On Aug. 12, 2017, Market Street Park was the site where hundreds white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and far-right militias converged for a brutal rally ostensibly against the removal of the city’s Confederate statues. Three years after that deadly event, that park drew a different sort of crowd.
Dozens of people joined a handful of clergy and activist groups for a day-long event Wednesday they called Reclaim the Park. Though the fear of returning extremists lingers in Charlottesville on this date each year, the groups took the perimeters of the park “into our own hands,” blocking streets to “create space for ourselves.”
“Our goal is to reclaim the park in a way that is uplifting and a healing space for people,” Amanda Moxham, a local activist, said to a group of journalists outside the park early in the afternoon.
The event, which featured food, art, prayer, music and socializing on a walk-in basis, was organized by several Black activist groups without the aid of the city of Charlottesville. City leaders canceled their planned Unity Days events in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
With no city involvement, the event’s organizers asked that law enforcement not show up and that the media remain at a distance.
Streets were barricaded by private vehicles with various signage supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than by Charlottesville Police Department. The law enforcement presence consisted of officers on bikes that occasionally rode by.
Activist and founding member of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville Don Gathers said that, in part, law enforcement’s handling of the tiki torch rally at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, 2017, and the Unite the Right Rally on Aug. 12, 2017, still resonate for activists who were there on those days — contributing to their desire to not have them there this year.
Although there was a large police presence over the two days in 2017, mostly unchecked violence occurred at the park and in other locations — like outside of the Rotunda and inside the Market Street Parking Garage — culminating in the death of activist Heather Heyer on Fourth Street Southeast.
A November 2017 report conducted at the request of the city by former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy indicated a breakdown in communication among law enforcement agencies and local officials, as well as inadequate preparations for the rally — which activists had warned councilors about ahead of time.
“The fact that the police did not intervene at that point and did not step in to protect and serve as they watched all manner of evilness and ugliness unfold in front of them and made no effort to try and quell it — that would be a reasoning and rationale for asking the police to not become a part of this particular demonstration,” Gathers said.
Gathers also noted mistrust previously placed from earlier summer 2017 rallies with the Ku Klux Klan where Virginia State Police used tear gas on counter-protesters.
On the rally’s first anniversary in 2018, residents were riled again when the City Market was canceled, and a perimeter was set up downtown. Additionally, a large showing of police surrounded the Confederate monuments and also followed activists as they marched from the University of Virginia to downtown, kicking off discussions about over-policing of the city’s communities of color.
The wish to avoid police presence was so strong that even though several community members have reported seeing armed white men standing around the statues of Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee this summer — and many worried about what would happen if event-goers encountered those men — organizers still requested that Charlottesville Police not show up.
Many people would assume a police presence at the park would make people feel safer, but
Conn, an activist who has been heavily involved with Black Lives Matter protests, said that for people of color, police presence does not equal safety. Using 2017 as an example, she said the police didn’t protect the lives of people.
“The police protect property, not human life,” she said.
Wednesday’s event was meant to create a space of healing and community support, Conn said.
“This is a traumatic week,” she said. “It’s important to have a police-free space.”
Local activist Zyahna Bryant said that holding the space without police or media present would allow organizers to “reclaim the narrative.”
Their work is far from over, Bryant said.
“I think a lot of the times when you’re talking about the racial healing that’s taking place, these are narratives that are coming from white people,” Bryant said.
“I think a lot of times those narratives center white fragility and white guilt, so when white people feel better about the actions they’ve taken historically, they feel as though they can move on. But that leaves Black and brown people in the dust. Until we have equity in every single facet, we can’t move on.”
With Reclaim the Park, participants and organizers said they aimed to celebrate the communities of color in Charlottesville while taking back a site with sour history — both past and present.
However, organizers say the movement will continue and urged more people to get involved.
“The most startling thing to me post-George Floyd murder [in May this year] is that while Black people are taking to the streets in mass numbers to stand up for the right to live, white people are forming book clubs,” local activist Moxham said. “When those two actions as the result of the murder of a Black man by a cop — when those two actions become the same post-murder, then we will be talking more about being in a space and being equitable.”