Charlottesville has been woven into my entire life, and it has been intertwined with my family for generation after generation.
Although I grew up about 100 miles north of there, I have been visiting or living in the city my entire life. My father’s family has been attending and teaching at the University of Virginia almost since it was founded. My mother’s father was pastor of the grandest of the downtown churches as my mother attended high school. My wife and I both went to the University; we lived in the city for several years after graduation. I started my newspaper career nearby and worked for the Charlottesville Daily Progress for almost two years in the 1990s. My brother and mother lived there for many years and my sons spend many happy summer weeks at my mother’s home just outside of town.
So it was shocking beyond belief to watch someone commit a murder on the streets I know so well on Saturday. It was grim to see photos of fights and police in riot gear in front of such familiar landmarks, including my grandfather’s old church, which happens to look out onto the park where the contested statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee stands.
Charlottesville in some ways exemplifies struggles of the wider nation. It is, at least by Virginia standards, a liberal and tolerant place. It has long been a refuge for minorities who are not welcome in the more conservative parts of the state, including gays and lesbians and immigrants, who find a home in the academic atmosphere of the university.
At the same time, signs of the Old South remain. The now famous statue of Lee dominates the downtown park, but the county courthouse a few blocks away features Confederate artillery pieces. Confederate flags remain a common sight on cars, clothes, and even in yards and houses. When I went to college in 1985, such flags were nearly ubiquitous, even in our dorms.
So last weekend’s violence was, for me, shocking but not wholly surprising.
But it would be a mistake to think of what happened there as something unique to Charlottesville or even to the South. We have seen violent clashes between the alt-right and anti-fascists groups in Berkeley and other cities in recent months. One of the key figures in last week’s “United the Right” rally that sparked the violence in Virginia, Nathan Damigo, lives in Stanislaus County and became notorious after he was filmed attacking a woman during one of the Berkeley clashes earlier this year.
And it is worth remembering that what happened in Charlottesville could easily have happened right here in Napa.
Back in 1989, a group of white supremacists, then known collectively as “skinheads,” planned to hold a concert south of town, attracting at least 200 participants, including some known to have been involved in violent incidents in other parts of the Bay Area.
County officials quickly appealed to a court to block the concert, since it did not have the required permit for an outdoor concert, and a judge agreed. But that didn’t stop skinheads and counter-protestors from gathering at the site on March 4. According to our reporters at the time, only a strong show of police force prevented the two groups from attacking one another that morning.
“Calm returned to Napa County on Sunday but there were tense moments the day before as white separatist skinheads gave Nazi ‘heil’ salutes from the ridge above while some 500 demonstrators converged with mobs of reporters below on Route 12 between Interstate 80 and Highway 29,” the Register reported on Monday, March 6.
“Rows of police, many clad in riot gear, kept the two sides apart.”
The event spawned several peaceful marches by anti-skinhead groups, including a large candlelight vigil that helped launch the public career of Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, then a school teacher.
In the end, there was little actual violence in Napa that weekend. The city reacted with admirable restraint, and the police and courts were vigorous in countering the skinheads.
But remember that all it took was one angry man with a car to turn the Charlottesville event from a messy protest to a fatal terrorist event. There is almost no way police or local officials could have guarded against that.
Napa County should count itself lucky that love triumphed over hate in 1989, and we should all hope there is no next time.