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In 'Cry Havoc,' Former Charlottesville Mayor Details A Tragic Day

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 is one of the flashpoints of the Trump era.

The white-supremacist gathering devolved into violence with anti-racist demonstrators. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and others were injured. The event has taken on a deep symbolic meaning even beyond those terrible facts. Former Vice President Joe Biden began his run for the Democratic presidential nomination by invoking Charlottesville, and saying his campaign was a response, in part, to President Trump's divisive rhetoric.

In a new book, Michael Signer, the former mayor of Charlottesville, recounts the months leading up to the rally, including the decision to allow it to continue. In Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy Under Siege, he also takes on the deeper questions about governing in a free society in which speech that includes extremist hateful rhetoric must be protected.

Interview Highlights

On why it's important to keep talking about Charlotteville

I think that the events that happened in Charlottesville are gonna be a touchstone in modern American history — I think we'll be talking about them in 100 years. It was incredibly painful and wrenching and tragic. And also, Charlottesville was a microcosm for the country dealing with Trumpism and the extremism that we see today. But it also was a moment of profound learning for where our country can go. But I believe that there is essential learning that came out of this event, but to get there, you have to go through the events and you have to carefully work through day by day, week by week, month by month what happened before, during, and after the event — and then you really can get to a place of growth.

On whether to remove Confederate monuments

This is another one of the reasons I think looking very closely at the inner life of one story like this and the actual facts and what unfolded day to day is so important, because we all live in specific communities like this. And the fact is that the Confederate statue debate was very complicated inside Charlottesville. We set up a Blue Ribbon commission on race memorials and public spaces that held 17 hearings over six months, that was majority-minority at seven members, that was charged with advising City Council on what to do about these two statues that were put into place in the 1920s — to General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

And a couple of folks on that commission changed their minds: They came on wanting to have these statues removed. And as they took in this testimony, including from many African Americans, in the city that they wanted the statues to remain as, quote, teachable moments. And I go into great depth about the actual words that these folks were using. The idea, which is very, you know, surprising to some folks is that they thought that the history should remain so that we could understand how offensive it was and how we had moved on from it. And there's this — I tell a story about an elderly African American neighbor of mine who was tending her roses when I came by one day, and I said, 'Well, what do you think about the statues?' And she said, 'I think they should stay so that my grandchildren know what happened here.' So it was a more complicated reality than the black and white picture can share — and I ended up siding with that view, which was what the commission recommended. They said that the statues should stay inside Charlottesville and they ended up giving us two recommendations: They should be moved to this park away from the downtown mall where they were so central; or they should be recontextualized, transformed in place ...

But after this white nationalist event happened and this this terrorist invasion of the city, and especially the, you know, using a car to kill somebody on the downtown mall and injure so many others, I changed my view just like so many did after, in South Carolina when the rebel flag was held up by Dylann Roof [convicted in a South Carolina church shooting in 2015] who said he wanted to start a race war. And, to me, it became a, I said at the time, a totem of terror. It was a touchstone — that any value that could be recontextualized had been lost. And I sided, like so many others, with moving those statues out of the city — and that now can happen because the Virginia General Assembly just changed the law that had been holding us back from moving the statues all along.

On allowing democracy to prevail

The deepest theme of what Charlottesville is about ... was do we allow democracy with all of its complexity and all of its debate and all of its, you know, you can have a lot of fighting about ideas within democracy, but it's still within this frame where somebody gets to hear somebody else and make an argument. The biggest problem was with these white nationalists who wanted to unite the right, they wanted to shut all of that down. They wanted to use intimidation and tiki torches and swastikas and shouting 'Jews will not replace us' in the streets. And they were anti-democratic. And that to me was why the stakes of this went far deeper than just one city's struggle about monuments. This was going to, kind of like, the most ancient problem of America from the beginning, which is: Do we have the ability to have debate on the hardest issues or is one faction basically going to terrorize another into submission?

On when he knew the rally was going to be problematic

Well, so people have to understand and there was a whole history before the Unite the Right rally. There were two other white nationalist events that year, ... they increased the kind of pent-up nature of things in the city and the national spotlight that was on it. So, there was a rally by Richard Spencer, who was a UVA graduate who founded the term alt-right, who brought 100 of his followers in these kind of modern skinhead outfits of khakis and white shirts and buzz cuts to the Lee statue with tiki torches, and that happened in May of 2017. And that was followed by a rally by modern-day Ku Klux Klan members, who came from North Carolina in July, that was met by 1,000 counter-protesters — and the police use tear gas afterward against the counter-protesters. So, all of this was leading into the unite the right rally, which was scheduled in August. ... We tried to move the [Unite the Right] rally [to a park where the Lee statue was not]. And we lost in federal court after the ACLU sued us.

On getting hate mail and threatening calls

I just had a conversation this morning with a pastor of the oldest African American church in New York, who was going to be in a conversation with me about the book and he had read the book and he said that one of the things he really appreciated was how candid unedited my inclusion of the hate speech that came toward public officials was and the threats — and I did that because I think that people need to understand what the reality is now.

I mean, the book is called Cry Havoc a for reason. ...I tell the story about receiving a cartoon in my house, or my email, of Robert E. Lee pushing the green button on a gas chamber where my face had been photoshopped into it with a Star of David on my lapel. I got a voicemail on my phone of Hitler ranting. I got a Christmas card in my house saying you should, you know, lots of anti-semitic invective that somebody had very carefully written out. And that paled in comparison to what the, you know that some of the black members of the community in the leadership are getting. One of the stories in the book is there are forces in American politics that have always been there that never felt emboldened and confident to come into public, and to do this at this level, before they were included in the political coalition by the Trump campaign. These were white nationalists to who were included in a populous white nationalist political strategy in 2015 and 16. And then, in 2017, lo and behold, they said, 'We feel fine going to the college campus in a major, prominent American town and parading around with swastikas and calling it Unite the Right. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to Unite the Right.'

On President Trump saying there were good people on both sides

Well, the President's interactions with the Unite the Right events were at once the most shocking, I thought, of his presidency, up until that point — and the most revealing. So, he not only said the day of the rally that there were very fine or good people on both sides. He reiterated it several days later, when he was asked to do a press conference and retract, or qualify somehow, his comments — and what he was doing was lying about the event. There had been and there are, in Virginia, people who care about Confederate symbols and statues. That is a separate debate. And the President was trying, I think, to continue his strategy of keeping his base with him, which were these Confederate sympathizers.

That's not what this event was about. What happened in Charlottesville [with] the Unite the Right rally was a dozen paramilitary organizations that are organized white-nationalist terror groups, like the League of the South and these, you know, Stormfront was organizing, which is an organized white terrorist, nationalist group online. The Daily Stormer. Skinhead groups, they organized as paramilitary groups. That's one of the things in the book that I talked at length about. They were in uniforms, they had had assault rifles, they had commanders, they went on sorties into the neighborhood, they invaded the city, they had areas that they protected.

This was not an any shape or form about history or Confederate iconography. There were people there, chanting 'Jews will not replace us.' It had nothing to do with — when [President Trump] said very fine people, he was talking about people who care about Confederate statues and history and that's not what this event was about. And so the cost of that lie was very high. Because people need to understand that there is a rise in organized white nationalist, domestic extremist activity that can become terrorism. And that is the true story and stopping that is the real need that we have.

On the after effects of the rally

This event, events like this, can have tremendous repercussions on everything about a community, including the economic life and the vitality of a community — and it actually led me to make some mistakes — and I wanted to be warts and all in my in my treatment of this story because I thought that's where the most value was for the whole country understanding what actually happened in Charlottesville for other leaders who might deal with any other crisis like this.

And I tell the story: You know, we were hearing from a lot of small businesses in the downtown mall that their revenue had gone down so dramatically that they were taking out extra lines of credit to pay their waitstaff and so on. And so I felt the need to cheerlead for the city and to sort of say that we were getting back on our feet. And one of the staff members in City Hall asked me to take a photo in front of this sign that had been put up in the downtown mall — these four very large like 8-ft. — letters that said, 'Love,' that spelled out love because our slogan is Virginia Is For Lovers. And, so, I not only went and took a photo in front of it, but I spontaneously decided to jump in front of the letters — in an excess of zeal. And I keep in mind, I mean, it's this part-time job. And I've slept probably two nights, you know, two hours a night for the prior week. But it was well-intended, and I put up a tweet where I said something like Charlottesville is back on our feet, and we're better than ever. But it was totally out of sync with the injury and the trauma of the city. I mean, the PTSD of so many people in the city, physically, psychologically, still continues. And it was it was one of those things that a leader does when they're trying, as a human, and got it wrong. ... They thought that the face that I was presenting in saying 'we're back on our feet 'did not speak their truth.

I will say that as difficult and searing and agonizing as a lot of this was, that it only reinforced my belief that the world — in all of its messiness, and, you know, even the costs on people in leadership positions — it's still even more worth getting into. Because the value of having fought for things and standing at the end, having the experience of having fought for them in the real world, there's nothing like it, there's nothing like it. That's how democracy moves on — and the consequence of stepping out of the arena, of giving up — that's what allows societies, democracies to tilt toward authoritarianism — is when good people decide to give up on government and the whole prospect of civic governance. So it is very, it's difficult, but it is highly rewarding.

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Corrected: June 5, 2020 at 9:00 PM MST
In an earlier version of this Web story, we incorrectly identified the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., as Michael Singer. His name is Michael Signer.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.