The two men most associated with the controversy around the Summer of Hate are at odds over each other’s role in the events of 2017 and how they affected the outcome.
Former Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer is about to publish his account of the events surrounding the deadly Unite the Right rally, and his book casts aspersions on many within the city, particularly former Councilor Wes Bellamy.
However, Bellamy says almost all of Signer’s narrative about him is false.
Signer’s book, “Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy Under Siege,” is set to be released Tuesday by PublicAffairs.
Bellamy also wrote a book, “Monumental: It Was Never About A Statue,” which wasn’t mass produced. It is written more as a journal.
In his book, Signer says Bellamy wanted Signer’s help getting out of the controversy about the removal of the city’s downtown statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and wanted to fire then-City Manager Maurice Jones and then-Police Chief Al Thomas — statements Bellamy contends are outright lies.
Signer said his book is a first-person account of the lead-up to and fallout of the Unite the Right rally.
“This is not about me. It’s not a memoir,” he said in an interview. “To the extent that I’m in here, it’s because it’s a means toward the end. … It’s about one person experiencing, having an account.”
Signer is planning an 11-stop tour that does not yet include Charlottesville, although he said he hopes to add a stop here. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the Heather Heyer Foundation.
Signer’s book paints Bellamy as a young leader who got in over his head on the issue of removing the statues and sought Signer’s help to get “out of this.”
Signer questions some of his own decisions and explicitly says he made at least two mistakes in the lead-up to the rally, on the day of and during the fallout. Those are being photographed smiling and kicking up his heels in front of a Virginia LOVE sign not long after the deadly rally and sending out a statement supporting the police department immediately after tear gas was used to disperse counter-protesters in the aftermath of the July 8, 2017, Ku Klux Klan rally.
Signer’s overarching theme concedes his expansion of the position of mayor exacerbated existing issues within the city. Charlottesville has a weak-mayor form of government in which the mayor is a ceremonial position and the city manager handles operations.
“I think I got carried away with how my personal passion about democracy and decrying and confronting all this stuff could obscure how little power I actually had to do anything about that,” he said in an interview. “That’s a human failing and I shouldn’t have done that.”
Signer said he went out of his way “not to scapegoat anybody” and includes some compliments of former officials. However, the book is largely critical of city and state officials, including other councilors, and activists. His statements are presented as facts, not opinions.
A key moment in Signer’s portrayal of the buildup to the deadly rally is a January 2017 conversation with Bellamy. Signer writes that they discussed transforming the Lee statue in place by putting 10-foot-tall windows around it that would allow people to see it in a new context.
The idea “seemed to give him a way out and forward on an issue that had consumed most of his waking moments,” Signer writes, adding that Bellamy said, “you gotta get me out of this,” referring to the statues issue.
“That’s a lie. I never said that,” Bellamy said in an interview. “I’ve never said to him, ‘you’ve got to get me out of this.’ Why would I say to Mike Signer, ‘you’ve got to get me out of this?’”
Bellamy said that Signer is just angry that he “got politically outmaneuvered by somebody he thought was a novice 20-something-year-old.”
Signer said in an interview that he kept a journal throughout his time as mayor and based his book off of it. He did not conduct additional interviews and he stands by the statements he attributed to Bellamy.
“I just told the facts as they happened and I want to leave it for other people to interpret them,” he said. “I can’t speculate about his interior life; I can only say what I was seeing and how much it seemed — how much this compromise seemed to be what he wanted from what he was saying. That was all that I know.”
Signer’s book also says Bellamy called him saying that Jones and Thomas should be fired. Bellamy’s response: “That’s a lie.”
Bellamy said Signer was the one pushing for the two to be fired. He said he distinctly remembers the conversation, giving details about the roads he was taking while driving during the call.
“He was like, ‘they can’t stay, they have to go, they both messed up,’” Bellamy recalled. “I was like, ‘explain to me about what they both could have done different.’”
Signer was emphatic that Bellamy started the conversation, saying, “I wouldn’t have even brought it up.” He said he didn’t think there were enough council votes to take action at the time and that Bellamy surprised him by bringing it up.
Comparing Signer and Bellamy’s tellings of the same events, and interviewing the two men, shows how one worked to compromise between activism and pragmatism and the other was focused on symbolic and substantive gestures for underrepresented residents.
While Signer says he likes Bellamy, his book refers to Bellamy as “impatient,” “divisive” and someone who would “say different things to different people.”
“He could be divisive, casting issues — particularly on race — as absolute and us against them,” Signer wrote. “… No matter how many people told me to watch out, and even to watch my back, I liked Bellamy.”
Signer uses this characterization to frame the discussion around the vote to move the Lee statue.
Bellamy is unapologetic for pushing hard for immediate action on issues of race and equity.
“Mike will never understand what it’s like to be black,” he said in an interview. “So, the urgency of now is something he will never understand. So, yeah, I’m going to be impatient in matters revolving around race.”
Bellamy’s book portrays many disagreements with Signer, but doesn’t paint him in the same light, calling him a “pretty progressive guy who, for the most part, understood some of the deeper issues that plagued our city.”
Signer’s perceptions of Bellamy’s calls to action are critical, with Signer writing that, “if I didn’t agree with his approach, I would be attacked, maybe even called a racist.”
“If we had been able to work together without creating an activist protest binary dynamic around it from the get-go, I think we could have gotten a lot more done with less havoc,” he said.
Signer also portrays Bellamy’s actions during the first vote on the fate of the Lee statue as political theater.
The vote ended in a tie after Councilor Bob Fenwick abstained; Signer said that action derailed Bellamy’s political “scheme.”
Signer claims that Bellamy thought Fenwick would vote against moving the statue so Bellamy could then vote in the minority and save face.
It “depriv[ed] Bellamy of the political cover he needed as the most public advocate of removal to later support the compromise,” Signer wrote.
Bellamy denies Signer’s claim that he wanted to save face, emphasizing that Signer was just “mad” that “he lost.”
Bellamy said writing his book was therapeutic. It largely focuses on his emotions and internal monologue around key events leading up to the rally.
“It was really just getting it all off my chest,” he said. “It was just telling my side of it as the person, for better or worse, at the center of it.”
Signer’s book incorrectly tallies a vote on the West Main Streetscape project, incorrectly cites Tim Kaine’s time as lieutenant governor, has the wrong number of injuries from the Aug. 12 car attack, misquotes President Donald Trump, has the wrong date on one of Trump’s rallies and incorrectly cites the date that Bellamy and Mayor Nikuyah Walker proposed no longer observing Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as a city holiday.
The book is also critical of then-Councilor Kathy Galvin, calling her “wishy-washy,” and chides Walker for not enforcing council rules.
Bellamy thinks Signer sees him as “some kid” with “ulterior motives.”
Signer said he hopes government officials can take lessons from his book to better prepare for crisis situations.
He said, “There’s all this learning and change that’s going to occur because of the stress test of Charlottesville.”