On August 11, a crowd of radical white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” rally. They ostensibly came to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate army general Robert E. Lee from a public park near the campus of the University of Virginia. The “alt-right” mob marched with torches, guns and homemade riot gear while chanting Nazi slogans Friday night and again Saturday morning, violently clashing with counter-protesters. 

Charlottesville police were criticized for their slow response to the violence. When Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency on Saturday, August 12th, police began attempting to break up the crowds. But at 1:42 p.m., a man driving a Dodge Challenger plowed into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The alleged driver of the vehicle, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., a Nazi sympathizer and known member of a white supremacist group, is charged with second-degree murder and multiple counts of aggravated malicious wounding. 

The ACLU has been blamed for defending Unite the Right organizer and spokesperson Jason Kessler when the city of Charlottesville attempted to revoke his permit citing safety concerns a week before the event. But ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero issued a statement on the Tuesday following the attack that defended the ACLU’s work protecting all U.S. citizens’ first amendment rights. 

“Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground,” Romero wrote. “Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it.” 

Piedmont faculty and students are processing their thoughts and feelings about the events in Charlottesville along with the rest of the country. 

“It was a blatant display of racism and hatred,” said Julia Sandoval, a sophomore at Piedmont College. “It showed that there is still the very big problem of racism that plagues our country. Half of my family is of color, and honestly, I’m scared that one day I might get a call that someone in my family has been a victim of a hate crime. It infuriates me… that I have to be scared of that in the 21st century.” 

Sandoval is a biology major, with a double minor in chemistry and social justice. She believes that the Piedmont community, as one that prides itself on diversity, needs to show its support to students of color, LGBT+ students, and disabled students. 

“Racism and other prejudices have been present in our society for years – decades, centuries – but many people turn blind eyes to it,” she said. “From micro aggressions experienced in daily lives, to the institutional racism in work fields and in the criminal justice system, racism has been alive and active. It seems that only when something catastrophic has happened are people ready to discuss it. We need to talk. We need to become educated.” 

Several professors have incorporated conversations about what happened in Charlottesville into their classroom discussions, encouraging students to think critically and to speak their minds. 

“I make space for these discussions in my courses,” said Dr. Beth Lovern, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology. “It’s the best way to demonstrate the benefits of reasoned, informed social and political discourse in our democratic society. Students are using their well-rounded liberal arts education to develop their perspectives and roles as citizens and future leaders. Some students have expressed to me that they feel protected and safe in the ‘Piedmont bubble.’ However, I do think that Charlottesville was a galvanizing event that alarmed an increasing number of students. They want American society to reflect equality and tolerance and are willing to work toward those goals with dialogue and activism. These students recognize the danger of complacency in the face of racism and injustice. Their efforts are worth supporting.”

Watch Vice’s documentary about the Charlottesville riots to learn more about the unfolding events.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIrcB1sAN8I[/embedyt]