Editor’s Note: Leslie M. Scott-Jones was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her two children. She co-hosts “Home Grown,” a radio show about local art, on 94.7 WPVC and is the artistic director at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. David Vaughn Straughn is a local activist who has lived in Charlottesville for over 20 years. He is a contributing writer for Parle Magazine and Scalawag. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
Leslie Jones and David Straughn: Charlottesville you're seeing is not the town voted one of the happiest places in America
As residents, we renew our commitment to our ideals as a city that values diversity, art, compassion, and love, they write
Before this weekend, you might not have heard of our hometown. Charlottesville is built into a valley of the Piedmont region of Virginia, nestled between the Rivanna River and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a somewhat tranquil college town, famous on many travel sites for its beauty and historical significance, and marketed to tourists and potential residents as a happy, safe place that routinely shows up on lists of the best places to live in America. This is not the Charlottesville the country is seeing now.
As the nation and the world now knows, a car was weaponized in the name of terrorism. James Alex Fields, Jr. has been arrested and accused of using a vehicle to purposely drive over citizens of this town, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several more. One of us stood only a few feet away. Video was posted to social media of Deandre Harris, a young black man, being beaten by a group of white supremacists with poles inside a public parking garage two blocks away from the fatal incident. These are just two stories of violence from a long list of assaults witnessed and photographed by local journalists and community members.
There is no way to describe the terror and trauma of this weekend’s events. There is no way for us to disregard or cleanse it from our souls. It is all too real, and will continue to haunt this town and every person in it. There is no way to whitewash this. All we can do is summon our collective power as a community. We must resolve, in the most concrete ways and the most vehement language, to dismantle the underlying systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny and bigotry that created this crisis in the first place.
Right now, flowing inside this valley are emotions that range from fear to disbelief to anger. Our community can’t simply wait to breathe easy. Lives (Heather Heyer’s, and two state troopers whose helicopter crashed as they were monitoring the situation) were lost Saturday in Charlottesville. We grieve, individually, and as a community, for this loss of life.
How did we get here? The City Council approved a permit for a violent group and its various denominations to congregate and spew their rhetoric throughout the humid summer air. Many in this town are completely aghast that our city has become a target for hate groups – again.
We have already endured this in July of this year, when a Ku Klux Klan rally, held in Emancipation Park in the center of town, ended with the invaders being escorted out by police and citizens being teargassed. The aftermath left a community asking for answers about why our townspeople, our neighbors, were treated like criminals, subjected to tear gas and arrest. Still reeling from that trauma, Charlottesville has had no time to grieve as we braced for the next, and bigger, onslaught of hate coming our way.
These white supremacists have not only weaponized free speech, but also have normalized hate speech. Draped in constitutional protection, and now with multiple weapons to match their penchant for verbal violence and displays of intimidation, they rode into our town. Friday afternoon, police responded to a report that alt-right members outside a local Walmart parking lot were brandishing guns and openly harassing community members running their weekend shopping errands.
Later that night, right across the street from a church service that was held specifically to unite the community against violence and hatred, alt-right members confronted, harassed and reportedly assaulted University of Virginia students as they were walking home. No arrests were made that anyone could see.
Saturday began with a peaceful march to several parks by local citizens and representatives of organizations committed to nonviolent protest. There were skirmishes during the day between white supremacists and the community. There were arrests made on both sides. However, when the rally – held once again in Emancipation Park, despite community objection – was declared unlawful and rally participants were asked to leave, all hell broke loose. With a state of emergency declared, citizens were pushed out of the downtown area around the park. As residents walked the streets of their town, they were mowed down by a car and then backed over, so the culprit could make his getaway. Citizens, ourselves included, sought safe spaces and waited for things to die down before making their way home.
A lot of people may be wondering what people in Charlottesville are thinking and feeling, and what we will do next as we return to work and life after these appalling events. Here’s what we want to tell them.
Love trumps hate. But it’s important to finish that thought. Love trumps hate – eventually. Love conquering all only happens over time. As our community saw on Saturday, time is not a luxury we have. As members of this community, we continue to hope and will push our city leaders in the direction of a healing that truly listens and values the voices of the entire community.
Charlottesville has always regarded itself as a city that values diversity, art, compassion, acceptance and love. Because that hasn’t been the experience for all of Charlottesville’s residents, as a community, we remain committed to achieving that ideal. America has a great promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must remain vigilant in making sure that promise becomes real for all our citizens. This dedication to equity, truth and love is the only path forward that ensures our community survival.