Following President Donald Trump’s incitement of an insurrection at the United States Capitol, community members reflected on how the havoc that the Unite the Right rally wreaked in Charlottesville nearly four years ago influenced these past few weeks.
On Jan. 6, a rally in favor of Trump gathered in front of the Capitol and later turned violent when thousands of its participants stormed the building, angered over Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. As the mob broke in, they wielded, among other symbols, Confederate flags — a scene resemblant of many other conservative centered events, but namely the Unite the Right rally of 2017 in Charlottesville.
Although Charlottesville was the “canary in the coal mine,” according to Jalane Schmidt, associate professor of religious studies, she wants to make it clear that Unite the Right didn’t permit the insurrection, but was rather a symptom of the white supremacy that permeates our society.
Schmidt, a scholar-activist in the Charlottesville area, said that looking at U.S. history, the insurrection was not unprecedented at all. During the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in New Orleans in 1874, Danville, Va. in 1883 and Wilmington, N.C. in 1898, there were examples of “white mobs” staging coups against progressive, biracial governments.
“I heard some people saying in a well-meaning kind of way that 'this just isn't America,' and it was the same kind of mentality after the Unite the Right rally here in Charlottesville,” she said. “But actually, it is. We warned people. We said, 'America, this is coming to you.'”
“I think that what we have seen time and time again is people underestimating the capacity for violence,” Gorcenski said told The Daily Progress. “We saw this in Charlottesville three years ago, when people were saying, ‘Oh, this is just rhetoric; we can’t use this to deny the permit, we have to give them their right to free speech.’ I’m sorry, but these were people who were talking about coming in and cracking Black people’s skulls, and then they came in and they cracked Black people’s skulls.”
Even though activists like Schmidt and Gorcenski try to explain the sheer prevalence of what happened in Charlottesville, according to Schmidt, people continue to think that the Unite the Right rally was an anomalous event. But in reality, the concept of “armed, right wing vigilantes” in league with those in power was not new, she said, and the Capitol raid was just the latest episode of that.
Sarandon Elliott, vice chair of leadership development for the Black Student Alliance and a fourth-year College student, was “shocked and surprised” upon witnessing events unfold at the Unite the Right rally. However, as she watched the insurrection, she said she saw it coming.
Attendees at a BSA community discussion on Jan. 12 came to the same consensus, she said.
One of the first parallels both Elliott and Schmidt saw between the events 2017 and the Capitol was the performance and role of law enforcement. Schmidt said that University Police talked to the alt-right participants of the 2017 rally, knew about their next moves and did not intervene in the name of free speech. According to Elliott, police, not just in Charlottesville, are “embedded” in maintaining the same white supremacy that was present in both events.
Something that she saw in both 2017 and now is the “conscious choice” on behalf of those in power to allow the participants to have a presence to begin with.
“I think one of the major things that I saw was definitely how Charlottesville police and then Capitol police handled the situation,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t use the term ineffective, because that implies that they didn’t do the actions that their jobs require, the actions being to protect and uphold white supremacy. I think they're really complacent. But again, it's not surprising.”
Some groups on Grounds, however, do not see the same connection between the Unite the Right rally and the Capitol insurrection. Sean Piwowar, a member of College Republicans and a third-year College student, said that an important distinction to make is who we attribute certain actions to.
While he said that the Unite the Right rally was clearly motivated by white supremacy, he argued that being in support of Trump does not automatically coincide with being one.
His main grievance with the Capitol insurrection was more so the precedent it set rather than the behaviors it potentially confirmed.
“The things that we see in those sorts of scenarios are very bad, and I don't like them,” Piwowar said. “Something that I really value is our constitutional system of government and the institutions that we have … and what’s really sad about the Capitol, is that it was undermining all this stuff with the election. Of course, it was a free election, but it was an actual attack on the symbol of the institution of our legislative, representative Republic.”
College Republicans member and first-year College student, Nickolaus Cabrera, feels that the “violence” at the Capitol was not reflective of what the Republican Party stands for. To him, the main connection between Unite the Right rallies and the Capitol, was the presence of “hate,” Confederate flags and the deaths and casualties that followed.
“It was very heartbreaking for me to see that. [It's] where all of our congressmen and women get together just to serve our nation, and it's not representative at all of what the GOP stands for,” Cabrera said. “We don't stand on violence and we don't tolerate it at all. Granted, we did see a lot of Trump 2020 flags there, and as a former Trump supporter, I definitely [don't] condone all the acts at the Capitol.”
However, to Schmidt, the storming of the Capitol is actually, more than anything, a representation of the right. A common cause holds true for each of these events, and it’s a fear of replacement by “undeserving others,” meaning minority demographic groups, immigrants, socialists, communists or any other people the right can “scapegoat,” she said.
Far-right symbols including Confederate flags and signs of anarchy, Nazism and white supremacy were seen at the Capitol insurrection. Extremist groups including the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys were also present. Near the Capitol building, nooses were spotted slung over mannequins and hanging from makeshift gallows.
To Charlottesville native Clio Schurtz, a first-year College student and member of the Young Democratic-Socialists of America, the types of people present at both the Unite the Right rally and Capitol insurrection are one and the same.
“They were both really sickening examples of how normalized the alt-right and white supremacist movements have become in the U.S.,” Schurtz said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I was really horrified by both events and the fact that the participating extremists felt comfortable being so violent.”
According to Schmidt, an attitude of complacency and compromise is what’s to blame for the continued actions of the participants. The old formula of civil discourse can no longer be followed if the people the left are ostensibly compromising with, believe conspiracy theories and don’t share the basis of facts, she said.
In describing the people who carried out these events, Schmidt referenced a quote by Maya Angelou that states, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
“Trump and his minions have been telling us for years who they are, and they've been acting on it, and we should not be so naive as to not take them at their word,” Schmidt said. “So, we need to think about that, being at U.Va., what does it mean to share a country with people who are impervious to logic.”
In the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, Charlottesville as a community has been on a “steep learning curve,” she said, in order to recognize the history of white supremacy in the area.
Recognizing this has allowed people to become more actively engaged in difficult conversations involving the history of white supremacy. The events led to a denouncement of local leadership and spurred the election of the city’s first Black female mayor — Nikuyah Walker. Local policies changed to increase public safety and have also permitted the removal of Confederate statues.
Because of the size of the Charlottesville community, Schmidt said that there have been more people who wanted to engage in having these “difficult conversations” even if it hasn’t always been “pretty.”
“I think there are things that other communities can probably learn from us, not that we're perfect by any means, but just in terms of our willingness to sit down with each other, really hash things out and tell some ugly truths,” Schmidt said. “I think there's something to be learned from what we've gone through, whether people or parts of the country wants to do that remains to be seen.”
Elliott sees the University response toward tackling issues, such as white supremacy, in Charlottesville as insufficient. University President Jim Ryan and other University administrators, she said, responded with a lack of substance, with Ryan’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. The University’s statements in the past, she said, not only gave the community low expectations to discuss events regarding such issues, but also insinuated that the University is “complacent” in white supremacy.
“Time and time again, [they] have been not quick to, not only really address and tackle these issues broadly, but also at the University,” Elliott said. “But again, I think the Black community at U.Va. is also not surprised about that. I know Jim Ryan talked a little bit at the Democracy Dialogue about what happened to Capitol Hill, and we're kind of like, what should we really expect from Jim Ryan? He's not quick to really talk about these issues, much less tackle the issues.”