Remembering August 11th and 12th

Three witnesses reflect on the Unite the Right rally and where we stand today.

Malcolm Stewart (BA ‘18) remembers seeing the glow of tiki torches approaching the UVA Lawn on August 11, 2017. As white supremacists passed by, shouting racist slurs and anti-Semitic chants, Stewart, who was Head Lawn Resident at the time, decided to stay where he was. “At that point in time, the only thing going through your head is that there are students, friends, peers who are as confused and unsure as you are,” he said. “You have to do everything in your power to make sure that they can be safe.”

Last week, on the third anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Stewart spoke on a panel moderated by Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon. Now famous around the world, the rally spanned two days and brought white supremacists and counter-protestors together in a violent clash that killed one demonstrator and injured many others. 

All three panelists witnessed either the rally or its aftermath firsthand. Alice Thomson (MPP ‘19), a volunteer firefighter who was just days away from starting her master’s of public policy at Batten, was on duty during the rally. Dr. Michael Williams, associate chief medical officer for the UVA health system, treated wounded protestors. Stewart, Thomson, and Dr. Williams shared their stories and discussed how the events of August 2017 altered their lives.

For Thomson, the rally created a radical shift in her perspective. She recalled being told to take shelter in an ambulance at one point. “I remember crouching down in the footwell and thinking, none of this had to happen,” she said. “I remember having an overwhelming sense of being let down by the people that I trusted.”

The panelists discussed how the University has attempted to evolve since three years ago—and how much work is left to be done concerning its approach to anti-racism. They focused in particular on how the University might improve its relationship with the city of Charlottesville by adopting a much stronger stance of “servant leadership”—taking the time to engage community members about their challenges and needs.

“We’re making those attempts, but we’re not in enough of a hurry, to be frank,” Dr. Williams said. “Just off Preston Avenue, just off Rosehill Drive, whole lives are being led and whole educational experiences are being had that are not what they could be.”

To build those relationships and make true progress, we need to embrace the history that inspired the rally in the first place, Stewart said: “I think that as a university and as a country, we have to stop looking at things that happened in the past and pretending that they don't play a role in where we sit today.”

Watch the full conversation. 

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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