Update: As of Tuesday, Sept. 28, the University Police Department concluded the alleged vandalism was a "false alarm" based on full review of footage. Read our further coverage here.
The 9/11 Never Forget Project hosted by Young Americans for Freedom at U.Va. was found vandalized Saturday evening, according to representatives from the controversial conservative student organization. Members say flags were torn from the grass and stepped on, a table had been flipped upside down and posters were removed and scattered around Grounds.
The event — held at the amphitheater that morning — commemorated the lives lost in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by placing 2,977 American flags in the grass. Around 70 people attended the event, including students, Charlottesville community members and University administration including University President Jim Ryan and Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
YAF is a conservative organization for youth activism with a presence at many colleges nationwide. Refounded at the University in 2013, YAF’s mission is to spread ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values.
The program began with a candle lighting ceremony and was followed by the national anthem, self-reflection and a moment of silence. YAF’s keynote speaker — retired Col. Dan Moy — shared his story and led attendees in prayer. Moy is a Batten lecturer and chairman of the Republican Party of Charlottesville.
When the group returned to the site of the memorial that evening, about a quarter of the flags were degrounded and a table with YAF pins and stickers for event attendees was flipped over, according to Nickolaus Cabrera, second-year College student and chairman of YAF at U.Va. Another executive board member of YAF alleged one of the event’s signs was found at Boylan Heights on the Corner.
YAF members contacted the University Police Department, who sent a representative to investigate the vandalism. UPD confirmed they responded to the incident, which is under further investigation. However, more information is unavailable until an official police report is released.
According to Cabrera, a UPD officer who responded to the incident watched surveillance footage and reported back to YAF that an individual wearing a jersey had flipped over the table. UPD confirmed there is footage of the alleged incident but provided no additional details.
Cabrera and Julianna Marsh, fourth-year College student and secretary of YAF, condemned the destruction of a memorial event.
“We hope that the subject is held accountable for their actions,” Cabrera said. “I think this vandalism, especially on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, is hopefully something that the student body can get behind in recognizing its wrongdoings.”
Marsh called the scene was “sickening” and “unjust” in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.
“The vandalism of the 9/11 Never Forget Project has indicated the lack of respect that some U.Va. students have for the 2,977 innocent lives lost in the tragedy,” Marsh wrote.
“Many thanks to YAF @ UVA for organizing this morning’s moving event commemorating the lives lost on September 11th,” Ryan captioned the post.
YAF has drawn criticism at the University before for various incidents that targeted students of color and marginalized identities. Most recently, in November, the national chapter of YAF posted a video of a Student Council meeting alleging that “leftist” student representatives “attacked” Cabrera, who at the time was a Student Council representative. Student Council denounced the post in a resolution and said the video had been selectively edited to misrepresent the discussion. Multiple members of Student Council targeted by YAF in the video were subject to threats of physical violence.
Students and other social media users critiqued Ryan’s choice to thank the group on Instagram and Twitter following the 9/11 memorial event. On Instagram, his post garnered 52 comments — most condemning the recognition of YAF and many suggesting the group's signage was done in poor taste. On Twitter, the president's post received an additional 46 quote tweets and 27 replies in response.
Many expressed disapproval of the sign for the event which depicted a plane as the hyphen of “9-11” flying into the twin towers. Several comments called for Ryan to delete the post altogether, claiming that Ryan or his public relations representative should know better.
“The only charitable interpretation of this is that you didn't know how terrible YAF is,” Twitter user Gareth Gaston wrote. “If that's the case you must repudiate your statement immediately. And if not, well then we can only assume you support them.”
Chinese literature Prof. Jack Chen also denounced Ryan’s affiliation with YAF in a reply to the tweet.
“Were you aware that YAF denies systemic racism, ridicules common sense policies that seek to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campuses and regularly refers to your colleagues as ‘crazed leftists?’” Chen tweeted, referring to a headline published by YAF’s national page. “You are either being ignorant or cynical with this statement.”
Chen elaborated on his tweet in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.
“It’s disappointing to see our University president embrace an organization whose primary purpose seems to be to manufacture outrage from outside the University and to direct that outrage toward the most vulnerable members of the University community," Chen said.
Ryan weighed in on the criticism of his social media post in a statement provided by University communications.
“September 11, 2001 was a day that forever changed our nation, and I was grateful to have an opportunity to honor and remember those who lost their lives and those who were affected by the tragic events of that day,” Ryan said. “On a personal level, as someone who lost a friend at the World Trade Center and had other friends and family members directly and forever impacted by the attacks, I appreciated the occasion for quiet reflection with colleagues, students and other members of our community.”
Cabrera said it “meant a lot” to the group that Ryan posted about the event on social media.
“I wish you know for once the student body could, you know, put aside the fact that we’re YAF at U.Va.,” Cabrera said. “I am so glad that President Ryan made a post because I don't know if he actually knows the amount of hate and criticism that Young Americans for Freedom at U.Va. gets.”
This is a developing story, check back for updates.