Administration

As White Supremacists Wreak Havoc, a University Becomes a Crisis Center

August 12, 2017

Chronicle photo by Clara Turnage
A man is beaten during the "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville, Va. The U. of Virginia canceled programs it had planned to respond to the march.

(Updated 9:18 p.m., 08/13/2017, with additional details of how some professors demonstrated their opposition to the white supremacist marchers.)

Several days before white nationalists and neo-Nazis were slated to descend upon Charlottesville, Va., the University of Virginia planned a response: what it called "a day of events displaying its commitment to mutual respect and inclusion."

As a march proceeded in the town, the university would hold dozens of sessions. The university's provost would lead a talk called "intolerance of intolerance." A student would train others on how to ally with undocumented immigrants. There would be a potluck.

It all came to naught.

On Saturday morning, the university canceled not just the programs it had planned, but all activities, as scenes of violence on the city's streets were broadcast across the nation. The university cited the state of emergency declared by Virginia's governor, Terry McAuliffe, as well as the County of Albemarle.

According to dispatches from reporters and other observers on the scene, white supremacists carrying guns, clubs, and Confederate flags attacked counterprotesters and journalists as police mostly stood back. Tear gas, bottles of urine, and flares were reported on the scene amid skirmishes between the marchers and others.

Later, a vehicle plowed into a group of people walking through the town. Videos surfaced showing a car speeding into a crowd of people, then speeding away in reverse. The Washington Post reported that one person was killed and 19 were injured in the incident.

The frenetic scenes came just 12 hours after white supremacists carrying torches marched onto campus, surrounding a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder. After fights broke out between the marchers and counter-demonstrators, police declared an unlawful assembly and dispersed the march.

The university's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, condemned the violence in a statement on Saturday morning.

"I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protesters that marched on our Grounds this evening," Ms. Sullivan wrote. "I strongly condemn the unprovoked assault on members of our community, including University personnel who were attempting to maintain order."

Several academics, in turn, criticized Ms. Sullivan for not condemning the marchers' ideology.

Later Saturday, Ms. Sullivan penned a message to the university community wherein she condemned the "intimidating and abhorrent behavior displayed by the alt-right protesters." She added that "the ideologies and beliefs expressed by many of the groups that have converged on Charlottesville this weekend contradict our values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect."

"We will continue to uphold our shared values as a community and reject the ideology of intolerance and hate," Ms. Sullivan wrote to close the message. She is slated to step down in 2018.

Anthony de Bruyn, a university spokesman, told The Chronicle in an email that the university canceled the events "out of an abundance of caution and concerns for public safety."

In the early afternoon, President Trump condemned "all that hate stands for" in an apparent reference to the Charlottesville march. "There is no place for this kind of violence in America," he said on Twitter. "Lets come together as one!"

Some people affiliated with the campus were not satisfied with Ms. Sullivan’s statements about the torchlit-rally that flooded the campus on Friday.

Willis Jenkins, an associate professor of religion, said that for students, especially first-years not yet familiar with the university, the campus had been “turned into a theater of white supremacy.”

Ms. Sullivan’s statements, Mr. Jenkins said, didn’t convey the gravity of the situation. 

“The response from the university can’t be, ‘Well that’s very sad.’ It’s sad when you lose a football game. It’s not sad and lamentable when thugs with torches re-enact a tableau of white supremacy on your campus.”

Mr. Jenkins said he understands that Ms. Sullivan is in a difficult position, but he said the implication that any reaction would only magnify the work of the alt-right rally was too narrow. 

Isabella Hall, a third-year religious-studies major at UVa, worked all day in a safe-house care center taking water, food, and bandages to the many protesters. She said Ms. Sullivan’s message was “an effort to keep students away and even coddle them, but a problem with that is for some students, inaction isn’t an option.” 

Ms. Hall said the promotion of white supremacy at UVa directly affects students of color there. 

“Staying away doesn’t express the gravity that many students feel being here at the university. I don’t think it was a realistic expectation of students at UVa,” she said. “I want to be here. I want to engage. I want to show these people that white supremacy will not be accepted.”

Other students, like Yolanda Coradl-Sendejas, a graduate student in education, said that students don’t feel safe in their own homes after the march on Friday and that the university should have done more to protect them. 

“Having been undergrads of color at the university and always feeling like there wasn’t that support and then seeing the alt-right march through on campus tells a lot about who the university is actually willing to defend,” she said. 

Many professors, including Mr. Jenkins, wore their academic robes to the morning march. He said he wanted students to know they were there. 

“I wanted people to know, to see there are faculty not intimidated by white supremacy,” he said. “We will stand up for basic values of equality, justice and civility.”

Mr. Jenkins had invited several of his colleagues to participate in an interfaith counter-protest coalition. He said the coalition was split in two groups: one that would feature speakers and stay away from the main protest and a second that had been training for weeks in anti-violent demonstration tactics and would go straight to Emancipation Park, where hundreds of white-supremacist marchers surrounded the Robert E. Lee statue.

Mr. Jenkins was in the first group. His wife was in the latter. “We didn’t want to risk both of our children’s parents’ lives at once,” he said.

Paul Jones, a religion professor at the University of Virginia, said he was determined to protest, regardless of the university’s recommendation to stay away.

“Fighting fascism, that’s a civic obligation no matter who you are,” Mr. Jones said. “Anything you can do to counter this, it’s all good.”

For many professors, this was also a fight to defend the city they call home. Chad Wellmon, principal of Brown College at the University of Virginia, said he had decided to protest weeks ago, but the meaning became more personal when the white supremacists threatened his home Friday night.

Mr. Wellmon lives on the Lawn, the historic and symbolic center of the university. On Friday evening while his children played in the yard, he received a message warning of the white supremacists who were marching toward him.

He gathered his family inside and watched from the windows as the loud, torch-bearing mob circled the buildings. His two older children, ages 12 and 13, understood what was happening, he said. But his 3-year-old didn’t.

He and his wife stayed up late trying to tell him why these people were here, what they wanted. But the little boy didn’t understand.

“Dad,” Mr. Wellmon recalled his son saying, “I thought God made people good.”

Ms. Turnage reported from Charlottesville, Va., and Mr. Thomason from Washington.

Clara Turnage is a news-reporting intern. Write her at clara.turnage@chronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaraBoldlyGoes.

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.

Editor’s note (8/12/2017, 4:40 p.m.): This article has been updated to include interviews with people on the campus.