Last weekend changed not only Charlottesville, but America. We witnessed a torch-lit parade on Friday night with open hatred being spewed on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s beloved University. Saturday saw a rally led by Nazis, the KKK, and various members of the socalled “alt-right” culminate in an act of terrorism that killed one of our own.
While we are getting back on our feet, we are still traumatized. We will never be the same. But we will overcome this hatred. Government has no more sacred commitment than to keep the people safe. And it’s in that spirit that I am issuing this statement.
The proximate cause for the madness of last weekend was Charlottesville’s attempt, as a progressive southern city, to tell the truth about race in our city. A year and a half ago, we convened a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces and charged them with helping us change the narrative by telling the full history of race in Charlottesville through our public spaces.
This entailed projects such as rehabilitating the historic African-American Daughters of Zion Cemetery, adding narrative and new monuments to our Confederate Parks, built during the Jim Crow era, and changing their names. It also included a vote to remove and then sell the statue of Robert E. Lee: a vote where I was in the minority, until now.
That crucial work—for us as a city, as a Commonwealth, and as a country built on the backs of slaves—is what made us a target for forces radiating out from the alt-right movement and the Donald Trump presidential campaign. These forces tell us that America was already great. That there’s no new truth to be told. That the country’s narrative is fine as it is. But that’s dead wrong. The fact is we have to achieve greatness. We have to work at it.
As the Mayor of this historic, tolerant City, I have been praying on steps forward—and praying hard. During the memorial service for Heather Heyer Wednesday, I listened intently to the extraordinary testimonies to Heather’s passionate life and tenacious spirit. I came back, again and again, to her mother Susan’s passionate call for us to magnify her daughter’s voice. She said, “Let’s channel that anger not into hate but into righteous action.”
And so here are the three steps I will be taking, as an individual member of City Council, to try and answer that urgent call. (Under our form of government, any policies we adopt will have to be supported by a majority of Council and implemented by our City Manager and our staff.)
As many people know, up until the memorial service for Heather Heyer Wednesday, I supported one of the recommendations of our Blue Ribbon Commission that we “transform in place” the Lee statue by creating a new context around it.
But last weekend changed everything. Heather Heyer’s memorial service was a profound turning point for me and many others. Her mother said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. But guess what? You just magnified her.” I realized at Heather’s memorial service that that our Confederate statues’ historical meaning has been changed forever. In other words, it will never be possible again for the Lee statue to only tell the story of what happened here during the Civil War and the Jim Crow era. Its historical meaning now, and forevermore, will be of a magnet for terrorism.