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One Year After Racist Rally, Charlottesville Is in a Tug of War Over Its Soul

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In the days following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, angry residents took over a City Council meeting, screaming and weeping into the microphone. They blamed leaders for failing to stop hordes with guns, swastikas and Confederate flags from descending on the city.

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One Year After Racist Rally, Charlottesville Is in a Tug of War Over Its Soul
Farah Stockman
, New York Times

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In the days following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, angry residents took over a City Council meeting, screaming and weeping into the microphone. They blamed leaders for failing to stop hordes with guns, swastikas and Confederate flags from descending on the city.

“Why did you think that you could walk in here and do business as usual after what happened?” Nikuyah Walker, one of the activists there that day, bluntly asked the sitting mayor.

Today, in a sign of how much has changed since white nationalists rallied here and shocked the nation, Walker is mayor herself, the city’s first black woman to serve in that role.

Since the rally, nearly every official who held power at the time has resigned or retired. The city attorney, who had concluded that there was no legal way to stop the rally, took a job in another town. The police chief stepped down in the wake of a critical report accusing him of failing to protect the public on the day of the rally. The city manager, who oversaw the city’s response, will leave by the end of this year.

Instead of uniting the right, the rally’s purported goal, it empowered a leftist political coalition that vows to confront generations of racial and economic injustice. But despite the dramatic overhaul of the city’s leadership, wholesale change has been slow to take hold.

The bronze Confederate generals that ignited the rally still sit on horseback in public parks. Activists still demand their removal. A judge still forbids it.

The local man who planned the rally still walks around town, scuffling with people who scream “murderer” when they see him.

Nearly a year after the rally, which featured beatings, brawls and a car that plowed into a crowd of anti-racism counterprotesters, killing one and injuring more than two dozen others, this picturesque city of 48,000 people is still engaged in a tug of war over its soul.

The most nettlesome divide, it turns out, is not between the far-left and the “alt-right,” whose members battled in the streets on Aug. 12. It’s between those who want Charlottesville to go back to the way it was before the rally, when a Google search brought up “happiest city in America” or “best food in small town America,” and those like Walker who say that the city must make sweeping changes to address deep-seated racial and economic disparities.

Walker has vowed to channel the grief from the city’s tragedy through the development of thousands of new apartments and a seat at the decision-making table for low-income residents, who are disproportionately black, and an end to “stop and frisk” policing. About 18 percent of families in the city struggle to make ends meet.

“For decades, people wanted to hide behind the illusion of perfection in Charlottesville,” she said at a recent forum on racial and economic disparities.

Walker, though, faces huge challenges.

“She wants to totally transform the status quo,” said Dave Norris, an early supporter who served as the city’s mayor from 2008 to 2012. “But what she’s up against is a community that’s rather fond of itself and rather enamored with the status quo.”

— Briefly United

After the rally, residents cried at concerts held to raise money for victims. Store windows displayed cards memorializing Heather Heyer, the woman who died after being struck by the car that barreled into a crowd. The City Council, once divided over the fate of the Confederate statues, voted to shroud the figures in black tarps.

But the residents, who united briefly in shock and grief, quickly divided into those who blamed the violence on outsiders who invaded their beloved city, and those who saw the rally as a revelation of the ugly reality of racism within the city itself. At lunchtime at Court Square Tavern, across the street from the courthouse and the park where a statue of Stonewall Jackson stands, patrons trade news about which alleged assailant is coming into court that day.

“It’s people from out of town bringing that negativity to Charlottesville,” said Debbie Weisser, the tavern’s manager. In the troublemakers from out of town, she includes anti-racism activists who demanded the statues’ removal, prompting a rally by the Ku Klux Klan last July and the Unite the Right event in August.

“In the 28 years that I’ve been here, I’ve never heard so much talk about those statues,” she said.

But Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, said the rally revealed something important about Charlottesville.

Despite its self-image as liberal and racially tolerant, few black faces can be spotted in the expensive restaurants or luxury condos downtown, even among the employees, she said. And she noted that the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, Jason Kessler, lives in town and attended the University of Virginia, the largest institution here.

“This notion of ‘outsiderness’ is interesting,” Douglas said. “He didn’t come from elsewhere.”

Months before the rally tarnished Charlottesville’s image, Walker, 38, had announced her bid for City Council with the slogan: “Unmasking the Illusion.” She ran as an independent, a signal that she intended to challenge the establishment Democrats who have run the city for decades.

— A Protester Takes Power

Unlike anyone who had been elected to the Council in decades, Walker was born and raised in Charlottesville. Not a seasoned politician, Walker became known for helping low-income residents navigate the city’s bureaucracy.A parks and recreation aide who earns $14.40 an hour, she shamed the city into paying its temporary and seasonal workers a living wage. A former resident of a low-income housing development known as Friendship Court, she went door to door, organizing residents to give them a greater voice in the plan to transform the development into mixed-income housing.

Instead of squeezing a few dozen affordable housing units out of developers, she wanted to add thousands. Instead of merely providing “implicit bias” training for police officers, she wanted an end to “stop and frisk.”

Those proposals may have sounded radical before the rally, but to many residents who were soul searching in its aftermath, they made sense. Anti-racism and anti-capitalist activists fired up in the rally’s aftermath hit the streets for Walker’s campaign. On Election Day, she received more votes than any other candidate.

“It’s hard growing up in Charlottesville, and being black in Charlottesville,” Walker told the crowd that night. “There are so many people who are brilliant and talented, and they never make it because of the conditions of this city.”

In January, after Walker was sworn in, four out of five city councilors voted to make her the new mayor, including Michael Signer, the mayor she had excoriated just five months earlier.

“I believe that thousands of people would welcome Ms. Walker into this role,” Signer said.

But many in the business community watched Walker’s ascendance with dread. She had vowed to vote against a $75,000 marketing grant to the downtown business association to help bring tourism back. And she seemed more focused on publicizing the city’s sins than its successes.

“It’s a little unsettling for people who are trying to run businesses,” said Jon Bright, owner of the Spectacle Shop who is also president of the North Downtown Neighborhood Association. “We’re sitting here with all these people who are screaming and focused on turmoil, and our mayor was one of them.”

— Struggling to Heal

Since the rally, tourism has rebounded. Tourists drink craft beer under umbrellas on a pedestrian plaza downtown that has been renamed Heather Heyer Way. A judge ordered that the black shrouds over the statues be removed.

Some say the biggest changes have taken place in people’s hearts, as white residents who had never thought much about racism flocked to meetings that raised awareness of white privilege organized by Showing Up For Racial Justice, an anti-racism group. And two busloads of people, white and black and including public housing residents partly funded by the city and wealthy residents who paid their own way, traveled together on a pilgrimage to the lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama, to memorialize a black man who was murdered by a Charlottesville mob in 1898. The group, which included Walker, brought soil from the site of the lynching. Pilgrimage organizers hope to display a memorial marker in Charlottesville that will help put the Confederate statues in context.

But despite these efforts, the town remains divided and struggling to mend. Even the notion of healing itself has become politically fraught, viewed by some as a premature call to return to business as usual.

An attempt by the Justice Department to share “best practices” for healing used by Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore with neighborhood groups was criticized by activists for failing to take dismantling white supremacy as a starting point. And Walker declined to attend an event about bridging political and racial divides organized by the Listen First Project, a national nonprofit group.

“We’re not ready to heal yet,” Wes Bellamy, a city councilor who is an ally of Walker’s, said at a Council meeting last fall, in emotional remarks that ended with him giving the black power salute.

These days, Walker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, talks less about healing the town than she does about uplifting its most vulnerable members. She has tried to give a new Civilian Review Board powers to oversee police conduct and squeeze more money out of the University of Virginia to help low-income residents.

But there is only so much she can do. The position of mayor in Charlottesville is a largely ceremonial and part-time role, with few formal powers. Walker complained publicly that she was unable to get a response from city housing officials about a 76-year-old woman being evicted from public housing.

Activists who helped elect Walker, meanwhile, continue to dominate City Council meetings, venting their outrage at everything from a community engagement session that they felt was too corporate, to a flyer advertising ornamental trees that they viewed as promoting gentrification.

At a City Council meeting in May, a mostly white crowd of activists heckled the founder of Charlottesville’s public defender’s office after he appealed for civility. They protested the newly appointed police chief, RaShall M. Brackney, the first black woman to serve in that role, even though she has the support of Walker.

Eugene Williams, 90, a black retired affordable housing developer, watched the meeting on television from his home. Decades after his lawsuit successfully helped desegregate the city’s schools, he finds it hard to identify with the activists of today, who shout at public meetings and focus on removing statues. He switched off the television in disgust.

He didn’t tune in long enough to see a woman injured in the car attack limping to the microphone, her leg still in a brace.

“I can’t just leave last summer behind,” said the woman, who is white and identified herself as Star Peterson. She demanded that the city acknowledge the failures of last summer.

“We will not move on so easily,” she said. “That is a promise.”

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