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Virginia football game is a chance for continued healing in Charlottesville

Season opener provides a sense of camaraderie to students and residents

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — One walk around the University of Virginia campus and you’d never know this university, along with the small town that houses it, was the center of a white supremacist rally three weeks ago.

Black, white, Asian and Hispanic students walk, jog and cycle around the 1,682-acre campus (or Grounds, as they refer to it), meeting up at libraries or grabbing food in a campus dining hall.

Only when you reach The Rotunda — the central and most historic building on campus, designed by President Thomas Jefferson — do you realize something has happened here. Draped across the red brick building and white columns, and in the backdrop of a statue of Jefferson, is a large black banner that reads “OUR MISSION, THEREFORE, IS TO CONFRONT IGNORANCE WITH KNOWLEDGE, BIGOTRY WITH TOLERANCE, AND ISOLATION WITH THE OUTSTRETCHED HAND OF GENEROSITY. … RACISM CAN, WILL, AND MUST BE DEFEATED.”

Then it comes back to you. The angry, screaming white men. The Nazi salutes. The tiki torches. The hate.

This wasn’t even a month ago, and now everything is different. Nothing from the photos and videos spread across social media are here now, except the buildings and monuments literally and metaphorically in the background.

The plaza that houses the statue of Jefferson in front of The Rotunda sits relatively empty this day, save for a few people walking past to get to The Lawn, a sacred quadrangle behind The Rotunda.

Drive down Jefferson Street in downtown Charlottesville nearly 2 miles away and the statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson await. Three weeks ago, these monuments were at the center of one of the most violent protests in recent memory. During the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, a white supremacist allegedly drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. (The driver was charged with second-degree murder.) The parks that house these statues, Emancipation and Justice, are now empty.

Turn off Jefferson Street and walk four minutes southwest and you run into the corner of Water and Fourth. It’s cordoned off. Hundreds of wilted flowers are strewn across the pavement, flickering candles still not extinguished, chalk-drawn messages up and down the brick walls. One ambitious amateur artist has christened this “Heyer Park.”

It’s quiet. It’s calm. It’s, dare we say, normal.

Classes began at UVA on Aug. 22, and the football team’s first game of the season is Saturday against the visiting College of William & Mary. The Cavaliers are coming off a 2-10 season and are slated to finish in last place in the ACC, according to ESPN’s conference power rankings. But Virginia has outscored the Tribe 75-33 in their past two meetings. The Cavaliers have a 93 percent chance of winning, per ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Around campus, no one appears to be on edge. Walking past the Jefferson statue, the location of some of the most nerve-wracking images to come out of the protests, a young woman jovially informs her female companion about the upcoming brunch event at the Heirloom, a local restaurant near campus.

There is talk about what happened. But not much.

Student housing forms a barrier around The Lawn, and each residential dorm is adorned with a black sign that reads “NO TIME FOR HATE HERE” and a separate green sheet of paper that asks the residents what they will do to combat violence on campus. One resident wrote, “Having the MORAL COURAGE to stand up and speak out.”

In one of the rooms sits Thomas Courtney, 22, a senior from Charlottesville who is studying politics. On the night of the torchlit march through The Lawn, Courtney and the friend whose room he is visiting walked right into the middle of the protest while going to buy beer.

“All of a sudden at the bottom of The Lawn, we saw flames coming up, and I was like, ‘Oh, is this actually happening?’ As soon as I saw the flames, it was pretty clear who was coming,” Courtney said. A female friend broke her leg after the Dodge Challenger barreled into the crowd, but Courtney is still slowly getting over what happened. “Day to day it feels fairly normal, but I think it’s definitely something that’s on everyone’s mind,” he said. “Visually, it’s normal, but you know what happened.”

Courtney works at a nearby bar and has noticed that patrons are normally more engaging when it’s sports season, so he expects Saturday’s game to provide a sense of camaraderie for students and residents.

“If UVA were to come out and do well this coming weekend, and everyone would be at the game together, at bars together, I think it would definitely bring people together more in a way that we normally aren’t,” Courtney said. Speaking of bars, did walking through a white supremacist rally prevent him from getting that beer? “No, we still had the six-pack.”

About a mile away from The Lawn are the offices of the Virginia football team. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledges there was a conference room full of anger, hate and emotion the day after the protesters’ march through campus. His players, notably All-American linebacker Micah Kiser, spoke passionately at a team meeting about how they felt in the face of so much hate and bigotry in their backyard.

“The action of what will bring people together, what will we do, that’s what I’d like to see. Enough letters, enough articles. It’s been well-documented,” Mendenhall said. “I am anxious for a plan and leadership that will bring our attempt into fruition. In the meantime, I’m coaching a football game.”

When 3:30 p.m. comes on Saturday, the events that unfolded weeks ago will be at the back of his mind. But, win or lose, he knows there can be continued healing through what his players do on the field.

“To courageously try [to win] can manifest inspiration and change. And who is to say that one fight ends the conflict? We’re just starting.”

A floor above Mendenhall’s office is that of athletic director Craig Littlepage. On Thursday, he announced that every sports team at the school will wear a patch on their uniforms or equipment to “serve as a reminder of what can be accomplished when we are united behind a common goal.” The Monday after the rally, Littlepage gathered all the coaches who were in town and held a brainstorming session on how best to visually articulate the athletic department’s stance on violence in their community. They landed on an embroidered patch that incorporates the school’s #HOOSTOGETHER social media campaign.

What Littlepage hopes to see this weekend is the continuing process of reflecting on what’s most important to the community, whether that’s football or not, and providing a space for fans to truly feel joy after the events that occurred here. “This is a prime opportunity for us to get together, to rally and to continue to heal.”

Player and fan safety is also a concern. New security measures have been implemented at Scott Stadium by the athletics department and the University of Virginia police in light of the violence perpetrated by the marchers. Littlepage said he couldn’t divulge the specific information, and the UVA police did not respond to a request for comment.

As far as how the football team reacted to the protests (canceling practice, pulling the players from the team hotel, contacting parents, etc.), Mendenhall said he’s received calls from numerous college football coaches about being prepared for the unimaginable. He wouldn’t disclose which coaches.

That plan went into action once chaos started to erupt across town that Friday night. The players were initially taken back to the Cavalier Inn, their living quarters during summer training camp (the players were switched to a different location the next day). At the hotel, which is located near the center of campus, the players noticed men carrying unlit tiki torches. When the coaches found out some of the protesters were staying on the two floors below the players, they dispatched extra security for the night. Outside, a group of players congregated around a car in the parking lot. For a lot of them, it was one of the slickest-looking cars they’d ever seen, from the smoky gray exterior to the slightly tinted windows. It was a 2010 Dodge Challenger.

Offensive lineman Osiris Crutchfield, a redshirt freshman, was at the hotel that night, but he didn’t see any of the men in the lobby. Like most of America, he watched all the violence unfold on social media.

Crutchfield is from nearby Crozet, a 15-mile drive outside Charlottesville. Before the protests, he’d never seen the Ku Klux Klan, never bothered to ask his parents what it was like growing up black in Virginia and North Carolina — where he was born. He didn’t realize the statues of Lee and Jackson were even there, nor does he care one way or the other. “It’s just a hunk of metal to me.”

He repeatedly said Charlottesville is “quiet” and that “you never hear any news here.” Especially not of this scale. What happened earlier this month doesn’t reflect the ideals of this community, he emphatically stated. His stepmother, Erica Haskins, owns a hair salon that is a block over from where Heyer was struck by the car. She was working at the time of the crash.

He hopes Saturday’s game will get the team and entire community together, showing the white supremacists that Charlottesville is not beaten, not reeling, and most definitely not defeated.

“It would be a rallying point that the people who came in, the white supremacists, weren’t able to succeed in what they were trying to do, which was to disturb a community, disturb our way of life and change our ideals.”

Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Dre Bryant wasn’t at the hotel that Friday night because he was at his family’s home in Charlottesville. His mom was at a church service across the street from the Jefferson statue, where the protesters encircled the counterprotesters, eventually leading to fights and pepper spray being administered. The protesters would eventually surround the church, but Bryant’s mom made it home safely.

“Just having her call me about that really made me mad,” he said. “I felt like fighting back at the time. Now that I look back, that was kind of their goal: to come in and provoke violence so the next day it can be a wrecking ball.”

Bryant’s a member of one of the most socially active families in the city. His stepfather, Don Gathers, helped lead the removal of Lee and Jackson’s statues from downtown as the chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, an ad hoc committee formed by the City Council to address the city’s racial history. Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose son Yusef played football at Virginia during the late 1980s, visited Bryant’s family for dinner last week while the civil rights icon was in town. Bryant missed it because he was asleep at his dorm.

While he, too, didn’t realize the Lee and Jackson statues were even there, Bryant understands how hurtful the representation of the Confederacy can be for African-Americans. A solution that Gathers recommended and Bryant agrees with is that if remnants from the Confederacy must remain, statues of Nat Turner, who led a major slave rebellion, should be directly next to them. “It made a lot of sense. Why is the history of whites in America the only thing being shown?” Bryant asked. “I wouldn’t have a problem if history of African-Americans were shown too.”

Bryant’s friend, Natalie Romero, was one of the 19 people hit by the car during the rally. He’s known DeAndre Harris, the Charlottesville man brutally beaten by a group of white male protesters at the Market Street parking garage, for about two years, having played basketball with Harris on multiple occasions. On this day, the parking garage is rather silent, with few cars going in and out. Elderly women walk from the garage to the post office across the street. No sign of a gang-style attack ever happening here.

Bryant still thinks about what happened to Harris. He still thinks about everything. During class or while working on homework in his dorm room, his mind is wandering to those two days in early August. Those two days of pain, of anger, of flat-out terrorism.

“I look at that as something just as prominent as 9/11 or any other terrorist attack,” he said. “Because I feel like that’s what it was. I just would have never thought something of that level would be happening right here in my city.”

A mile down the road from the football offices is Scott Stadium. Across the parking lot sits the Student Activities Building, a big open space that’s used for student events. The Black Student Alliance (BSA), the central organization for African-American students on campus, is holding a paint night as part of its Welcome Week programming. The night before, the university Student Council voted unanimously to support the BSA’s list of demands, which includes removing Confederate plaques from The Rotunda and increasing the percentage of African-Americans at the university.

Tori Gray, 19, is a member of the BSA’s special events committee. The sophomore, who is from Radford, Virginia, said she is sad and disgusted by what happened at the rally but hopes that between Saturday’s game and her work with the BSA the university can start to move forward. “This is my school. This is where I sit outside and eat lunch. This is where I have spent the last year of my life.”

Gray, the daughter of Washington Redskins defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, said she is used to seeing Confederate flags and learning the Lost Cause history of the Civil War. It hasn’t been a smooth transition coming back to Charlottesville after scrolling through the social media images on her smartphone while at home.

“The first couple of days I was back [on campus], I was by myself, and it was just weird. Just less than a week ago there were neo-Nazis marching around Grounds. It was just different, but now being around classes and being back into the swing of things … I can’t say normal, but it feels a lot different.”

This season she plans to attend every home game, starting Saturday. Win or lose, she believes the city needs this distraction.

“I think it will be a good way for the community to just be together once again after something as big as that happening,” Gray said. “I feel like it’s just a way for everyone to hang out and bond in the same way they did before the events and really just get that ‘home’ feeling again.”

Late Wednesday, three days before the first game of the season, the two sites at the center of this all are eerily silent. Emancipation Park, formally named Lee Park, is empty. A block over, this is the same case at Justice Park, formally Jackson Park. The changes to the names are so new that the directional maps planted in front of each statue both bear the original names. In front of Lee, the most controversial monument, there lies another makeshift memorial for Heyer. The statue’s base is completely surrounded by bushes, most of which are now adorned with homemade wooden stars, each with a written message. One reads “Believe,” another “You are in our hearts.” One even reads “YOLO.” A month ago, if you came to this park, you would see the bronze replica of the Confederate general on top of his horse. Because the statue was unveiled in 1924, nearly a century of corrosion has left the monument a light wintry green.

But you can’t see any of that anymore. On Aug. 23, the city covered both the Lee and Jackson statues with tarps as a way of mourning Heyer.

The Confederate general at the center of the tragedy now sits in a park named after the one thing he fought against, covered by a tarp of the color he so despised: black.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"