Local Charlottesville activists came out in large numbers last night, momentarily shutting down the first City Council meeting since the August 12th white supremacist rally that made international headlines. As calls for resignations and greater accountability gave way on Monday, Councilors moved forward on several key issues. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has more.
Sitting on the floor and standing in doorways, more than 150 people packed into Charlottesville City Council chambers on Monday night.
MAYOR MIKE SIGNER: Welcome everybody, this meeting of Charlottesville City Council…
But Mayor Mike Signer wasn’t 30 seconds into reading a resolution about the August 12 rally, before he was interrupted with a shout from local activist Donna Gasapo. At the rally 10 days earlier, attendees saw police stand by as roving fights made their way through the city. In the afternoon a car attack killed 32-year old Heather Heyer, and injured dozens of others. Now, the crowd before city councilors was angry. They wanted answers.
Signer threatened to kick people out of the meeting if they kept interrupting. Several minutes later, Councilor Bob Fenwick had the floor.
BOB FENWICK: I wanted to write something inspirational tonight, but I’m having a great deal of difficulty getting through the anger and the bewilderment of how an outside group can come into our town with such a message of hate…
The crowd quickly drowned Fenwick out, with cries that the alt-right supporters on August 12 were invited. The remark was in reference to the pleas of city residents, ahead of August 12, that rally organizers be denied the permit for Emancipation Park downtown. Days before the rally, the city tried to move it to another, bigger, park, where security would likely have been easier to ensure.
But the American Civil Liberties Union filed a case arguing that to move the rally would be a First Amendment violation. A federal judge ruled against the city.
Standing before councilors on Monday, residents said city officials had abandoned them. Signer tried to get the crowd to save their outrage for an upcoming town hall planned for Thursday night. It didn’t quite work…
Two activists jumped onto the Council’s dais and unfurled a banner that read: “Blood on Your Hands.” Amid calls for the Council’s resignation, police dragged three people out, and pandemonium erupted. The cameras and microphones were cut off, councilors walked out, and chants ruled the room for nearly half an hour.
CHANTS: Shame, shame, shame…whose streets, our streets…
Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, the only African American on City Council, eventually commanded the attention of the crowd, calming everyone to a rough sense of order.
WES BELLAMY: So yo, the police are leaving, it’s our meeting, let’s talk.
The crowd demanded that the public video feed and microphones be turned back on. They demanded that police release the three people who had been previously kicked out.
BELLAMY: We’re going to bring all the councilors out, listen up, the regular agenda meeting or whatever, that part is canceled…
Police and fire officials lined the room, as one by one, area residents spoke out about what they described as the city’s inadequate response to the Aug. 12 rally.
NIKUYAH WALKER: Part of the demand is that you all need to do some self-assessment, because you need to go….
Don Gathers is a local Black Lives Matter activist and the president of the blue ribbon commission that was tasked last year with studying the fate of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues at the center of the current controversy.
DON GATHERS: Somebody’s got to be held accountable for not only the blood of those three lives, but for every injury that happened this past weekend. And I will be damned if I see another one of my brothers or sisters get beaten or die. Something is going to happen, as Malcolm said, by any means necessary… And I’m calling on each and every one of you all to stand up tonight, stand up tonight, let not only the councilors know, let Albemarle County know, let your neighbors know, let every neighborhood in town know, we’re not taking this shit anymore.
Meanwhile, across town, at the University of Virginia, students had moved back in. And about 300 of them had gathered in the outdoor amphitheater. President Teresa Sullivan was there as well.
Students with UVA’s Black Student Alliance spoke out, presenting a list of 10 demands to Sullivan. They called for UVA to increase its percentage of black faculty and black students. They also called for the re-contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda. They said a plaque should be installed detailing the statue’s role in promoting white supremacy.
As the students marched through campus to the Rotunda, where white nationalists had marched with torches just 10 days ago…Charlottesville city councilors were still meeting.
City Manager Maurice Jones assured people that a comprehensive independent review was being conducted on the city’s handling of the August 12 rally, and that it would answer all questions in due time.
But before councilors adjourned at 1 a.m., six hours after beginning, they voted unanimously in favor of something that wasn’t on the evening’s agenda. They voted to express the city’s mourning for the violence experienced on August 12th. They voted to cover the Lee and Jackson statues with giant reams of black fabric.