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Friday Aug. 12, 2022

Charlottesville will always be the town where five years ago today hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members marched through downtown in a shocking display of violence and hatred. Their rally traumatized us. And it left us with unanswered questions. Why, of all the cities in this country, did this happen in Charlottesville? What can we learn from it? How do we heal from it? And, perhaps most important, how do we do better?

On this five year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, we turned to the community for answers.

In the very center of the photo is a woman with long hair and a cloth headband. She is kneeling on asphalt and speaking to two people sitting on the ground in front of her with their backs to the camera. Behind the woman is an orange backboard for medical transport, as well as a chaotic jumble of emergency medicine vehicles, stretchers, and workers.
Courtesy of Ézé Amos

Why Charlottesville? Geography, history, racism and local politics all collided in 2017

It’s an often asked question this time of year: Why Charlottesville? There is no easy answer. Local researchers, activists, journalists and politicians who have analyzed Unite the Right point to a host of colliding issues, and some happenstance, that provoked a white supremacist rally in our community. And, yes, some of those issues were very local.

In the aftermath of Aug. 12, 2017, the city was forced to examine its own history of racism — past and present. “I guess one silver lining of August 12 is that it made racial tensions impossible to ignore any longer,” said Aliyah Cotton, who was a student at the University of Virginia in 2017.

Two men and a woman are pictured side by side in a black and white collage.
Credit: Tamica Jean-Charles/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Black Charlottesville residents open up about what changed — and what didn’t — after Unite the Right

Cotton was one of seven Black Charlottesville residents whom we spoke with about the changes they’ve seen in their city since Unite the Right. Some can point to real and definitive improvements. Others see no change at all.

Their candid interviews show the real life experiences of Charlottesville’s Black community, away from the spotlight of national media and government meetings.

Unite the Right did spur some undeniable changes here. The city began listening to Black residents who still live in areas that were racially segregated during the Jim Crow era. Officials have put more effort — and money — into creating new and better public housing stock for the people who live there, though some say it hasn’t been enough.

The community also acknowledged that there is a disparity in how we police people of color. The city released a study in early 2020 that showed that Black residents are overrepresented and punished more severely in the local criminal justice system. Annual reports from the police department still show that a disproportionate number of Black Charlottesvillians are arrested each year.

A group of people holding signs that read, "Fully fund the PCRB!" and "Support the PCRB" stand in front of a brick building with the words "City Hall" on the front.
Credit: Zack Wajsgras/Chalottesville Tomorrow

It took five years, but the board of civilians that oversees the Charlottesville Police Department has its first case

That information, along with criticism of how local police handled the rally, pushed Charlottesville residents to call for a civilian board to hear police misconduct cases. It took nearly five years of unrelenting effort by a handful of people, but the city at last approved an ordinance allowing the Police Civilian Oversight Board to hear cases in March.

The city was also finally able to remove the Confederate monuments where white supremacists rallied. City Council chose to give its statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee to the only local group that expressed interest — the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The Center has a community-backed plan to melt the Lee statue and transform the bronze into other pieces of art that will be displayed somewhere in the city.

A bronze statue of a man on a horse is tied to a trailer being towed down a street. Crowds of people watch.
Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Confederate groups may once again stall Charlottesville’s plans for the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee

That plan may again be stalled by Confederate legacy groups. Two of them have sued the city, alleging it is illegal for the local government to destroy the bronze statue. Many of those involved in the lawsuit are the same people who were involved in the suit that prevented the city from removing its statues before 2017.

Andrea Douglas, the Heritage Center’s executive director, is undeterred by the lawsuit. Whether they’re allowed to keep the statue or not, the Center intends to complete a public art project. It’s an important step in healing for the community, she said. 

Douglas is not the only person using art as a way to heal. Local photographer Ézé Amos this week unveiled a series of never before seen photos that he took on Aug. 12, 2017, and after. 

A photograph taken from the ground level of a line of people sitting close together on a curb, with more people standing next to and behind them. The focus of the photo is a man in a short-sleeved button-down shirt, shorts, and jelly sandals sitting on the curb, holding his cell phone. The corners of his mouth are turned down and his brow is furrowed. On the street in front of him, there are messages written in chalk. Down the street, stickers spelling out “HATE” have been added underneath the “STOP” of a street sign.
Courtesy of Ézé Amos Credit: Courtesy Ézé Amos

New pictures of Charlottesville in 2017 tell the story of a community that fought back

“I was thinking of doing something around August 11 and 12,” Amos told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “I fell into the same trap of wanting to show photos of protestors, signs, and all that. Then I started thinking, why would I want to do the same thing, show photos of anger? I decided I don’t want to show photos of protestors, I don’t want to show photos of activists. Instead, let’s talk about us. Let’s talk about the people, the regular, average, Charlottesville people, what they experienced on that day. Let’s talk about that. Or let them talk about that. And that is how this project came to be.”

His display is on the Downtown Mall.

There are many ways forward. We end our coverage on this five year anniversary with a message from local pastor Michael Cheuk, who experienced Unite the Right as an Asian American clergy person. In the years since, he has grappled with how to best fight for civil rights in our community.

Religious leaders march in front of a crowd down a street, with trees behind them and a police vehicle in the corner of the image.
Credit: David McNair/The DTM

In Charlottesville’s ‘summer of hate,’ a Chinese American pastor found his place in the struggle for civil rights

We thank you for joining us in these reflections five years after August 2017. We hope our coverage inspires you to continue to be intentional about who we are as a community — our flaws and our strengths. And to continue the work to grow and be better. We’ll be doing that, too.

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.