A little more than three weeks after its approval, planning for Unity Days has begun.

Thursday evening, a brainstorming session was held at the Carver Community Center for a community driven event that will coincide with the third anniversary of unrest in Charlottesville in 2017.

In its inaugural year, Unity Days will be held on Aug. 11 and 12, and there will be several events during the Summer of Unity from May to August. The events have a stated goal to “educate, inspire and honor people in our community to create movement towards healing and unity on a path for economic and racial justice.”

“There was a desire to start in May and move through August because the events of that summer of hate began in May,” said Charlene Green, manager of the Office of Human Rights.

The city is proposing the Downtown Mall; Fourth Street Northeast and Southeast; and McGuffey, Market Street and Court Square parks as venues.

The city doesn’t have a set budget for the events, but there are funds the City Council could allocate.

“We have some funds to work with. But we’re also looking for partners, sponsors, people who can make in-kind donations,” city spokesman Brian Wheeler said.

The Unity Days events preempt any other events in those venues. Some of them were the locations of white supremacist events from May to August 2017, each ostensibly in response to the City Council’s vote to remove the Confederate statues in what are now Market Street and Court Square Park. The demonstrations led to the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, where scores of people were injured, and anti-racism protestor Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd just south of the Fourth Street mall crossing. In December 2018, a jury in Charlottesville Circuit Court recommended a sentence of life in prison, plus 419 years, for the car attack. Fields also faces federal charges.

Two Virginia State Police pilots also died Aug. 12 in an Albemarle County helicopter crash. They were observing the rally.

Community members heavily criticized the city’s response to the first anniversary, as sections of the city were cordoned off, very few white nationalists appeared and there was a heavy presence of several law enforcement agencies.

“Part of this whole approach is to get a different outcome,” Wheeler said. “… The challenge we had last year is that we didn’t know what we were planning for. We didn’t know what was going to happen in the downtown area and different parks, so what you heard people like me saying last year was we have to plan for worst-case scenarios … and we would be irresponsible to not be very prepared. … I want to go to the table with public safety this year and say the community has come up with these ideas in these spaces and your ideas to keep it safe. And then we need Police Chief [RaShall] Brackney and Fire Chief [Andrew] Baxter to then respond.”

Each month of the Summer of Unity has a general theme. May is designated for a look at the area’s history of race relations; June will focus on addressing institutional oppression; community and neighborhood leaders is planned for July; and August is reserved for remembrance, education and inspiration.

During Thursday’s event, participants were broken up by table to write down some ideas and then place them under the themes for each Summer of Unity month.

“Even wild ideas. Let’s encourage them because sometimes the best ideas come from the craziest places,” said Matt Murphy, the City Council’s community outreach coordinator.

Green reiterated the plan for the city to help cut through the red tape with establishing venues and resources, but shaping the events relies on citizens.

“You all as the community members have to drive the energy behind any of the ideas that eventually get implemented,” Green said. “We as staff will be resources, … but you have to the power behind the engine to make this move.”

“We want as much variety of voices as a part of this project as much as possible,” she said.

Community activist Don Gathers said his group suggested the possibility of hiding the statues of Confederate Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee during the course of the events and have talks about race and racism.

“We would like to … maybe curtain some areas of the park and put up some educational materials for the weekend around that curtain,” he said.

“That may involve a conversation with the city attorney’s office,” Wheeler said. “Maybe something’s possible for a weekend, but maybe it’s not possible for a whole month.”

A lawsuit over the council’s vote to remove the statue still is pending, and a bill that would have given the city the right to control the future of statues like those was blocked in the General Assembly.

Ideas for Unity Days events included showcasing historically African-American food, music and dance; plays on moments in the city’s history; scavenger hunts; and art shows. Other comments included the need for solemn reflection.

“It’s a festival. We’re gonna have beer and all this fun music and dance and stuff but part of this really is we gotta do work. We got the work of unity to do,” said the Rev. Gary Heaton, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church and a member of the city Planning Commission.

“This does not have to be about fun, food or festivals,” Green said. “The intention of this series of events is not for us to hold hands and sing ‘We Are the World’ or ‘Kumbaya.’ This is about speaking truth, this is about talking about what’s reality for people because reality for some folks is not the reality for other folks. And if don’t get that out there or acknowledge that, then the assumption is that, ‘Oh, we all lovey-dovey. Charlottesville is all nice and warm and fuzzy. Come on down and visit us’ kind of thing. We want to keep it real. And the way we keep it real is you all holding the city accountable but also each other. Let’s make sure that it doesn’t devolve into a fun, food and festivals thing. I think it’s fine to have some fun things, … but we also need to keep it real.”

There will be sessions planned to occur every two weeks through August as an action committee is formed. The next meeting is scheduled to occur at 6 p.m. March 13 at CitySpace, 100 Fifth St. NE. For more information on Unity Days and the meetings, contact Green at (434) 970-3115 or greenc@charlottesville.org, Wheeler at (434) 970-3129 or wheelerb@charlottesville.org or email unitydays@charlottesville.org.

“People feel like the loss of the influence or control of the narrative happened back in 2017 about what Charlottesville is all about. It’s not just about Monticello, it’s not just about Thomas Jefferson and it’s definitely not just about the University of Virginia,” Green said. “And so, how do we as a community affect that narrative? … Doing that is getting people involved and engaged.”

The date of the Unity Days session has been corrected.

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Elliott Robinson

Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.