The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society hosted Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy Friday night to hear about his personal experiences with racism, the last August and local Charlottesville politics.
During the talk, Bellamy revealed that he was planning on requesting later this year that the City transfer to a mayoral system in which the mayor is directly elected by the voters of Charlottesville, rather than current system in which the mayor is internally appointed by the City Council every two years. Bellamy said the change would hold the City’s mayor more accountable to voters.
Bellamy said this transition would require a change to the City’s charter — or the legal document which grants legal municipal status to Charlottesville by the General Assembly — but did not specify whether he believes the amendment would grant the mayor additional powers and responsibilities. In Charlottesville, the mayor’s role is largely ceremonial and procedural, but some directly-elected mayors — like Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney — take on a greater role in community governance. Presently, Richmond and Norfolk are the only two Virginia cities to directly elect the mayor by popular vote.
Rohan Ahluwalia, a third-year College student and vice president of the Jefferson Society, said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that Bellamy came to the event as part of a distinguished speaker series the society holds every semester.
“Having someone local come in I think helps us tighten the community bonds,” Ahluwalia said. “What I really appreciated is on some level at least, we as U.Va. students get a sense of what we should be doing to connect back to the Charlottesville community.
Bellamy focused much of his discussion around the white nationalist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12 at the University and in Charlottesville — and how they shed light upon the City’s history of institutional racism.
“It’s very funny — before August 12, many people would say, ‘There’s no crime in Charlottesville, there’s no people getting upset in Charlottesville,’” Bellamy said. “A lot of people oftentimes think that the issues that transpired and kind of came to a head on August 12 were something new. But in fact, it was really just a manifestation of an undercurrent that had been taking place here for a very long time.”
Bellamy added he has conflicting views of Charlottesville, citing instances of local injustices and inequality. Bellamy specifically pointed to the City Council’s unwillingness to reduce the City’s poverty rate despite recent annual budget surpluses, and what he sees as the University’s failure to pay its workers a living wage.
“[Charlottesville] is a city which I love, I absolutely adore,” Bellamy said. “But day after day, I’m both conflicted and elated to live here. Conflicted, sad, disappointed because I live in a place where individuals day after day care very little about their fellow man and or woman.”
However, Bellamy added that despite his clashing views of Charlottesville, he sees the City as a national epicenter for racial equity reforms as a response to the Unite the Right rally.
“[I am happy] that I live in what I believe to be the place that may be ground zero for the awakening,” Bellamy said. “We have catapulted ourselves into the national limelight, in which we have truly shown some of the darkest and ugliest sides of America, but also that we are indeed a community that is resilient — we do not allow hate to stand either.”
Bellamy also spoke extensively on the City’s preparation for and response to the Unite the Right rally Aug. 12, 2017.
Bellamy said he spoke with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Police Chief Andrew Greenwood of Berkeley, Ca. in Chicago three weeks before the rally to discuss strategies to deal with white nationalist demonstrations. A number of right-wing demonstrations took place in Berkeley including violent clashes between demonstrators and counter protesters March 4 and April 17 2017.
According to Bellamy, he was told by both individuals there was little that could be done by police personnel to prevent such violence and conflicts. These protests are shielded, Bellamy said, by their First Amendment protections.
“His [Arreguín’s] logic was these individuals are coming here to fight, we cannot stop them from fighting,” Bellamy said. “And I thought to myself, ‘That's a really interesting take, like, you're just going to let these people get hurt’ and he said, ‘No, we're not letting them get hurt, they're coming to fight.’”
In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Arreguín said he met with Bellamy in late July 2017 at a conference in Austin, Tx. where he said the two discussed the violent protests in Berkeley and “how to manage these events from a policing perspective and a public relations perspective.”
While Bellamy was still vice mayor, he said former Charlottesville Chief of Police Al Thomas and himself also visited Portland, Or. to meet with Mayor Ted Wheeler regarding right-wing rallies.
Bellamy said his and Thomas’s takeaway from the meetings was that such violence should not take place in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. Wheeler did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
However, conducted by former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy and launched by the City Council, Heaphy said there was evidence of Chief Thomas stating white nationalist demonstrators and counter protesters should be allowed to become violent Aug.12 in order to declare an unlawful assembly and end the rally.
Bellamy also addressed several tweets he published between 2009 and 2014 which included gay slurs, comments against white people, lewd slang for female genitalia and other profanities.
“It would be really bad for me to judge anyone because when I was your age, I think it's well documented how my mind worked,” Bellamy said. “Very immature, sexist, very ignorant — just would say the craziest things you can think of to get a laugh on Twitter.”
Bellamy said his own past experience with sensitivity towards others has allowed him to understand how individuals can overcome insensitive views during their life.
“That doesn't mean we can't reserve a space of love for individuals who may not also think how we think now but may be just as lost as I was before,” Bellamy said.
Bellamy said that he acted upon his belief in “love for individuals” recently when he confronted 19-year old Daniel Borden after a Charlottesville Circuit Court hearing in which Bellamy was subpoenaed to testify about the community’s perception of demonstrators at the Unite the Right rally. Borden, a demonstrator during the rally, has been charged with the malicious wounding of DeAndre Harris in downtown Charlottesville Aug. 12. Harris was found not guilty of misdemeanor assault as part of the skirmish earlier this month.
“When I walked out … I stopped and told him I’m praying for him, I love him and he will get through this,” Bellamy said. “I think that’s one of the things we’re missing in a lot of this situation — we’re drawing a clear line where it's us versus them.”
Bellamy argued that reaching out to those who have been indoctrinated with hateful views is essential to aiding in the growth process for people “who may potentially be allies to change our communities later on.”
“If we just continue to write them off and cast them off, will they ever grow into a state of consciousness?” Bellamy said. “We have to reserve space to allow people to grow. If we don't reserve space to allow them to grow, are we any better than the same people that we’re judging?”
Bellamy said he would endure the turmoil of the previous two years to achieve the progress he said the City of Charlottesville has made so far.
“We’ll look back on this time, as will history look back on this time, and we will indeed be the victors,” Bellamy said. “And if you're not willing to go through some troubled times to get to much better times, then I don’t know if you're a person I want fighting on my side.”