Charlottesville protest incites debate

Approximately 1000 white supremacists and neo-Nazi ideologues descended on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” rally on August 11 and 12. Their goal was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. What followed was a physical clash of political views; counter-protesters emerged, and violence ensued.

The white supremacists marched through Charlottesville and across the University of Virginia (UVA) campus, carrying signs with slogans that read, “white lives matter,” and “Jews will not replace us.” What surprised Theo Longboy (’19), who visited UVA and Charlottesville the day before the protests occurred, was the stark contrast between the “diverse” and “cosmopolitan” town she had visited, and the town which had been broadcasted globally following the events that took place. “It felt really surreal because when I was in Charlottesville it didn’t feel at all like the kind of place that I had seen on the news before. It didn’t feel like that kind of town,” Longboy said.

UVA Alumnus and Social Studies Teacher Todd Rooks attests to Charlottesville’s diversity. Due to the proximity to the university, “there’s an eclectic mix of professors and students” as well as smaller communities of African Americans located in the town. Recently, Rooks claims, Charlottesville has seen an influx of Latin American immigrants.

Rooks believes that what drew the protesters to march across the campus was not just the statue itself, but the rich history of Charlottesville. “It was really symbolic, because the school was founded on slavery,” he said. “It was integral in the building of that school and I think it was important for them to establish that in that protest, whether it was secret or not, this university holds dear the [values they] hold dear and, even if it doesn’t presently, it did.”

While the foundation of the school was one built on racial divide, current UVA student Emeline Callaway (’16) said that students on campus have been proactively condemning the violence exhibited during the protest as well as promoting positive discussion and discourse. “The student body has been very active in having safe spaces or peaceful protests to what happened,” Callaway said. “People who live in the lawn rooms, a lot of them have signs outside their door saying, ‘hate is not welcome here.’”

What struck Rooks was that the organizers of the event had attended UVA and that he and them were “part of this same connected group of people. It was not a bunch of ‘red-neck’ people that were angry at progressive people,” Rooks said. “It was well educated, well thought out people that firmly believe in segregation.”

“[My students’] confederate flag is almost like a football jersey. It’s what they grew up on and doesn’t necessarily represent their views. And, a lot of times, we have very similar views because of the media and because of the way things are portrayed,” Rooks said. 

While attending UVA and teaching in Charlottesville, Rooks noticed the disparity between those who actively pursue racism and those who promote conservatism. “[My students’] confederate flag is almost like a football jersey. It’s what they grew up on and doesn’t necessarily represent their views. And, a lot of times, we have very similar views because of the media and because of the way things are portrayed,” he said.  Rooks claims that because the majority of society is conditioned in a very similar way, he too, like his students, finds himself guilty of microaggression and stereotyping.  

Rooks believes that the protests are a result of the brewing political tensions and the rise of liberalism in the U.S. He claims that by calling the protest “Unite the Right” it brought many more like-minded people to the event and “they united over their conservative, hidden agendas.”

To Callaway, these ideals of segregation and racism have to do with their roots in the history of the U.S. “Obviously there is racism everywhere, but I think in this country and especially in the south it’s different because it’s their whole history,” Callaway said.

The embedded history of the Confederacy in the south of the U.S. has created a divide on what to do with similar confederate monuments. Longboy believes that they should be removed from public view. She believes that there lies a conflict of aspiring to be a part of your community and what the statue represents for many Americans.  “As a person of color or as someone who is black in Charlottesville, I can imagine it would be really hurtful and conflicting to see that statue up,” she said. “I think it’s really hard when your community turns their back against you or when something comes up where you’re in conflict with the community that you so desperately want to be a part of.”

Conversely, Callaway does not believe that the statue should be removed from Charlottesville. “I think that the statue does represent a history here and especially the work of Robert E. Lee and that commemorates him to be a great general,” she said.

Additionally, Callaway believes that it should be moved to a museum or “some place else where it can still be displayed but maybe not be displayed in such a public area where it offends so many people.”

Rooks, however, believes that “the monuments and the [Confederate] flags are distractions from the bureaucracy that is really dividing us.” As a teacher and historian, Rooks attempts to empathize with both sides of the discussion and understands the numerous factors which play into the debate: economic, historical and political.

Ultimately, he believes that moderation and strategically placing these statues with the addition of informational plaques would be most productive. Rooks feels that this protest and statue presents an opportunity to mend political divides within communities.

Similarly, the protests presented a teaching opportunity for himself and other educators. “It keeps reminding me to make sure that students are learning intellectual curiosity and building themselves that way,” he said. “You also need to be able to communicate how you feel and be able to understand how people feel and be able to deal with these things so that people can get along.”


Written by Lead Features Editor Alexandra Gers