A very bad thing had come to the usually peaceful university enclave of Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 of 2017. They were outliers, white supremacists and storm troopers, many armed and equipped with torches, riding on a hateful nationalist wave that had been stirred up by the new, misogynistic, insulting and wholly unlikely president, Donald J. Trump.
Charlottesville had been picked for the Unite the Right rally because it had a rich public university, was photogenic and fit neatly into a Southern town that had yet to resolve what to do with its many Confederate monuments.
The result was a nightmare of municipal ineptitude that left one young woman dead, several dozen people badly injured and two state police officers killed when their helicopter crashed.
Many articles and books have been written about the event. Two of the latest, each valuable for its own reasons, are “Beyond Charlottesville” by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and “Summer of Hate” by Hawes Spencer, a longtime journalist who co-founded two local alternative news weekly publications.
Both McAuliffe and Spencer have one huge legacy to explain. Unite the Right has become an international battle cry for many sides that hascome to symbolize a growing neo-fascist movement of hate across the globe.
Resentment against pro-Confederate symbols had been building for years but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when a bowl-hair-styled drifter name Dylann Roof assassinated nine worshippers at an African-American church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, that the fuse was lit.
In Charlottesville, rumblings had been getting louder when Wes Bellamy, an African-American City Council member, started moving to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a small park downtown. As McAuliffe notes in his book, there are 378 Confederate memorials in the state while only four remembering the Revolution.
Of the two books, the McAuliffe one is the sprightlier read. He’s clear in blaming the city for bad preparation and the local police for not taking charge, which led to the bloody results. Unfortunately, McAuliffe’s exuberant personality gets in the way. He endlessly extolls his accomplishments, like restoring voting rights to convicted felons, but that has nothing to do with the Charlottesville tragedy.
McAuliffe also manages to come off as an official who cares. He really was good friends with state troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who perished in the helicopter crash at the Charlottesville travesty and had long served as his family’s bodyguards. His sessions mourning with their families are touching.
The bad planning flabbergasts him. The park site for the rally changed with no planning for such crucial items as adequate guardrails. McAuliffe’s top security official noted that the right-wing goon militias are allowed to show up brandishing tricked-out, late model, semi-automatic assault rifles that outclassed what the state police had, a sop to the guns rights crowd. Allowing such guns wouldn’t happen at demonstrations in many other localities and states.
For me, that hit home. I had covered Ku Klux Klan rallies in Ohio and West Virginia back in the late 1990s for a newsmagazine. They put up with nothing. They erected three pens, one for the “pros,” one for the media and one for the “antis.” Everyone had to go through a metal detector. No one was allowed to bring in more than a car key. As I saw with my own eyes, the cops put up with no crap.
Spencer’s account is more deeply reported than McAuliffe’s, which may seem obvious since he’s been in Charlottesville for about three decades. The author draws good portraits of various players, including beleaguered Mayor Mike Signer and, of course, white supremacist ringleaders Richard Spencer (no relation) and Jason Kessler. We get to know James Fields Jr., a loser from Maumee, Ohio, who drove the Dodge Challenger that mowed down protestor Heather Heyer on Fourth Street.
But Spencer’s book suffers from one major problem. His impressive reporting is slapped together in a nonlinear jumble. One minute it is Aug. 11 and then it is the previous year, then it is at a Ku Klux Klan rally in July, then Aug. 13. He breaks up the chunks of copy with choppy headlines, which make it all seem like a huge social media tweet with no end.
While some of the work does hold together, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the bumpy ride. McAuliffe’s book is actually a smoother read, but one has to somehow tone out the author’s overweening self-promotion.
Readers interested in a straight, no chaser account might read the 207-page report issued in December 2017 by Thomas Heaphy of Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams that was commissioned by Charlottesville. In a “just the facts, ma’am,” manner, it goes through what happened right (no gunfire), to what was wrong: Local police did not seek help soon enough; the city did not share information freely enough; law enforcement did not act fast enough to put down violence between supremacists and antifas; and the city erred by moving the demonstration from a smaller venue to McIntire Park whose spaces could not be covered.
Charlottesville was a national tragedy showing just how bad things have become with Trump’s America. These publications offer guides to mitigate such disasters.
But for years to come, Charlottesville will be remembered for white guys in white polo shirts and khaki pants chanting anti-Semitism in front of the Rotunda.
“Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism.” Terry McAuliffe, Thomas Dunne Books, July 2019
“Summer of Hate: Charlottesville, U.S.A.” Hawes Spencer. University of Virginia Press. August 2019.