Opinion

Charlottesville Has Been My Family Home for Centuries. Here Is Why It's the Perfect Flashpoint for White Nationalists

Charlottesville, which fancies itself a liberal city but remains studded with Confederate monuments, celebrates the past while embodying the future of the United States, for good and ill

A man stops to comfort Joseph Culver (L) of Charlottesville as he kneels at a late night vigil to pay his respect for a friend injured in a car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
JIM BOURG/REUTERS

It has become commonplace for us in the United States to see the results of violence on TV – the explosions, the ambulances, the armed security forces, the damaged buildings and the weeping victims and witnesses.

But these are the things that happen in Beirut, in Yemen, in Brussels, in Bali. Places I don’t live.

Today they happened in my heart.

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My family had been wrapped up in Charlottesville, Virginia for two centuries or more. It is where my father and my brother and my uncles and their grandfathers and great grandfathers went to college. It is where my grandfather was a Methodist pastor and my mother went to high school.

I went to college in Charlottesville and later came back to cover police and public safety for the local newspaper, the Daily Progress. I covered many murders, many accidents, many fire, but today was different.

It was on a corner at the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian corridor in the heart of downtown. It was a corner just blocks from where my grandfather preached; where my mother went to high school, where my brother worked, where I was a radio DJ, where my wife and I courted and my children played, that someone in a car rammed into a crowd of defenseless civilians and killed at least one person while dozens of cameras broadcast the crime to the world.

Although it has been some years since I have been back to Charlottesville, it has been a painful day for me, seeing the death and destruction at the place I know so well.

Charlottesville likes to fancy itself a liberal city, and by Virginia standards, it is. But it remains studded with monuments to the Confederacy. The University of Virginia still uses the rooms designated for the slaves that build the institution, but now they serve as showers for the students who live in the rooms on the iconic lawn that runs through the center of the grounds.

When I started at the University of Virginia more than 30 years ago, it was common for us to see Confederate battle flags hanging in the dorms. It was not remarkable to play “Sweet Home Alabama” at top volume, and we barely recoiled at the use of the “N-word.”

At the same time, Charlottesville was, for the most part, a safe haven for the dispossessed, the unusual and the rejected. Even in the 1980s, we had clubs devoted to the gay and transgender, religious and ethnic minorities, and political views of all kinds.

Although I left Charlottesville in the early 1990s, my family remained, so I visited regularly, several times per year. It seemed to me that the city was becoming more progressive as the years went by.

And yet, the largest park in downtown featured a vast stature of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The county courthouse a few hundred yards to the east is surrounded by Southern artillery pieces.

Perhaps it is natural that this place should become a flashpoint of the changes that are sweeping the South and the nation as a whole. It is a place that celebrates the past and embodies the future of the United States, for good and ill.

Regularly we hear news from afar of clashes and attacks in remote and exotic places, places where tribalism and anger hold sway. Today, I was transfixed as it happened in a place I can navigate in my sleep.

I don’t know the woman who was killed today in Charlottesville, nor do I know the young man who drove the car into her. As best I am aware, I don’t know any of the injured or the witnesses to the attack.

But I do know that street and that corner. It is a place I have walked and shopped and my children have played. It is a place I could so easily have been at the moment the violence broke out.

Today erased any sense for me that we have nothing to do with the streets of Baghdad, Cairo, Nairobi, or Jerusalem.