Ninety minutes of music, history and hopeful speeches celebrated American democracy Saturday afternoon on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
About 40 people gathered at the Freedom of Speech Wall to commemorate Constitution Day, an American holiday that would take place Sunday, and International Day of Democracy, an international commemoration marked on Friday.
"There is a major crisis in our country right now," event organizer Kirk Bowers told The Daily Progress. "We have to pay attention."
Bowers, who chairs the conservation committee of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, cites a year-ago poll by a national television news network that found that threats to democracy tied with the cost of living as the most important issue facing the country.
"We need to be talking about democracy all year round," said Bowers. "So we’re going to to continue to promote and support democracy."
One group left out of the mix Saturday was Republicans.
"We didn’t invite the anti-democracy party," said Bowers. "We didn’t feel like it would be a productive way to spend our time inviting people who just don’t want to promote democracy."
By contrast, one of the day’s speakers was former Staunton City Council Member Erik Curren, an independent who dressed and spoke of compromise as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led the United States military during the Civil War.
"What I learned as president and what I learned after the war during Reconstruction was that if you extend the hand of friendship to your former enemy, most problems are solvable," said Curren as Grant.
That didn’t mean that Curren-Grant espoused compromising on such matters as slavery and secession. He celebrated the Union victory and lamented the widespread Southern resistance to extending civil rights to Black people.
"There were some White people who were not willing to accept the verdict of Appomattox," he said. "They took off their Confederate uniforms and put on their wives’ white bed sheets, and they called themselves the Ku Klux Klan."
A musician named Theocles performed three songs including "Roses on the Pavement," a remembrance of the violence that rocked Charlottesville and killed anti-racist counterprotester Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017.
Despite Saturday’s temperate mid-September weather and the shade of a still-green willow oak, the event gathered few onlookers beyond the roughly 40 participants, a number that included organizers.
One passerby, former Henley Middle School teacher Amelia Bochaine did pause with her sister to hear a quintet called the Green Grannies sing a song extolling the virtues of electric buses for Charlottesville.
"I like to see people who get involved in politics, especially in local politics, because those elections often get overlooked," said Bochaine, who recently became the state coordinator of Virginia Civics Education Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to civic engagement.
"This is impressive," said attendee Elinor Glassco, who supports the bus-electrification idea. "This is a lot more people than I imagined."
A young man who gave his name as Orion the Wizard wore a multicolored dreamcoat and a star-bedecked pointed hat and said he was visiting from Norfolk.
"The state of democracy is struggling at best," said Orion.
One speaker was Josh Throneburg, who vied for Virginia’s 5th District seat in the House of Representatives last year but lost to incumbent Republican Bob Good. Throneburg read excerpts from presidential concession speeches from losing candidates, including the likes of Walter Mondale in 1984, Hillary Clinton in 2016 and John McCain in 2008.
"Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country," McCain was quoted. "I applaud him for it, and offer my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day — though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her Creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise."
And then Throneburg turned to the most recent election which was won by Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump, who asserted widespread voter fraud without evidence.
"In 2020, we know what happened," said Throneburg.
Other speakers included Bruce Williams, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, Kristin O’Donoghue, president of student activism group, and Meg Heubeck, the chair of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.