Charlottesville reckons with trauma 5 years after a deadly white supremacist rally

Five years ago on Friday, extremists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in a violent demonstration that forced the city and the nation to confront the growing threats of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. Laura Barrón-López visited the city to see what's changed and how residents think President Biden and the country have reckoned with what they witnessed that summer.

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  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The recent threats of civil war among radicalized Trump supporters are not isolated. Five years ago today, white supremacist and neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, in a violent demonstration.

    We visited the city to see what's changed and to ask residents if they think the country has fully reckoned with what it witnessed that summer.

  • And a warning:

    This story contains violent images that may be disturbing to some viewers.

  • Diane Hillman, Former President, Beth Israel:

    This is where I saw a group come by. They were all young men wearing white tops and khaki pants.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    On the morning of August 12, 2017, Diane Hillman watched from the steps of Congregation Beth Israel as white supremacists marched.

    Her synagogue, the only one in the city, had just finished its Saturday Sabbath service.

  • Diane Hillman:

    They said, oh, there's the synagogue. And then they started yelling the traditional antisemitic, "Blood and soil," "Jews will not replace us."

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Scores of self-proclaimed neo-Nazis, white supremacist and far right militiamen under the name Unite the Right had gathered to protest the removal of a Confederate statue in town and to demonstrate the power of the alt-right movement.

    It quickly turned violent and ultimately fatal, when one neo-Nazi drove his car through a crowd of demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

    Today, residents are still looking for accountability, a process met with fits and starts.

    Nikuyah Walker, Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia: I hope that we can move to an authentic healing by embracing truth.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    New city leadership, including the first Black female mayor and the creation of a police civilian oversight board, were stymied by bureaucracy and turnover.

    A lack of trust remains between law enforcement and the community. For the synagogue, it's meant new security.

  • Diane Hillman:

    Some of the Unite the Right rally leaders were seen many times across the street watching the synagogue. And so, as a result, we have had to fortify our synagogue, mostly in ways that are not obvious.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Did you have a garden before?

  • Diane Hillman:

    No, we have never had a guard before.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    And there are mixed feelings on the city's progress.

  • Diane Hillman:

    I had hoped that the Unite the Right rally would light a fire and urge Charlottesville to become a model. And I think we still have that hope, but I don't think we are there yet.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The problems extend beyond the city, argues Jalane Schmidt, an activist and professor at the University of Virginia.

    Jalane Schmidt, University of Virginia: People in Charlottesville felt abandoned by government at every level in the wake of Unite the Right, like we weren't protected.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Has that trauma fully healed?

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    No. No.

  • Marchers:

    Jews will not replace us! Jews…

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    By the time the alt-right carry torches across the UVA lawn, Schmidt had already confronted them at a July Ku Klux Klan rally. The chaos on the 12th was no surprise to her and others, even as the violence and former President Trump's response stunned the nation.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The people of Charlottesville are so grappling with the trauma of August 12 and of that entire summer. They call it Summer of Hate.

    And where I'm standing is where neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched. Trump's response and the violence here is what ultimately catalyzed Joe Biden to run for president.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Charlottesville, Virginia, in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Charlottesville, the first word in President Biden's announcement video, a rallying cry on the campaign trail, and a promise in his inaugural address.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    But in a city that voted for him by more than 70 points, residents we talked to want to see more.

  • Tiffani Landsman, Charlottesville Resident:

    I don't think he's done anything.

  • Jason Judy, Charlottesville Resident:

    I couldn't tell you, like, what in particular he has done, like, what decisive actions he has taken.

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    If someone is kind of going to kind of attach their name to Charlottesville, this attack on Charlottesville is what inspired them, I invite them to listen to some of the goals that our community has articulated in the aftermath of Unite the Right.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Hillman acknowledged the difficulty of the task.

  • Diane Hillman:

    He stepped into an almost undoable job. And there's nothing Joe Biden can do about that. It's got to come out of Congress.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    But the administration can do more, argues Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor in extremism expert at American University.

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University:

    The Biden administration did produce the first ever domestic strategy to counter domestic terrorism.

    But I will say that, since then — that's 14 months ago — we have seen almost nothing in terms of implementations.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    On steps forward in terms of action, are there policies that President Biden has not pursued that you think would make a difference?

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    In that first national strategy, the Biden administration promised that there would be — they suggested and said that there would be efforts to reach out to the Department of Education, to Health and Human Services, to a broader array of actors.

    That may be happening behind the scenes, but we haven't seen any of that happen yet.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The White House says they are working across agencies, pointing to a new mental health hot line with tactics to detect threats of violence, investments in digital literacy tools to combat disinformation, bipartisan legislation hate crimes reporting, and a team focused on domestic terrorism at the National Security Council.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We heard the chants.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    President Biden often references Charlottesville in speeches, as he did when visiting Buffalo, New York, this spring after a shooter motivated by racism killed 10 people.

  • President Joe Biden:

    When I saw those people coming out of the woods in Charlottesville, carrying torches, shouting "You will not replace us."

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    His senior adviser Mike Donilon said the president thinks about Charlottesville every day.

    He told me "NewsHour": "One of the most important roles the president plays is a constant and forceful and vigilant voice against extremism and white supremacy and the forces of hate in the country. His voice is the loudest and biggest microphone."

    Even as some of the groups behind Unite the Right declined, the racist Great Replacement Theory that motivated them flourished, inspiring mass shootings, including the massacre in Buffalo.

    And on January 6, 2021, some of the same people who marched in downtown Charlottesville stormed the United States Capitol.

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    Where, in Charlottesville, these groups on the far right tried to unite, but they failed.

    But, on January 6, they did show that you could get white supremacists and militia groups and QAnon supporters and conspiracy theorists and ordinary Trump voters together on the lowest common denominator, which was election disinformation, and they could have a successful violent action.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    To those in Charlottesville, the parallels were unmistakable.

    Do you see a direct line from the neo-Nazi marching attack on Charlottesville to January 6?

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Ultimately, Schmidt isn't looking to the White House for leadership. Her focus is local.

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    Our position was and is, not on our watch, you know, never again.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    That starts with honestly documenting what happened.

    At UVA, Schmidt helped installed the No Unity Without Justice special exhibit.

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    There are new students coming in to the University of Virginia student body, first-year students, who now have no memory of this having occurred.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    On display, counterprotesting guides and tear gas canisters from encounters between police and activists.

  • Jalane Schmidt:

    These are some of their demands.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    In response, UVA made changes to the curriculum and agreed to pay the medical bills of people injured that summer in an amount equal to a 1921 pledged to the university by the KKK.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Many demands remain unfulfilled. But, last year, the city met one critical commitment, removing the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

  • Diane Hillman:

    Lee Park is on the left.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Diane Hillman showed us the walk from the synagogue to the park, a reminder of what she saw on August 12.

  • Diane Hillman:

    It's a very different feeling here today right now compared to what it was. It just feels so peaceful now.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    An empty plot remains where Lee's statue once stood, as the city considers what to do next. And on this anniversary, clergy and community members will walk from here to Heather Heyer Way in remembrance of what happened and in defiance of the forces they're still fighting.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barrón-López in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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