It’s been nearly a year since the deadly weekend of protests in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters, leaving a young woman and two state police officers dead and a nation that has long struggled with the dark side of its complicated racial history shaken to its core.
To put the calamity in perspective, Yahoo News interviewed more than a dozen people who were deeply affected by the events of that weekend. They included Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, the city’s first black female mayor; current and former city and state officials, including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine; Susan Bro, the mother of 23-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car driven by a neo-Nazi plowed into a group of counterprotesters; Ryan Kelly, the photographer whose photo of that moment won a Pulitzer, and Marcus Martin and Marissa Blair, survivors of the car attack captured in Kelly’s photo. Yahoo News also spoke to Elle Reeve, a Vice News correspondent whose Emmy-nominated documentary, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the white nationalist leaders who planned the rally; Christopher Cantwell, a white nationalist prominently featured in the documentary who spent more than five months in jail on assault and battery charges stemming from the clashes, and Emily Gorcenski, an activist for transgender rights who says she was pepper-sprayed by Cantwell and has since moved to Berlin to escape threats.
For many, Charlottesville was supposed to be a teachable moment. “We lost our innocence,” says Edward Ayers, local historian and former president of the University of Richmond. “White people lost their innocence that weekend and can’t imagine that the statues just don’t mean anything, that all they are were testimonials to good faith of the past. I think it was an eye-opening experience for a lot of people.”
Yet, as evidenced by President Trump’s widely criticized response blaming “both sides” for the violence, the need for teaching continues, and the “difficult conversations” Heyer’s mother says the country needed to have are still needed.
The report that follows includes new firsthand recollections of the deadly weekend, and a reflection on how the clashes changed a community, and the country, in the year since.
It’s been more than 11 months since the funeral, and Heather Heyer’s mother isn’t sure where her daughter’s phone is.
“Did we ever get that back, honey?” Susan Bro asks her husband in their northern Virginia home in late July. “We got a bunch of her other stuff, but my understanding is it was all she had in her pocket. Somebody somewhere has her phone. The police say they don’t have it. We don’t know who has it.”
It’s one of the few details she’s not on top of. Bro has spent the past year traveling the country to promote a memorial foundation, launched within days of Heyer’s death, to promote her daughter’s legacy of opposition to racism — and to help her cope with an unthinkable loss.
She says she was encouraged by mothers of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, who launched foundations in honor of their children.
“Watching them gave me an understanding that doing something in honor of your child that is truly a worthwhile thing, not just planting a flower bed or something but trying to help others,” Bro says. “Actually, it not only lends a good memory to your child in the public’s eye, but it also helps tremendously with the healing process.”
That process has included surreal moments, like Bro’s appearances on the “Ellen” show and the MTV Music Awards — something she says would have mortified Heather.
And it includes her public shunning of President Trump. Bro says the White House tried to contact her three times on the day of Heyer’s funeral.
“My phone was turned off that entire day,” she recalls. “By the time I turned it on it was like 10:30, and then I sat down and watched the news and heard he said there were ‘good people on both sides,’ and I said, ‘Screw that. I’m not talking to him.’”
Bro’s willingness to speak out on behalf of her daughter, and against the president, has also put her in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists who allege, among other things, that Heyer died of heart failure, not in the car attack, or that Bro herself is a crisis actor.
“Yeah, that was the first one,” she says. “That’s one they always try.”
But they haven’t deterred her. As the first anniversary of her daughter’s death approaches, Bro is focused on the foundation — the endowment is approaching $250,000 — and on a book she is writing about the conversations she had with Heyer.
She’s also attempting to carry on Heyer’s legacy by encouraging people to become active in the face of injustice. She quotes her daughter: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
“We have to have a lot of difficult conversations with people that we would not normally want to have conversations with,” she says. “And be willing to listen to what they’re saying, think about it and then respond. You don’t need to respond immediately. You don’t need to respond with hate. You don’t need to respond defensively. You need to respond rationally, and I think that’s what’s gonna move the country forward.
“We’re not gonna agree with everybody,” Bro continues. “I will never agree with white supremacy. I will never agree with the Nazis or the KKK. But I do hear what they’re saying. Their fears of being a minority tell me that they understand that minorities are not well treated in this country, so maybe they really need to focus their energy on seeing that minorities are better treated, if they’re afraid of becoming a minority.”
On Aug. 12, Bro is planning to lay flowers on the spot on Fourth Street where Heyer died. She’s also scheduled to speak at an NAACP event that evening.
“This is the last of the first,” Bro says. “The first year a loved one passes, you experience the first birthday that they missed, the first family dinner that they’ve missed, and so forth and so on. So this will be the last of the first. And I’m not looking forward to it, but I will survive it. It is survivable, and I will continue forward. That’s what I do. That’s how my family approaches death. You don’t get to pick who dies, when they die or how they die. People around you that you love are gonna die, and you cope with it and you move forward.”
— Dylan Stableford
Mayor Nikuyah Walker regrets running for office almost every day.
“But there’s a but,” Walker says with a laugh. “I walk into a room and I find out something I wouldn’t have known, and I challenge them and even though it’s frustrating, I know that at some point it will make conditions better for citizens who normally are ignored.”
If you want to talk about the changes that have occurred in the city of Charlottesville since last year’s deadly rally, you almost certainly have to start with Walker. A Charlottesville native, employee of the city’s Parks & Recreation department, and activist, Walker announced her intention to run for city council in the spring of 2017. She ran as an independent, because in Walker’s view, those who run on the Democratic ticket do so at the behest of the party leaders in the area. Her campaign slogan was “Unmasking the illusion,” a reference to her efforts to get the city council to deal with racial and economic inequality in Charlottesville, and a push for transparency in government decisions.
Walker won, becoming the first independent to win a city council seat since 1948. In Charlottesville, the mayor is selected by the five city council members from their ranks, and Walker was chosen, becoming the city’s first black female mayor.
This is the crux of Walker’s platform: The city cannot move forward until the wealthy and powerful refuse to accept conditions for the low-income white, black and Hispanic populations in Charlottesville that they wouldn’t accept for their own families.
“Nothing about August created this chaos that we have that’s been here,” said Walker, referring to the systems and generational poverty in place. Per the mayor, the Unite the Right rally has made it easier — although certainly not easy — to have difficult conversations about race and privilege. It’s difficult to argue that the U.S. is a post-racial society when white supremacists just brought violence to your streets. Although many are willing to engage in the conversations, Walker says there are others who believed that simply denouncing the white supremacists who terrorized the city would be enough to move forward.
“Some people — not all — [believed] the only thing they needed to do between last August and now was to distance themselves from crazed white men in polo shirts and khaki pants,” Walker says.
Local churches, the University of Virginia and the NAACP are holding events to mark the anniversary of the rally and Heather Heyer’s death, but Walker isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to attend. She has the dates and times, but plans to at least start the day where she spent it a year ago.
“I will be out making sure that people are treated right and treated fairly,” says Walker. “If there are any disturbances, I’m usually trying to keep the peace — that’s what I did last year. I hope I don’t have to do a lot of that, but that’s probably how I spend my time. … If things are going well, and being inside somewhere and speaking truth and hearing concerns of citizens is the best place to be, then I will be there. And if being on the street helping people fight against those with ill intentions is, then I will be there.”
Walker says she has been kept out of most of the planning meetings. The police and fire chief have told her they feel better prepared for a repeat of the United the Right rally, but she’s worried that the city has made itself a vulnerable target. The way forward is citizens of Charlottesville living their day-to-day lives differently, pushing for change, she says.
“I think even during the civil rights movement, where you get to the point where you’ve won a little bit — the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, things like Brown v. the Board of Education — all of those things happened and then the conversation starts to be dictated by those in power, primarily white people in positions of power who say, ‘OK, you’ve won a little bit; that’s enough now. Now I’m uncomfortable; can we stop having these conversations?’” Walker explains. “And I think a lot of black people say, ‘Okay, we have done quite a bit,’ maybe not pushing too hard. I think everybody’s gotta be open to pushing until it’s done, until it’s done well, until it’s done right. That’s the major challenge.”
— Christopher Wilson
Additional photo credits:
Photo illustration (top): Yahoo News; photos: top row, left to right REX/Shutterstock, Eze Amos, AP, Joshua Replogle/AP, the Pulitzer Prizes via AP, Emily Gorcenski via Twitter, AP; middle row: Scott P. Yates/progress-index.com; bottom row, left to right: Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail via AP, Andrew Shurtleff-Pool/Getty Images, Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Efren S. Landaos/Variety/REX/Shutterstock, Steve Helber/AP; background: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.