U.Va. reacts to August tragedies

Violence brings changes to University policy, police presence on Grounds

Fs-ReclaimGrounds

Students gather on the Lawn during the BSA's march to reclaim Grounds. 

Benjamin Burke | Cavalier Daily

The white nationalist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12 continue to impact the University, student body and larger Charlottesville area. The Aug. 12 ‘Unite the Right’ rally resulted in numerous injuries and three deaths, including Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer. In response, community members held events of their own, including counter-protests like the March to Reclaim Our Grounds by student groups and candlelit vigils for all affected by the rally. 

However, the University faced scrutiny for the way it handled the events of Aug. 11 and 12, specifically the response to the white nationalist march on Grounds. 

As a result, several changes were implemented throughout the University, from the formation of the Deans Working Group to the removal of Confederate plaques to an increased security presence on Grounds. While some University community members said the events transformed the student culture by increasing awareness of the challenges faced by minorities, they also said that persistent issues of racism still exist in Charlottesville.

University action 

Vicki Gist, assistant dean of students and director of Multicultural Student Services, said the University has enacted several small- and large-scale policies to address racism and white supremacy, as well as to ensure the safety of all community members. 

“Policy changes are a work in progress, and there is still a lot to be discussed and considered as we move forward,” Gist said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “There have been many new policies passed that “provide an elevated level of safety and security.” 

University President Teresa Sullivan created the Deans Working Group in August. The group is composed of deans and members of the University community to assess the University’s response to the events and guide its policies moving forward. 

The working group has made suggestions for handling any future demonstrations by student groups and community members on Grounds.

Moreover, in late August, the University hired the security firm Margolis Healy & Associates to examine and reinforce the University’s safety procedures. The University also expanded police coverage across Grounds, and the University Police Department has provided additional security at large events and athletic contests. Students and community members must abide by a new clear bag policy and go through metal detectors prior to entering those type of events. 

An update on the working group’s progress published on Aug. 23 said that, “going forward, UPD will be informed whenever the Office of Environmental Health and Safety approves uses of open flame devices on Grounds. This will allow UPD to take appropriate action against use that does not have such approval.”

In an interview with the Cavalier Daily in late August, Sullivan and Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, who also chairs the working group, discussed the possibility of designating the Lawn as a University “facility,” which would give the University greater control over the area by banning the use of firearms there. In September, the Board of Visitors voted this policy into effect

The University has also begun to re-landscape Grounds in efforts to establish a community that is accepting of and reflects the many backgrounds and identities that make up the student body. In mid-September, the University removed plaques on the Rotunda commemorating Confederate soldiers, a resolution that was passed in response to the Black Student Alliance’s list of demands for creating a more welcoming atmosphere for people of color at the University that was made just weeks after the Aug. 11 and 12 rallies. 

Another significant change to Grounds will be the construction of the University Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Although not directly in response to the events of Aug. 11 and 12, its design has been in process for the past few years, and it will provide an area for reflection on the University’s past that will honor those enslaved laborers who helped make the University what it is today. The memorial will sit across from the Corner and east of Brooks Hall. 

After its formation in August, the Deans Working Group announced the creation of an Advisory Committee on the Future of the Historic Landscape. According to the announcement, the group is charged with reviewing historic symbols and their placement on Grounds moving forward. 

“The Advisory Committee on the Future of the Historic Landscape at the University of Virginia shall formulate principles and make recommendations about the display of visible historic symbols on Grounds,” the charge said. “These principles and recommendations should provide a pathway to remember and recognize the University’s history, foster our contemporary values and future aspirations, and celebrate our highest ideals.”

Student impact on the University community

Many community members, both directly and indirectly affected, still feel the repercussions of the events and have been impacted in various ways. Evelyn Wang, the chair of the Minority Rights Coalition and a fourth-year College student, said that for many, it has threatened a sense of belonging at the University and in Charlottesville. 

“Many minority students at U.Va. didn’t feel safe before Aug. 11 and 12,” Wang said. “But now that lack of safety is more pronounced.”

Other students remarked on tension within the student body as individuals and groups process the hateful events in different ways.

“[The events] definitely increased polarization on both sides,” said Adam Kimelman, chair of the College Republicans and a third-year College student. “Tensions are much higher.” 

According to Gist, much of the student body has proven that they want to tackle the issue of white supremacy. 

“One change I have noticed is that there is a greater awareness within the student body and an interest in having deeper dialogue about our collective experiences and perspectives,” Gist said.

Multiple student groups have taken action in response, challenging white supremacy and calling on the University to make necessary changes to address the issue. 

“The student body does want to combat this problem we are facing and … activism is on the rise,” Kimelman said. 

Such activism is visible in the ways students are confronting these issues and taking initiative to recognize their impact — in the U.Va. Students United protest against white supremacy at October’s Bicentennial Launch Celebration and the 10 demands to the University by the BSA, for instance. The BSA’s demands included removing the plaques to Confederate soldiers on the Rotunda and banning University alumni and white nationalist leaders Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer from Grounds. Some demands have already been addressed, such as the Confederate plaques and repurposing the donation made to the University by the KKK in the early 20th century.

Moving forward

Several University community members have acknowledged the need to address the issues through tough conversations and civil dialogue among student groups and the University community. 

“The events of August 11th do not belong to any one student group or one identity group,” said Bryanna Miller, a fourth-year Colleges student and the student member of the University’s Board of Visitors, in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Miller added that a coalition between student groups, cultural groups, University administration and more has grown and can continue to build a new community that will move forward from this crisis and terror. 

However, many in the community point out that Charlottesville and the University still have a long way to go. After the events in August, the city hired Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, to review the way the protests were handled. 

Heaphy’s report was released in early December and found that the University Police Department did not respond to the events in a sufficient manner, particularly to the rally on Grounds on Aug. 11. The report also commented that the march on Grounds played a role in the extent of the violence on Aug. 12.

Nonetheless, University officials and student groups are still working to bring tangible change to Grounds in the wake of the violence.

“We are all stewards of this community, and thus have a duty to this school, this city, to ourselves, and to one another to not forget August 11th and 12th,” said Sarah Kenny, Student Council president and a fourth-year College student, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We must … push one another to get vocal and uncomfortable with our current state of affairs. Complacency will only breed more intolerance and division.”

Gist pointed to the actions student groups have already taken in an effort to move the University beyond the difficult events. 

“Many student groups, particularly the Black Student Alliance and the Minority Rights Coalition, have mobilized to engage the University in ongoing dialogue about the events of August 11 and 12,” Gist said.  “They have not only focused on the events of that weekend, but have urged University leaders to examine policies and practices that can be changed or implemented to create a more welcoming environment for marginalized students.” 

These responses of University students and faculty demonstrate a commitment to changing policies and practices at the University in reaction to issues of racism, which have long plagued Charlottesville and the broader community. Wang said these issues are more pronounced now and encourages students to recognize white supremacy and continue fighting it in all aspects. 

“As time passes, many students see the events as more distant to their realities,” Wang said. However, according to Wang, racism and white supremacy continue to challenge minority students at the University. 

For this reason, “the Spring semester is a defining moment,” Miller said. “We cannot ‘get over’ the events of August 11th and 12th. We have to get through them together.” 

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