Charlottesville Is Returning To Normal -- And That Scares Me

If we want to feel change instead of just talking about it, we have to put aside petty partisanship and be open to finding common ground.

My greatest fear following the rallies and attacks of Aug. 11 and 12 was, and still is, a return to normalcy. I recently realized some of that fear.

I love spending the day downtown. I usually hole up in a coffee shop for a few hours, grind out enough practice problems and reading responses to feel productive and then explore – hopefully with a few friends in tow but sometimes on my own. I’ve lived in Charlottesville for more than two years now, and I’m still “discovering” new bookshops, thrift stores and sweet shops down the many alleyways and basement staircases branching off the walking mall.

On my first “downtown day” after “the events,” as people around here seem most comfortable calling it, the coffee shop was as bubbly and chaotic as ever, blasting an incongruously loud mix of French arias and EDM. Families, students and even the occasional dog wandered in and out. My friends were horrible distractions, texting me updates on their articles for the paper or making me watch random SNL skits or trying to interpret the Miyazaki film we’d seen the night before. It felt like a typical college day in a typical college town – cringingly typical.

I wanted to pride myself on my town’s resiliency and how quickly the public, students and local businesses had bounced back after such devastation. But that would have been a happy, privileged delusion.

There is a hollowness in my step, a falter to my smile when I walk the mall – particularly the crossing at 4th Street, where Heather Heyer was killed in an alleged domestic terror attack by James Alex Fields Jr., who will be tried on multiple felony accounts, including second-degree murder.

I use “alleged” out of respect for due process, but multiple videos and photos document Fields speeding down 4th Street and ramming a huge group of counter-protestors and civilians with his Dodge Charger, leaving little doubt in my mind of his intentions or his actions.

Domestic extremist groups are immune to the federal measures that law enforcement can take against foreign groups like ISIS ― which is ironic, given that most terror attacks on U.S. soil come from domestic, right-wing groups. It means that the same act of violence ― cars have become increasingly popular weapons for terrorist groups and lone wolves ― has very different consequences depending on your personal brand of extremism.

I also find it unsettling to walk by Market Street Garage, where Deandre Harris, an unarmed black man, was beaten with wooden boards and pipes by a gang of white supremacist protestors. Two, Alex Michael Ramos and Daniel Borden, have been arrested on counts of malicious wounding. There is no word of a hate crime investigation. The hesitancy of law enforcement to even ask if maybe two openly racist men beat a black man bloody out of their open hatred for people of color… I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t even have to finish that sentence. It’s ridiculous.

Dissociated. That’s how I feel walking down the mall. I see Heather’s name in every store window, hours of cellphone footage still circulating Twitter and an alarming quiescence in the jaded eyes of those who know this is neither the beginning nor the end ― and that does not jive with the happy families and puppies enjoying their Saturday, the shrugging shoulders of students preoccupied with midterms and internship fairs and the mass apathy around what, to me, seem rudimentary questions of nonpartisan justice.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s been a lot going on since Aug. 12. But it all just feels like noise. The same group that counter-protested the torchlit rally on UVA’s grounds on Aug. 11 ― UVA Students United ― crashed a cops and robbers-themed party, sparking editorial controversy over whether this was representative of the “resistance.” The same group shrouded a prominent statue of UVA founder and “racist rapist” Thomas Jefferson during a protest to mark the one-month anniversary of Aug. 12 ― which, again, sparked controversy but not much else. 

Effective allyship takes work ― it’s easy to tweet #notmyCville and donate to the black box of the ACLU and sing 'Imagine' with Stevie Wonder at The Concert for Charlottesville.

A list of demands presented to the university administration by the Black Student Alliance and endorsed by student council and a coalition of minority groups preempted the Board of Visitor’s decision to take down Confederate plaques on our central building, the rotunda, and to declare the Academical Village a university facility, making any future tiki torch-lit protests unlawful. The university also donated the amount of money donated to the institution by the KKK in the 1920s to a fund for Charlottesville victims. These feel like the only tangibles to come out of the past month of hemming and hawing about institutionalized racism, free speech and our identity as a town and a university.

I get feeling helpless. UVA and Charlottesville are majority white. Effective allyship takes work ― it’s easy to tweet #notmyCville and donate to the black box of the ACLU and sing “Imagine” with Stevie Wonder at The Concert for Charlottesville. And I think these things have merit in their own ways. But if we want to feel change instead of just talking about it while more people get beaten and killed, we have to put aside petty partisanship and be open to finding common ground.

I’m not suggesting unity, exactly. Love is a beautiful notion, but let’s face it, you’re not going to love someone you don’t respect as a human being, and you’re certainly not going to love someone who doesn’t respect your humanity. Before love comes understanding. Many real fears and concerns ― livelihood, family and freedom, among others ― lie at the heart of America’s racial, religious and ethnic conflicts and could provide a common framework to begin dialogue that may, if we’re patient, foster unity.

I don’t know how to heal Charlottesville. Or America. But it starts with open, unfettered and vulnerable dialogue about what is wrong, because there is a fundamental disagreement about that in every city, from the heartland to the Big Apple to Charlottesville, Virginia.