This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The messy intra-progressive fight in Charlottesville offers lessons for Democrats across the country.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right exchange insults with counterprotesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There is a story people will tell about Virginia in the wake of the Great Blue Wave of 2017. That story will go like this: The events of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, when the quiet progressive town was invaded by white nationalists, informed everything that happened in this week’s state and local elections. In this telling, progressives, minorities, women, and organizers woke up and united after the alt-right marched on the small college town, with their Nazi salutes, guns, and declaration that “You will not replace us.” (Or, “Jews will not replace us,” as some of these marchers had declared.) This united and newly energized coalition realized that the enemy was at the gates and that the enemy was emboldened and fearless. After President Donald Trump weighed in with his view that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protests, the statewide concern became that the Nazis had found succor in the White House and needn’t find it further in Virginia’s statehouse. This united progressive front won together. While that narrative is comforting, what happened on Election Day in Charlottesville belies it.

The statewide election was surely at least partially a referendum on what happened in Charlottesville this summer. Republican Ed Gillespie, after all, openly campaigned on his support for the Confederate monuments that had ignited tensions and accused his opponent of seeking to “tear down history” by opposing them. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, for his part, ran campaign ads with images of Gillespie and Trump superimposed over the neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis who came to town. At some level, the strategy clearly worked, with big spikes in turnout among minorities and women and massive amounts of grassroots organizing and fundraising. In his victory speech, Northam implicitly  argued that these victories signified that the healing had begun: “Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.” Again, though, what happened in Charlottesville this week is much more complicated than that.

Whatever good feelings this election may have given opponents of hatred and bigotry, the city where it all happened is still roiled by the trauma of August. That fact clearly complicated the race for the two open seats on the City Council. In a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive, the story of Charlottesville’s 2017 election is fraught and destabilizing. Even before the alt-right march in August—the one that left one counterprotester dead, allegedly murdered by a man who had carried the literal shield of white nationalists—racial justice groups were pushing back on the myth that Thomas Jefferson’s city was a magical place of racial harmony. Over the course of a summer that featured three torch-lit marches and a Klan rally, many locals became increasingly frustrated and vocal about the sense that the City Council—composed of the same progressives who had voted to remove the statue—had betrayed them. That fight, and the anger that simmers beneath it, confounds any simple stories about the unified Democratic victories in Virginia. But to watch that narrative pulled apart is to see a clearer road map to what healing might actually look like.

Long before the Aug. 12 protest, people like Nikuyah Walker were searing in their criticism of Charlottesville’s City Council, which was accused of selling a rosy fiction about the town as a “world-class city” or the “capital of the Resistance.” Walker, who is a black woman, on Tuesday became the first independent to win a City Council seat since 1948. This upset would have been unthinkable a year earlier. Walker not only defeated a Democrat, Amy Laufer, but also explicitly ran on a platform of  “unmasking the illusion” of a town in which affordable housing is all but vanishing and services and education for poor and minority citizens are still lacking.* Walker has a long background in advocacy and social service and had been challenging the City Council to reckon with its own failures, especially around race and class, for months. Walker was one of a small army of citizens who took over a council meeting after the Aug. 12 rally to excoriate the mayor, Mike Signer, for perceived failures to adequately prepare for and respond to the threats from neo-Nazi Richard Spencer and his followers.

In the weeks and months since, City Council meetings have been angry and chaotic. Racial justice activists have made demands for changes, investigations, and resignations. Whatever sense that this story was simply about “good guys versus Nazis” has long been put to rest. Many—if not most—of the people I know in the town I called home until this summer have found the process disorienting. Things reached a head last weekend when the Daily Progress ran an anonymously sourced piece attacking Walker on the eve of the election, casting her as a stereotype of a hackneyed “angry black woman” who disrupts and destabilizes political work. The piece quoted emails Walker had sent to City Council in which she compared the council to “white people who closed schools after Brown vs. The Board of Education” and said “You are all masters of pretense. You all have continuously participated in modern day lynchings.” The same paper had released an appalling attack on the only black City Council member, Wes Bellamy, on the eve of the Aug. 12 rally, blaming him for the monument controversy. The backlash to the piece on Walker was quick and furious. The council was again confronted by local activists demanding the resignation of the mayor. Voters were urged to cast a protest vote for Walker and nobody else, in an attempt to deny the Democrats victory in both open seats. Walker won, leading the vote tally and finishing just 209 votes ahead of the third-place finisher. (Democrat Heather Hill won the second seat.)

The same residents of Charlottesville who spent the summer debating whether the council, the police, and the courts had been complicit with white supremacists—either willingly or through negligence—is as angry and divided this week over the local election as ever. Walker deliberately ran as a candidate of one side in that conflict. She has also, though, come to represent the ways in which the anger and displacement of those seeking racial justice can be discomfiting and destabilizing, especially to progressives. The intractable issues of race, class, and privilege, which lurk barely beneath the surface in the “world-class city” of Charlottesville, are not going to fit nicely into the wishful template of good and evil, right and wrong.

To repurpose the president, though, there are good people on both sides on the Democrat-dominated council. This is true, as well, when it comes to the urgent problems of affordable housing, education, overincarceration, and racially biased policing. At the same time, that fact hasn’t yet been nearly enough for the city to make the necessary progress on these issues.

Democrats in the commonwealth of Virginia are feeling proud and self- satisfied this week. But Charlottesville—the epicenter of the storm—is still feeling bruised and raw. There’s something about the town that says something about the nation. It is the hole in the doughnut, where easy answers about one side being all right and all in agreement are replaced by genuine self-doubt and justifiable anger. Again, this mirrors the ongoing fights still facing the national progressive movement. It is almost painfully comforting to march with millions of women in pink crocheted hats while chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” The city of Charlottesville, where tempers are high and the curtain of “progressivism” is shredded in parts and threadbare in others, is what Democracy really looks like.

*Correction, Nov. 13, 2017: This article originally misidentified Walker’s campaign theme as “unmasking the reality.” (Return.)