For Char­lottes­ville sur­vivors, fight against racism con­tin­ues Legacy of slav­ery

Muscat Daily - - OPINION - Is­sam Ahmed

As the jury de­liv­ered its guilty ver­dict against a neo-Nazi ac­cused of mur­der for ram­ming his car into a group of counter-pro­test­ers at a white su­prem­a­cist rally last year, ‘Al’ Bowie burst into tears of joy.

“I’m feel­ing the best I’ve felt in al­most a year and a half,” said Bowie (28) whose pelvis was shat­tered into six pieces when James Alex Fields Jr plowed his Dodge Chal­lenger into the crowd protest­ing the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Char­lottes­ville, Vir­ginia on Au­gust 12, 2017.

De­spite her re­lief, she be­lieves that the con­vic­tion of 21 year old Fields rep­re­sents a ‘baby step’ in the long fight against big­otry - which has only grown un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Fields was found guilty on Fri­day of first-de­gree mur­der for killing Heather Heyer, a 32 year old para­le­gal, in his ve­hi­cle ram­page. He was also con­victed of five counts of ag­gra­vated ma­li­cious wound­ing, three of ma­li­cious wound­ing, and one of hit-and-run.

“This was white supremacy in one of its worst forms,” Bowie said. “We need to be ad­dress­ing even the more in­nocu­ous forms that we see in our daily lives.”

Bowie rushed to help peo­ple hit by Fields’ car - a de­ci­sion that back­fired when she was struck as the ve­hi­cle re­versed.

Her words echoed those of many ac­tivists in the bu­colic col­lege town, who be­lieve that Fields’ as­sault was only a symp­tom of in­sti­tu­tional racism rooted in the city’s his­tory.

The rally was called by al­tright supremo Richard Spencer to protest a planned re­moval of a statute of Robert E Lee, the top gen­eral of the pro-slav­ery Con­fed­er­acy in the 1861-65 Civil War.

Anti-racism pro­test­ers from the city and else­where amassed to counter the far right, lead­ing to con­fronta­tions that cul­mi­nated in the car at­tack. The city coun­cil had voted to re­move the 94 year old statue, but its fate is now in the hands of a court af­ter law­suits were filed - in­clud­ing by the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans - to re­v­erse the de­ci­sion. Char­lottes­ville, lo­cated 160km south­west of Washington, was home to two pres­i­dents in­clud­ing Thomas Jef­fer­son, the prin­ci­pal au­thor of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

The city, home to the pres­ti­gious Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, has a rep­u­ta­tion as a wealthy, lib­eral en­clave known for its his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture and bou­tique shop­ping.

But that ex­te­rior be­lies the many race is­sues that Char­lottes­ville still faces more than 150 years af­ter the end of the Civil War and some 60 years af­ter the civil rights move­ment.

“Es­sen­tially Char­lottes­ville de­vel­oped out of sev­eral large plan­ta­tions,” said An­drea Dou­glas, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Jef­fer­son School African Amer­i­can Her­itage Cen­ter.

No­table among these plan­ta­tions was Mon­ti­cello, owned by Jef­fer­son, him­self a slave owner.

Char­lottes­ville’s black pop­u­la­tion - which has fallen to 19 per cent of the city’s 46,000 - have been largely left out of the city’s suc­cess due to years of ex­clu­sion­ary poli­cies linked to ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing and em­ploy­ment, Dou­glas said.

These in­clude the de­mo­li­tion in the early 1960s of Vine­gar Hill, a his­tor­i­cally black neigh­bour­hood. This ef­fec­tively wiped out a gen­er­a­tion of black wealth in a down­town area now known for sky-high com­mer­cial prop­er­ties.

For Tane­sha Hud­son (39) the pres­ence of Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues in her home­town is an ever present re­minder of that racist legacy.

“It's a level of dis­re­spect to any per­son of colour whose an­ces­tors picked cot­ton, or were slaves. Or were hung, or killed or raped,” she said.

The events of Au­gust 2017 in­spired many res­i­dents - in­clud­ing 34 year old so­cial worker Matthew Chris­tensen - to step up their anti-racism ac­tivism and get more in­volved in city pol­i­tics.

Last month Chris­tensen started an on­line pe­ti­tion urg­ing the re­moval of an­other Con­fed­er­ate statue, this one in front of a down­town court­house that falls un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Albemarle County, which sur­rounds Char­lottes­ville.

The 2017 un­rest ‘was a cat­a­lyst for a lot of peo­ple’, said Molly Con­ger, a 29 year old blog­ger.

Con­ger started cov­er­ing the city’s af­fairs fol­low­ing the at­tack, and live-tweeted the Fields trial.

Con­ger has faced threats for her new­found ac­tivism: At a sep­a­rate trial of a white su­prem­a­cist the sus­pect yelled out her ad­dress on the steps of the court­house.

A com­pos­ite photo of her de­cap­i­tated head and of her two dogs’ heads on sticks was posted on­line, as well as pic­tures of her sis­ter and the hos­pi­tal where her mother works.

“It up­sets them when women talk,” said Con­ger. “I have laughed at them, and that’s what hurts them the most.”

Like Bowie, Jeanne ‘Star’ Peter­son, in her late 30s, sur­vived Fields’ at­tack with ex­ten­sive in­juries, in­clud­ing a right leg held to­gether by a metal plate.

Peter­son adopted Char­lottes­ville as her home­town af­ter fall­ing in love with the city as a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, where she grad­u­ated from in 2002. “James Fields is just the tip of the ice­berg,” she said, say­ing re­mov­ing the stat­ues re­mains a pri­or­ity.

Es­sen­tially Char­lottes­ville de­vel­oped out of sev­eral large plan­ta­tions An­drea Dou­glas

(AFP)

This file photo shows a woman hold­ing a sign for Heather Heyer dur­ing a vigil in Chicago, Illi­nois on Au­gust 13, 2017

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