Why Charlottesville? How a Facebook comment, an unknown blogger, and some old tweets inflamed a debate about race and monuments
On October 4 last year the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia hosted a free event featuring Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, for which local best-selling author John Grisham was the emcee. There was a packed house for the event, “Rooting Out Injustice: Poverty, Race and the Role of Legal Aid,” and Garza got the kind of welcome you’d expect in a liberal town like Charlottesville. She spoke about combating the concept of white supremacy and how institutional racism affects people of color in our justice and educational systems.
At the time, if you told people in Charlottesville that hundreds of angry white supremacists and neo-nazis would rally in a park just steps away from the theater the following summer, they’d have thought you were crazy.
“We have to be courageous enough to face what whiteness means and what the impact is on our everyday lives,” Garza told the audience, at a beautifully restored old theater that still has what was a “blacks only” entrance on the side of the building. “For white people who want to help, the first and best thing you can do is to face what whiteness means. We cannot win justice on our own — we cannot continue to be the inspiration for justice without the full participation of everyone in our society."
During the event, a local real estate broker, Roger Voisinet, posted a photo and comment on is his Facebook page: “Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter now at the Paramount working for dignity for everyone. If you want peace work for justice,” he wrote.
Voisinet, a long-time resident of Charlottesville with close to 1,800 Facebook friends, received various supportive comments on his post, but one would stick out. Douglas Muir, a local restaurant owner and adjunct lecturer at the engineering school and the Darden School of Business, decided to post this comment: “‘Black lives matter is the biggest rasist [sic] organisation [sic] since the clan [sic]. Are you kidding me. Disgusting!!!’” he wrote.
Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville’s 30-year old Vice Mayor, had been making headlines as a young black leader in our community by calling for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee near the Downtown Mall, along with with a 15-year old Charlottesville student named Zyahna Bryant, who petitioned City Council to remove the statue, and whom Bellamy presented as a "warrior" for the cause at a March press conference in front of the statue. “When people come to this park, they should never feel uncomfortable,” Bryant told the crowd. “We are in 2016. Things have changed, and they are going to change.”
Bellamy posted a screenshot of Muir's comment on his own Facebook page, and the restaurant owner was swiftly pilloried online. Bellamy then joined a protest outside Muir’s restaurant, Bella’s Restaurant on West Main Street, and several days after that members of Black Lives Matter also organized a protest outside the restaurant to condemn Muir’s comment. The local NAACP chapter also condemned the comment, and UVA responded by putting Muir on administrative leave. “Statements such as Mr. Muir’s do not foster intellectual exploration, nor do they encourage the voices of others,” said UVa Provost Tom Katsouleas.
Bellamy also lashed out on social media. “How can you compare people standing up for justice to the KKK, who have unapologetically hung many African-Americans?” he wrote. “They are outright and blatantly racist, and when you look at Black Lives Matter, that’s white people, Latino people, Asian people and young and old people. It’s a collective call to bring people together to face systemic oppression.”
“Comparing that to the KKK shows me how culturally incompetent some people can be,” Bellamy said. “It shows me how much work we need to do in this country.”
Nine days after the Paramount event -- after news of the ill-fated Facebook comment was featured in the Washington Post and other news outlets, and after he decided to take a leave of absence from his teaching duties -- Muir issued an apology.
Muir said he regretted “the pain it has caused this wonderful community” and said it was "never my intent for my words to cause so much turmoil."
“As I have come to learn the long, violent history of the Klan, it makes my comparison misguided and shows a misunderstanding of the past,” Muir said in a published statement. “I am ashamed to admit that I knew little about Black Lives Matter when I wrote that post. This lack of awareness is unacceptable for our civil discourse and most especially for an educator like myself. My post was an unfortunate example of what I tell my students never to do because it was criticism without investigation.”
Of course, no man is an island, and there were plenty of people in town who either agreed with Muir [a quick look at the Rants and Raves section on Craigslist would confirm this] or felt he had been unfairly maligned for expressing his views. One of those people was an unknown local blogger named Jason Kessler, 34, the former UVA student and now reviled organizer of the August 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Indeed, at the time of the Muir affair, it’s unlikely anyone in Charlottesville could have told you who Kessler was. And for those who did know of him, he was seen as a ridiculous fringe character in the debate over the statue. He had been convicted of shoplifting and obstruction of justice in 2005, and lived on the edge of town in a government-subsidized apartment complex for people with disabilities. There were also questions about the true nature of his political beliefs. He started his blog in 2015 to advance theories about "white genocide" and "anti-white bias" [he also wrote violent, misogynistic fiction, and had this to say about rape on a discussion forum: "How in the world did rape get to the point in Western society where it's considered worse than murder? I'm not saying go out and do it; you don't want to go to jail, but it seems pretty natural to me. Other species do it. All of us have ancestors who were rapists."], but there were people in town who remember his involvement in the Occupy movement and his support for President Obama. There's been some speculation that Kessler was on disability because of mental health issues, and a source tells the DTM that Region Ten, a local government services organization that provides mental health, intellectual disability and substance use services, was subsidizing Kessler's living expenses, but no records confirming this have been released.
Meanwhile, Muir's seemingly heartfelt mea culpa appeared to restore order, and certainly was an antidote to the uncivil discourse all of us had been hearing on the presidential campaign trail.
Some have speculated that Kessler was hired or encouraged to search through Bellamy's Twitter archives in retaliation for the way Muir had been pilloried and because they knew what he'd find there. Or perhaps, as Kessler himself would say, it was because of his "great" investigative reporting skills. On November 24, after Trump's surprising and shocking election victory, Kessler finally got the attention he desired by dropping a bombshell on the community: a series of tweets by Bellamy written between 2009 and 2012, when Bellamy was in his early to mid-20s, that were blatantly vulgar, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic.
Kessler had tried to pass along this information to the media, but there were no takers, so he published Bellamy’s tweets on his own blog. They very quickly went viral.
Ironically, Bellamy, who had just a month before been condemning Muir's comment, found himself suffering the same fate as Muir over social media posts of his own.
Like Muir, Bellamy was immediately pilloried for his comments, which people on all sides of the political spectrum agreed were disturbing. Here's a selection of the tweets: “If your man asks you how many naggers you fucked…Call him a faggot” // “I’m all for equal opportunity…but a Female Principle with a school full of female teachers is fin a sure fire way to fk lili boys up smh” // October 2009: “I DONT LIK WHIT PEOPLE SO I HATE WHITE SNOW!!!!! FML!!!!” // October 2011: eat it while she sleep if she moan it aint rape // October 2011: A Rape charge waiting to happen….This weekend I’ll be on a whitegirl diet u niggers should try it // 2010: This nigga just said he don’t have 2work as long as its white women walking the Earth. Lmaaaaaoooo. that’s some VA shit // 2011: I hate seeing white people in Orangeburg // 2012: Lol funniest thing about being down south is seeing little white men and the look on their faces when they have to look up to you. // 2010: I really #hate how almost 80% of the black people here talk white..// 2011: White women = Devil
Like Muir, Bellamy issued a heartfelt apology for the comments he’d made on social media, saying he had matured and no longer believed the things he had written.
“I sincerely apologize for the inappropriate things I posted to social media many years ago,” he wrote. “Elected officials should be held to a higher standard, and while I was not in office at the time, in this instance I came up short of the man I aspire to be.”
Still, Bellamy had to resign from both his seat on the Virginia State Education board and his computer science teaching job at Albemarle High School. Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a statement saying he was “horrified” by the tweets, and Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer wrote that the tweets, and Kessler revealing them, had done “real harm to our community.” Signer also recommended that Bellamy consider resigning from City Council.
“In a time when we so urgently need unity, tolerance and love, these communications, as well as the toxic website that revealed them, have done real harm to our community,” Signer wrote.
Bellamy's old tweets confounded his supporters, who were at once disappointed and horrified, but in the end willing to forgive his youthful indiscretion. Groups like Showing Up For Racial Justice said it was part of "witch hunt" to “delegitimize black public officials,” and others believed that Bellamy was being singled out for personal attack like that because he was a young black man in a position of power, and as payback for the way he went after Muir. There was, of course, plenty of ugly racist backlash aimed at Bellamy over his tweets, and his stance on the Lee statue, which resulted in death threats against the Vice Mayor and a “concentrated hate campaign,” according to his fellow Councilor Kristen Szakos.
But the genie was already out of the bottle. Bellamy himself called his own tweets “absolutely indefensible,” and by uncovering them Kessler had created for himself a platform on which to launch a campaign to remove Bellamy from office that was covered by the local and national media. He also delivered to his new white nationalist friends some raw meat for their racists views: a young black politician who had targeted a white business owner for one racist comment, and who was advocating for the removal of a Confederate monument, who had made universally condemned racists comments against white people.
Indeed, at the rally on August 12, there were people holding up signs with large re-prints of Bellamy's tweets on them.
It’s important to remember that before Bellamy’s tweets were disclosed, and before Kessler made a name for himself by disclosing them, Charlottesville’s ongoing debate over its Confederate statues was a more or less civilized one. A commission was formed to study the issue. Town halls were held. Many thought the thing to do was put the statues in historical context, and that there was no need to remove them, including Charlottesville’s mayor. After six months of public forums and commission meetings, a majority of the members on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces expressed a preference for moving the Lee statue, but keeping the Jackson monument in place. Some kind of compromise was in the air. But now it was becoming an increasingly toxic, and racially charged, public spectacle.
Kessler was a bumbling activist, who at first created an online petition to remove Bellamy from office by stealing the identity of a Florida woman to serve as the petition's author, later telling the Daily Progress that he did that because he was "shy.” He was also later charged and convicted of assault when a Downtown Mall security camera at a business caught him hitting someone who had insulted him and refused to sign his petition. But Kessler succeeded in raising the stakes for City Council's decision to remove the Confederate statues or not by attracting more and more media attention, and by string up emotions on both sides of the issue.
“We will not accept a racist who looks down on ‘little white men,’ who agrees ‘it aint rape if she moans’ [and] who ‘hates blacks who talk white,’” wrote Kessler in his petition to have Bellamy removed from office. “He is an unfit representative for our city and the values we uphold. He must step down or be removed immediately.”
That petition would be denied by a Charlottesville Circuit Court judge on the grounds that there were too few signatures, though Kessler had managed to collect nearly 600 of them; and, perhaps more importantly, the petition had been circulated widely in white nationalist circles. At the time, Bellamy’s attorney, Pam Starsia, injected even more racially charged language into an increasingly tense situation, calling Kessler a "virulent racists and misogynist" out to harm people of color and those in the LGBT community. "I would describe this as a modern-day lynching," she said.
As a vote on whether or not to remove the monuments loomed, it was clear that battle lines were being drawn. And that the fight now had less to do with the statue itself than with the politics and beliefs belonging to those who had mobilized around the issue. A kind of frenzy was building, and the more City Council tried to manage the debate, the worse it got.
With two city councilors for keeping the statues in place, and two calling for their removal, one councilor found himself on the hot seat: the deciding vote on an action that, by then, would have no good outcome.
Indeed, a January 17 City Council meeting “spiraled out of control,” according to an account by C-Ville Weekly, as “enraged citizens, many carrying signs calling for the statues’ removal, shouted and refused to come to order for approximately 30 minutes after councilors voted 2-2 on a motion to remove the statues, with Councilor Bob Fenwick abstaining.”
As Fenwick explained on his website, he didn’t understand the need to rush a decision on an issue that communities across the country were still struggling with, and he also wanted some assurances that the city budget would include, not just monies to remove statues and deal with the legal consequences of doing so, but monies for what he called a “people’s budget.”
“It’s time to invest in our citizens, keep our young people out of prison with diversion programs, and mentoring program like the Wes [Bellamy] has started,” wrote Fenwick. “Offer training not just in computer applications, but in skilled trades so young people don’t have to wait for affordable housing, they can build their own. Invest in people, not in prisons. Simply put, statues can wait, people can’t.”
“So my thoughts at this time are, don’t rush through this,” he went on. “Weigh carefully as best we can the consequences of our decisions, and recognize that there will be unintended consequences and start putting our money where our mouth is.”
By February 6, when council held a second vote on the removal of the statues, Fenwick said he was assured by the majority of councilors that they would press for the appropriations he’d spoke of, and announced he would be voting for removal.
His primary goal, wrote Fenwick, was to represent the will of the citizens of Charlottesville, “particularly those who find the monument offensive and reminder of a dark past of enslavement,” and that while at first there seemed to be consensus to keep the statues in place, as the vote approached he realized that consensus began to change dramatically. “I remember telling a friend that the days of the statues are numbered, and it was obvious the work of the commission was being taken seriously, and I could see this progression because I attended every meeting,” he wrote.
“That was the worst I’ve seen,” Mayor Signer said of that earlier chaotic January 17 meeting, which he added was “one of the greatest challenges I’ve had in public life, trying to navigate the emotions on an issue that truly divides us.” Later that month, in front of a cheering crowd, Signer would famously declare Charlottesville the Capital of the Resistance to the Trump administration.
Unfortunately, there would be far more difficult emotions to navigate after the February 6 vote, and even greater challenges to follow for the Mayor and the citizens of Charlottesville.
In mid-May, thanks to Kessler's efforts, neo-nazi Richard Spencer would make headlines by holding an torch wielding, night time rally in Charlottesville opposing the February 6 vote, an event that heightened tensions across the downtown area. Later, armed members of the KKK would show up to protest the removal of the statues in July, an event that drew international media attention. Riding that wave of media attention, Kessler would push forward with his so-called Unite the Right Rally [wiki created about the event here] on August 12, in anticipation of which the entire town was on edge. On the night of August 11, torch-wielding white supremacists shouting Nazi slogans would march at UVA's Rotunda, beating students there who had circled the statue of Thomas Jefferson to peacefully oppose them. And, of course, what happened at the Unite the Right Rally on August 12 would leave three people dead, 30 injured, and make Charlottesville the national center of attention for days.
How did we get here? Is it just a coincidence that less than a year after Muir compared BLM to the KKK, the KKK actually showed up in Charlottesville? Or that less than a year after old tweets from Bellamy describing “little white men” were made public, white men caring torches and shouting Nazi slogans showed up at UVA? Or that the white nationalist blogger who was once so bold and provoked this hornet’s nest is now in hiding?
No doubt the issue of race we struggle with in this country has tangled roots in the American psyche that can confound even the most thoughtful observers, and so its forces continue to bubble up from the depths in strange and unexpected ways, sometimes in the form of ill-advised comments and tweets, in angry arguments waged online and in our public squares that are becoming increasingly confrontational, and even in the actions that humble and well-meaning people make out of fear and ignorance.
Will love or hate win the day? At this point, it’s hard to tell.