful if there was cooperation between elected officials and the business community and others, trying to get toward some shared goals.
—Elizabeth Cromwell, President & CEO, Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce
We have to commit ourselves to the work of making Charlottesville a more equitable city, not just in word but in deed. And we have to hold space to celebrate and document who we are as community and what we’ve accomplished. Fundamentally, we care about this community because we love the people in it. We can’t be afraid of acknowledging that.
I was fortunate to hear Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, speak earlier this year, and I was moved by his insistence on the need for “proximity.” He stressed that we must be close to, and by extension listen to, those who are not like us.
The Fralin Museum of Art joined the larger national conversation on social justice by participating in the “For Freedoms” project with “Signs of Change: Charlottesville.” Working with our community partners, most importantly Charlene Green from the Office of Human Rights, we convened a series of workshops to bring people together to first learn about the histories of marginalized people in Charlottesville and then talk about ways we could help to stop history from repeating itself. There must be continued opportunities for proximity, education, and dialogue.
What the City of Charlottesville I believe needs to do in its various official capacities is apologize and take ownership for the exposure and violence that came. At its root, it was a failure to take the inherent violence of white supremacy seriously: these were terrorist groups who threatened violence, the city was adequately warned, and we know for a fact that the police were more interested in what “antifa” was going to do, or [suggested] that we should just ignore them. No one can tell me that if this had been an ISIS free speech rally that it wouldn’t have been shut down immediately. So it starts with that.
Honest and sincere apologies are not weakness, they’re a sign of strength, and I think what Charlottesville is fighting to do and what the city could help do is stop continuing to gaslight people and say yeah, we were wrong, we will take the threat of white supremacy seriously, and I think the temperature would cool across the board.
—Rev. Seth Wispelwey
One, you gotta listen to the community. Don’t just listen at the community, listen to the community. [Be] willing to be transparent, willing to create ideas together, that will make a thriving community.
As a city, I think we have an obligation to help provide opportunities for folks to be engaged and for people to see that we’re trying very hard to walk the talk. At the Office of Human Rights, if we say that equity and social justice are important for residents, then we need to show it.
Moments of adversity and heartbreak sometimes give us an opportunity for collaboration and progress. Since August 2017, UVA and the local community have been working together in unprecedented ways. The UVA-Community Working Group that came together last fall identified the most pressing issues that we can begin to work on together—jobs and wages, affordable housing, public health care, and youth education—and efforts are under way now to address those issues through UVA-community partnerships grounded in equity and mutual respect.
So many of us love Charlottesville. I think the best way we can express that love, and the best way we can move forward after August 2017, is by working together to make our community stronger, more united, and more resilient than it’s ever been before
—Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia
We need to continue our efforts to rebuild the bonds that unite all of us, with the understanding that a community dedicated to issues of social justice and racial equality is a place that we can be proud to call home, and a place that more people will want to come visit.
—Adam Healey, former interim director of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau
Addressing racism at the structural and institutional level remains the highest priority. In particular being able to give the mike to people of color, black people in particular, who have historically not had a voice, would be at the top of that list. From a mental health perspective that’s important because healing can’t occur without first acknowledging the trauma of people who’ve experienced this, and I think we still have a lot of work to do. Some of these events of Unity Days are beginning to give voice to that, and I think there’s a lot more room to do more.
My heart goes out to the city officials since they’re the ones who are publicly shouldering what is actually each of ours to carry. I hope that they will continue to serve humbly, to keeping listening and asking questions. I’ve found that bringing small groups of people from different backgrounds together can be an effective way to get people to speak honestly and calmly in a way that inspires others to listen.
Someone besides me to say what we need to do to move forward. People like me who have been in leadership positions for many years ought to create the space for other people living and leading quietly in our community to say what needs to happen.
—Erika Viccellio, executive director of The Fountain Fund
What do individual people need to do to move the community forward?
If you see a need, don’t wring your hands and hope someone does something about it. Step up to see what you can do to move things forward. And then actually do it. Don’t play armchair quarterback. Put feet to your intentions and get involved. If you don’t step up and out, who will? #StepUpStepOut.
I’m not sure the public speaking platforms of our age are as effective as we think they are. Many of us are speaking to people who already agree with us which, in turn, merely helps us feel better about ourselves while vilifying those who disagree with us. As a result, we seem quick to anger and slow to listen. The alternative, I think, is much more difficult but more effective. I think we’d each be better off by getting to know someone who couldn’t be more different from us and then befriending them. Easier said than done, of course.
There’s no magic pill here that’ll fix this. We’ve got to begin to have those tough and difficult and hard conversations. And we’ve got to stop talking about race and start talking about racism. We can’t just talk about white supremacy, we’ve got to actually have the difficult conversations about white privilege and white advantage. And once we embrace those conversations…then we can move forward and start talking about unification.
I’m not sure there’s a mediator or moderator in the world that could handle that, because in so many instances we’re still talking at each other instead of to each other. We’re still talking about each other instead of trying to handle and solve the problem as it presents itself. How it’s handled, what it looks like, I’m still trying to envision it, but I know that it’s got to happen in order for us to move that needle.
People can support community members who are already doing the work to build a better Charlottesville. City councilors need to respect and support Mayor Walker’s leadership. Voters need to vote for strong racial justice supporters. School administrators need to respond with deep policy changes to address concerns about racial equity raised by students and families. We need to stop protecting Confederates and their white supremacist legacy. We can create a brighter future if we do the difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, yet necessary work of liberation, learning and unlearning.
—Lisa Woolfork, UVA professor and community activist
Listen! We are each, as individuals, responsible for change. I am clear that as a white male, I need to listen to people of color and other marginalized communities with lived experiences different from mine. By listening we can understand what we need to do to be active allies. My fear for our whole society is that far too many people want to speak and too few have the self-discipline or awareness to listen.
Choose to live in community. In an age of climate change, neoliberalism, and tech-mediated communication, we are encouraged to remain fearful and isolated. To paraphrase bell hooks’ essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom”, the road to healing our wounded body politic is through a commitment to collective liberation that moves beyond resistance to transformation. We all have a positive role to play in healing and transforming our community. Yes, that means you too!
As individuals we just need to get involved, and stay aware. Because we can’t depend on one agency or one entity to handle it all; we need to all step up as a community, and in whatever way you feel the most comfortable. Hopefully you’re able to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s when we stay in our little circles of comfort that we tend to perpetuate stereotypes and assumptions about people in different groups. So to push ourselves to get involved and be challenged, and to challenge each other, I think are some of the things we can do.
First and foremost is that self-reflection and working around issues of race and privilege. And within that, being willing to take care of ourselves and recognize what we need to do around our stress and anxiety so we can continue to have uncomfortable conversations and meaningful dialogue, but also continue to challenge ourselves moving forward.
Relative to the traumatic aspect of the anniversary itself, people who were more directly impacted still may be experiencing a lot of traumatic stress, so I just encourage those people in particular to reach out for support.
My own perspective shift came from new and growing relationships in Charlottesville, thanks to a lot of grace and space afforded to me by people who have been working on anti-racist advocacy for a long time here.
The truth is we all have space and grace to grow forward, and so what individuals can continue to do, and I’m talking about cis-hetero white individuals particularly, is not just listen to voices and perspectives that are threatened and crushed by white supremacy, but start to foreground their asks and desires. It will be costly for a lot of the privilege we carry, but it’s a cost that liberates, and is really life-giving in the end.
We can’t all be responsible for all the things all the time, or we’ll burn out, so get plugged in and focus where you feel most called and led. There’s a multitude of opportunities, but life’s too short and racism is too strong in this country to not try a bit harder to show up in embodied solidarity, somewhere.
For those of us who weren’t born and raised here I think we need to be committed to better understanding the community we live in. It is only recently that I started regularly attending events and tours at the African American Heritage Center. I have a new, and essential, emerging understanding of the community I’ve been “serving” all these years.
One thing that we can do as individuals is to extirpate the systemic racism that plagues our culture. At Live Arts…we have begun to explore the systemic barriers to [theater] participation, including obvious issues like cost and content representation—and not-so-apparent barriers like architecture, language, food, and transportation. With the help of community partners this year, Live Arts offered more “pay what you can” tickets and scholarships than ever before. Also, we are diversifying representation on our stages by making more stories written and directed by and about persons of color and women.
Education is the key to effecting change. At Live Arts, we discussed micro-aggressions, unconscious bias, and workplace discrimination each month in board and staff meetings. This summer, we invited volunteer directors to join a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop so that our creative teams have the tools to create a safe space to work and play.
We are far from perfect. But the aim is not to create a utopian society where we all say and do the right thing. Instead, the goal is to have an equitable culture of belonging, prosperity, community, and creative exploration.