Charlottesville, Virginia, presents itself as a liberal enclave within a much less hospitable South. On a City-Data forum responding to the question, “Is Charlottesville good for liberals and good for young families?,” one person wrote: “If you want a hip, liberal vibe, stick…to Charlottesville—a little oasis of blue in a sea of red.” Eighty percent of the city voted for Hillary Clinton in November’s election. It’s a college town. Next to the campus there’s a yoga studio and a juice bar. Down the street is a salad place with a perennial line of health-conscious UVA students extending down the block. In the aftermath of the white-nationalist rally that took place in the city on August 12, restaurants have put up signs of inclusion on their windows. When I visited, in mid-September, it was Pride Week and rainbow flags were all over the city’s downtown mall.
Some local new coverage described the Unite the Right rally and the events that transpired afterward as the products of forces external to the city itself—white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate status and push their agenda of ethnonationalism. But as Kristin Szakos, a city councilor in Charlottesville, told The New York Times’s “The Daily” podcast, “We would be wrong to think that before the discussion about the statues came up that everything was fine.” She added, “Some of the wounds from before the Civil War, some of the wounds of slavery have never fully healed. It’s like a bone that’s not been set right.” A closer look finds that the city does not need to look beyond itself to find white supremacists, to find white supremacy. Despite the city’s liberal reputation, it lurks implicitly inside the restaurants that proudly wave rainbow flags and boast inclusion—and then it’s more explicit, too.
Last Monday afternoon, all you could see of the oxidized Robert E. Lee statue just a block from the city’s downtown mall was a vague idea of its shape. The City Council voted on August 22 to cover the statue, a little over a week after the Unite the Right rally. Lawsuits over the the statues’ total removal have the city waiting, and tarps were a temporary fix. But in the darkness of night, the tarp was ripped down, just hours after Columbia Journalism Review held a panel discussion (of which I was a part) on race and racism in news coverage of the Unite the Right rally and the events that surrounded it last month.
Since the monument was covered up with black tarp, almost two weeks after white supremacists came en masse to protest in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, the tarp has been taken down at least six times. Last Monday evening, the group who tore it down was led by Jason Kessler, a local white nationalist and organizer of the Unite the Right Rally. He wasn’t alone.