Charlottesville is a quiet town with friendly people, good schools, lots of churches, parks and a bustling, growing community that more or less revolves around one of the country’s great public universities. Volunteerism is rampant, and dozens of nonprofits hustle about, solving problems and helping those in need. The town is surrounded by the estate and horse country of central Virginia, where history and traditions are important. Change is important too. The town has a vibrant music, theater, art and literary culture where creativity is encouraged. Food and wine are taken seriously, with dozens of vineyards and trendy restaurants.
The downtown pedestrian mall is filled with these restaurants, as well as coffee shops, bars, outdoor cafés, music halls, bookstores, galleries. It’s peaceful, calm, lovely, civilized. It’s Charlottesville.
The weekend of Aug. 12, Charlottesville was violated.
These same downtown streets where I work and have lunch and dinner and meet friends were taken over by hooligans and white supremacists who for some reason chose Charlottesville as their battleground.
Who were these people? And why our town?
Now that we’ve seen them, and from a distance much closer than any of us could have imagined, we may have a clearer understanding of their motives. Ostensibly, they came here to “Unite the Right,” a nefarious idea that devolved into a call to action. They were upset because of the city council’s controversial decision to remove a Confederate monument from a city park.
These dime-store warriors arrived in Charlottesville over the weekend determined to glorify the Confederacy and defend their version of free speech, though I seriously doubt even one in a thousand has read the Constitution or could name the Southern commander at the Battle of Shiloh. They waved their rebel battle flags, oblivious to the fact that Robert E. Lee told his men to put them away. They flaunted their swastikas. They wore helmets and shields and riot gear, and they rampaged. Their unapproved but well-coordinated torch-lit parade through campus Friday night surprised officials at the university.
Free speech and a glorified heritage were irrelevant. Make no mistake about it — the hate groups were here to provoke violence and get attention. When a few Klansmen showed up a month ago, they attracted hundreds of counterprotesters who drowned them out. With an impressive show of peaceful resistance, Charlottesville proved it has no tolerance for hate.
That incident was well reported and no doubt inspired the Unite the Right brain trust to plan an even bigger event. They issued the call, and their comrades came from far and wide to make trouble. They now claim they were provoked while trying to assemble peacefully, but the real provocation was their hate-filled message.
Tensions are now easing, and the streets are quiet again. Funerals are being planned. Physical wounds are healing. Emotional wounds will take longer. We hope and pray our town returns to normal — it will if left alone. But twice this summer, Charlottesville has proved that in the face of intimidation and hate, silence is not an option.
This appears in the August 28, 2017 issue of TIME.
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