A year after deadly rally, wounds are still raw
By SARAH RANKIN
Sometimes Alfred Wilson still has to take a moment to collect himself after he pulls open files at the law firm where he works and sees Heather Heyer’s handwriting.
“I get choked up and have to gather myself before I talk to the client,” said Wilson, who hired Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed nearly a year ago in a car attack during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The rally that left Heyer dead and dozens more injured proved to be a watershed moment, both for the racist, fringe “alt-right” movement, and for the city itself. In the year since, many residents like Wilson say the wounds haven’t healed. Others say the violence has laid bare divisions over deeper issues of race and economic inequality and what should be done to move forward.
“One of my hugest gripes with last year with the people of this town was that people, mostly white folks, kept saying, ‘This isn’t Charlottesville,’” said Brenda Brown-Grooms, a local pastor and activist. “I wonder what planet they live on. This is exactly who we are.”
A Charlottesville native, born in the segregated basement of the University of Virginia hospital, Brown-Grooms said white supremacy was present in Charlottesville long before the rally and is the “elephant in the room” the city now must deal with.
Activists have pushed leaders to address the city’s legacies of racism and slavery, its affordable housing crunch and the police department’s relationship with the black community, among other issues, since the Aug. 12 rally.
The event was one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and far-right extremists in a decade. Many participants dressed as if they were headed to battle, shouted racist slurs and clashed violently with counterprotesters. Meanwhile, authorities largely stood by on the fringes of the action near a downtown park with a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that the city wanted to remove.
The crowd was eventually forced to disperse, but a car that authorities say was driven by a man fascinated with Adolf Hitler later plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two troopers.
In the year since, the city has taken steps toward meeting some of the activists’ demands, despite resistance on some issues from the Republican-controlled state legislature. Lawmakers defeated every bill Charlottesville supported in the rally’s aftermath.
Responding in part to calls for a closer look at stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect black residents, the city established a new Police Civilian Review Board. The city also has approved funds for affordable housing and workforce development.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who’s spent much of the past year working with Wilson on a foundation named for her daughter, said she plans to place flowers Sunday at the site of the attack that claimed Heyer’s life. But the day should be about more than just Heyer, Bro said.
“I just would like people to focus on the anniversary, not on Heather, but on the issues that she died for – Black Lives Matter, overpolicing, affordable housing, for more truth and the telling of the history of Charlottesville – and to focus on where they need to go as a community,” Bro said.