Charlottesville’s Mayor Assigns Homework

The Mayor of Charlottesville seems an impressive guy. I say this even though I’m still bemused by the tepid response of his police department during the demonstrations–good practice would have kept the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators separated.

That said, Mayor Signer exhibited the forcefulness that the city’s policing lacked, both in public statements in the aftermath of the demonstrations, and in a letter published by the New York Times. Unlike other elected officials who were reluctant to “call out” the President, the Mayor called it like he saw it.

Asked about Trump’s culpability, he responded

I mean, look at the intentional courting both on the one hand of all these white supremacists, white nationalist group like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up,condemn, denounce, silence, you know, put to bed all those different efforts just like we saw yesterday. I mean this is not hard.

In his essay in the Times, the Mayor considered the underlying issues raised by the conflict.

We start with a paradox: It was only because we live in a strong democracy, with a robust commitment to free speech, that these people were able to march in the first place. Narrowly speaking, their presence was in a way an expression of our democratic values, even as they sought to destroy them. In response, we must find an answer that both fights back against voices of hate, but at the same time stays true to the values that undergird our community in the first place.

As both the mayor of Charlottesville — a city steeped in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson — and the author of a biography of James Madison, I believe our answers lie in what I think of as the “soul” of the founders’ vision.

The Mayor went on to describe the mechanics of our system, the checks and balances and legal constraints that we depend upon to keep our polity functioning– but then he made an important point. The mechanics, he wrote, are nothing without the norms and values that enable us to collectively solve problems without force, violence and intimidation.

The people who visited terror on us last weekend were using the mechanics of the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly — to attack its soul, to set fire to the pillars of civility, deliberation, compromise, tolerance and reconciliation that underwrite our system of government.

Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville elicit calls for restricting the rights that allow such protests to occur, and he warned against going down that path.

It’s counterintuitive, but our democracy has often been at its best when our constitutional soul has been poked and prodded and has stood up on its hind legs to defend itself.

So–if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer doesn’t simply recite platitudes; he spells out who should do what: companies must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”

It means a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. It means law firms dedicating pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed.

It means mentors teaching young folks that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. It means government agencies using negotiation rather than just mandates. It means politicians agreeing to sit down together and negotiate, rather than lob hopeless bombs.

And it means governments finally telling the truth about race in our history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.

I read this letter as a call for active and informed citizenship, and at this moment in our national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that will save us.


  1. From todays post:
    “.. companies must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, ..”

    If our Corporate citizens stopped funding the right wing crazies, then it would go a long way towards improving our civic life.
    They need to find the guts to walk away from Rush and the gang
    If there is no PROFIT in hate, then it may recede.
    Just a thought

  2. I still worry we are headed for another greatest level of protest ever seen within this country; the Civil War. Is what we are currently experiencing a “cold Civil War”?

    Keep in mind that Charlottesville is located in the state of Virginia; the heart of the Confederacy before, during and after the Civil War. Known by them yet today as “The War of Northern Aggression” and there are those Virginians who have not yet surrendered. I was deeply saddened by the ugly turn of event of the results of the Charlottesville protests but not surprised at the overall goings-on leading up to the death of one peaceful protester.

  3. One small ask. Please don’t refer to corporate citizens. Only a person can be a citizen. That’s one of the things that we must agree on. Only people have constitutional rights.

    In order to address racism, we first have to acknowledge it in ourselves. We are a long way from being able to do that as individuals and as a country.

  4. You know it is usually the ‘people with the guns that make the rules’… and it has been found that our police forces have been infiltrated by a lot of fascist minded individuals and without a full and proper screening of their psychological make up – Which in my opinion might help cut down on the incidents we see in the streets of our nation. But then consider – the Nation’s ‘top cop’ is a lying treasonous bastard… and perhaps we can understand now why the cops stood by as a white man discharged a pistol into the protesters ??? It was caught on video – the mayor may have fine words and true words – but he is still the one with his hand on the dog’s leash!.. think on that one.

  5. I have recently read a book by James W. Loewen titled “LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME”! He addresses how history books don’t teach students the real causes of white supremacy and racism. It is a great read and has caused me to do some serious soul searching! I recommend it to every one. I believe that it has cleared up many of the questions that I’ve had that bothered me all my life.

  6. Greetings Peggy. In your second statement you use the words, “in ourselves” Who is covered in the word ourselves?

  7. I just read an article in which the author opines that “The world is run by thugs,” and I think the author may be on to something, with some exceptions (Canada, Germany, and a few others). Look around (and don’t exclude states of the United States with their voter suppression and right to work tactics, among others); the world is in fact being run by thugs, thugs who hide behind “policy initiatives” to legalize their theft of workers’ rights, voters’ rights etc. These thugs are financed by (guess who?) the financiers, which in my view makes the latter accessories before, during and after the fact as all participate in plundering our public treasury.

    Perhaps voting these people out of office is not enough; perhaps they should be indicted as well after a trip to the Bastille. Putin and his oligarchs, Trump and his Wall Street greedhogs and others who have bought the peoples’ politics (including such as the Mercers and Kochs and many others) should be imprisoned irrespective of the wild west scenario posed by Citizens United, but that cannot happen until the people take back their politics and come up with new “initiatives” that criminalize what is now and has been happening in plain daylight. So what to do? Recapture our politics; throw the thugs out; take back our government by criminalizing what is now happening for future use if the thugs want to try their luck after the people take back their politics and their economy. Can’t be done? See 1776 and 1789.

  8. Gerald,

    I’m with you all the way, including your favorable comments on Germany and Canada. I would also include Sweden to the list.

    With Donald Trump as our President, we might be best described as a 4th world country.

  9. Gerald,

    “So what to do? Recapture our politics; throw the thugs out; take back our government by criminalizing what is now happening for future use if the thugs want to try their luck after the people take back their politics and their economy. Can’t be done? See 1776 and 1789.”

    Also see 1991 in Dallas, Texas USA as an early model for a SUCCESSFUL prosecution. The thugs were thrown out. The mistake was putting them on what amounted to probation.

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