We at The Viking were deeply shaken by the violence that erupted between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville in August. We were especially horrified at the tragic death of Heather Heyer, and by the brazen militancy of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. The rights of speech and assembly are enshrined in our Constitution, yet both were powerless against semi-automatic weapons, clubs and pepper spray.
Just days after the event, our staff group message blew up with responses as we contemplated how to best cover an event that, even as it made headlines around the globe, felt very, very personal. Should we merely approach it as a trending news topic and deliver the who, what, where and when of the rally and its aftermath? Should we add our voice to the national debate over the resurgence of overt racism, and re-articulate our belief that our nation is strongest when it values and defends its most vulnerable citizens?
In the end we decided that both of those methods didn’t sufficiently convey how close to home the events in Charlottesville truly were.
In order to capture the immediacy of the events in Charlottesville we turned to former Valley students who now call that place home.
Jasmine Mao and Emily Hubbard both began their first year at the University of Virginia this August. We asked both to talk about how the rally and subsequent media coverage shaped the beginning of their college life.
In the days immediately following the rally, Hubbard received emails from deans, counselors, professors and student leaders assuring her that Charlottesville remained a warm and welcoming place. Mao received similar assurances, yet was discouraged by what some of the apologies implied.
“In most of my classes my professors simply apologized that we had to enter the university at a trying and hostile time, but honestly these apologies upset me,” Mao said. “It almost seemed as if they thought by apologizing the issue would be resolved and we could all move on with our lives.”
Both Mao and Hubbard felt that they couldn’t just move on. Their first days at UVA would always be defined by the violence that preceded their arrival, and to pretend otherwise seemed to them both foolish and impossible. For Mao especially, addressing it honestly and openly was the only way forward.
“At the convocation for the curriculum I’m in, professors actually addressed the problems. Recalling their own first hand account of the rally, motivating us to make something of our education, or encouraging us to research the contentious history of our university,” Mao said. “Never have I entered a school that welcomed criticism and truth as much as UVA has, and that’s when my respect for this institution grew.”
What happened in Charlottesville is terrifying, but it can’t be the end of the story. To turn away would be to give forces of hate and destruction the final say. It is imperative that we replace our shame with the resolve to ask the hard questions and start the difficult conversations that will allow us to reckon with our shared reality.
This article first appeared in our October issue of our news magazine.
By Claire Slook and Zach Stevenson