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Five years after Aug. 12, city tries to finds its way

Charlottesville knows the story all too well. What it hasn’t quite figured out is where and how the story ends. But we’re working on it.

No one needs to remind people here that Neo-Nazis and white supremacists invaded Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. People around the world were stunned and shocked that such a large gathering of hatred-filled bigots could descend upon the storied University of Virginia Lawn on Aug. 11.

They were even more shocked and saddened the next day, when Heather Heyer, 32, was murdered, and at least 19 others were injured, five critically, as James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters. While people across the world struggled to comprehend the massive display of hatred, people in Charlottesville experienced shock, grief, outrage and trauma. Media from across the country poured in to tell the stories, and a harsh light shone on the city.

For five years, it has been the city’s responsibility to pick up the pieces.

For many in Charlottesville, it was the first time they saw unvarnished bigotry in action.

“I was shocked and scared that something like this could happen in what I thought was my peaceful home town,” said Weining Ding, a rising senior at Albemarle County High School.

For others, it was the worst kind of reminder about the racism they experience every day.

“Every year Charlottesville is on a list of best places to live. But it’s not that way for the poor, the elderly, for people of color,” said Gloria Beard, a longtime Charlottesville resident who is Black.

Or, as anti-racist activist and University of Virginia professor Lisa Woolfork put it: “There is a persistent myth about August 11 and 12 that Charlottesville was swarmed by outsiders bringing a message of hate,” said Woolfork. “The truth is that the main organizers were UVa alum. The attack on grounds was not an invasion. It was a homecoming.”

Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel called the intensity and ugliness of a torch march through the University of Virginia on the Aug. 11 “startling.” More than 100 Neo-Nazi White supremacists holding lighted tiki torches walked the school’s iconic Lawn chanting “the Jews will not replace us.” The flickering light and unabashed hate gave the processional a surreal ambiance and, for those old enough to remember, a hint of deja vu. The Charlottesville march resembled a smaller version of parades in Berlin and Nuremberg as Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany.

“Everyone who grows up Jewish experiences some form of anti-Semitism,” Gutherz said. “But I don’t [think] that any of us had seen that level of behavior. It was shocking.”

The violence a day later added a racist layer to the hatred.

In many ways, it was a turning point for the city. Leaders and officials pledged to look into and fix problems such as the shortage of affordable housing and racist practices in policing. Many activists pushed city leaders at raucous and raw City Council meetings to address these issues.

But the City Council and management fell into disarray as city officials disagreed publicly, leading to a revolving door of resignations and at least one firing. Former City Manager Chip Boyles was one of them in the fall of 2021, citing the “vitriol” he had experienced after the firing of former Police Chief RaShall Brackney, the city’s first Black female police chief.

The city has had seven city managers or acting city managers since Aug. 12, 2017, including one, Marc Woolley, who withdrew before the first day on the job. The city still does not have a permanent city manager; Michael C. Rogers is the interim city manager. It also has not had a permanent police chief since Brackney’s firing; Tito Durrette serves as acting chief.

The Neo-Nazi white supremacists “came and went,” said Gutherz of the trauma and mayhem. “We were left to pick up the pieces.”

Gutherz said he also saw hope also in the aftermath.

“The outpouring of support from the community. People checked on us. They sent letters to the congregation. There was violence and hatred in the streets, but since then, we have had important conversations.”

The Daily Progress this week hopes to continue to add to those conversations. As the fifth anniversary of the torch march, rioting and violence approached, we talked and reflected on how we wanted to mark this event. We decided we wanted to generate thoughtful discussions, too.

Toward that end, this week you will read an in-depth story about why Roberta Kaplan decided to represent the plaintiffs in the Sines trial in a civil lawsuit. It raises important questions about justice.

You will also read a story about changes that the University of Virginia has made in the wake of August, 2017. There will also be a discussion about how institutions are reconciling the history of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison by telling their full histories, including the stories of enslaved people and not just glorified histories.

And speaking of presidents, the former president of Beth Israel synagogue has written a column about what Aug. 11 and 12 were like for the congregation. Also, a local high school student interviewed a Holocaust survivor and shares his reflections.

These are just some of the great storytelling and discussion starters you will read this week. We hope they bring our community closer by helping us realize our common humanity. Thank you for reading The Daily Progress and for supporting local journalism. Here’s hoping that these stories contribute to all of us finding our way together, in a spirit of compassion and respect for all.


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