Terrorism in Charlottesville — And Possibly Your Town Next

Everything about the Unite the Right display of intimidation in Charlottesville last weekend was horrible—and relevant to all of us.

A street in Charlottesville is covered with flowers and photos of Heather Heyer as people look on the background. The word "peace" is chalked on the pavement in the foreground and a sign reads "No Place for Hate."
A memorial in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, for slain civil rights activist Heather Heyer, murdered by a white supremacist. Photo by Bob Mical, CC BY-NC-SA

Given the events of the past weeks—and months—it’s looking quite possible that the Trump-era increase in widespread racial terror is going to affect community developers’ work as much as his legislative and funding agenda. The administration’s proposals, from HUD budget cuts, to increased immigration arrests, to killing the Affordable Care Act, to tax reform to line the pockets of the rich, are truly horrible and have the potential to have far reaching and devastating effects on so many people. But at least they are meeting resistance in Congress, the courts, and from the voting public. Though it has been too close too many times, and we cannot relax, we are also winning at least some of the time.

On the other hand, what we saw in Charlottesville last weekend reinforces the fears of those of us who believed that the greatest danger from this administration would come not from its legislative agenda, but from the way that it encourages and legitimizes a growing, violent white supremacist movement. The president would not condemn the people who showed up with weapons, torches, violent chants, and an agenda of dehumanization. He tried to claim those who perpetrated murder and other vicious assaults were equivalent to nonviolent counter-protestors. This is unacceptable. Far too many of the police stood by and let this violence occur. This is unacceptable (if sadly unsurprising).

Violent white supremacy is being (re)mainstreamed. The new look is polo shirts, not swastika tattoos. People can attend a rally like this and then claim to be sad to be called racist. When people are outed as members of these groups, other people are surprised and say they seemed so nice. But there is nothing nice about supporting domestic terrorism. Heather Heyer was far from the first person to lose her life to these thugs. I’m afraid she won’t be the last.

Speaking Out as a Field

Racial violence has shaped the landscape in which many community developers work, from the violence of Jim Crow that caused the Great Migration, to the riots that reinforced housing segregation, to the structural financial violence of things like redlining and lending discrimination. I have been heartened to see many organizations such as the National Low Income Housing CoalitionLiving Cities, and the National Fair Housing Alliance speak out and condemn this violence, and the government actions that give it cover, in clear, unambiguous, specific terms.

And yet, as we discuss in our upcoming issue about racial justice (which will go live next week), some of the associations that have developed from this history—connecting “Black” with areas that are in physical distress or high crime, for example—even make their way into the field’s own language and assumptions. Sometimes we uncritically use loaded terms like “urban pathology.” Sometimes we allow ourselves to respond to research about racial disparities as if a high concentration of Black residents was itself a cause of problems, rather than a condition that either provokes, or results from, discriminatory and harmful treatment.

These things matter. We cannot give these hateful ideas any ideological place to hide.

Cities and towns across the country are bracing for more waves of organized, violent hate to hit their streets. What will you do when they come to your home?

(Is your community development organization doing anything, or participating in any activities, to respond to Charlottesville and white supremacist intimidation in general? Please share with Shelterforce!)

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