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 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.
(RNS) A coalition of African-American clergy is calling on churches to serve as sacred spaces for healing in the aftermath of violence in Charlottesville, Va., and as the nation grapples with racism and other bigotry.
“We urge churches across the country to create safe and sacred spaces for prayer, healing, dialogue and honest conversations about the history and reality of racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism and white supremacy in this nation,” the black clergy said in a Friday (Aug. 18) statement.
“Our youth and young adults especially need a place to process this assault on their being and the very soul of this nation.”
The group, which spearheaded the first-ever “African American Clergy Advocacy Day” on Capitol Hill a month ago, also denounced the hatred displayed recently in Charlottesville and the “subsequent inflammatory and detestable words of President Donald Trump supporting the hateful actions of the KKK, Nazis and white supremacist groups.”
The 10 initial signatories include leaders of the National African American Clergy Network, the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative and the National Council of Churches, as well as officials of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ.
The black clergy called on Congress, denominational leaders, and particularly white evangelical church leaders to speak out against the “evil” of white supremacy.
They also took issue with President Trump’s assertion that “many sides” were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.
Declaring, “No, Mr. President. There are not many sides,” the group questioned his contention that “fine people” were among both sides in the protests that turned violent and left three people dead.
“These ‘fine’ people intimidated churchgoers, attacked clergy and threw bottles from the tops of steps into the crowd of counter protesters — those who were standing against their hatred, bigotry and white supremacist values,” the online statement said.
On July 18, members of the clergy group protested the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts affecting programs including food stamps and Meals on Wheels; 16 people were arrested. A week later they joined others in a protest of the Senate’s unsuccessful efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act; 31 people were arrested.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune who drafted the statement, said the group plans to return to Capitol Hill in September to urge members of Congress to be more outspoken against white supremacy. The clergy also plan to visit five states represented by Congress members who hold key roles in considering the proposed budget.
(RNS) — The Rev. Al Sharpton says his thousand-minister march is all the more urgent now than when he began planning it months ago.
The Pentecostal-turned-Baptist minister says the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., has sparked more interest and a greater need for clergy of many faiths to speak up at the march set for Aug. 28, the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington.
The march will begin at the Washington memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and end at Justice Department offices to protest increased hate crimes, discrimination and mass incarceration.
The 62-year-old president of the National Action Network, a predominantly black, Christian organization, talked with RNS about his plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you sum up your reaction to the events of Charlottesville over the weekend?
Charlottesville was a very startling and repulsive reminder to us of the issue of hate and the issue of racism and anti-Semitism that is still alive and practiced in the country. It seems now to have been revived and, in many ways, given moral equivalency with those that protested by the president of the United States. We need a president that’s clear that anti-Semitism and hatred and the kind of public display of bigotry that we saw is unacceptable.
How do faith leaders need to respond to President Trump’s series of comments about the violence in Charlottesville?
We had already called for 1,000 ministers of all faiths — Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim — to meet at King’s memorial and march to the Justice Department, saying we do not want to see the moral authority of Dr. King’s dream undermined no matter who the president. And we’ve had several hundred ministers already sign. After Charlottesville happened — and then the president’s reaction — it has intensified and we’re getting calls from all kinds of ministers from all faiths saying we must make a statement.
Our hope is that when you looked at those Nazis carrying torches talking about “You will not replace us,” we can contrast that with rabbis linking arms with Baptist ministers and Muslims marching in the spirit of Dr. King. They went to Robert E. Lee’s monument. We’re going to King’s monument and marching to the Justice Department. I heard growing up that the best way to expose a dirty glass is put a clean glass next to it. Faith leaders must stand up and show a dignified, nonviolent way.
Our security concerns have grown ’cause we always now have to be concerned about whether some people will try and do a counter thing — I’m talking about from the right. I get up every day facing death threats. That’s normal when you’re high-profile. So our security concerns increase although we’ve had no direct threats.
As I’ve talked to a lot of the ministers that have called and joined in now, a lot of them said that, yes, we always agreed with the idea of a march but I think we didn’t understand the urgency until we saw that footage on Saturday night. I think what that has done is brought back, into everyone’s living room, why we need to keep marching. This is much worse than we thought in terms of a spirit of hate and immorality.
How does this march compare to some of the previous ones you were involved in – including the march just before the Trump inauguration and the one on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?
This one is for faith leaders. We’ve only asked for ministers. Now, others might come but it will be led by — and the program will be — rabbis, clergy members of the various parts of Christendom, Muslims and Hindus. Because we want to make a statement that hundreds of faith leaders came to Washington on the day of Dr. King’s dream. That is a big difference from us bringing tens of thousands of people — we want to make a clear statement from the moral and the faith leaders of this country.
Don’t forget Dr. King’s organization was named the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was very specific that it was religious-based and National Action Network is that as well. We’ve not heard from the faith community in a very public, united way and that’s the difference this march is.
What does it say to you about where we are as a country, or about its people of faith, that ministers are going to gather this way?
It gives hope that there are people that are willing to stand up. We’ve gone through rough periods in our history before and faith leaders leadus through. What do we remember about the ’60s? We remember when Rabbi (Abraham Joshua) Heschel joined Dr. King in Selma. We remember how it was a rabbi that was the speaker right before Dr. King at the March on Washington. When we all started coming together and raised the high moral questions, it set the climate for change. And you will always have other things going on, but when people know that those whom they go to on their Sabbath to get guidance are standing up, it brings it to another dimension. And I think it is extremely important that we do this, particularly at this time.
What do you think clergy and other people of faith should be doing at this time beyond sermons and marches?
I think that they’ve got to get into the community. They’ve got to get into the schools. They’ve got to get into the local gatherings, the town halls, the planning board meetings. And we’ve got to beat back this spirit of hate. We’ve got to go and do the work. Faith without works is a dead thing, the Bible says. And I want to lay that challenge out at the march: We’ve got to come off our pulpits and out of our cathedrals and save the soul of this nation.
Copyright 2017 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.
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