The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 is one of the flashpoints of the Trump era.
The white-supremacist gathering devolved into violence with anti-racist demonstrators. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and others were injured. The event has taken on a deep symbolic meaning even beyond those terrible facts. Former Vice President Joe Biden began his run for the Democratic presidential nomination by invoking Charlottesville, and saying his campaign was a response, in part, to President Trump's divisive rhetoric.
In a new book, Michael Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, recounts the months leading up to the rally, including the decision to allow it to continue. In Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy Under Siege, he also takes on the deeper questions about governing in a free society in which speech that includes extremist hateful rhetoric must be protected.
On why it's important to keep talking about Charlotteville
I think that the events that happened in Charlottesville are gonna be a touchstone in modern American history — I think we'll be talking about them in 100 years. It was incredibly painful and wrenching and tragic. And also, Charlottesville was a microcosm for the country dealing with Trumpism and the extremism that we see today. But it also was a moment of profound learning for where our country can go. But I believe that there is essential learning that came out of this event, but to get there, you have to go through the events and you have to carefully work through day by day, week by week, month by month what happened before, during, and after the event — and then you really can get to a place of growth.
On whether to remove Confederate monuments
This is another one of the reasons I think looking very closely at the inner life of one story like this and the actual facts and what unfolded day to day is so important, because we all live in specific communities like this. And the fact is that the Confederate statue debate was very complicated inside Charlottesville. We set up a Blue Ribbon commission on race memorials and public spaces that held 17 hearings over six months, that was majority-minority at seven members, that was charged with advising City Council on what to do about these two statues that were put into place in the 1920s — to General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
And a couple of folks on that commission changed their minds: They came on wanting to have these statues removed. And as they took in this testimony, including from many African Americans, in the city that they wanted the statues to remain as, quote, teachable moments. And I go into great depth about the actual words that these folks were using. The idea, which is very, you know, surprising to some folks is that they thought that the history should remain so that we could understand how offensive it was and how we had moved on from it. And there's this — I tell a story about an elderly African American neighbor of mine who was tending her roses when I came by one day, and I said, 'Well, what do you think about the statues?' And she said, 'I think they should stay so that my grandchildren know what happened here.' So it was a more complicated reality than the black and white picture can share — and I ended up siding with that view, which was what the commission recommended. They said that the statues should stay inside Charlottesville and they ended up giving us two recommendations: They should be moved to this park away from the downtown mall where they were so central; or they should be recontextualized, transformed in place ...
But after this white nationalist event happened and this this terrorist invasion of the city, and especially the, you know, using a car to kill somebody on the downtown mall and injure so many others, I changed my view just like so many did after, in South Carolina when the rebel flag was held up by Dylann Roof [convicted in a South Carolina church shooting in 2015] who said he wanted to start a race war. And, to me, it became a, I said at the time, a totem of terror. It was a touchstone — that any value that could be recontextualized had been lost. And I sided, like so many others, with moving those statues out of the city — and that now can happen because the Virginia General Assembly just changed the law that had been holding us back from moving the statues all along.
On allowing democracy to prevail
The deepest theme of what Charlottesville is about ... was do we allow democracy with all of its complexity and all of its debate and all of its, you know, you can have a lot of fighting about ideas within democracy, but it's still within this frame where somebody gets to hear somebody else and make an argument. The biggest problem was with these white nationalists who wanted to unite the right, they wanted to shut all of that down. They wanted to use intimidation and tiki torches and swastikas and shouting 'Jews will not replace us' in the streets. And they were anti-democratic. And that to me was why the stakes of this went far deeper than just one city's struggle about monuments. This was going to, kind of like, the most ancient problem of America from the beginning, which is: Do we have the ability to have debate on the hardest issues or is one faction basically going to terrorize another into submission?
On when he knew the rally was going to be problematic
Well, so people have to understand and there was a whole history before the Unite the Right rally. There were two other white nationalist events that year, ... they increased the kind of pent-up nature of things in the city and the national spotlight that was on it. So, there was a rally by Richard Spencer, who was a UVA graduate who founded the term alt-right, who brought 100 of his followers in these kind of modern skinhead outfits of khakis and white shirts and buzz cuts to the Lee statue with tiki torches, and that happened in May of 2017. And that was followed by a rally by modern-day Ku Klux Klan members, who came from North Carolina in July, that was met by 1,000 counter-protesters — and the police use tear gas afterward against the counter-protesters. So, all of this was leading into the unite the right rally, which was scheduled in August. ... We tried to move the [Unite the Right] rally [to a park where the Lee statue was not]. And we lost in federal court after the ACLU sued us.
On getting hate mail and threatening calls
I just had a conversation this morning with a pastor of the oldest African American church in New York, who was going to be in a conversation with me about the book and he had read the book and he said that one of the things he really appreciated was how candid unedited my inclusion of the hate speech that came toward public officials was and the threats — and I did that because I think that people need to understand what the reality is now.
I mean, the book is called Cry Havoc a for reason. ...I tell the story about receiving a cartoon in my house, or my email, of Robert E. Lee pushing the green button on a gas chamber where my face had been photoshopped into it with a Star of David on my lapel. I got a voicemail on my phone of Hitler ranting. I got a Christmas card in my house saying you should, you know, lots of anti-semitic invective that somebody had very carefully written out. And that paled in comparison to what the, you know that some of the black members of the community in the leadership are getting. One of the stories in the book is there are forces in American politics that have always been there that never felt emboldened and confident to come into public, and to do this at this level, before they were included in the political coalition by the Trump campaign. These were white nationalists to who were included in a populous white nationalist political strategy in 2015 and 16. And then, in 2017, lo and behold, they said, 'We feel fine going to the college campus in a major, prominent American town and parading around with swastikas and calling it Unite the Right. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to Unite the Right.'
On President Trump saying there were good people on both sides
Well, the President's interactions with the Unite the Right events were at once the most shocking, I thought, of his presidency, up until that point — and the most revealing. So, he not only said the day of the rally that there were very fine or good people on both sides. He reiterated it several days later, when he was asked to do a press conference and retract, or qualify somehow, his comments — and what he was doing was lying about the event. There had been and there are, in Virginia, people who care about Confederate symbols and statues. That is a separate debate. And the President was trying, I think, to continue his strategy of keeping his base with him, which were these Confederate sympathizers.
That's not what this event was about. What happened in Charlottesville [with] the Unite the Right rally was a dozen paramilitary organizations that are organized white-nationalist terror groups, like the League of the South and these, you know, Stormfront was organizing, which is an organized white terrorist, nationalist group online. The Daily Stormer. Skinhead groups, they organized as paramilitary groups. That's one of the things in the book that I talked at length about. They were in uniforms, they had had assault rifles, they had commanders, they went on sorties into the neighborhood, they invaded the city, they had areas that they protected.
This was not an any shape or form about history or Confederate iconography. There were people there, chanting 'Jews will not replace us.' It had nothing to do with — when [President Trump] said very fine people, he was talking about people who care about Confederate statues and history and that's not what this event was about. And so the cost of that lie was very high. Because people need to understand that there is a rise in organized white nationalist, domestic extremist activity that can become terrorism. And that is the true story and stopping that is the real need that we have.
On the after effects of the rally
This event, events like this, can have tremendous repercussions on everything about a community, including the economic life and the vitality of a community — and it actually led me to make some mistakes — and I wanted to be warts and all in my in my treatment of this story because I thought that's where the most value was for the whole country understanding what actually happened in Charlottesville for other leaders who might deal with any other crisis like this.
And I tell the story: You know, we were hearing from a lot of small businesses in the downtown mall that their revenue had gone down so dramatically that they were taking out extra lines of credit to pay their waitstaff and so on. And so I felt the need to cheerlead for the city and to sort of say that we were getting back on our feet. And one of the staff members in City Hall asked me to take a photo in front of this sign that had been put up in the downtown mall — these four very large like 8-ft. — letters that said, 'Love,' that spelled out love because our slogan is Virginia Is For Lovers. And, so, I not only went and took a photo in front of it, but I spontaneously decided to jump in front of the letters — in an excess of zeal. And I keep in mind, I mean, it's this part-time job. And I've slept probably two nights, you know, two hours a night for the prior week. But it was well-intended, and I put up a tweet where I said something like Charlottesville is back on our feet, and we're better than ever. But it was totally out of sync with the injury and the trauma of the city. I mean, the PTSD of so many people in the city, physically, psychologically, still continues. And it was it was one of those things that a leader does when they're trying, as a human, and got it wrong. ... They thought that the face that I was presenting in saying 'we're back on our feet 'did not speak their truth.
I will say that as difficult and searing and agonizing as a lot of this was, that it only reinforced my belief that the world — in all of its messiness, and, you know, even the costs on people in leadership positions — it's still even more worth getting into. Because the value of having fought for things and standing at the end, having the experience of having fought for them in the real world, there's nothing like it, there's nothing like it. That's how democracy moves on — and the consequence of stepping out of the arena, of giving up — that's what allows societies, democracies to tilt toward authoritarianism — is when good people decide to give up on government and the whole prospect of civic governance. So it is very, it's difficult, but it is highly rewarding.
In an earlier version of this Web story, we incorrectly identified the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., as Michael Singer. His name is Michael Signer.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump's belligerent rhetoric toward recent protesters - at times, calling them terrorists - compared with his seemingly tolerant attitude toward largely white armed anti-government protesters complaining about stay-at-home orders have caused a number of people to shine a lens on his racial attitudes. But this isn't the first time. An earlier flashpoint came almost three years ago in August 2017, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. It was one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in years, and it devolved into violence with anti-racist demonstrators. One woman was killed by a white supremacist who deliberately drove his car into her, and dozens of others were injured.
Michael Signer was mayor of Charlottesville at the time. Earlier this year, he published a book with his reflections on those events. And he's been writing about what he sees as the parallels with the current moment. The book is called "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege." And Michael Signer is with us now from Charlottesville, Va. Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
MICHAEL SIGNER: Oh, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: We'll get to the book in a minute. But I first wanted to talk about a piece that you wrote for Time magazine this week. And in it, you wrote that at first, you thought that the president's reaction to Charlottesville was an aberration. But then you wrote, quote, "I believe now that Charlottesville was not only a uniquely horrifying event but also a prologue to a pattern that includes Minneapolis and now the nation's capital with his extraordinary decision to stage a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church after police tear gassed protesters to clear a path." Now, obviously, the underlying, you know, events are different, but what do you see as the prologue? What is this pattern that you see?
SIGNER: Well, what he did after Charlottesville was - it was so shocking, I mean, to do the opposite of giving a grieving community in a country that was shocked by this astonishing display of violent white nationalist and paramilitary groups who came with, you know, AR-15s and battle gear and Nazi flags to a college town armed for battle. So he said there were very fine people on both sides of that conflict. And he continued to throw fuel on the fire. Then, if you fast forward to watching Minneapolis, this kind of light bulb came over my head as I was watching it. And I said, my, God. He's doing exactly the same thing. He's throwing fuel on the fire. He's doing the opposite of trying to reassure, calm things down, figure out what the right solutions are to police brutality, especially in that community, which has a long history of conflict.
I mean, one of the things about Charlottesville and Minneapolis and other communities - these are very, very local issues. And if a president's going to get involved, they need to pay attention to the local leaders and the local context. And he did the opposite with Minneapolis. He was clearly speaking to a national crowd, and he had a strategy. And it occurred to me that this is really a feature and not a bug.
MARTIN: You know, your book was really fascinating because it went into kind of really granular detail about all the conversations about the monuments. Ostensibly...
MARTIN: ...The rally was about defending the Confederate monuments in Charlottesville. OK? But you also point out - which is something I think a lot of people may not know or have forgotten - that there were a number of rallies that preceded that big rally in August but also that even, you know, African American residents in Charlottesville were kind of divided on what to do with these monuments.
SIGNER: Yup, yeah.
MARTIN: So how did it become this kind of big ugly thing? Is it because - you know, people always talk about outside agitators. But is that really the case, though, that outsiders decided to make it a symbol for their purposes? Is that really - is that what happened?
SIGNER: It's a complicated answer to - you know? And I - it took a couple hundred pages to explain how did we get in this one small community to the point where you had the level of conflict that we had. And you're right. There were two prior white nationalist events that happened before this. Some of it is explained by very individual conflicts between, you know, singular local leaders and activists on the very far right that caught the spotlight. And there was this one local right-wing blogger who went to UVA who really wanted to connect with this whole new, like, system of right-wing agitators and "alt-right" agitators. Like, Richard Spencer had gone to UVA, who founded the turmoil right and is an unabashed supporter of white ethnic cleansing around the country. And he really saw a benefit to coming to Charlottesville.
But the kind of bigger picture, which I think your question gets at, is that as we seek to solve problems in democracy, most of these problems are gonna happen at the local level. And the local level is where we're going to need solutions and leaders who have the stomach and the skills and the dedication to wade through the kind of insanity of mayhem that a lot of people find it necessary to create. So that's why I wanted to tell this really granular nitty-gritty story of what governance really is, kind of warts and all. And it's happening right now in Minneapolis. I mean, Minneapolis - to get this right, they have a lot of local work to do. I know leaders there. I've been talking to them. The work that they're going to have to do in cities around the country is going to be intensely local.
MARTIN: In the book, you write that as you were finishing it, quote, "Charlottesville remained a raw mass of contradictions, a microcosm for a nation wrestling to shake free from an angry and violent era."
MARTIN: So, you know, mayors around the country are dealing with a lot of what you were dealing with, you know, almost three years ago. Do you have one piece of advice for them to kind of help them shake free sooner?
SIGNER: I just listened to a gripping interview with Jacob Frey, who's the mayor of Minneapolis. And I had such sympathy listening to him talk about how - the conversations he'd been in, the decisions he'd had to make the last - even last couple weeks, there was just no good option on any side. And I think that if I had one answer, it's that there's solidarity.
This is how governance has been for a long time. Too many books about politics and government are sanitized or their Hollywood-ized. We don't really see what it's like to be in the middle of mayhem, trying to grope your way through kind of a say all sides toward real answers, but that is what the work is. And I think we need a clear-eyed take on it. We need people with thick skins and with strong hearts committing to the work of government in our democracy because the stakes really are that high. So I wanted to tell this kind of warts-and-all story. But there is hope. And there is - there are real victories that we achieved. And I think there's solidarity between leaders all around the country dealing with this actual work on the ground.
MARTIN: Michael Signer is the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va. His book "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege" is out now. Michael Signer, Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.
SIGNER: Thank you again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.