Charlottesville: Between defiance and new hope | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 11.08.2018
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Charlottesville: Between defiance and new hope

A year ago, a right-wing extremist march in Charlottesville ended in deadly violence. The US city is still struggling to find the right way to deal with the events. Alexandra von Nahmen reports from Charlottesville.

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Activists rally against hate

Flowers and a little teddy bear have been left on the pavement. Someone has written "Gone — not beaten" in chalk on the wall of the house. This is the place in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was killed one year ago when a right-wing extremist drove his car straight into a group of counterdemonstrators.

"She has always believed in fair. She's always believed in doing what is right," says Heyer's mother, Susan Bro. She's standing on the sidewalk of Fourth Street in this town of 49,000 people in the US state of Virginia. The street where her daughter died is now called "Heather Heyer Way." Susan Bro closes her eyes and swallows hard.

Her daughter was just 32 years old. She had a strong sense of justice, Bro explains. Some days she's so overwhelmed with grief that she can't even get out of bed. But the 61-year-old has made it her mission to continue her daughter's work. Bro now has a high profile as an anti-racism campaigner in Charlottesville. "I have a message to give," she says. "I am reaching white people that maybe have not previously been reached. There are people who are willing to listen to me because of the color of my skin that may not listen to somebody else, unfortunately. That's part of what we need to fix, to be honest."

Read more:White supremacy and neo-Nazis in the US - what you need to know 

Heather Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, standing next to flowers for her daughter (DW/A. von Nahmen)

'Because I have the right skin color': Susan Bro in Charlottesville

A city struggles to find its identity

Charlottesville is still struggling with what happened there one year ago. As expected, the march against white supremacists and neo-Nazis quickly turned violent, culminating in street battles between right-wingers and counter-demonstrators. "We were afraid that would happen, and we warned the police," says Jalane Schmidt, an activist and professor at the University of Virginia.

She's standing in front of one of the city's best-known monuments: a statue of a rider on a horse. The rider is Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Last year the white supremacists instrumentalized local controversy about a plan to remove the statue and called for a rally. "A pretext," according to Schmidt. She says their aim, right from the start, was to provoke violence. Read more: White supremacy and neo-Nazis in the US - what you need to know

Candle memorial set up after violence (Getty Images/W. McNamee)

The violence in Charlottesville shocked the whole of the US

Monument versus memorial plaque

The statue is situated just a few streets away from the historic Court Square. Here, too, there is a memorial: a small plaque in the ground marking the place where slaves were auctioned 200 years ago. "This is it," says Jalane Schmidt. "And you would miss it; you would walk over it. Meanwhile, we see that there are these huge monuments for those who wanted to maintain slavery. It's not seen as important.” She believes that for too long the city has been reluctant to face reality. Even today, she says, many would prefer just to carry on as before and blame outsiders for the events of the previous year.

But the organizer of the white supremacist rally, Jason Kessler, is actually from Charlottesville. And Richard Spencer, an infamous representative of the right-wing extremist "alt-right" movement, studied in the city, at the University of Virginia. Professor Schmidt is convinced that the right-wingers were emboldened by President Trump, by his remarks and policies.

Memorial to slave auction block (DW/A. von Nahmen)

The memorial to slaves: 'You would walk over it'

Too 'busy' to meet Trump

Susan Bro, Heather Heyer's mother, wants nothing to do with the American president either. She acknowledges that the White House tried to reach her family by phone shortly after her daughter's death. She missed the calls.

Is she angry that Trump did not unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists for the violence in Charlottesville? "Would you be angry if someone says that Nazis were good people who had killed your child?" she replies. No, she does not plan to meet with the president. She's too busy, she says.

Successful strategy against right-wing extremists

Jalane Schmidt is busy, too. The activist is convinced that the protest and resistance white supremacists were confronted with in Charlottesville a year ago have had an effect. Similar protests against right-wing extremism followed in other parts of the United States, and it became increasingly difficult for the alt-right movement to find venues for their meetings and demonstrations.

The memorial to Robert E. Lee (DW/H. Goll)

The controversial Robert E. Lee statue: Resistance is having an effect, says Schmidt

"White supremacy is part of the every-day fabric of our political life, of our economic life, the way policing is conducted against black people," says Schmidt. "And so there are more discussions of this, even among especially white people, who were previously kind of very self-satisfied and thought that everything is fine." 

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