The events in Charlottesville test the limits of public space.
This weekend I witnessed a place I love come apart at the seams.
Until 2012, I’d spent nearly 15 years living and working in Charlottesville, VA, a city so irresistibly charming its nickname is “The Hook.” Over the years, it has been ranked as both the “happiest” and “most livable” city in America. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the town is surrounded by unbelievably beautiful scenery, and in the heart of this is the Downtown Mall. In the 70s, when the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin led a community-driven design process that closed East Main Street to cars, they had the foresight to lift the brick paving on pedestals and give room to breathe for the newly planted trees’ root system, and four decades later the majestic Willow Oaks are bigger than buildings. Strolling down the Mall is like a walk in the woods. On Friday evenings in summer, “Charlottesville’s living room” teems with life, the most vivid sense of community I have ever known.
The Downtown Mall has been called “a sacred place,” but over the past handful of days the sacred became profane. Three people died and dozens were injured as neo-Nazis descended with automatic weapons, chanting vile, racist slurs. Watching from the West Coast with my wife, a Charlottesville native and daughter of a city planner who helped make the place what it is today, I saw this living, breathing place reduced to headlines and hashtags. I thought of how the people of Columbine, Newtown, and Ferguson must have felt as tragedy hijacked their cities’ identities, the real slipping into the surreal.
The incidents in Charlottesville supposedly centered on questions of free speech, with the ACLU and the courts both defending white nationalists’ right to demonstrate (although their First Amendment protections reportedly remain in doubt). But make no mistake: the real contest is one of symbols and public space.
What instigated the invasion is the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in a downtown square recently renamed “Emancipation Park.” The protesters’ objection wasn’t merely to losing the effigy of a beloved Confederate general. Despite the common claim that these monuments represent “heritage, not hate,” most of them, including the Lee statute, were erected during the Jim Crow era, for obvious political purposes. Whatever you think of Lee himself, the figure presiding over the park is, in fact, a symbol of white supremacy.
Decked out as stormtroopers, marchers swarmed into Charlottesville, brandishing more symbols of supremacy—swastikas, confederate flags, torches. Embracing the icons of defeated forces (Nazi Germany and the Confederacy) is an odd way to signal power, and for pure pageantry, the rally was pitifully weak, compared to the legacy of Nazi emblems, from red banners and Roman eagles to klieg-light columns in Albert Speer’s brilliant “Cathedral of Light” (Lichtdom). So when Ohio punk James Alex Fields murdered local Heather Heyer by ramming into a crowd with his Dodge Challenger—itself a childish symbol of masculinity—it felt like an act of desperation from a failed cause.
Racial fault lines are far from uncommon in Charlottesville’s public symbols. Looming over the city is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, visible from the Downtown Mall. The slave-built home of the author of the Declaration of Independence is an ever-present reminder of the fundamental contradictions that have plagued the nation since its inception. Good and bad, the ghost of “Mr. Jefferson” haunts this place. A blue stronghold in a red state, Charlottesville touts ethnic diversity that can seem “more rhetorical than real.” Income disparity is pronounced, and gentrification has displaced a sizable portion of the community. Is Albemarle County as idyllic as it seems? No. But the removal of its most obviously insensitive symbols is one way of trying to correct course.
I’ve closely studied the relationships between protest and public space. The attack on Charlottesville wasn’t protest—it was terrorism. “The largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades,” it was never about free speech—it was a scare tactic, the cowardly act of bullies. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe revealed that the invaders were more heavily armed than the police, stockpiling battering rams and weapons in hidden stashes around the city. Peaceful demonstrators have no reason to tote automatic weapons. Despite what the president claimed yesterday, there wasn’t “blame on both sides.” White nationalists didn’t come to exercise their right to assemble peacefully—they intended all along to transform America’s “happiest” city into a military zone.
Presidential historian John Meacham recently quoted St. Augustine, who defined a nation as “a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love.” The symbols defining public space should represent our common objects of love. When demonstrators out-gun the police while waving symbols of hatred, space no longer truly belongs to the public—it belongs to the mob.