The answer comes down, in large part, to one more thing Charlottesville is: historic. It is a city that embraces its history, not as a frank fact of the past but as a defining feature of its present. Plaques and statues are everywhere on the becolumned UVA campus. Thomas Jefferson—as a person and as an idea—infuses the place. But Charlottesville is not merely a blue city in a red state; it is also a southern town in a southern state. The monuments that make the city’s history manifest are often ones that celebrate figures of the Confederacy. And one of those monuments, in particular, has served as a bronze-sculpted lightning rod. At the center of downtown Charlottesville, steps from The Pie Chest and a mile or so from campus, sits Emancipation Park. At its center, soaring 26 feet above the park’s manicured lawn, stands an enormous statue of Robert E. Lee astride his enormous horse.
The battle between Charlottesville and the white supremacists began most directly when, in April, Charlottesville’s city council, taking a cue from many others around the country, voted to remove the statue of Lee. (The removal, CNN noted, is currently on hold pending litigation.)
In May, Richard Spencer—a white nationalist who is also a UVA graduate—led a group of his followers to protest the removal of the statue. They paraded around the park, chanting and wielding torches. “We will not be replaced from this park,” Spencer told the crowd, CBS News reported at the time. “We will not be replaced from this world. Whites have a future. We have a future of power, of beauty, of expression.”
In June, Charlottesville’s city council voted to rename two of its Confederacy-commemorative parks, Robert E. Lee Park and Stonewall Jackson Park. They are now known as Emancipation Park and Justice Park, respectively.
In July, the Ku Klux Klan hosted its own rally in Charlottesville—this one to celebrate the statue of the Confederate Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson. “White power,” some 50 people chanted, clad in their robes, and bearing their Confederate flags. Counter-protesters—some 1,000 of them—greeted them, shouting, “racists go home.” Finally, they did.
As Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Signer, summed things up to CNN last month, “Charlottesville has kind of been put on the map recently.” He added: “We want to change the narrative by telling the true story of race through public spaces. That has made us a target for groups that hate that change and want to stay in the past, but we will not be intimidated.”
But Charlottesville, it seems, remains a target—to the extent that, this weekend, its name has become nearly synonymous with hatred and violence. (The trending hashtag for the events that have been unfolding in the city has been, simply, #charlottesville.) On Friday night, a group of white nationalists descended on the lawns of the University of Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of Lee, waving Confederate flags, carrying (tiki) torches, raising their arms in Nazi salutes. On Saturday, this time on the streets of downtown Charlottesville, those protesters were met with counter-protesters. The groups clashed, sometimes violently. A man plowed his car into a group of protesters, killing one person and injuring 19. Two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash while assisting with the response to the violence.