Three years after violence filled Charlottesville, the scene Wednesday afternoon at Market Street Park where activists and community members gathered in remembrance took on a relaxed tone.
In the shadow of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which had served as backdrop for the deadly Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally and was now festooned with Black Lives Matter signs and anti-racists posters, organizers of the Reclaim the Park event offered people a chance to remember the events, proclaim their solidarity and reclaim the park as their own.
Expressing themselves through music and art on handmade easels, the event had a relaxed and reflective atmosphere. Organizers had declared the park a “community-built space,” and used personal vehicles to close the streets surrounding Market Street Park.
Clergy led the event off with a prayer circle and people brought coolers, chairs and tents as organizers asked attendees to not take photos or videos without consent and to wear masks and maintain social distancing standards. Speakers shared personal experiences and talked about the history of the Lee statue and racism in Charlottesville.
Among the speakers was Susan Bro, who said her daughter, Heather Heyer, showed up three years ago to fight for equal treatment of all people.
Heyer was killed in a car attack after the Unite the Rally was broken up by police when it devolved into violence between white supremacists and counter-protesters. The attack injured more than 30 other counter-demonstrators.
“The only thing my daughter did was show up to walk,” Bro said. “She was a random murder in an act of terror.”
Bro, standing in front of the Lee statue, called for systemic change across the nation and for justice for those killed by police across the country, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
“Heather got her justice. She had her day in court. They have not,” Bro said. “Remember my daughter today. Please remember why she was here.”
Although the event was solemn in nature, it also had a light, party atmosphere as attendees blew bubbles, made posters and sprayed each other with Silly String.
People were invited to paint signs, have their photos taken in a photo booth, pray and do yoga. The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative gave out buttons, stickers and literature, Nine Pillars hosted hip hop and The Women’s Initiative and the Charlottesville Black Youth Action Committee had tables.
Local activist Don Gathers said people need to continue to stand up, show up and to “shout down racism and hatred and all of its evil forms, in every opportunity, whenever it presents itself.”
“It is enormously sad that in 2020, we still have to shout the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but unless and until we are listened to, and not just heard, we’ll continue to spew it out at every opportunity,” he said. “Even when people don’t feel that it’s necessary. Even when we hear ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ No one was born blue. Even when we hear that all lives matter. ‘All Lives Matter’ can’t possibly be a catchphrase or byline unless and until Black lives matter.”
Police and the news media were asked to stay away and there was little police presence, although Charlottesville police officers on bicycles were stationed nearby and Virginia State Police, who staged at National Guard Armory on Avon Street Extended were in the area and made several passes in cruisers.
In a media gaggle in front of Charlottesville’s Central Library, Amanda Moxham, a local anti-racist activist, and Zyahna Bryant, the local activist who started the petition to remove the Lee statue, said community members held the event in the downtown park to “reclaim the narrative” of Charlottesville and Aug. 12.
“By taking space today, we’re not only reclaiming the narrative of August 12, but we’re reclaiming the narrative of our city,” Bryant said.
When politicians and entertainers speak about “Charlottesville,” they’re taking about a weekend and not the community, she said. Bryant pointed to issues such as the disproportionate stop-and-frisk and arrest rates of Black people in the city and the demolition of Vinegar Hill.
“Until we’re able to fully address those deeper issues, we’re going to continue to have this racial tension that spills over into the streets and, which is how we get situations like the August attacks,” Bryant said.
Bryant said having police near the event could create a dangerous atmosphere.
“In a space like this, where we’re trying to reclaim the narrative and center those places, having police in that space is a dangerous thing for Black people,” Bryant said. “If we’re really about community, really about being welcoming for everyone we have to respect those boundaries.”
Bryant said there are continuing issues between police and the Black and minority community.
“The police in Charlottesville have really, historically, done nothing other than harass and racially profile and then hide their hands after they do it and say they didn’t know they were doing it,” she said. “We asked them not to come today so this could be a space of healing, this could be a space of truth and that people can show up as they are.”
The event was unofficial as the organizers did not seek nor receive a permit to hold it. Organizers said the presence of clergy leading prayer and reflection would put the event under an exception in the city’s ordinance, but that is not listed as an exemption for an event permit.
City Manager Tarron Richardson said in a statement that event permits have been suspended since the declaration of a local emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic and no event permits were issued for any city parks on Tuesday or Wednesday. The city took no enforcement action during the event.