Almost a year after Unite the Right, Charlottesville still on edge

As the first anniversary of Unite the Right approached, Charlottesville festers with high tensions and uncertainty as to what might happen on August 11 and 12.

That feeling persists, despite a hearing outcome Tuesday that bars Jason Kessler from a legal permit for a Unite the Right repeat next month.

A hazy lull of composure drapes over the quaint city of 48,000 people tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, whispers of a light breeze cutting through the occasional summer rains. A stroll down the historic, red-brick-lined downtown mall is almost serene, particularly in the morning as shopkeepers scramble to set up for the day.

Standing at the intersection of Main and 4th Streets, it seems almost impossible that just under a year ago, one of the most insidious events in recent Charlottesville history took place on that very block. To the left, Emancipation Park sprawls on Market Street, where crowds of white supremacists and counter-protesters gathered for the racist Unite the Right rally. To the right, Heather Heyer’s memorial stands with messages inscribed in chalk and flowers lining the wall, a sober reminder of the abhorrent violence that tarnished the social fabric of a city formerly dubbed “the feel-good capital” of the country. Nowadays, Charlottesville has become almost synonymous with the white supremacist rally that rattled a nation.

Several blocks over at the federal courthouse, Jason Kessler’s attorney, Elmer Woodard, prepares to bring suit against the city of Charlottesville for denying Kessler a permit to hold another iteration of Unite the Right. Slowly, the courtroom filled as community activists shuffle in alongside reporters and city attorneys, and, eventually, all rise for U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon. The plaintiff’s co-counsel, James Kolenich, stumbles in late without a draft of his proposed ruling in the case. Kessler was still nowhere to be found. At one point, the judge interrupts the defense’s argument and turns to Woodard and Kolenich to say, “Is this contemptuous behavior? Is this a serious matter you’re bringing before the court?”

Two recesses later, and an abrupt showing by Kessler himself, his attorneys announce that Kessler is dropping his request. Just like that, the bizarre hearing is over, and the city of Charlottesville emerges victorious, hoping Emancipation Park will be free of another violent gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in August. At least technically.

However, as eerily calm as the city stands, perhaps still holding its breath from the events of last year, the injunction withdrawal is by no means definitively comforting.

City spokesman Brian Wheeler said the city has no events planned for the anniversary of Unite the Right, but will try to be prepared for whatever comes next.

“For the safety of residents and business owners, the public can expect to see a substantial presence of state and local law enforcement personnel and vehicles throughout downtown during the weekend,” Wheeler said. “Law enforcement uniforms will vary in accordance with assignment and situation.”

For local anti-racist organizers and activists, the rotten ideologies uncovered by Unite the Right need more than a temporary permit denial to remedy.

Lisa Woolfork, a community organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, stated that, while Kessler’s withdrawal and the community’s subsequent activism show that “we refuse to let our community be a staging ground for white supremacist action,” it is still disconcerting to know there is a possibility “that these fascist terrorists will show up in our community anyway.”

“You look around at white people, and you can’t tell who’s a supremacist and who’s not. Our community is still reeling from the PTSD of last year,” a fearful Charlottesville activist recounted just outside the federal courthouse, blocks away from where Heather Heyer’s memorial still stands.

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