More than a hashtag: What Biden and Harris could learn from #Charlottesville since Unite the Right
“Charlottesville” was the first word spoken in Joe Biden’s campaign launch video in spring 2019, citing the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, as inspiration to run. In the year and a half since, he’s emerged as the Democratic presidential nominee while evoking Charlottesville several more times.
Though to-date, he has not visited the city during his campaign and likely can count on votes from the Democrat-leaning locality, Charlottesville Tomorrow checked in with various people about what they think a potentially elected Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration can learn from Charlottesville and Virginia as a whole.
Charlottesville’s history as the nation’s history
University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt — along with Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas — has led walking tours of Court Square since 2018.
The free tours, which usually last about 90 minutes, contextualize the history connected with Charlottesville and Albemarle County memorials ranging from the slave auction block marker to the area’s bronze statues of Confederate soldiers.
For Biden to understand why Unite the Right happened in Charlottesville goes beyond just the statues, Schmidt said.
She noted the connection between Charlottesville’s racist past, President Donald Trump’s rhetoric during his last campaign, and the growing rise of white supremacy and neo-Nazism from fringe into mainstream in recent years.
“It wasn’t just ‘Poor Charlottesville — how did this happen here?’” Schmidt said. “All these horrible alt-right guys are crawling out from under their rocks on 4chan, 8chan, Daily Stormer, and it became ‘IRL’ — in real life. They got stirred up and emboldened.”
Schmidt reflected on how, around 2016 and 2017, Charlottesville had been examining its past and figuring out what to do with its Confederate monuments. Between the Blue Ribbon Commission and the City Council’s vote at the time to remove the monuments, organizing began to take shape for what eventually became the Unite the Right rally. Schmidt noted that while the monument decisions appear to have been a catalyst, there is more to it than simply that.
“There is a direct connection between the Trump campaign and the fact that we here in Charlottesville were trying to face up to our past,” Schmidt said, adding that Trump’s rhetoric was “whipping up” bad actors.
On Charlottesville’s history, Schmidt explained what may have made it a “petri dish” for white supremacists, in part, to select it as a gathering place.
She explained that it was not just that UVA was the alma mater of some rally organizers, but how the study of eugenics at the university lead to the “one drop rule,” a former classification that any individual with a single ancestor of Black ancestry was considered Black for social and legal purposes.
Charlottesville’s public schools were also among the last to integrate in the country.
“It’s just amazing the history of white supremacy we have here and the national impact — so in some sense it was like coming full circle,” Schmidt said. “Charlottesville and UVA had been a leader in some of this stuff and sort of injecting it into the national blood strain.”
Yet, the multiple events that transpired over the summer of 2017 catapulted Charlottesville into a national spotlight and caught the attention of Biden.
In the aftermath of the Aug. 12 rally, Trump went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides” — cementing Biden’s inspiration to seek the presidency.
“In that moment, I knew the threat to our nation was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden said in his campaign launch video.
For Schmidt, however, events like the rally or other acts of racist violence should not be unanticipated.
“It shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of the white residents here in Charlottesville, they were so shocked,” Schmidt explained.
She added that Biden evoking Charlottesville is not surprising, either, and said this city has more to offer as a learning moment beyond the events that transpired three years ago.
“We can offer ‘what does it mean for a community to look honestly at its past and how the past is affecting the present?’” Schmidt said. “We’ve done a lot here in terms of community consultation. Our civic engagement is at a very high level.”
Forging equitable paths
Charlottesville City Councilor Sena Magill understands how an event like Unite the Right can inspire a campaign because it inspired hers. After her husband was injured during the rally — resulting in a damaged carotid artery and subsequent stroke — the former social worker realized she wanted to be involved in local government.
Now serving as vice mayor, she noted how equity has been a throughline of council conversations and large focus for the city’s mayor in particular.
“Mayor [Nikuyah] Walker brings equity into every conversation. While that can be uncomfortable, it’s necessary,” Magill said.
Magill hopes that a Biden/Harris administration will do the same.
According to Biden’s Virginia communications director, Renzo Olivari, Biden got into the race “because he saw the Charlottesville attack as a defining moment in the history of our country.”
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have laid out a comprehensive policy agenda to address issues that contributed to the Charlottesville attack and begin to heal our nation after four years of President Trump,” Olivari said in an email. “Joe and Kamala will fight anti-semitism and white supremacy and work to close racial equity gaps in our economy, education, and health care systems — making sure this pandemic and its aftermath no longer disproportionately affect communities of color.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted racial and socioeconomic disparities, part of Biden’s policy agenda is aimed at “advancing racial equity across the American economy” through reforming opportunity zones, spurring public-private investment through a small business opportunity plan, and a housing plan focused on affordability and homeownership, among other initiatives.
In more local collaborative efforts,
the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and UVA recently met virtually to discuss a memorandum of understanding aimed at enhancing communication and collaboration regarding equity.
“Pretty much every policy has previously come from a non-equitable lens and we didn’t realize it,” Magill explained. “Even those of us who want equity, haven’t realized how off we have been and how off the system has been.”
As such, the city’s latest efforts to revise its Comprehensive Plan also will include an affordable housing strategy.
Meanwhile, housing policy emerged as a talking point in the presidential elections as the president promised to keep low-income housing out of suburban neighborhoods.
Trump, along with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal over the summer reiterating that point.
More locally, a February report by the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition highlighted the city’s historical use of racial covenants and the impact that zoning has had on homeownership and affordability. It referenced the 2018 Orange Dot Report, which also found disparities in income for white Charlottesville residents and some of its Black residents.
“In Charlottesville, the fight to preserve affordable housing intertwines deeply with the pursuit of racial justice,” the CLIHC report reads. “After August 12, 2017, in which our commitment to racial justice and the safety of our Black residents came under a national spotlight, it became even clearer that we must go further than debates about monuments and historical apologies.”
According to Biden’s website, his plan involves:
- Ending redlining and other discriminatory or unfair practices in the housing market
- Providing financial assistance to help people buy or rent — including down payment assistance through refundable and advanceable credit and fully funding rental assistance
- Investing in energy efficient homes
- Pursuing an approach to end homelessness
Another option, Magill suggests, would be the establishment of a federal land trust aimed at creating more affordable housing.
“Let’s take a hard look at HUD and say, ‘We’re not just sheltering people, we’re homing people,’” Magill explained. “Let’s look into how we can provide a program like a land trust that you can build a house on top of to make it permanently affordable so that people can actually move from public housing to homeownership. We can start breaking this generational poverty.”
Magill suggested that if Biden were to speak with local elected officials, he could gain some insight into what has worked for Charlottesville and what federal support could help accomplish local initiatives around the country.
“Come talk to us. We are still trying to figure things out, and we know government can be a slow process. But find out what our roadblocks have been,” Magill said. “As we are making changes, what we find here may be pertinent to lots of other places as well.”
Meanwhile founding member of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville Don Gathers wants Biden to hear from survivors of the rally along with advocates and activists for their insights and experiences “doing the work.” Gathers is also the victim of online threats from a white supremacist —part of the reason his 2019 candidacy for Charlottesville’s city council was cut short. The Florida resident who had targeted Gathers online has since been sentenced to three years in prison. Though Gathers initially hoped that Biden would never visit Charlottesville during his campaign—concerned that Biden had “used [Charlottesville] as a prop to launch his platform”— he now hopes that he will come after all.
“I would love nothing more than a town hall where he can hear people who have been doing the work,” Gathers said.
Police reform and how Virginia is voting
Police reform emerged as a legislative priority for the General Assembly when Gov. Ralph Northam called legislators back to session for budget work over the summer. As the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others inspired a new wave of nationwide demonstrations, it — paired with a Democrat majority in the House of Delegates and state Senate chambers — inspired policies aimed at altering how policing operates.
This week, Northam signed a variety of police reform bills that include a ban on no-knock warrants limiting the use of chokeholds, mandating additional crisis response training and legislation that grants localities stronger police civilian review boards.
In particular, Gathers is pleased with the bill that grants police civilian review boards the power to investigate the conduct of police officers and make disciplinary recommendations.
The bill, in part, was inspired by localities like Charlottesville within the state that have created such boards or panels. Charlottesville was among the first few localities in Virginia to establish civilian oversight of police with a resolution passed in December of 2017.
Gathers said the passed legislation puts “some real teeth” into review boards.
Meanwhile, as Election Day approaches, over 2 million Virginians have already voted for Biden or Trump along with a slew of congressional candidates and the U.S. Senate.
State Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, said that the state has taken a national lead on an equitable voting process.
“Democrats believe that democracy works better when more people participate,” Hudson said. “So our broad agenda has been about trying to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote.”
Hudson noted the longer and varied process to vote this year that was implemented by the General Assembly as something Biden and Harris — if elected — could spearhead for future elections.
“All of the laws that we passed to expand ballot access in Virginia and roll back decades of voter suppression measures is showing right now, and Virginia is one of the leading states in the country on early voting turnout,” Hudson said. “ I mean, you look at the crazy long lines around the country where people have only had a week or two of early voting, and Virginia had 45 days. That’s because of the Democratic majority in Richmond.”
Virginia state elections have experienced a “Blue Wave” since the start of the Trump presidency; the 2018 midterms yielded a democratic majority in the U.S. House. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a summer of organizing around racial justice, Democrats are hoping to flip the Senate and also take back the White House.
“We’ve got a moment in history here where we can make a lot of good. I think we are at a tilting point,” Magill said. “I truly hope that, if Biden and Harris win, that they will use this to bring some real change forward and actually look at equity. It might mean they serve one term, but don’t be scared of that.”