On Sunday, Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams helped the Virginia town recover from last month’s violence – which some white residents admitted had been a serious wake-up call
This article titled “Charlottesville’s white awakening: ‘We were living in a bubble,’ say residents” was written by Lois Beckett in Charlottesville, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th September 2017 19.25 UTC
Inside the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium, a succession of pop stars were telling local residents that “Love trumps hate” and “You will not dethrone love.” Dave Matthews, Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande and Justin Timberlake were holding a free concert to help Charlottesville recover from the violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi protests that rocked the town last month.
But as he smoked a cigarette by the stadium concession stands Sunday evening, Jack (who did not want his last name used) wasn’t talking about love. He was talking about his vote. The 25-year-old, who has lived in Charlottesville most of his life, is a conservative in a liberal town. He said he had voted for Donald Trump, hoping that a political outsider would bring change.
Then white supremacists had marched across his hometown carrying torches and chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” They carried guns and wore helmets and shields and fought with anti-fascists in the streets, generating news footage viewed around the world.
As a white man, the kind of American these far-right groups claimed to represent, “I felt ashamed,” he said. His friends who are not white had been terrified, wondering if they would be safe going outside or walking around. In response, Trump, the president he had supported, repeatedly blamed “both sides” and “many sides” and said there were “very fine people” who marched alongside the neo-Nazis.
Jack said he didn’t know if any mainstream conservatives had marched alongside neo-Nazis on 12 August. “If I saw a Nazi flag go up, I would be out of there,” he said.
Charlottesville was definitely not the first time Trump had said something that made Jack uncomfortable, and it was was not the first time friends had shared their fears with him about how their race might make them vulnerable. When it came to police brutality, Jack said, he listened, but he also had his own relationship with the police as authority figures, and wanted to believe that most police officers would not simply racially profile people. “This was different,” he said. The white supremacists’ attitude towards other races was absolutely clear.
Whether Trump was a white supremacist himself, he said, he did not know. But together with Trump’s “Rocket Man” jabs at North Korea, the president’s reaction to Charlottesville had convinced him that he would not be voting for Trump again, and that he needed to vet his candidates more carefully in the future.
On Sunday, as tens of thousands of locals filled stadium seats and clustered on the field in front of the stage, the mood was relaxed and upbeat. But, like Jack, some white Charlottesville residents said that that watching fascists march through their streets had been a wake-up call.
“It opened our eyes,” said Pat Sury, who lives outside Charlottesville. “That it’s here as well as everywhere else. We were living in a bubble.”
“I think it got everybody talking a lot more about what’s going on in our community,” said Rosanna Lavin, 62, sitting with Sury and other friends at a small tailgating party in the parking lot. “We cannot be blind to some of the issues that we really don’t deal with,” including “alt-right hatred” and “race relations”.
At work, Lavin said, she has tried to talk about race more with her colleagues of color. “I think we’re too afraid to approach subjects sometimes and get honest reactions,” she said. But the “bits and pieces” of conversation had not yet produced steps forward other than overall support.
Conversations about racism “are not the funnest conversations to have or the easiest,” but they were happening with more urgency now, said Devin Welch, 33, who works for a solar energy company in Charlottesville, at a different tailgate party. Before the white supremacist protests, local entrepreneurs had already been discussing how to support and fund a more diverse set of start-up founders, ensuring that venture capital funding did not just stay within white social networks. After the protests, it’s not just a priority – “now it’s top,” he said.
Welch said he believed that what Charlottesville had witnessed was the “death gasps of a dying ideology,” not the growth of something new.
Malcolm Wills, 20, and Fernando Garay, 19, said that protests in Charlottesville had appeared to make people more comfortable openly saying racist things, particularly on Facebook. Both young men said they had been shocked to watch acquaintances defend white supremacists online, and that people they knew talked earnestly about their concerns about white people becoming a minority.
The tension and anxiety of the first days after the white supremacists’ protests had faded, Wills said. The two young men said they hoped that if the neo-Nazis came back, the town would choose to let them protest without much reaction, rather than feeding their agenda with attention.
A black fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, who said she did not want to give her name, said she was trying to enjoy her last year of university, and not let what happened define her experience. That wasn’t easy. As a peer counselor to younger students of color, she said she has fielded many questions from first-years about whether they should transfer to another school.
She said she advised them to stay. “Sadly, wherever you are in America, you can probably experience these things,” she said.
Inside the stadium, Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed when an alleged white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, had received a standing ovation from the audience at the beginning of the concert, and urged listeners to continue her daughter’s legacy by showing up to confront hatred and discrimination.
“Tragically, because Heather stood bravely against racism and hatred, she was taken from us,” Bro told the crowd, asking them to “turn our righteous anger into action.”
Her daughter “loved humanity with an open heart. That’s what gave her the strength and compassion to stand up with her friends against hate. As Heather said, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Ariana Grande, whose young fans were targeted by a suicide bomber in Manchester in May, leaving 22 people killed and dozens more wounded, struck a similar note between her sets at the concert.
The pop singer, who just finished a world tour, came to Charlottesville to participate in her second benefit concert following an act of terror in the space of just four months. She had hosted her own benefit, One Love Manchester, in June.
America’s president usually serves as the country’s consoler-in-chief. But Trump, who had branded terrorists “evil losers” after the Manchester attack, had not come to Charlottesville to offer support. So it was the 24-year-old pop singer who took on that rhetorical role, mixing consolation with a reminder of their shared values.
“I want to tell you how proud I am to be part of a generation that is so passionate about making a change,” she told the crowd. “Keep using your voices and making this a safer place for each other.”
- This article was amended on 26 September 2017 to remove the full name and photograph of an interviewee at their request.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010