On the surface, Charlottesville, VA, is hopeful. The new mayor, Nikuyah Walker, is a progressive woman of colour known for protesting the city's establishment. Thomas Jefferson's historic estate Monticello is finally done ignoring the lives of Sally Hemings and other slaves. Every other storefront is plastered with teal "C-ville" hearts and purple "Heather" hearts to remember Heather Heyer, the activist killed by a white supremacist who plowed through a crowd of counter-protestors in a car during the rally one year ago.
But a year after white supremacists terrorized the small Virginia city on August 11 and 12, 2017, the city is still grieving, trying to find its footing with a major shakeup of local government. The University of Virginia has been undergoing its own reckoning, contending with a past of racism and slavery that goes all the way back to its founder Thomas Jefferson.
On Friday, August 3, security guards ushered hundreds of people through metal detectors into a youth-led town hall at Westminster Presbyterian Church, a small brick building that sits among fraternity and sorority houses a short walk from UVA's Rotunda. The crowd filled the pews and all the standing room to listen to nine students discuss voting, violence, and activism as part of the national Road to Change tour, an effort to register voters and raise awareness for sensible gun policy that originally grew out of the February mass shooting in Parkland, FL. While two of the students were from Parkland, most of the panel speakers were from local schools.
Natalie Romero, a UVA student who suffered a fractured skull from the car attack and says she still has post-traumatic stress disorder, didn't hold back when listing how school administrators have failed students. She spoke about being uncomfortable as the only woman of colour in rooms with older, white administrators — but also about how she's learned to lean in to that discomfort.
"You can tell us all the time, 'You should be having conversations with administrators,'" she said to the crowd. "That's exactly what we do, and we are given false promises." She added, "I work for the university, so I'm told I can't say certain things in spaces such as this — I'll probably get a phone call tomorrow."
On the night of August 11, Jason Kessler and his band of neo-Nazis marched to the statue of Thomas Jefferson near the Rotunda, and surrounded a group of students and community members, chanting slogans like "Jews will not replace us" and attacking them with pepper spray. The university didn't have a plan for protecting the counter-protestors. The year since has seen various administrative shakeups and a new free speech policy for groups unaffiliated with the university, but some students, like Romero, say the school's response has been inadequate. Phrases like "massive institutional failure" come to mind.
It's students who have made the biggest changes on campus since the deadly rally, said Romero. "Jason Kessler being banned was not because UVA decided or the community decided or the city decided, it was because students pushed and pushed...and pushed!" she said, referring to the university issuing a no-trespass warning to Kessler in April. He appeared at the school twice after students and faculty sought to keep him away, citing threats and harassment. Now he's banned from the Grounds for four years. He is, however, still the only white supremacist leader to receive such a notice from the school.
"They silence us by saying we're not respectable or civil enough," continued Romero. "Like, 'Don't talk bad about Thomas Jefferson!'"
In conclusion, Romero said to loud cheering from the crowd, "Respectability politics is trash."
Respectability politics is trash.
Natalie Romero, UVA student
Samyuktha Mahadevan, a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, who grew up near Charlottesville, encouraged students not only to vote — which is a must — but also to become civically engaged if they want to see change in their communities. Wearing an orange Students Demand Action shirt, she said she volunteers for Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic nominee for Virginia's 5th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"It's really crucial that [local political] meetings are not dominated by one demographic," she said, looking out into a mostly white audience that skewed older but also included pockets of students. "Nothing's going to happen if you don't come join and bring diversity to the room, and you'll find more people will do it if you take that first step."
Naomi Wadler, the 11-year-old activist who spoke up for Black girls in her memorable March for Our Lives speech, recalled her own experience getting pushback for organising her Alexandria, VA, school's National School Walkout in March. "I told [the superintendent] we didn't need adult supervision to be shot in our own classrooms," Wadler said. "Start small and in your own community."
Wadler brought some in the audience to tears as she spoke about the rally in Charlottesville.
"When people were marching with tiki torches and guns and screaming anti-Semitic, anti-Black things... What are you accomplishing there? Other than scaring people, other than not being able to accept other people? What is hating someone going to do for you?"
"Like, I'm sorry you don't like me because I'm Black," she continued, pausing for a beat to take in the absurdity of the statement. "If you don't like me and you think I'm less than because I'm brown and female — sit down and have a conversation with me. Listen to my point of view so we can understand each other."
Backstage before the panel, March for Our Lives activists — including Jaclyn Corin, Emma González, and David Hogg — met with Susan Bro, Heather Heyer's mother. Bro, a former government employee, told them about the work she's been doing since Heyer's death, saying she wants to "make it count" in honour of her daughter. She spoke about cofounding the Heather Heyer Foundation, dedicated to scholarships for those who are passionate about promoting positive social change.
The students talked about sometimes feeling overwhelmed by all the adults trying to guide their agenda. "All of a sudden, the entire world knows us and thinks we have to listen to them," said González.
As someone who has also recently experienced newfound public attention, not all of it positive, Bro advised them. "Pace yourselves, take time for yourselves," she said. "You have a fresh perspective. The future is yours to invent."
As for Charlottesville's future, it's still being decided. Courts are busy determining criminal cases related to the devastating event, including 30 federal hate crimes against 21-year-old James Fields Jr., the driver who killed Heyer and injured others.
And there's no reason to think they won't come back to Charlottesville, despite the measures to keep them out.
We reached out to the University of Virginia and will update this story when we hear back.