City Council establishes annual Unity Days to commemorate events of Aug. 11 and 12

The project aims to promote unity while memorializing the violent ‘Unite the Right’ rally

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As part of this new tradition, the month of August 2019 will focus on remembering those fatally affected by the rally, then initiating a call for action opportunity for engagement.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Charlottesville City Council met Monday evening and passed a resolution that designates the recognition of Unity Days — an annual community event to be held in remembrance of the deadly Aug. 11 and 12 ‘Unite the Right’ rally, in which members of white supremacist groups marched on the Lawn and downtown Charlottesville. 

The resolution to establish Unity Days carried unanimously. The Council had created an ad-hoc committee with the goal of establishing appropriate recognition of the City’s past.

Unity Days are to be held every second weekend of August. In the event that Aug. 12 does not fall on the designated second weekend of the month, that day — even as a weekday — will still be observed. For example, since Aug. 12 falls on a Monday in 2019, it will be recognized individually, in addition to the weekend events. The City will schedule public events in venues such as the Downtown Mall, McGuffey Street Park, Market Street Park, Court Square Park and Fourth Street. The specifics of events will be determined based on community input.

The City’s Director of Communications Brian Wheeler spoke to Council members as a member of the ad-hoc committee tasked with planning the new tradition. Wheeler said feedback from the community is central to the project, describing it as “city-sponsored but community-driven.”

“We started by inviting 30 community members to focus groups to start talking about this key goal of transitioning from first-anniversary planning — which emphasized public safety — to a community-driven annual event that educates, inspires and honors people in our community to create movement towards healing and unity on a path for economic and racial justice,” Wheeler said.

To initiate the tradition, the entire summer of 2019 will feature events along the theme Summer of Unity, with each month building upon the theme with involvement from community members. The month of May examines the history of racial injustice, June involves discussions breaking down institutions that perpetuate oppression and July honors community leaders who have made a commitment to effecting change. The month of August will focus on remembering those fatally affected by the rally, then initiating a call for action opportunity for engagement.

Charlene Green, manager of Charlottesville’s Human Rights Commission and member of the ad-hoc committee, spoke to council members about the focus group’s vision for the Summer of Unity initiative and how it shapes reflection on the community’s past.

“We need to regain that narrative back, in making sure that Charlottesville is not just about white supremacy, not just about Thomas Jefferson or the University of Virginia,” Green said. “This history and all that the city is about is very robust and very inclusive, and we do our best to engage the community in any way possible.”

According to the City Council agenda, the movement for an anniversary event garnered unanimous support. The City consulted representatives from the University in planning the event, as well as local faith leaders, activists and business owners. The City also met with families of individuals harmed by the rally, including Susan Bro — the mother of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed by the car that was intentionally driven into a crowd peaceful counter-protestors on the Downtown Mall.

The agenda describes Unity Days as “a new course for how our community marks this anniversary.” Last August on the one-year anniversary of the events, hundreds of demonstrators anti-fascist activists gathered at a memorial to Heyer and marched on the Downtown Mall, at a rally against white supremacy organized by U.Va. Students United.   

As noted by Wheeler, the City prioritized public safety — rather than specific community events such as Unity Days — in anticipation of the first anniversary, out of uncertainty about violence returning to Charlottesville.  Law enforcement members were present at the rally, and multiple Charlottesville community members expressed concerns about their handling of the situation. 

At the rally, police officers stood in line formation with shields. Bellamy mediated the situation between law enforcement and demonstrators. Bellamy said he wanted the officers to understand why they might appear threatening to the demonstrators given their line formation and possession of shields. After he spoke with a lieutenant on the scene, Bellamy said the law enforcement personnel lowered their shields and tensions de-escalated.

During the rally, a Virginia State Police officer had “declared” unlawful assembly but was not ever officially declared an unlawful assembly by the unified command center — which includes officials from the University, City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. 

The City spent an unplanned $900,000 on the one-year anniversary, having enlisted heightened security and police presence. The Council has already approved the allocation of $1 million towards costs of the one-year anniversary and any potential unexpected costs of the 2019 anniversary. The budget for Unity Days has not yet been established.

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