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March and rally led to changes both subtle and deep at UVa

It was four years ago that some 200 tiki torch-toting, slogan-shouting white supremacists and neo-Nazis tore a page from the Nazi Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s and marched about the Grounds of the University of Virginia.

Along the Lawn and up and down the Rotunda steps, reciting anti-Semitic and racist chants, they marched. At the statue of Thomas Jefferson, they verbally and physically assaulted the students surrounding the statue, swinging their lit torches like shillelaghs and filling the air with pepper spray.

The march occurred on the eve of the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally, and the symbolism and violence of both events shattered the sense of security at UVa and forced the university community to look inward.

Condemnation came quick.

“It is fundamental to the moral fabric of any society to condemn beliefs and behavior that are so odious they threaten the very essence of that society. And so we do,” wrote then-UVa Rector Frank M. Conner III, in an Aug. 13, 2017, message to students, staff and faculty. “The actions of those who visited evil upon us are nothing short of white nationalist and white supremacist terrorism intended to intimidate our community. They will not succeed. We will not surrender.”

Then-UVa President Teresa Sullivan immediately appointed a working committee to review the rally and the march on Grounds, the school’s response and how to heal the anger and fear they left behind.

Results came within 30 days. The university issued no-trespassing warnings to several people involved in the march. UVa reclassified the Lawn as a facility, thereby banning firearms and weapons and storage of flammable materials by the public or visitors.

Two bronze tablets on the Rotunda that honored students and alumni who served and died for the Confederacy in the Civil War were slated for removal.

The tablets were erected in 1903 after the Board of Visitors authorized a Confederate memorial at a suitable place on Grounds. The 2017 Board of Visitors unanimously decided there was no longer a suitable place.

In the next year came more changes. $30 million in funding went to faculty hiring, scholarships and efforts to bridge differences in the university community. Historic symbols on Grounds were slated for review. The university created a new position to oversee safety and security.

“Grappling with the aftermath of white supremacist violence in our community has not been easy,” wrote Risa L. Goluboff, dean of the UVa School of Law, in the committee’s June 2018 report to Sullivan. “We have healed both individually and collectively. We have initiated difficult conversations and honest self-examination. We have taken stock and taken action.”

In the time since the march and violent, deadly rally, nearly the entire student population has graduated or moved on. A large number of the faculty and administration, including the dean of students and university president, also have left.

Still, the events resonate for those who were there.

“For those of us who actually witnessed any part of it, we can never forget it,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the UVa Center for Politics and co-author of “A Return to Normalcy? The 2020 Election That Almost Broke America.”

“The absolute worst of humanity and human nature was on display,” Sabato said.

The events shocked UVa President Jim Ryan, who was the top candidate to replace Sullivan.

“It was around the time that I was considering whether to accept the offer and I heard from a number of people who assumed that I would turn the job down because of it. In some ways, it sealed the deal for me,” Ryan recalled.

“I had been connected to this community for so long. I came here in 1989 as a law student and was on the faculty for 15 years. We raised our kids here,” he said. “It was a day or two afterward and my wife looked at me and said, ‘well, you have to take the job, now, don’t you?’ It was a situation where the place that you love has been brutalized and now you get the chance to do something about it. You don’t just walk away from that.”

Ryan said many changes at the university already in progress gained momentum from the events. Reviews of building names, statues and monuments had been ongoing for several years but gathered more support. So did efforts toward inclusion and equity in the student body and faculty.

“In some ways it’s hard to answer what changes the events brought. You can draw a direct line between Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 to some concrete changes, like enhanced safety and security, around the university. The deeper changes, though, have been more at the level of thinking about what kind of university do we want to be and what is our relationship with Charlottesville,” Ryan said.

“One of the things the events brought home is how connected UVa and Charlottesville are — how UVa is seen as a part of Charlottesville,” he said. “It created conversations about longstanding topics and provided an opening to start to address some of those topics.”

Ryan said his creation of the President’s Council on UVa-Community Partnerships is directly related to the events. The council brings the university leadership together with civic and local government leaders to address issues such as affordable housing and poverty.

“The events showed us that UVa and Charlottesville are completely connected to each other and we ought to partner with the community and community organizations to address common challenges,” he said.

The August events indirectly led to the UVa Democracy Initiative, established in 2018.

“It spurred the interest among many across UVa in protecting and promoting the future and health of our democracy,” Ryan said. “Again, it’s hard to draw straight lines, but I think there’s a line that connects Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 in Charlottesville to Jan. 6 [in Washington, D.C.]. Those represent threats not just to particular institutions, but to the very fiber of our democracy.”

Sabato sees that line, as well.

“Charlottesville played an unwanted but critical role in the wave of domestic terrorism and white supremacist activity that has built across America and some other parts of the world,” Sabato said.

“Given what I study, I can’t ignore the political dimension. To me, it’s no accident that [former President Donald Trump’s] term was bookended by the 2017 Charlottesville riot and the 2021 Capitol insurrection. Trump unleashed and encouraged far-right extremists with his rhetoric and not-so-hidden winks and nods. They knew they had a friend in the White House, which was quite empowering,” he said.

Ryan said the events provide proof that the university needs to continue to pursue equity and inclusion.

“The ideology underlying the whole march was that some people are worthy and some people aren’t. It was targeted at people of color and Jewish people,” Ryan said. “I think the only way to combat that is to double-down on the fact that that is not what UVa is about.”


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