It’s been a week of reckoning for the city of Charlottesville, Va., as two independent reports, one commissioned by the city and one commissioned by the governor’s office, highlighted grave mistakes made by police and administration in preparation for the “Unite the Right” rally in mid-August. This rally was marked by three deaths and dozens of injuries.
Attempting to lead the city forward is Michael Signer ’95, the mayor of Charlottesville. He visited campus on Wednesday and Thursday, held office hours, delivered a lecture on his “steely optimism” for the future, and gave an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
When asked about his role in preparing for the August protests, Signer mentioned that he had first recommended to the governor that the August rally be moved from downtown to a safer location further away from the city.
Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the alt-right protesters filed a lawsuit against the town of Charlottesville. A federal judge took up an emergency injunction, allowing the protesters to organize in the original location. After the events in August, the ACLU announced that it would no longer advocate for organizations protesting with firearms.
As mayor, Signer has little control over the Charlottesville’s logistical operations. The city, along with many other American cities, has a council manager form of government, meaning that Signer is the chair of the city council. The council proposes policies, sets the budget, and hires the city manager, who handles logistical operations.
“I found the system, at times, frustrating,” Signer said.
Signer publicly distanced himself in August from the administrative failures during the protest, and he was also a vocal critic of city manager Maurice Jones and police chief Al Thomas. In response to backlash over that public distancing, Signer apologized in a public statement, noting that he “overstepped the bounds of [his] role as mayor.” He declined to comment on this issue in his interview with the 'Prince.'
Nevertheless, Signer is still working at present to address Charlottesville’s problems in situations where he sees the opportunity.
“Stronger mayors in a system that doesn’t give them many formal powers can be very effective because there is a lot of gray area,” said Signer. “I certainly have been a more proactive mayor than many that we have had. Some people haven’t liked it, but it’s in keeping with my temperament.”
Now that these reports have been released, Signer’s focus is to prepare for the future. Alt-right protesters have already submitted a request to organize in Charlottesville in August 2018.
“That’s the requirement before us,” said Signer. “To do better.”
The governor’s independent report makes various suggestions about how to best handle permit requests, and the Charlottesville report also offers suggestions for crowd control.
In addition to policy steps that have been taken, Signer also pointed to Virginia’s sweeping Democratic victories as a response to President Donald Trump’s equivocal commentary on Charlottesville.
“We just saw a peaceful repudiation of [alt-right] ideas in Virginia a month ago,” said Signer. “I’m optimistic about the country being able to overcome this native threat.”