A year after deadly Virginia rally, wounds are still raw

A year after deadly Virginia rally, wounds are still raw

Video Courtesy of Vice

Sometimes Alfred Wilson still has to take a moment to collect himself after he pulls open files at the law firm where he works and sees Heather Heyer’s handwriting.

“I get choked up and have to gather myself before I talk to the client,” said Wilson, who hired Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed nearly a year ago in a car attack during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The rally that left Heyer dead and dozens more injured proved to be a watershed moment, both for the racist, fringe “alt-right” movement, and for the city itself. In the year since, many residents like Wilson say the wounds haven’t healed. Others say the violence has laid bare divisions over deeper issues of race and economic inequality and what should be done to move forward.

“One of my hugest gripes with last year with the people of this town was that people, mostly white folks, kept saying, ‘This isn’t Charlottesville,'” said Brenda Brown-Grooms, a local pastor and activist. “I wonder what planet they live on. This is exactly who we are.”

A Charlottesville native, born in the segregated basement of the University of Virginia hospital, Brown-Grooms said white supremacy was present in Charlottesville long before the rally and is the “elephant in the room” the city now must deal with.

Activists have pushed leadersto address the city’s legacies of racism and slavery, its affordable housing crunch and the police department’s relationship with the black community, among other issues, since the Aug. 12 rally.

The event was one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and far-right extremists in a decade. Many participants dressed as if they were headed to battle, shouted racist slurs and clashed violently with counterprotesters. Meanwhile, authorities largely stood by on the fringes of the action near a downtown park with a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that the city wanted to remove.

The crowd was eventually forced to disperse but a car that authorities say was driven by a man fascinated with Adolf Hitler later plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two troopers.

In the year since, the city has taken steps toward meeting some of the activists’ demands, despite resistance on some issues from the Republican-controlled state legislature . Lawmakers defeated every bill Charlottesville supported in the rally’s aftermath, including measures dealing with cities’ abilities to remove Confederate monuments.

In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, State Police keep a handful of Confederate protesters separated from counter-demonstrators in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. Pressure to take down America’s monuments honoring slain Confederate soldiers and the generals who led them didn’t start with Charlottesville. But the deadly violence that rocked the Virginia college town a year ago gave the issue an explosive momentum. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Responding in part to calls for a closer look at stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect black residents, the city established a new Police Civilian Review Board. The city also has approved funds for affordable housing and workforce development.

Meanwhile, there’s been a churn in leadership. The city attorney took a new job, the city manager’s contract was not renewed, a spokeswoman quit and the police chief, 50 at the time, retired after less than two years on the job.

The five-person city council has two new faces, and the group picked a different mayor, Nikuyah Walker, a black woman who ran as an independent in the staunchly Democratic town and was previously one of the council’s strongest critics.

Walker has clashed publicly with other council members on multiple issues, such as hiring an interim city manager. She recently took to social media to criticize the candidate, the way he was selected and her fellow councilors’ behavior.

The council’s drama doesn’t seem to affect most residents, who “just go on with our lives and watch with quiet amusement,” said Charles “Buddy” Weber, an attorney and longtime resident involved in a lawsuit seeking to stop the city from removing the Lee monument. Weber emphasized that not everyone in Charlottesville agrees on the extent and nature of the city’s problems.

While the city’s been struggling to find its footing, some alt-right leaders are faltering. The rally violence proved a costly debacle for leading figures such as white nationalist Richard Spencer and others who are fighting lawsuits. Many in the movement have been booted from mainstream internet platforms. A few have dropped out altogether.

Only one organizer of last summer’s rally seems intent on publicly marking the anniversary. Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville resident and UVA graduate, sued the city after it denied him a permit for an anniversary event. Kessler recently abandoned his lawsuit, but he vowed to press ahead with plans for an Aug. 12 rally in Washington, D.C.

During an interview this summer, Kessler said he was still “coming to terms” with what happened last year and said he apologized to Heyer’s family.

But he struck a far more defiant tone when a city attorney questioned him last month. Kessler said during a deposition that he had no regrets or remorse about his role and takes no responsibility for the violence.

While Kessler’s plans for the anniversary weekend have shifted, many residents say they’re bracing for some sort of white nationalist presence. Officials and law enforcement authorities insist that whatever happens, they will be better prepared. An investigation by a former U.S. attorney found a lack of planning, poor communication and a passive response by law enforcement added to last year’s chaos.

Michael Rodi, owner of a downtown restaurant-nightclub, told city and law enforcement officials at a forum for the business community that “if we can make this thing fizzle, the rest of the world looks at us and goes, ‘Oh, you’re not Nazi Central.'”

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who’s spent much of the past year working with Wilson on a foundation named for her daughter, said she plans to place flowers Sunday at the site of the attack that claimed Heyer’s life. But the day should be about more than just Heyer, Bro said.

“I just would like people to focus on the anniversary, not on Heather, but on the issues that she died for — Black Lives Matter, overpolicing, affordable housing, for more truth and the telling of the history of Charlottesville — and to focus on where they need to go as a community,” Bro said.

— Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, and AP photographer Steve Helber in Charlottesville contributed to this report. Rankin reported from Richmond and Charlottesville.

Trauma victims seek healing in God

Trauma victims seek healing in God

Preacher Daniel Rasash falls to his knees and weeps in prayer at the Yoyo Pentecostal Church in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda, on June 4, 2017. South Sudanese refugees meet in open-air churches rigged from timber with seats made only from planks of wood or logs drilled into the ground, yet these churches offer support among the daily humiliations that come with rebuilding their lives. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)


BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) – Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump — not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

“I can’t sleep unless I keep on praying,” said Kuol, 38, a mother of five. “I always have nightmares. In my dreams I go back to my old village and I see how my friends were shot dead. They keep on calling me, ‘Achol! Achol! Achol!’ And I would wake up screaming.”

For thousands of South Sudanese here in the world’s largest refugee camp, the search for healing from recent horrors involves a quest for God.  Saddled with post-traumatic stress disorder in many cases, refugees are often encouraged by camp counselors to attend church as a pathway to healing.

“Many refugees usually go to church because it’s the only likely place in the camp where they can get help to recover from the trauma,” said Gabriel Mayen, a trauma counselor at Bidi Bidi. “The church gives them new hope, which is important to refugees and any person who has experienced trauma.”

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, broke into civil war in late 2013 when troops loyal to then-Vice President Riek Machar clashed with forces loyal to President Salva Kiir. The conflict spread quickly into an ethnic clash as the two leaders were representing two major tribes. Christianity is the majority religion in South Sudan.

A congregation sits under an open-air wooden frame as they attend a Sunday service at a pentecostal church in Bidi Bidi refugee camp, in northern Uganda, on June 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

As a result, thousands have been killed, 2 million have been displaced in South Sudan, and another 2 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries. More than 1 million have fled to Uganda.

This camp, known as Bidi Bidi, is home to more than 250,000 people. Here, dozens of churches have cropped up and are becoming increasingly popular as the traumatized seek a foundation to put their lives back together.

Kuol’s husband was murdered in June last year when government soldiers attacked her town of Yei in southwest South Sudan. She fled with her children, arriving at Bidi Bidi three days later. One child died from hunger during the journey.

“I passed through a difficult time,” she said. “God saved me from death, and I had to accept him. In God I find peace, and I don’t have nightmares … though the memories of the killings still haunt me.”

More than 30 churches spread across the camp are headed by South Sudanese pastors, according to Ugandan officials. Many church leaders, including pastors, bishops, priests, evangelists and others, moved with their South Sudanese congregations into exile when civil war erupted.

“When these church leaders arrived at the camp, they began their own churches,” said Deng Bol, a refugee teacher and representative. “We have different denominations. Refugees have options here. If they want to go to Catholic or Protestant churches, they can go.”

Pastor John Deng of Christ Ministry Church fled South Sudan in 2016. He said his church is bringing together members of warring tribes, the Nuer and Dinka, and fostering cooperation across tribal lines. The church also provides emotional healing if one loses a family member at the camp or back home in South Sudan, he said.

“The church has played a vital role in unifying the people of South Sudan who had hated each other,” he said. “We are happy that people are living peaceful in the camp away from home.”

Women and children return home with plastic containers of water, in a section of the sprawling complex of mud-brick houses and tents that make up the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda on June 9, 2017. The number of South Sudanese refugees sheltering in Uganda reached 1 million in Aug. 2017, a grim milestone in what has become the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Peace can be elusive at Bidi Bidi. Those traumatized by torture, rape and other violence often bring vengeful habits with them, Mayen said. Many drink alcohol in excess and become violent, he said.

“Some even take machetes and attack other refugees,” he said.

Spiritual warfare is a theme heard often around the camp. During a recent worship service, Deng warned the people of South Sudan that civil war in their country will not end until they turn to God and ask for forgiveness. Quoting from Proverbs 6:16-19, Deng said his home country was already under curse.

“Our country is cursed,” he said. “The only hope we have is heaven. It’s written that shedding someone’s blood is the work of the devil and anybody who is killing people is doing the work of the devil. We need to kneel down and ask God for forgiveness if we want him to bring peace in our country.”

The new churches make a point to offer hope. When rebel soldiers attacked Yei town last year in the middle of the night, Akur Piok and her husband escaped in different directions. Since then they have not once seen each other. Piok escaped with three of her children, leaving behind two.

South Sudanese refugees meet in an open-air church at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda on Feb. 15, 2018. Refugees pray for God to solve their challenges and bring peace in their country. RNS photo by Tonny Onyulo

“I’m traumatized,” she said as she walked toward the church. “I don’t know if my children and husband are still alive or dead. I have many problems. It’s only God who can solve them. I want to go and sing, worship and pray so that God can be the answer to my problems.”

Deng agreed. In his view, only God can solve the daunting challenges these refugees face.

“If you see them praying and crying, they have a reason: These refugees have problems,” he said. “They have no food to eat. No hospitals to take their families when they are sick, and their children are not going to school. The only hope they have is God.”

Kuol, a Dinka tribeswoman, credits God with sustaining her desire to live, despite her overwhelming troubles. Her church has helped her focus on the future rather than the past, she said. Her plans include a church wedding to her Nuer prayer partner.

“I don’t know where I would have been without God,” Kuol said. “I would have died a long time ago. I have so many problems that I sometimes think of committing suicide. But God always comes to my rescue.”

Review: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is daring and essential

Review: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is daring and essential

Video Courtesy of NBC News

In 1979, a man named Ron Stallworth who was the first African-American police officer and detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department also became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan and the leader of the local chapter. He would send a white co-worker to play him for in-person meetings as part of the wild undercover operation, but Stallworth was the one on the phone, insisting his hatred for non-white races with everyone from the local chapter members to the KKK’s “grand wizard” David Duke himself.

It’s Stallworth’s story that provides the framework for Spike Lee’s blistering new film, “BlacKkKlansman ,” but hardly the full picture. Deceptively epic in scope, in “BlacKkKlansman” Lee has made an immensely entertaining film about everything — love, friendship, ambition, civil rights, the power of words and images to uplift and destroy and the various shades and ideologies of racism and revolution that will leave you craving another viewing.

John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, a composed and deliberate man who isn’t afraid to ask for what he wants, whether it’s a job or a quick promotion out of the dreaded records room and into undercover work.

Many around him are quick to throw labels and make assumptions about what he can and can’t do. His co-worker calls him a toad, because of his race. His black student union girlfriend, Patrice, asks if he’s a pig (i.e. a cop). At work, he seems extreme — a rookie suggesting a dangerous undercover operation to infiltrate the KKK. In life, he seems compliant. As Patrice (a brilliant Laura Harrier) tells him, meaningful change is impossible when working within the structures of a racist system.

But Ron has a plan to infiltrate The Organization, and a few around him like the police chief (Robert John Burke), and two detectives, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi) are at least willing to go along with it for a while. Flip draws the card to be in-person Ron, which turns out to be a headache of its own when one of The Organization’s members, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), starts to suspect that he might actually be Jewish.

These scenes are riveting to watch, infused with a perfectly executed tension as Flip carefully navigates his way through meetings and interactions with the group, including the docile chapter leader Walter (Ryan Eggold), the maniacally sinister Felix and the perpetually drunk and dumb Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). They are, on the whole, dopes used for comedic effect, but there is something else going on below the surface. You’re always keenly aware that these shadowy, back bar racists could with the right leader become the mainstream.

The acting is expert throughout with standout performances by Washington and Driver, especially, who gets a powerful arc. The supporting cast is also notably strong, including Harrier and Topher Grace as David Duke, who is attempting to take The Organization into the mainstream with a gentlemanly demeanor, polished suits and a politician’s smile.

Mind you, “BlacKkKlansman” is not a subtle film and is often repetitive where it least needs it. Stallworth’s “white voice” and racist musings over the phone are perfectly used a few times, until the effect eventually begins to dull.

But it is an exhilarating, distressing, funny and profound film, with one of the more memorable film scores in years, from composer Terence Blanchard. Every frame is packed with meaning and metaphor from the opening, the famous crane shot from Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind,” onward to the sins of the present day. It’s a Spike Lee joint that is not to be missed.

“BlacKklansman,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references.” Running time: 135 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.