Charlottesville – One Year Later

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Standing in the midst of protests during the State of Emergency – Charlottesville Downtown Mall – August 12, 2017

I moved to Charlottesville on August 11, 2016.

One year later, my new hometown became a trending hashtag. Heather Heyer lost her life on a street where I would walk every single day to buy groceries. My campus was awash with tiki torches. The pungent smell of smoke still comes to mind every day as I walk to work. The same night that alt-right protestors flocked to “The Lawn” at The University of Virginia, I was wholly unaware of what was coming towards me as I sought to recover from a day of travel from Canada one day prior – until a police officer recommended I get to safety. Though I sought solitude, I was instead involuntarily in a line of literal fire. My story was documented in a blog post published only moments after returning home.

Celebrating my one-year anniversary of living in the historically rich (and complex) city didn’t feel the way I expected after having packed all of my worldly belongings into cardboard boxes and made the journey from Metro Detroit. Though I was a newcomer, I never felt a more profound sense of belonging to a geographic place than I did in the midst of crisis. I equally have never felt a deeper sense of urgency for the topics I research – fascism, the Second World War, ideological conflict, propaganda.

Though the world remembers August, I remember the months that led up to it. I lived on 1st Street at the time – one of the roads that intersects the Downtown Mall, and equally meets the statue of Confederate-era general Robert E. Lee in what is now known as “Emancipation Park” (formerly “Lee Park”). I was unaware of the history of the statue, but I wasn’t too shocked to see a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, as Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy. I was a bit more surprised once I found out the statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924.

It’s interesting to think that all of the events of August 2017 were precisely one hundred years after it had been commissioned by a philanthropist named Paul McIntire – a man who equally donated generously to the University of Virginia and was decorated with the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.

It was in February 2017 that I first encountered a protest against the removal of the statue – a solitary man sitting on a park bench.

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I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to me. He saw me looking at him and glanced back at me briefly. Having never seen anyone displaying a Confederate flag in this way, I took a photo, took note of my surroundings, and walked back home. I didn’t think much about it, except for the fact that I never would have encountered a similar scenario anywhere where I had lived in the past.

Fast forward to May 13, 2017 – a date that often goes unnoticed by those outside of Charlottesville. This was the day that the first tiki torch rally took place at the base of the statue. I once again was nearby, just as I would be in August. Shouts rose to the sky like smoke. “Russia is our friend!” they shouted. “You will not replace us!” cried others. Needless to say, I was confused by it all. It was only upon going home that I had remembered that the City of Charlottesville had offered to sell the statue, and that an injunction of six months had been put into place by a judge in April 2017.

Instead of fast forwarding a few months, let’s focus on the ones we don’t think about too often. Now-infamous Jason Kessler was booed off the Downtown Mall while eating at Miller’s Bar with some of his friends in June 2017. He started a Periscope video to rally his supporters on Twitter, and I decided to interview his group with questions after they began to move away from the bar. You can read my article from that time here. What I gathered from my interaction with the group and having seen how the antifa had organized itself to track and denounce Kessler – I recognized that our community was on the verge of something unprecedented.

Investigating online, I discovered that the worst was to come in the form of a major rally to be held in August. I tried to ignore it as I taught middle schoolers for a month and then traveled to Canada to visit family and conduct research in the national archives. I thought I was going to miss all of the events. Instead, I was back just in time.

As a doctoral student focusing on cultural history, I’ve come to realize that Charlottesville – like the rest of the world – has layers of history that are memorialized in different ways. When these histories intersect present academic and social initiatives to re-document and accurately represent the past, there will always be resistance from groups who collectively remember historical events differently. These histories – which are inherently connected – bring out unresolved conflicts, biases, and insecurities that can lead to the events we saw unfurl in our streets in August 2017.

But where do we stand now in August 2018?

An area councilwoman was quoted to say that we as a community have ‘lost our naivete’ in a recent Washington Post article. As someone who witnessed these harrowing events firsthand, I respectfully disagree. We as a community have never been naïve. We are conscious, we are active, and we are resilient. It has taken a lot of time to recover from last year’s events, and as I am typing this, I am still hearing State Police helicopters patrolling every inch of this city. Others in this article agree with this sense of resilience, but it is telling that the title of this article (and general tone) has painted a fractured portrait of Charlottesville one year later.

The same article also states that “the real damage has been to the city’s psyche and the sense of itself.” Residents of this city – commonly called C’villians – would disagree. Our city is vibrant and self-aware. Its residents define it – not the tiki-torch wielding alt-right protestors who stole our tranquility and tried to dismantle our sense of community.

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This is what defines Charlottesville. Only steps away from where a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters and residents, graphic designers at Charlottesville’s Rock, Paper, Scissors shop designed a heart that symbolizes our resiliency, our progress, and our unity. We as a community recognize we have much to address – rapid gentrification and its consequences, being the city with the most expensive ACA health insurance in the nation, and a past rife with discrimination – but we are challenging ourselves every day to face the real tasks at hand that will enable us to build a more egalitarian, sustainable community.

As for this weekend, only time will tell what will happen. We have reverted to our State of Emergency, and our streets are filled with law enforcement. The alt-right was denied a permit to hold a second “Unite the Right” rally here, so they’ve taken their show down the road to Washington D.C. instead.

Charlottesville is one year stronger.

Claire-Marie Brisson

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