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Why this happened in Charlottesville, my hometown

The city can look like a blue bubble, but it’s full of conflicts and contradictions.

Rescue workers move victims on stretchers after a car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Saturday, in Charlottesville.
Rescue workers move victims on stretchers after a car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Saturday, in Charlottesville.
Chip Somodevilla / Staff

On Saturday, I witnessed Charlottesville’s transformation from a city into a hashtag. I breathed in air thick with pepper spray, saw white nationalists beat a young black man as police looked on, took in the chaotic aftermath of a car-ramming attack that killed one person and injured a score more. By the end of the day, I stopped trying to reconcile my years living in the generally bucolic town and the images filtering through national and international media. There were too many contradictions.

But as I moved through my Sunday morning rituals — jogging down the still streets that yesterday were painted with blood, grabbing coffee at a local bagel store with a cult-like following — I realized the contradictions were precisely why the city sits at the heart of the fractious national battle over what kind of country America will choose to be.

From a distance, Charlottesville looks like a smooth blue bubble in a sea of red, a university town abutting Virginia’s rural foothills and farmland. Up close, it’s a mass of conflicts and contradictions. While it’s tempting to reduce those conflicts to the disagreements over the Confederate statues that dot the downtown, that would be a mistake. The battle over the monuments exposed the ongoing battle over what the town stands for, and who should represent it.

In Charlottesville, several modern political currents converge

The rally, with its slate of white nationalist and neo-Nazi speakers, was scheduled to begin in Emancipation Park, site of the Robert E. Lee statue, at noon. Well before then, however, violent clashes had broken out, and as midday neared, the white nationalists spilled out of the park and onto the streets of downtown Charlottesville. Once they were clear of the park, the group of neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and alt-right devotees hoisted their flags and began marching. As they did, they crossed under a rainbow-dotted banner that floated above Market Street, boasting “Diversity Makes Us Stronger.”

That scene captured the contradictions of Charlottesville, a town that has fitfully transitioned from the era of massive resistance through the era of desegregation to the era of #TheResistance. It’s a transition that has turned the city into a powder keg, the gathering spot for local and not-so-local white nationalists, anti-fascists, and Black Lives Matter activists. The consequences of that transition are evident in the city’s tangled factions: right-wing racists shoring up an old order, white liberals invested in a complicated vision of just-enough diversity, and a black community that’s often ignored or underrepresented.

Three men at the heart of the current conflict represent these factions: Mayor Mike Signer, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, and alt-right activist Jason Kessler.

Signer is exactly the sort of mayor you’d expect a university town described as a “progressive enclave” to have: a Princeton grad with a PhD from Berkeley and a law degree from UVA, in 2009 he wrote the book Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies, which got understandable attention in 2016. In January, a week and a half after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Signer declared Charlottesville “The Capital of the Resistance.”

It’s the sort of showy, symbolic progressivism that thrives in Charlottesville. Signs declaring allegiance to the principles of diversity and inclusion dot the landscape here, not just on private lawns but in business windows and on office doors, and on banners hanging over Market Street: performative progressivism.

But Charlottesville is not as comprehensively liberal as the visuals suggest.

At times, Charlottesville’s commitment to diversity can be more rhetorical than real

The forces at play in Charlottesville are a microcosm of the changes happening in the purple states of the South, especially Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. As a highly educated, largely white workforce moves in, drawn by higher ed and tech industry jobs, local and state politics have started to change along the lines of a very specific type of liberalism: invested in the idea of diversity but not necessarily the reality of it. That liberalism is focused on a vision of prosperity and culture that transforms the physical landscape, often overriding or ignoring black community leaders and black interests.

Like most Southern cities — and many Northern ones as well — Charlottesville is still grappling with the legacy of segregation. And while white Charlottesvillians eventually complied with desegregation laws, de facto segregation remains a problem. Residential segregation in the city is made worse by the lack of affordable housing, with segregation and concentrated poverty reinforcing one another. In a city that is 69.1 percent white (with a school-age population that’s 50 to 55 percent white), the public school population is only 41 percent white.

Let’s be clear: Charlottesville is a diverse town. The students at the public high school speak 46 different languages, thanks in large part to the considerable refugee population here. But the performative commitment to diversity belies the town’s more difficult struggles with inequality.

When Wes Bellamy, who is African American, became vice-mayor, he seemed to be poised to bridge that divide. He spoke of growing up poor in the suburbs of Atlanta, and he stressed what mentorship could mean for young black men. When he arrived in Charlottesville in 2009, he began piecing together a nonprofit to help children move out of poverty. He established the Young Black Professional Network for those who had succeeding in moving into the professional class.

The only black member of the Charlottesville city council when he was elected in 2015, Bellamy emerged as a visible and vocal representative of black Charlottesvillians. No one person can ever speak for an entire community, but he could plausibly assert, Hey, these Confederate monuments are pretty offensive to a lot of people, and don’t represent who we want to be as a city.

That, in essence, was Bellamy’s message in early 2016, when he began calling for the statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to be taken down from the major parks in downtown Charlottesville.

It would cost him almost everything: his job, his position in state government, and very possibly, his rising political career.

Jason Kessler, who helped organize Saturday’s Unite the Right march, had to be escorted by police from his own press conference Sunday.
Jason Kessler, who helped organize Saturday’s Unite the Right march, had to be escorted by police from his own press conference Sunday.
Shay Horse / NurPhoto / Getty Images

That’s because of Jason Kessler. Kessler is a white nationalist and the leading figure of the alt-right in Charlottesville. When Bellamy called for the removal of Confederate statues, Kessler leapt into action. He dug into Bellamy’s past and found a series of homophobic and sexist tweets Bellamy had written prior to his election to city council. The tweets were vile — worthy of denunciation — and Bellamy ultimately resigned his job as a computer science teacher and as a member of the state Board of Education.

Throughout the reporting on what became known as the Bellamy “scandal,” Kessler was regularly referred to as a “local blogger” and "an author.” Largely absent from the reporting was his larger agenda: to discredit Bellamy and force him off the city council, so that proponents of the statues’ removal would lose an important ally. On that front, Kessler failed. Bellamy stayed on the council, which in February voted to remove the statues.

Over the past year, Kessler's profile has risen. He has been an important local leader for a number of rallies, including a torchlit march featuring white nationalist Richard Spencer in May. Saturday’s gathering was the full expression of Kessler’s — and Spencer’s — vision for the American right. And it revealed the Confederate statues for what they are, what they have been since they were first erected: reminders of white power, enforced through violence.

The faction Kessler represents isn’t limited to the gun-toting, swastika-flaunting crowd assembled at Emancipation Park. It expresses itself in other ways, like last week’s editorial in the Daily Progress, one of Charlottesville’s local newspapers. The editors, seeking an explanation for the white nationalist rallies that repeatedly descended on the city, found a single person responsible: Council member Bellamy.

A familiar move: blaming “agitators” for concern over Confederate statues

After all, they argued, Robert E. Lee’s statue “existed peacefully in downtown Charlottesville for over 90 years.” No one complained! No one cared! And then along came an “outspoken agitator” who got everyone all riled up. (Were the editors somehow unaware of how similar words used to discredit earlier civil rights activism?) What’s a poor white nationalist to do in the face of such provocation?

The editorial was a shocking piece of neo-Jim Crow writing — in leading a march against the Lee monument, it claimed, Bellamy had “dropped a match onto a gas field” — but it was also a helpful guide to understanding where someone like Kessler comes from, and how he fits in the larger political landscape of Charlottesville. (On Sunday, Kessler tried to hold a news conference but was shouted down by protesters, and fled under police protection.)

All these forces have been at play in Charlottesville for a long time. But the white nationalists in particular have been catalyzed under the Trump administration; in the Trump movement, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right activists not only feel welcome, but are welcome. Its members perceive like-minded figures in administration officials like Steve Bannon (who turned Breitbart into the platform of the alt-right), Stephen Miller (friends with Richard Spencer when they were both at Duke University), and Sebastian Gorka (who for decades has had ties with Hungarian neo-Nazi groups).

The people surrounding Trump, and his own weak denunciations in the days following the violence, tie the events in Charlottesville to a bigger national story. But there’s a reason that this city in particular was the site of this protest — not DC or San Francisco or Mobile. In Charlottesville, the forces of progressivism, white liberalism, and white nationalism all have significant bases. It’s a place where, in order to reckon with the city’s racist past and present, progressives have to literally remake the city’s landscape, from tearing down statues to building affordable housing. And it’s here where white nationalists have chosen to draw a line.

Which means the battle for Charlottesville didn’t end with Sunday morning’s soft dawn. The torches will return, as will the protesters. Because the battle for Charlottesville is a proxy war, a chance for factions to fight — literally fight — over two irreconcilable futures for the city, and for the country. Not every town is Charlottesville, but every American has a vested interest in who wins here.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.


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