Charlottesville: The Loss of Innocence

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Charlottesville: a small city of 50,000 people in the heart of Virginia. A city whose name invoked a mental slideshow of the picturesque Shenandoah mountains, the eager spirit of the University of Virginia, and the quaint, historic atmosphere of Monticello.

That array of images has been replaced in most of our minds by a new collage, one full of torch-wielding Nazis, Confederate banners, and the grotesque murder of Heather Heyer. Reflecting on the events in Charlottesville, the Covenant College Philosophy Club held a panel discussion on September 2 between our philosophy professors and a Covenant alumnus, Matt Gillikan, a Charlottesville resident. A graduate of the class of 2006, Gillikan serves as a speech therapist in Charlottesville and is well integrated into his local community.

Though many of us watched the events of August 12 (and the national coverage in the following weeks), Gillikan presented to us a more nuanced story.

That story began in March 2016. A local high school student petitioned the city council to remove the Robert E. Lee statues built around the city during the Jim Crow era. A slew of bureaucratic processes ensued, reaching an eventual decision from the city council to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park (changed to Emancipation Park in June). That decision was made in February 2017.

Parallel to that legal narrative was the activity of Jason Kessler, an extremist right-wing blogger, who became an “agitating alt-right lightning rod,” according to Gillikan. Kessler’s propaganda caught the attention of Richard Spencer, a more well-known white nationalist. Together, they organized an alt-right gathering in May 2017, where they bore torches in protest of the statue’s removal. A month later the KKK rallied around a Stonewall Jackson monument. That rally caught the attention of the local media, and local pastors encouraged parishioners to go and pray at the site of the gathering.

The building tension around the monuments peaked with the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12. Kessler obtained a permit for an assembly of 1,000 people in Emancipation Park. Alt-right supporters poured in from all over the country, boldly threatening violence. What occurred that weekend is familiar to those of us who watched the coverage: a swarm of Nazis and Neo-Confederates marched through UVA with torches the night of August 11. Charlottesville’s mayor declared a state of emergency the following morning, when the rally was supposed to take place. That afternoon, James Field drove a car at 40 mph into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 30 and murdering Heather Heyer.

Lost in this tragedy was Charlottesville’s innocence. The people of Charlottesville didn’t ask for their city to become a rallying point for white nationalists. In fact, Gillikan said he’d be surprised if more than ten Charlottesville residents participated in the rally at all. The city has been left to recover and sweep up the debris left in the wake of an invasion.

The most helpful insight I gleaned from Gillikan’s account was that the local story is always more complex than the national one. August 12, though immensely important and grave as a singular event, was simply a violent climax of tension that had been building in Charlottesville for 17 months. That tension had been completely ignored by the national media. The rest of the country only witnessed the violent whiplash at the end of a long buildup. After hearing Gillikan’s story, I learned that in educating ourselves on current events, it can be tempting to desire as succinct a story as possible. Valuable education, however, lies in seeking the opposite. The most accurate perceptions of reality are often the subtlest, most nuanced, most complex narratives.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Richard Spencer as "Robert Spencer." This has been corrected above.