University students expressed sadness and horror at the violence at protests led by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend.
The demonstrations began on Saturday, when white nationalists gathered for a “Unite the Right” march to oppose efforts to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. They were met by counter-protesters and several altercations broke out, turning deadly when a car rammed through a crowd, killing one person and leaving nineteen wounded. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while patrolling the site of clashes, prompting Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency.
Kevin McElwee '18, was in Charlottesville reporting on the protest for the GroundTruth Project, an international non-profit media organization. McElwee noted the unique difficulties of reporting objectively in such a chaotic atmosphere.
He said that “everyone had a different idea of what the protests were about” and that “people on every side were trying to force their narrative,” adding that the scene was “hectic across the board.” This confusion complicated McElwee’s attempt to discern what was actually happening.
“The question of the day was 'who was pepper-spraying who?'” he said. McElwee interviewed several counter-protesters who were pepper-sprayed, implying that pepper spray had been used by the white nationalist protesters, but he stressed that he couldn’t be certain.
McElwee was just around the corner when James Alex Field, Jr. of Ohio allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.
“I didn’t realize anything was happening until I saw the large crowd of people gathering,” he said. He added that after the initial confrontation at Emancipation Park, many white nationalist protesters left, while the rest of the city remained on high guard.
“Their day was done,” McElwee explained.
USG President Myesha Jemison ‘18 released a statement on Facebook repudiating “violence, hate, and racism” and calling for solidarity with the students of the University of Virginia.
In an interview, Jemison explained that she had begun thinking about inter-campus solidarity as early as June while attending the Presidential Leadership Summit, which brings together student body presidents from campuses across the nation. Jemison outlined her vision for the University campus’ reaction to the violence and conflict that occurred in Charlottesville. “One: this is not welcome on our campuses,” she emphasized. “Two: we will stand behind actions taken to make sure this isn’t something that will happen on our campus, including creating a network to allow students to discuss what’s going on on their campuses so that we can be prepared if something like this happens on our campus. Three: we realize that these issues are not isolated to UVa, or to the Charlottesville area, or to Virginia, but [are] rather something we should be prepared for across campuses.”
Jemison asserted that President Donald Trump bore some responsibility for the riots.
“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck,” she said. “People who were involved in the neo-Nazi riot said that they were trying to fulfill the promises of our current president.” She added that white nationalist ideology is not limited to any geographical area, noting that people involved in the neo-Nazi groups at Charlottesville had come from all over the country to participate.
Noting that displays of hate are frequently less overt than a giant white nationalist protest, and that such acts are frequently more visible and offensive to those targeted, Jemison challenged students to be empathetic towards one another, and to realize that racism is a national issue that impacts the University campus as much as any other.
“I challenge students to realize that these are issues that we should all be invested in,” she said. “Also, if you aren’t familiar with an issue, I challenge you to take it upon yourself to read up on it.”
Jemison called for students to get involved by engaging in discussion or by attending vigils and marches.
“We’re responsible to each other, and to some extent for each other,” she said. “Keeping that in mind, we have to think about how our own complacency can contribute to what we’re seeing today.”
Other University affiliates, including Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS '80, were in attendance at Charlottesville counter protests. West has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Professor Robert Geroge also tweeted “What’s wrong with Nazis and other bigots is not that they’re on ‘the wrong side of history.’ It’s that they are on the wrong side of truth.” George has also not responded to requests for comment.