Charlottesville saw deadly right-wing violence – and embraced the other divisive extreme
The far-right nationalism on display in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 was universally condemned. But in an overreaction, the town fully embraced Black Lives Matter – the opposite, but equally divisive, end of the spectrum.
Last weekend, I found myself in Charlottesville, a scenic college town that’s home to the University of Virginia. With its colonial architecture, museums, and abundance of trendy restaurants, Charlottesville presents itself as a tourist-friendly destination that appeals to both established professionals and hipster students alike. What the city would likely rather not advertise about itself, however, is that it’s also in many ways a microcosm of America’s divisive racial politics.
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Rather than for its pedestrian-friendly outdoor mall or landmarks to Founding Fathers, Charlottesville is known to most for 2017’s Unite The Right rally. In August of that year, the city was propelled into headlines when alt-right protesters marched through its streets, including UVA’s campus, carrying tiki torches and confederate flags. And though terms like “white nationalist” and “far-right” are misused far too often these days, viral footage of the protest showing participants chanting “Jews will not replace us” while displaying Nazi symbols have meant that few question their application to this particular assembly.
Unite The Right was, ironically, condemned by both the left and the right, as well as by national and local figures. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, for example, witnessed the protest from his campus residence, and went on record to distance the university from the rally. He stated that “I hope people will put it into context and understand that we had no control over the individuals organizing it, nor the people who showed up. What we can control is our personal and institutional reaction to it. What I saw was pure evil.”
And although the Unite The Right event may have happened over three years ago, as I walked through Charlottesville’s downtown streets, it was clear that the town had yet to move on, and that Director Sabato was by no means the only resident eager to voice his disavowal.
Like most progressive politics, an overcorrection
In urban areas, especially ones with high concentrations of students, it’s not uncommon to see left-wing imagery, such as rainbow flags or Biden-Harris signs. But as I perused Charlottesville’s boutiques, I noticed that the prominence of Black Lives Matter displays was disproportionate, to say the least, and likely no coincidence considering the city’s reputation.
From churches to restaurants, homes, and shops, it seems that almost everyone in Charlottesville is keen to let people know they support BLM. Many stores post simple signs prominently on their windows, and one hardware store, strangely enough, even created an entire homage to the likes of Breonna Taylor, Sage Smith, and other black people killed by the police in their storefront.
And it’s not just private establishments that apparently feel the need to make their allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement known. One of Charlottesville’s main streets now has the honorary name “Black Lives Matter Boulevard,” and another has been dubbed “Heather Heyer Way,” after the woman who was fatally injured when a Unite the Right attendant drove his car into opposition protesters.
Whether Charlottesville’s affinity for BLM genuinely reflects the city’s politics, or is merely an attempt to combat the negative press that occurred in 2017 is hard to say, but in either case, it’s representative of today’s ideological polarization. It’s very possible to disavow the far-right without allying with the far-left, but sadly, by pledging themselves to BLM, a movement that is responsible for far more death, division, and destruction than the Unite the Right rally ever accomplished, Charlottesville has simply traded affiliation with one extremist, racial-identity-based group for another.
The personal is political
In the modern era, brands, schools, sports teams, and, surprisingly, cartoons have been forced to choose sides in the culture war. And after visiting Charlottesville, I also see that, to my distress, even entire towns have been drawn into the conflict of racial politics.
The people of Charlottesville may not have chosen to associate themselves with the Unite the Right rally, but by supporting Black Lives Matter, they have chosen to continue the politicization of their city. And while many of us have already decided to avoid certain TV shows, food chains, or even banks because of their political affiliations, we may fast be approaching a world where specific zip codes are deemed “unlivable” due to social tribalism. And considering that it’s much easier to change the channel than it is to pack up and move, that isn’t good news for anyone.
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