By Evan Henry
A few hundred Proud Boys, Kekistani trolls, good old-fashioned Nazis, and G.I. Joe cosplayers descended on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville last Saturday, followed by riot police, National Guardsmen, and counterprotesters.
It goes without saying that there were a surprising (read: not at all surprising) number of swastikas and Hitler quotes on display, for an event whose leadership purportedly forbid its attendees from wearing Nazi merch. In a heartwarming display of racial solidarity, attendees from different hate groups could be seen side-by-side flying the battle colors of a country invented to preserve the mass enslavement of Black people and the flag a fascist regime responsible for the murder of fifteen million people in living memory.
This came along with the usual Nazi salutes and the familiar slogans: “Blood and soil” (an explicit Nazi callback), “Jews will not replace us,” and “white lives matter.” The hits keep coming.
As the day developed, a publicly avowed fascist murdered a Black Lives Matter demonstrator with his sports car, attempting to murder 19 others. In a separate attack, a group of white supremacists, some equipped with riot gear, severely beat Deandre Harris ten yards from Charlottesville Police headquarters.
The same slogans had already been heard Friday night, as a group of Proud Boys and ilk marched from parking spots near Lambeth, down Emmet Street and up University Avenue to the Rotunda. They carried tiki torches, skirmished briefly with counterprotesters, and dispersed in less than an hour. This smaller gathering will understandably remain secondary in news-coverage to the bloodsoaked downtown rally, but for U.Va administration and students alike, reflection and self-examination might be more helpful than the righteous indignation that has so far been the predominant reaction.
First, it is fitting that the “protesters” chose to encircle the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north side of the Rotunda. Today Charlottesville largely attracts hate groups from out of state, but in 1921, this town’s history, and the memory of Thomas Jefferson in particular, inspired the founding of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The Daily Progress reported on June 28, 1921:
“The Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city. Hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men met around the tomb of Jefferson at the midnight hour one night last week and sealed the pledge of chivalry and patriotism with the deepest crimson of red American blood.”
For those with even a cursory knowledge of Jefferson’s biography, the fact that white supremacists would organize literally around Jefferson in 1921 and in 2017 should come as no surprise. The enlightened father of this University was, after all, one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia even prior to the American Revolution, and on occasion he was known to carry out much the same kind of violence and racial terror that occurred in Charlottesville yesterday.
In September 1805, during his second term as president, one of Jefferson’s slaves, named Jame Hubbard, escaped southward to Lexington. Jefferson, in defense of his property, placed a bounty on Hubbard’s head, and upon his return had him “severely flogged in the presence of his old companions.” The quoted words are Jefferson’s.
The University of today can’t be held responsible for Jefferson’s actions two centuries ago, of course, but administrators are undeniably culpable in perpetuating a local economy not fundamentally different from that based on the chattel slavery that built the Academical Village. Students drive up housing costs in any college town, but at U.Va, where half of the student body come from the wealthiest metropolitan statistical area in the country, the effect is supersized. To make fair market rent in Charlottesville, a single parent needs to earn $22.44 per hour, working full-time.
This is the town that provides U.Va with its service, dining, and facilities workers, some subcontracted through Aramark, a company with a record that includes obstructing labor negotiations, allegedly committing fraud, and serving rotten and maggot-infested food. University administrators renewed Aramark’s contract in 2015, without knowing what its employees are paid.
Never, it must be a safe bet, have the majority of those who provide the daily upkeep at Mr. Jefferson’s University not been African American, not been poor. To many Black residents of Charlottesville, U.Va is still known as “the Plantation.”
Last year, a slew of racist graffiti appeared in student housing: “terrorist” written on a door belonging to two Muslim students in Brown Residential College, “Juden” and a Star of David at the Grandmarc on 15th Street, the N-word written in permanent marker throughout Old Dorms. This is not to mention the spate of homophobic, transphobic—oh, and racist—chalk messages that were scrawled on sidewalks throughout Grounds around the same time.
As ever, University administrators showed their support for queer students and students of color by sending emails saying they support them. When asked whether the culprits in the Old Dorms graffiti incident had been identified, University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn put the investigation in the passive voice, prefaced with an “If”: “If that information is received in the future, appropriate disciplinary action will be vigorously pursued.”
This too should not be a surprise. U.Va, after all, is the university that inexplicably responded to the kidnapping and murder of one of its students two miles from the Corner by opening a police substation on the Corner—and imagine their shock when increased police presence was followed by (Hoo woulda thunk?) the beating of an African American student by state police.
The substation was opened in part, according to then Charlottesville PD Chief Tim Longo, to aid in “the perception of safety.” It’s a telling phrase, as what UVA cultivates more than anything else is perception—as America’s #1 (or #2 or #3) public university, as a “Public Ivy,” as Mr. Jefferson’s University.
But it goes without saying that at a prestigious place like U.Va, hate speech doesn’t happen. Both Teresa Sullivan and Dean Groves would instead call such occurrences as last year’s slew of hate-driven graffiti “acts of bias” or “bias-motivated incidents,” presumably phrases from a dog-eared page of an English-Bullshit phrasebook lying around Peabody Hall.
The solution to U.Va’s race problem will not come from vague, meaningless platitudes of the sort Sully issues with increasing frequency, evidently with no suspicion that the reason they are needed more and more frequently might be, in part, the vague, meaningless stances on racial violence taken by U.Va administrators.
If U.Va wants to be seen as a safe space for minorities, it can start by taking incidents of hate speech as seriously as it takes academic violations. It can start by ensuring that its subcontracted employees are paid a living wage. Perhaps the most comfortable start can come from grappling with its own history, as a few initiatives in recent years have made gestures toward doing, as badly underpublicized and, I suspect, underfunded as they are.
It beggars belief that the KKK, Richard Spencer, and Jason Kessler (a native whose security detail was composed not of out-of-state agitators but primarily of Central Virginia locals) would choose to return to such a small city for reasons unconnected to its history. And Charlottesville’s history, for better or worse, has been dominated by U.Va.
“It is said that the reorganization of the Klan is proceeding rapidly throughout the State, the South and the Nation,” the Daily Progress wrote 96 years ago, and it’s true again today. Virginia was, many would like to forget, the geopolitical center of the Confederacy. Charlottesville’s Lee statue may be on the way out, but a statue of Jefferson Davis, a Mississippian, still stands in the Virginia State Capitol.
Social transformation and the end of racism will not come from simply taking down statues of historic racists, but it won’t come from the 10,000th thinkpiece on Donald Trump either. It might come, or at least start, much closer to home. Movements like that at the University of Missouri in 2015 provide an analogous model for student-led challenges to structural inequality and administrative apathy toward racial violence. U.Va take note…