Charlottesville, "happiest city in America" — but for whom?

When a city with a white supremacist presence and marginalized black working class is run by genteel “progressives"

Published August 20, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insluts with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insluts with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

There was a moment on Saturday, August 12th that happened quickly but changed the course of everything that came after it. Around noon, a small group of white supremacists who had left the center of the protests at Emancipation Park walked down to an affordable housing complex called Friendship Court and, standing at its entrance, hurled racist slurs at black residents. Back at Emancipation Park, word spread among counter-protesters that Charlottesville black residents needed help, and a throng headed south to offer their bodies as support. But by time they got close to the housing complex, an organizer with Anarchist People of Color told them to turn back. The residents had already handled the situation, she told the marchers.

As they turned back up fourth street, the first march ran into another group of counter-protesters also under instructions to head to Friendship Court. It was a moment of jubilation -- the residents had successfully defended themselves, and the official “Unite the Right” rally had been effectively shut down. The two marches merged, creating a huge congestion of people. But this mood lasted only a few minutes. It was into this rejoicing crowd that 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. gunned his car, then backed it up, and gunned it again.

It makes a cruel kind of sense that Heather Hyer and the others who were hit by Fields’ car had just come from standing in solidarity with residents of this particular public housing complex, for it lies at the very center of the city and at the center of what happened this weekend in more ways than one.

“The site itself is in the heart of downtown and the center of the city’s Strategic Investment Area,” a developer named Frank Grosch with the Piedmont Housing Authority (PHA) told a crowd assembled at the well-heeled Omni Hotel in September of 2015. “And it’s an extraordinarily valuable piece of real estate.” It was at that same breakfast fundraiser that Grosch announced that the PHA would acquire the 150-unit subsidized apartment complex in 2018 and redevelop it as a mixed-income neighborhood.

These days, Charlottesville can claim the title of “happiest city in America.” But happy for whom? The average annual income for a family in Friendship Court today is $10,800, but nearly $50,000 for Charlottesville at large. Rents here are high across the board, on par with the expensive suburbs of Northern Virginia. Nearly a third of residents do not earn a wage that allows them to pay for food, clothing, housing, and transportation and almost half of Charlottesville renters are “cost burdened, meaning they spend over 30% of household income on housing.

“Charlottesville has always been divided,” said Tanesha Hudson, a local activist who has lived in town all her life. “There’s a rich set of people in the city and there’s a poor set of people in the city. It took this rally and someone dying for people to be willing to talk about it.”

Charlottesville’s public policies in regards to housing, education and criminal justice show white supremacy, or a deference to it, in the highest echelons of power. During the 1960s urban renewal, Charlottesville's thriving Black residential-business district, Vinegar Hill, was demolished. In 1954, City Council passed a measure wherein “unsanitary and unsafe” houses would be taken over by the housing authority. Through a combination of political machinations and displacing black families to public housing, the city succeeded in razing the entire neighborhood to the ground. Today, the public housing is now dilapidated after decades of neglect and what were once middle class black-owned homes and businesses are mostly parking lots and open space that facilitate the flow of traffic between the University of Virginia and the boutique-lined Downtown Mall where the August 12th confrontation largely took place.

“Urban renewal destroyed our neighborhoods, and affordable housing is really scarce now,” said Joy Johnson, a lifelong resident and the Chair of the Board of the Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), a grassroots group that advocates for residents of public housing to have greater influence in their neighborhoods and plans for city redevelopment. “Our neighborhoods are now getting another decimation because housing prices are going through the roof. The city needs to do more and fast.”

Black people are being pushed out of Charlottesville. Between 2000 and 2012, the black population of the heart of the city fell more than 12 percent. Just 6 percent of University of Virginia students are black, yet people of color make up the vast majority of staff in UVA’s on-campus cafes and cafeterias. Further, The University of Virginia Foundation, UVA’s real estate holding arm, is the single largest private landowner in Charlottesville, a state of affairs that some say is approaching a monopoly.

“They say land just goes to the highest bidder,” said Hudson. “But when the highest bidder is always UVA, it’s rigged from the start. There’s no competition.”

In an effort to effect change on this front, PHAR has developed a “Positive Vision of Resident-Directed Development” that serves as a hopeful blueprint of what non-exploitative urban renewal might look like.

Though much liberal lip service is being paid to serving the city’s low-income residents, little is being done on the level of Charlottesville’s leadership to truly and deeply address these problems and interrupt an economic system that prioritizes white life and wealth over that of people of color. In fact, Kristin Szakos, the white City Council representative widely credited with suggesting the removal of the Lee statue in the first place (though it was in fact initiated by Black high school student Zyahna Bryant), voted to cut funding to PHAR, defended the City’s decision to offer a reward in the case of missing white UVA student Hannah Graham but not in that of missing black trans woman Sage Smith, and voted in favor of a 2009 Master Plan for Redevelopment that paved the way for demolishing Friendship Court.

Further, before August 12, Charlottesville police and law enforcement made decisions that favored the safety of white supremacist demonstrators over people of color. A week after the May 13 rally, where about 60 white nationalists held burning tiki torches while chanting “White Lives Matter” and “You will not replace us,” local activist Veronica Fitzhugh confronted one of the organizers, local blogger Jason Kessler, in a restaurant on the Downtown Mall, by shaking his chair and yelling at him. Multiple police cars were dispatched to Fitzhugh’s door in the middle of the night, and she was arrested and charged with assault and battery and disturbing the peace.

Jeff Fogel, a local civil rights lawyer, told local news outlet Newsplex that it is not procedure for people accused of misdemeanors to be arrested and photographed; usually they are just summoned to court. The details of her arrest raise questions, he said. Attorney Pam Starsia agrees. “Disturbingly, Kessler appears to have the full weight of Charlottesville’s criminal punishment system working at his behest,” she wrote.

“I don’t understand a city of resistance where we cannot revoke the permit of terrorists to come to town but me yelling at them brings five police cars and the paddy wagon to my door in the middle of the night,” said Fitzhugh statement on June 13. “We live in a community whose systems treat the KKK and known bigots like Jason Kessler better than its black and brown members practicing ‘free’ speech. This is not just.”

Sentiment among local anti-racist activists is also that police failed to protect them or treated them with open hostility. On July 8, the KKK rallied at Emancipation Park and counter-protesters staged a “Block the KKK Party.” As police chaperoned the Klan into the park, protesters confronted the Klan with chants of “shame” and “racists go home.” The Charlottesville Police Department protected the Klan’s presence in the park more than an hour beyond the time allotted on the permit. After the KKK rally dispersed, at around 5 p.m., as counter-protesters were gathering their things and moving down along Market Street, the Charlottesville Police Department detonated three tear gas grenades. The official response from the CPD states that the gas was appropriately deployed in response to a counter-protester macing an officer, but video evidence does not support this.

“We have serious questions about whether the use of chemical agents to clear the streets was a justified use of force,” reads a letter prepared by the Legal Aid Justice Center, the ACLU of Virginia, the National Lawyers Guild and the Rutherford Institute. “When many residents of the Charlottesville community chose to voice their strong opposition to the Klan’s message of racism and white supremacy by confronting them in Justice Park, they were met with a highly militarized law enforcement presence . . . This aggressive display did little to effectively deescalate the tensions between the community and the Klan and implied that the police were not there simply to protect civil liberties and maintain order. Rather . . . law enforcement may have played a role in provoking the unrest that ensued, and certainly made those demonstrating against the Klan feel like enemies of the state.”

Poor and black residents of Charlottesville have been echoing the idea that the Charlottesville Police Department unjustly criminalizes its citizens for decades. Just 20 percent of Charlottesville’s population is black, but black people make up 80 percent of those stopped and frisked by police. JADE, the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force, an anti-narcotics coalition between Albemarle County, Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, and Virginia state police, is notoriously aggressive with and hostile to Black residents. From 2003 to 2004, as part of a rape investigation, CPD officers stopped black men on the street, showed up to their homes and workplaces, and demanded cheek swabs; all told, officers collected swabs from 190 black men. There was widespread outrage, and one man filed a 2004 lawsuit against the CPD for assault and battery, and racial discrimination.

In Virginia, tight laws that prohibit the accused from getting cash bail disproportionately affect people of color, forcing them to remain incarcerated for months or sometimes years before standing trial. In May of this year, Charlottesville and Central Virginia citizens raised $15,000 to be used for cash bail for black moms for a national bail out for Mother’s Day. But when they attempted to obtain release of 35 black moms, they were told that none of the black mother prisoners could leave because they were all being denied bond. All of them are being held for non-violent crimes such as petit larceny, and none have a history of flight or pose a threat to the community.

“The way the city and some of its members have responded [to prior rallies and the events of summer 2017] speaks to a comfort of centered whiteness, and have made me realize further how much more is just beyond the surface here in Cville,” wrote resident David Vaughn, in a statement ahead of the August 12 rally. “I've been a resident for over twenty years, this type of thinking will not end after [August 12]; in fact, it's the very reason why we're here in this place now.”

And then there is the question of City Council’s actions when it came to granting and revoking the permit for the August 12 “Unite the Right” rally.

“The City recognized the potential for danger,” said councilperson Kristin Szakos. “And, although a municipality cannot legally prohibit people from expressing their constitutional right to free assembly and speech, the City did attempt to require the demonstration to move to McIntire Park, outside of downtown, where the danger could have been more easily prevented and contained.”

The ACLU represented white supremacist organizer Jason Kessler, and a judge ruled that the rally would continue at Emancipation Park as scheduled. But the ACLU says it’s not a First Amendment issue that prevented the city from revoking the permit, but rather that the City of Charlottesville presented a weak case

“In the weeks after the July 8 protests, the city (working with the governor and others) had ample opportunity to put together a case and present it in court on its own motion justifying the revocation of the permit . . . If the judge in our case had been presented with any credible evidence or testimony by the city of an imminent threat of harm (other than a list of internet entries) or evidence that the change in permit would, in fact, result in no demonstration in downtown Charlottesville, I have confidence that he would have denied the injunction.”

However, the response that came from Charlottesville’s Mayor, Mike Signer, who voted to keep the Lee statue, skirted away from condemning white supremacy: “While the City is disappointed by tonight's ruling we will abide by the judge's decision. The goal in moving the Unite the Right Rally from Emancipation Park to a larger, more accommodating space like McIntire Park had nothing to do with the content of the demonstrators' speech. The decision was made based on the projected number of demonstrators expected in our one acre park in downtown and the public safety needs of our community.”

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Signer called himself a “progressive” and defended his vote to preserve the statue. “I believe the Lee statue should remain as a reminder that many Americans were once treated as the property of others, then as second-class citizens.”

It is this very moderation and gentility, which often characterizes a “progressive” political stance, that may be an insidious culprit in keeping poor people and people of color second-class citizens in Charlottesville.

“Located in the land of the Founding Fathers — Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all hail from the area — residents of genteel Charlottesville pride ourselves for our civility,” writes UVA Professor Jalane Schmidt in an editorial. “But perhaps lynchings might have been prevented if more Southern whites in the 1920s had violated the norms of polite comportment by interrupting klavern assemblies. Instead, most Southern whites minded their manners, and said or did very little. And, like a malignant tumor that was ignored, the Klan metastasized.”

Schmidt does point out that many Charlottesville restaurants have refused to serve white supremacists following their role in confrontations in local establishments. “But,” she writes, “a fair number of self-identified moderates and liberals in this upscale, small Southern town are more concerned to continue dining in peace on $40 locally-sourced medium-rare steaks and $15 glasses of Côtes-du-Rhône.”

On his website, Mayor Mike Signer repeatedly refers to Charlottesville as a “world class city.” Hudson and many other residents say there is work to do to reach that accolade.

“In order to be a world class city you have to cater to all classes that live here. That whole Downtown Mall is bougie restaurants and bougie shops that cater more to white tourists than to black people who have been here their entire lives,” said Hudson. “This city is responsible for everything that occurred Saturday. I think it took something as terrible as what happened to get people to face the hard truths and come to the table to face some of our demons. Before that, it was just talk. Now I think we can all see -- it’s time to act.”

By Emma Eisenberg

Emma Copley Eisenberg writes about gender, queerness, Appalachia and crime for places like The New Republic, Granta, Slate, Salon, The Marshall Project, and others. Say hello @EmmaEisenberg or at

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