After violence in Charlottesville, student groups weigh in on next steps

Groups looking to promote more active policies and do more than issue statements

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White nationalists held a torchlit march through Grounds on Aug. 11. 

Tim Dodson | Cavalier Daily

Several University political and student advocacy groups say they wished they would have been more prepared to deal with last weekend’s protests and violence by white supremacist groups during the “Unite the Right” rally held in downtown Charlottesville. The events have prompted a strong consideration for creating better safety policies.

The College Republicans and University Democrats encouraged their members to stay safe, but did not have a specific preparedness policy, which both groups hope to revisit in light of the violence during the Aug. 12 rally.

“We did not have a preparedness plan for the event, and in hindsight, I wish that we had formed one,” Virginia Chambers, a second-year College student and communication coordinator for the University Democrats, said. “I had been hopeful that we wouldn’t need it, and that it wouldn't become as big an event as it became.” 

Chambers also said she wished the University would have made sure there was a prepared police presence on Grounds accompanied by alerts warning students about the torchlit march.

“Even before people were attacked, there weren’t University police on hand,” Chambers said. “We were disappointed that the University didn’t have a lot of safety precautions in place as possible, and we also would have wanted safety alerts.”

Adam Kimelman, chair of the College Republicans and a third-year College student, said one of their main goals was to reject the white nationalist groups and their violence and make it clear that they are unwelcome in the Republican Party. 

“We’ve had two rallies like this before, and both times the groups have tried to identify themselves with the conservative movement,” Kimelman said. “So our primary goal was to make sure we got our message out that these people are not conservatives.” 

The “Unite the Right” rally was the third such protest held by white supremacy groups in Charlottesville in recent months, with the KKK holding a rally in Justice Park earlier on July 8 and a smaller torchlit rally attended by white nationalist leader and University alumnus Richard Spencer in May. 

The “Unite the Right” rally this past weekend was preceded by a planned march by white nationalist groups and leaders, which ended with violent confrontation on University property near the statue of Thomas Jefferson north of the Rotunda. 

“Going into last weekend, we were not expecting the white supremacists groups to be on Grounds,” Talia Sion, president of the Jewish Leadership Council and fourth-year Nursing student, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We were surprised and shocked by them marching through Grounds and gathering on the Lawn and by the Rotunda, as was the rest of the community.”

Sion said the University directly contacted Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the Brody Jewish Center — Hillel at the University, to see if students were safe or needed anything. 

“Since then, the University has been in contact with us and trying their best to support us through this difficult time,” Sion said. “We are currently in the process of expanding our security system at Hillel in order to make sure in case this were to happen again that we are more prepared.” 

In an email last week, University President Teresa Sullivan acknowledged the school’s policies and responsibilities under state and federal law as a public institution, which allowed the hundreds of protesters to march with lit torches at the University without a permit. 

Sullivan expressed in the statement that safety was of paramount concern and concluded with a call to cancel the annual Wertland Block Party. 

Sullivan also said police were given conflicting information about the rally by the white nationalists, which delayed police presence. 

Raiya Al-Nsour, a second-year and vice chair of advocacy for the Minority Rights Coalition, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that the MRC had been preparing for Saturday’s events by working with other advocacy groups around Charlottesville and educating their members about safety precautions. 

“We have disseminated information across networks, such as information regarding safety and nonviolent direct action preparedness on our listservs,” Al-Nsour said. “Additionally, we have ensured that students are kept aware of the right community action and events.”

Considering white nationalist leaders’ stated desire to return to Charlottesville for future protests, Al-Nsour said student groups and the University have to prepare stronger and more cohesive policies of resistance and safety to ensure readiness, should these groups return.

 “UVA must, without hesitation, name and denounce white supremacy in all of its insidious forms,” Al-Nsour said. “Going forward, in the event of future rallies, the University should provide a more forceful condemnation of violent displays of toxic ideology without piggybacking other issues onto that condemnation (i.e. pleas to call off block party).”

Kimelman said the College Republicans will be looking to develop a more action-based policy of resistance, working together with other groups while continuing to reject the white nationalist “alt-right”’s claim to the conservative movement. 

“Statements are good, but they’re not enough, so we will have to take a more active role in terms of events and actual communication with members during meetings instead of posting messages on behalf of the executive board,” Kimelman said. 

Chambers said the University Democrats will likely look to create educational material and protocol for safe engagement with white supremacist groups and work with other advocacy and political groups. 

“I think we are looking to make a small pamphlet or list of protocol, and collaborating with other advocacy groups because we want to make sure that people know how to be safe,” Chambers said.

Both Kimelman and Chambers said they hope the University takes steps to make incoming students feel safe given the weekend’s violence by addressing it and increasing communication with students and the community.

"The University needs to do a lot when welcoming new students and transfer students to Grounds,” Kimelman said. “They need to address this head on and make the new students feel safe here at U.Va. and in Charlottesville. That’s something that will be very challenging to do, but it’s something they need to do."

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