At UVa, a Clash Over Whether to Stand Back or Stand Up

August 17, 2017

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Torch-bearing white supremacists encircle counterprotesters around a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the U. of Virginia.

In the days before white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, officials at the University of Virginia gave students and professors the same advice that they might give before a snowstorm: Hunker down and it will pass.

Teresa A. Sullivan, the president, suggested that people should avoid the "Unite the Right" rally last Saturday, citing a "credible risk of violence." Engagement with the demonstrators was unsafe, she said in a statement on August 4, and confronting them "would only satisfy their craving for spectacle."

Those predictions came to bloody fruition, as both the rally and a demonstration at the university the night before turned violent. Much as that result may lend credence to Ms. Sullivan’s early advice that these events are best avoided, so too does it highlight the stakes of a battle for civil rights that activists say cannot simply be sat out.

The alternatives the university tried to present for engagement, which included symposia on race relations, struck some professors, students, and alumni as sterile replacements for a confrontation that warranted the risk of bodily harm.

Ibby A. Han, who graduated from the university in May, was among about 20 counterprotesters who confronted hundreds of white supremacists on Virginia’s historic Lawn on Friday night. It could be argued that the activists’ presence at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where they clashed with the white nationalists, made possible the melee that ensued. But Ms. Han said she could not stomach the alternative: An unimpeded neo-Nazi rally on the grounds of her alma mater.

"We all collectively decided we were going to go, and it was really fueled by an image in my mind of seeing my school overrun by Nazis without any kind of pushback or even someone standing up to them at all," Ms. Han said. "It just didn’t sit with me that I could stand back and let that happen, even if it were only going to be 20 of us."

The counterprotesters, who formed a thin chain around the statute, were surrounded by a throng of white nationalists, who were carrying torches and screaming racial epithets. The confrontation quickly escalated, and some of the demonstrators used their torches as weapons, according to witnesses. Ms. Han, who said she had been trained as an emergency medical technician, treated about a half-dozen people who were pepper sprayed, flushing their eyes out with water.

Videos and photographs of the incident spread across the world, and commenters on social media praised the counterprotesters. In her official statements, however, Ms. Sullivan has not recognized the group, which she described as "bystanders" in one such communiqué. That framing may suggest a reluctance to commend the activists, lest they inspire more potentially dangerous actions.

At the same time, some professors argue, the president’s language fails to recognize an act of courage.

"Those kids were doing what they were taught to do at Mr. Jefferson’s university, which was to stand up," said Jalane D. Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies. "The word ‘bystander’ is more rightly attached to the university itself. Those students are heroes."

A university spokesman did not respond to emailed questions about whether the students ought to be commended.

The administration’s desire to distance itself from activists, Ms. Schmidt continued, reflects a larger problem that contributed to the Friday rally’s spinning out of control. Ms. Sullivan said in an interview with The Chronicle on Sunday that the university had gotten vague intelligence on Friday afternoon about a small group of white nationalists coming to the campus, but that the tip was viewed as so insignificant that no one alerted her.

The administration’s own telling suggests that activists on social media may have had more information about the coming conflict than the university and its police force.

"They took their own advice to ignore," Ms. Schmidt said. "They ignored the voices of their own students and faculty, trying to warn them, trying to alert them."

The administration’s position, she said, was: "Don’t protest. It’s not such a big deal anyway. We see what happens when you ignore it."

University officials have not answered direct questions about the police response or made the chief of police available for interviews.

Safe Alternatives

In the lead-up to last weekend’s "Unite the Right" rally, the university sought to provide safer ways to channel community interest in racial justice, steering people away from the mayhem and toward the cerebral. There were plans for a Saturday of panels and film screenings designed to illustrate the university’s "commitment to mutual respect and inclusion."

But the escalation of violence in Charlottesville upended those plans, starkly signaling that the university could not be cordoned off from the reality of a race war unfolding in its midst. By late Saturday morning, after the governor had declared a state of emergency, the university announced that it would cancel all scheduled events, including those that were meant to counter the rally.

The university’s hope that civic-minded people would skip a potentially violent encounter with white nationalists raises broader philosophical questions about what this tense moment in the nation’s history demands of the citizenry, and of the academic community in particular. Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the university, said the answer to that may depend on a person’s station in life.

"Does conviction require a person to invite peril? When young, I believed so," he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "I participated in more than my share of antiwar rallies (Vietnam) and other closer-to-home demonstrations about civil rights and other things. Now I’m much less sure that’s the best use of time and energy. Nothing beats the nitty-gritty work of political organizing and get-out-the-vote, which isn’t glamorous like street- brawling and slogan shouting."

“They ignored the voices of their own students and faculty, trying to warn them, trying to alert them.”
At the same time, Mr. Sabato continued, the lasting icon of the weekend rally will be Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was fatally struck by a vehicle that rammed into counterprotesters.

"Her willingness to put herself in jeopardy has had an enormous impact here," said Mr. Sabato, who described Ms. Heyer’s sacrifice, while tragic, as inspiring.

The university’s interest in providing safer alternatives for engagement about race, while understandable, sent a subtextual message that some activists found problematic: Administrators think this is a fight people can choose to have or not to have.

"Not confronting them is only an option for people already protected by institutional structures," said Laura E. Goldblatt, a postdoctoral fellow in the English department. "To encourage students not to be involved, I understand it from a safety perspective. But what it says is some people should have to bear the brunt of this threat and others shouldn’t — and that is just about the color of your skin."

Then Versus Now

As has happened at campuses across the country, the University of Virginia has examined its historical relationship with slavery, setting up a commission to analyze and memorialize the role that enslaved people played in the campus’s construction and development. While important, these sorts of endeavors have the effect of situating the university’s problems with race far in the past, Ms. Goldblatt said.

It is less comfortable, she said, to talk about the university’s continued reliance on low-wage workers, many of whom are African-American. It is substantially more fraught, she continued, to acknowledge that the two lead organizers of the rally last weekend, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, are UVa graduates.

"The fact that there hasn’t been any discussion about that in any of the things we’ve heard from the administration is troubling," Ms. Goldblatt said. "If we want to denounce this, we need to say we denounce these two alumni."

Dolly R.D. Joseph, an alumna, agrees that UVa has been far too restrained in its condemnation of the two infamous white-nationalist graduates.

"What are the optics for the university that’s allowing Richard Spencer, a white, entitled alum, to come back and threaten students of color?" said Ms. Joseph, who earned a doctorate in education in 2005. "There’s something really gross about that to me."

Seeking a more genteel form of activism, Ms. Joseph said, UVa has failed to understand that the people fighting it out in the streets today with neo-Nazis are not the fringe, but the mainstream.

"I’m not a radical," she said. "I’m just a human with a doctorate in Charlottesville. Walk down the street and you’ll find 10 of us."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at