Faculty Forum: When the White Supremacists Come to Campus

By Walt Heinecke

I was near the University of Virginia’s Rotunda on the night of August 11, when torch-bearing white supremacists marched on campus. It was the eve of the Unite the Right rally, and I had obtained permits for, and organized with community members and students, two counterprotests the following day. Around ten o’clock, a local activist ran by me and yelled, “Walt, your students are surrounded by Nazis up at the Rotunda!” I rushed to the scene and found, to my horror, 150 white supremacists pressing in on a group of students, alums, and community members who had locked arms in a tight circle around the statue of Jefferson. The police made little effort to intervene as the neo-Nazis approached, yelling, “Blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other offensive slogans. I was scared by the hatred I saw that night. But I was more frightened for the students, and I made my way into the mob in an attempt to assist them.

White supremacists attacked and maced students and community members that Friday night. More students were severely injured on Saturday, in assaults in the street and in the act of terrorism that killed Heather Heyer, a peaceful counterprotester. I spent Saturday with a group of incredible community volunteers at nearby parks, running security and trying to provide refuge for the counterdemonstrators.

Institutions failed that weekend. University administrators, ignoring intelligence reports, were unprepared for the torch-lit rally. They failed to enforce a Virginia law that prohibits the use of open flame to intimidate or incite violence. They missed a key exception to protection of speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

The police failed to stop the attacks on Friday night. After leaving the Rotunda, I emailed the Charlottesville chief of police, describing the violence as an example of what was to come on Saturday in downtown Charlottesville. The police could have canceled the permits for the rally. They did not. Then, on Saturday, police failed to intervene as brawls erupted right in front of them.

The bravery and leadership of the students and community activists is what I remember from those days. They stood against white supremacy. They showed Boston and San Francisco, where other fascist rallies had been planned, what can be accomplished when community members say, “No.”

Here are some lessons I took from that violent weekend.

I learned that white supremacist organizations have been active in Charlottesville, as in many other towns, for quite some time. I learned that you have to take risks to challenge white supremacy. It took a leap of faith on my part to obtain permits for the counterprotests, but the community rose to the occasion. The counterprotests were peaceful and provided water, food, medical attention, and respite to many of the frontline protesters.

I learned to ignore university administrators and city officials who avoid moral responsibility to counter white supremacy when they urge citizens, faculty, staff, and students to shelter in place or attend alternative events. I learned that it is important to unearth the university’s past connections to white supremacy. Why did the white supremacists come to Charlottesville? It was not only in response to the city council’s decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. Perhaps it was because Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia laid out an ideology of white supremacy over Africans and Native Americans. Perhaps it was because the Charlottesville Ku Klux Klan held its first meeting at Jefferson’s tomb and subsequently made donations to the university. I learned that it is important to work for substantive change by supporting increased minority enrollments and faculty hires, a living wage, and antiracist curricula. And I learned that it is as important to show up to protest white supremacy before and after the large demonstrations as it is to show up during them.

The battle is far from over. Racial and ethnic discrimination are on the rise. The white supremacists have come back to Charlottesville for another torch-lit offensive, and they are coming to other cities.

AAUP members should join this fight. Become active in efforts to dismantle white supremacy on your campus and in your community. Get a permit. Organize a demonstration. Act now.

Walt Heinecke is associate professor of research, statistics, and evaluation at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and president of UVA’s AAUP chapter. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

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