Tragedy of Charlottesville began one year ago today
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CNN) — Before the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, Charlottesville was, for those who knew of it at all, a college town or a weekend getaway from Washington, D.C.
Or, for the history buffs among us, the home of our third president. After those events — the torch-wielding march at the University of Virginia, the “Unite the Right” rally and the violence and injuries it wrought, and of course the horrific murder of Heather Heyer — Charlottesville has been a national wound for many Americans, a symbol of violence at the heart of America’s relationship to race.
But for the more than 45,000 residents of Charlottesville and tens of thousands more who live nearby in Albemarle County, Va., this town isn’t a symbol — and what happened to it on August 11 and 12 isn’t an abstraction. For them, Charlottesville is home, a place now marked by a trauma they walk near and live with daily — and respond to differently, each according to his or her own experience.
To mark the one-year anniversary of this tragedy, CNN Opinion reached out to a diverse group of residents and people directly affected by the events of August 11 and 12, 2017. Here, in their own words, women and men of many backgrounds, faiths, and ages answer the question: What were you doing on August 11 and 12, 2017 and what have you done since? Where do you think America stands when it comes to issues of race and justice?
Susan Bro: My world was demolished
Twenty-four hours later, my world was demolished. A young man drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, wounding many and killing my daughter, Heather Heyer. She was gone in an unbelievably public murder, filmed by so many that day. Her death was shown over and over again on TV, but I didn’t even know details of her final moments, even what she was wearing. I cried all night long.
When the first knock on the door by members of the media came at 7 a.m. on August 13, I had a choice to make — turn inward from the grief, or maybe forgive her murder. Everyone would understand if I called for vengeance. But none of those felt truly from my heart. They were not sustainable and offered nothing of value. My decision was to respond with a call to action.
It made me so angry to have my daughter silenced that I determined I would speak for her instead.
Heather always had a passion for making sure everyone was treated fairly. Even as a child she often stood in defense when she saw a need to speak up for others. Not only would I speak, but I would also encourage others to speak up. In response to one voice lost, there would be hundreds more in her place. My work with the Heather Heyer Foundation is a means to that end.
The Foundation was formed to provide a legal and accountable structure for handling the donations pouring in the first weeks. The initial purpose was to provide scholarships for those individuals who were already positive, non-violent social activists and wanted to further their education to support continued activism.
We joined forces with The AIDS Health Care Foundation to have youth show how they were able to #StandAgainstHate. Winners received over a total of $8,000 in scholarships from AHF and $1,000 from us.
Those winners also expressed a strong desire for a youth empowerment program, which they named “Heyer Voices.” This program, which is in development now, will help young activists get hands-on training and support from adults on how to handle the details of developing a youth-chosen, positive, nonviolent campaign for justice.
We have also given three high school graduation scholarships from our fund at $1,000 each and are continuing to expand our programs to offer more scholarships in the future. Our focus is to support the education and training of the next generation of activists, advocates and allies.
Our country must take the time to root out the disease of hate. We should not hasten to “heal” without dealing with the underlying issues of hurt and mistrust and inequity. People of color have never been treated as if they matter in our country. When one group of us is marginalized, we all suffer for it. We must work together to clean the infection of hatred.
I hope that what I do will support that goal.
Wes Bellamy: We are on the path to clear water
My grandmother always told me that before getting to the clear and clean water, you have to go through the mud.
August 11 and 12, 2017, and the months thereafter have been muddy for my city of Charlottesville.
August 11 was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life. I defended my dissertation at Virginia State University early that afternoon and officially became Dr. Wes Bellamy.
Unfortunately, there was no huge celebration. A cloud hung over my head as I knew that as soon as I finished the presentation, my city was about to be swamped by white supremacists who were intent on invoking terror. As the vice-mayor of the city, the only African-American on the city council at that time, and thus the target demographic that the majority of hate and vitriol was aimed at, I had to be present.
That weekend I sat in a church Friday night and saw the fear on hundreds of peoples’ faces as we sat trapped inside a church while white supremacists walked outside with tiki torches.
On Saturday morning I led a march and chanted in the middle of the street from First Baptist Church throughout the city to claim what was ours and defy the hate. I then watched as evil marched throughout our city. It was as if the KKK of old had been reincarnated, and sent back to simply invoke fear.
In the midst of all that hate, I also went to a righteous community back-to-school bash on August 12 led by young, black leaders. A conscious group of brothers and sisters were intent on not allowing white supremacists to define our city. They gave away 200 backpacks, free food, and created an atmosphere of safety and community in the midst of chaos.
My city will never be the same, but we will no longer quietly walk in the mud of white supremacy. We are on the path to clear water.
Wes Bellamy is the vice mayor of Charlottesville. In 2016, he called for the removal of a local statue of Robert E. Lee in the park, a move which the “Unite the Right” organizers were protesting.
Lisa Woolfork: The problem with politeness
Charlottesville is a city of illusions. Those for whom Charlottesville is the Happiest City in America rarely see beneath this façade.
As a black professor at the University of Virginia who also organizes with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, I recognize the ways in which the city sanctions white supremacy through polishing its veneer of civility and politeness. I spent the weeks leading up to the white supremacist attacks (and the year since) being told directly by polite moderates that the KKK should be ignored and that I should stay home when white nationalists in our streets threaten my very existence.
Last year, Charlottesville granted permits for men in Nazi uniforms and Klan robes to march in our streets.
Charlottesville failed to prevent and then failed to prosecute men using lit torches to attack undergraduate students. Charlottesville uses legal shields to preserve racist monuments. And when community members respond in grief and rage, as we did when we marched for DeAndre Harris and Corey Long, we are targeted with social pressure under the polite gaze of white moderates, with demands to simmer down and behave with “decorum,” a code word for complicity. They say they want peace and quiet, but they’ll settle for just quiet. Politeness and civility are the very actions that brought us here in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson’s nearby Monticello, epitomizing the politeness of Southern hospitality, enslaved 607 Black people during his lifetime. Generations lived and died in bondage at plantations known for their hospitality. The Lost Cause mythology, the ideological devotion in the 19th and into the 20th century to falsely portraying the Confederate cause as heroic, then used the veneer of politeness to obscure one of the greatest human rights atrocities of all time.
Yesterday’s “Lost Cause” is today’s “civility.” Politeness is political: those who urge tolerance in the face of racist violence weaponize civility. Just as institutions of liberal democracy are harnessed by white supremacists for their fascist agenda, so too are civic virtues such as politeness, decorum, and civility used by white moderates to conceal and enable fascist actions.
Dr. Lisa Woolfork is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia and organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville.