Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege | WAMC

Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege

Apr 8, 2020

Joe Donahue: Though it has been over two years since the deadly invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia by white nationalist militias. The memory and repercussions of Charlottesville are likely to never leave America's conscience. In his new book “Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and the American Democracy Under Siege”, former mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer delivers a first person chronicle of the terror and mayhem of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally, and in doing so reveals how violent extremism affected not just one city, but the nation itself. Pairing his experience as a mayor with his expertise as a warrior historian and political theorist, Signer gives a month by month account of the 36 months before, during, and after the rally. Offering his unique perspective, he unpacks the unresolved sources of tension in our law, policy, and politics that sparked the brush fires that combined to create the perfect firestorm of the Unite the Right rally. Michael Signer served as mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia from 2016 to 2018.

And we welcome him to The Roundtable this morning. Thank you very much for being with us, a great pleasure to have you on the program.

Michael Signer: Thanks for having me. It's an important discussion and I appreciate the opportunity.

You know, it is a very important discussion and obviously it goes on as our nation is wracked with this pandemic going on, and in in some ways, it this does fit in because it's it shows what, just how tumultuous this this last several years has been. And where that sometimes even when you look at the year of 2017, and thinking that it has been almost three years, that it's hard to think that far back and yet it wasn't that long ago. Give us a sense of why you wanted to write the book and tell that story.

Well, let's just back up for a minute. I mean, most people have probably seen what happened in Charlottesville, in some way or another but it was the third of three white nationalist invasions of this very progressive, small college town that happened in the year 2017. The city council had voted to move, relocate a statue to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. And this is what brought about the attempts to attack and intimidate the city away from doing this, this kind of progressive action. And this third event, the Unite the Right rally became particularly violent. You had over 10 right wing paramilitary organizations that invaded the city. The rally was disbanded before it even got started because there was so much conflict between them and the very far left anti-fascist forces. And then after that, a young neo-Nazi weaponized a car and drove it across the pedestrian mall and killed one person and injured over 2000 others. So that that's the event and a lot of people have seen footage in one way or another. The reason that I wanted to write about it was I had this very unique vantage point on it, and there's a lot that people don't know about the story that is incredibly important to learning from Charlottesville for the future. This is going to, as you said, this is going to be one of those events that in 100 years will be talked about. It's going to be, you know, a flashpoint of modern contemporary American history, like Hurricane Katrina, or Selma, or the Democratic Convention in 1968 in Chicago. One of these events that gathers meaning over time, and there was a lot that we can learn about Charlottesville. It was very frightening, but there also was some hopeful signs in terms of what it has generated in our understanding about the nature of extremism, the limits of our current approach to the First Amendment and how these free speech ideas sometimes fail to keep us safe, what it says about our efforts to reach a productive approach on race, and memorials, and systemic racism in our history. So it means a lot. And this was the opportunity to really get at some of those depths and tell the true story of what happened.

I mentioned in the introduction that the book gives a month by month account of the 36 months before, during and after the rally. That context is really important, isn't it?

That it's incredibly important because the problem is that when we're dealing with historical events like this, a lot of the time we end up with a sanitized picture that either is it's kind of setting up heroes or villains, or it's very simplified, or it's kind of written like a screenplay. And the reason it's important to understand history, especially when it's happening right around us, is that's the way that you really get at the actual issues and players and challenges as they were, and this book really does slow things down and gets into the gray areas. A colleague of mine read it and he said, this is really about wrestling in the gray. And there are lots of important insights into the reality of dealing with these clashes of extremist forces, or the First Amendment or, you know, the quirky characters that you get in a small city government. You know, anybody's watching Parks and Rec will understand this, and how a real you know, day by day look, you know, I kept a journal and the journal was very meticulous about just these experiences. A lot of it I had almost blocked out because it became so chaotic. So really slowing things down and be able to piece together this incredibly unlikely story of how this college town sort of winded and stumbled our way into becoming the center of an international event are very important for anybody seeking to understand how history happens, but also how we can take lessons from the very unfortunate thing happened in Charlottesville for trying to get a better handle on extremism in the future.

You mentioned the fact that it becomes an international event. And I'm just wondering of how much that falls on the president of the United States who was asked about this and says that there's some very fine people on both sides. But how did how did that, as mayor, how did that change things? Because it seems to me that it just flicks a switch.

It was the most, it was one of the most stunning aspects of all this. The world had watched and you would you had crush of international media because there was a group of KKK that came in July again to protest about this statue. And that had become a massive conflagration where you had activists clashing with the police after the KKK left, and the police used tear gas and then the ACLU was protesting the city and the whole nation. I was watching this. And so everybody knew what this was about. You had overt white nationalists, some of them violent, coming to the city to basically fly the cause of white nationalism. And they had been invited into American public life by the 2016 presidential campaign, which made a decision to include white nationalists in their political coalition. It was very obvious David Duke was tweeting about how he was supporting the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Donald Trump, and there were people wearing “Make America Great” caps again at this rally, the Unite the Right rally. So instead of just roundly condemning it, and sympathizing and trying to figure out why did the government get this potential domestic terrorist threat so wrong, which is what a lot of the book focuses a lot on, the federal government really taking its eye off the ball and maybe perhaps intentionally, there's a lot of reporting that's saying that they made a decision not to include white national potential domestic terrorists. So the President threw fuel onto all those fires by the “very fine people on both sides” comment, which he reiterated. He doubled down on it. The next week in the following press conference. And then face of the city is really trying to condemn what we had seen and rally the nation. I mean, there were rallies I think in 400 cities the night after the Unite the Right rally all over the country, all over the world. And you had this real opportunity to put white, violent white nationalism in a defensive position to say No, you are not entitled to “Unite the Right” in this college town that many people have heard of. Instead, you must understand that you are unacceptable in American life, and he did the opposite of that. And it was shocking. And I thought at that point that it would be his kind of Hurricane Katrina. Turned out that there was a lot worse mismanagement with other viruses. I mean, extremism and anti-Semitism or racism are viruses of one sort and you can build up the country's immune system against them, which is one of the metaphors I talk about with the book is a lot about democratic resilience and how we need to be more proactive and robust against this threat from within. But you saw through mismanagement and through you know, in a way I mean, the the, the virus of extremism was part of this political coalition, which is why these groups like Stormfront and the Ku Klux Klan felt comfortable parading out in public and chanting “Jews will not replace us”, and it should have been roundly condemned. It wasn't.

Give us a sense of, I think this is important, of how you come into office and then basically, you win and yet then the people, many, turn on you as a result of this. And it's hard to understand. I think you do a very nice job in the book of explaining it, but I think from the outside, it's hard to understand how that could happen. Which is why the book is interesting because you tell it from perspective, I guess you have to know Charlottesville.

I really appreciate you asking that question. I made a choice in writing the book to be pretty, to be very honest and candid about the struggles and the challenges of trying to guide a city under repeated attack, and where there are a lot of mistakes made. And I wanted to be pretty honest about that, because I think there's a lot of learning that can come out of this for other communities and other leaders. From the experience in Charlottesville. What you're referring to is there were many government failings and failures and mistakes that happened through these very chaotic events. And I got wrapped up in them. I certainly made some mistakes, but there was a lot of confusion about the nature of my role. We have a city manager form of government in Charlottesville, which 50% of American cities have, where the mayor does not have any operational duties. So you don't have the ability to make decisions about policing or communications or permitting. But people don't know that a lot of the time. And so with regard to all the policing mistakes that really ended up causing a lot of damage, I ended up bearing the brunt of the public's frustration and anger in the in the city. And I wanted to be honest about that, because it does happen in other cities that are under crisis. I tell the story in the book of the mayor of Flint, Michigan, who I've gotten to know, who was blamed for the city's mismanagement of the water crisis there, even though he didn't have any authority over how the water was treated. That was a state and a federal issue. And he made the mistake, which I also made, of kind of cheerleading for the city, and trying to try to put the best face that he could on this crisis, and then he also had difficulty with public relations. I wanted to be honest about all those things. And it is very frustrating, but on the other hand, I talk a lot about the benefits and the rewards of fighting for what you know is right. The flip side of all this was I had an opportunity to stand very strong against anti-Semitism in public life, against racism. We did some really unique things in the city that I think will stand the test of time. We joined with Georgetown University to sue the paramilitary organizations that invaded us using a provision in Virginia's constitution that was 200 years old, which had never been used before that basically makes militias illegal. And that succeeded. We rewrote our permitting to make the public safer, but also allow free speech and there was a lot that we did that I thought was also worth celebrating. And then after it I started this organization, Communities Overcoming Extremism with the Anti-defamation League and the Ford Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, and it was meant to harness, learn from a nation under siege by extremism, and it generated a beautiful, powerful 88 page final report with all kinds of best practices and insights about how we can get on the offense against extremism, whether it's through nonprofits or schools, whether it's through better investigation and, and prosecution of these terrorists. And so I think ultimately the event and my experience, as harrowing as it was, in many places ended up only strengthening my resolve that that American democracy can get its arms around this challenge, and that the stories, the honest stories of what leadership is like, kind of in the hot seat can be beneficial.

You declared the city the capital of the resistance during a press conference, drawing hundreds of people and you I mean, you even admit that it puts the city in in an awkward position. But did you did you have any sense of what that would become of what you were doing as far as which, which seems to be these dual overlords, if you will, the people who elected you, and the national good, and what is right and wrong?

Well, I'm glad you brought it up. Yeah. So I wanted to be honest in the book also about how you really can't tell at any given time what future events are going to make of your most well intentioned conscientious work. That's why I think the Charlottesville is so revelatory as a story of a city as a microcosm for the country trying to deal with Trumpism and extremism in our in our modern life. The story of this rally that you mentioned, we have a major office of the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, which brings over 100 political refugees from Muslim countries to Charlottesville and the surrounding County. And that’s a major part of our community, it's a thing that we're very proud of. These are people who are freedom fighters in Iran or Syria or Afghanistan, and they left those countries to come to the land of freedom. I mean, this is like the Statue of Liberty for our community. And I went to a meeting of a bunch of these folks, three dozen, after the Muslim ban was announced, and they were terrified. They said, we have escaped tyranny, and now we're in a situation where we're going to be tyrannized. And I wanted to signal the resolve of our community as much as I possibly could. And this was a very mainstream event. The idea of resistance was extremely popular. Remember that you had 100,000 people go to Washington wearing pink pussy hats right around the same time to signal their resistance against the misogyny and the sexual misconduct that was part of this President's history. And, and so we did this map this very major event where you had Khizr Khan, who was a Gold Star Parent. You had, you know, leadership from the university, and our church community, and the synagogue all there. And lo and behold, at that event there was, there was one rightwing blogger there who pulls out a bullhorn and starts harassing Khizr Khan and he's, he was an anti-Muslim activist. And then, you know, as time went on, people started referring to the event. A lot of the time it was people on the very far left who were saying, we want you to deny the permit for the Ku Klux Klan to come here if we're going to be a capital or a center of resistance, which we couldn't do because of free speech law and the First Amendment. So I wanted to tell the story very honestly about how even our best attempts sometimes can have a life of their own, but I'm still very, very proud of the of the successful attempt to build bridges and signal alliance of the broader community with this battled religious minority who was finding itself the brunt of unspeakable bigotry and xenophobia.

Let me turn this to presidential politics for a moment. And that is Joe Biden, from the very beginning of his campaign has framed Charlottesville as the core example of the soul of America being at risk. Now that Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, I'm interested in in what you make of that, assuming you agree, of course, and that what he gets, and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but do you think he gets something here in saying that, that will help us in the future?

Oh, absolutely. I actually wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal, I'm sorry in the Washington Post about a year ago, after Joe Biden announced his campaign about Charlottesville and I hadn't endorsed him at the time. I did endorse him a few weeks ago saying that he got it exactly right. I mean, what was remarkable about his announcement and what he has said since then is, he said Charlottesville was dangerous, and a signal of the worst path we could go down to because of what it revealed about the violence underneath today's extremists, and why are we failing to solve that problem? And then the president's words and his behavior about this invasion by a dozen, paramilitary violent groups of  a peaceful college town was like, it was an insult to injury and Biden diagnosed it exactly right. And I think that he really does see the stakes of the political trends that we are seeing, the division, the invitation of extremists in among mainstream political coalitions, the lack of resolve against decrying and confronting them. What was happening at the Department of Justice and the FBI was failing to undermine white nationalist potential terrorist groups, all of that Biden saw as a piece. And when he was talking about the soul of America, I thought he got it exactly right. And he is, he said, watching these people chanting “Jews will not replace us” and carrying around you know, assault rifles in this effort to unite the right in this college town was a sign of things to come if we don't get our politics right. And he diagnosed it strongly and clearly and accurately, and I thought it showed his character and his understanding of the role of government and of this demand for America to confront and overcome extremism.

We just had Rahm Emanuel on the program, of course, former two-term mayor of Chicago who's written a new book called “The Nation's City: Why Mayors are now Running the World”. Do you feel that? I mean, do you see that’s the power that mayors have in this country?

Without a question, and it was actually one of the one of the impulses that I in the book, I go into what it was like becoming a mayor, even in the city manager form of government, and how proactive I want it to be. And I, I set up a very, very active, proactive program for what I was going to do. I was launching programs here there and creating fellowship programs and then getting some staff hired to help the elected officials. And that ended up creating some confusion because I seemed like a much more active face of the city that was actually at the end of the day didn't have control over some of these policing matters that ended up being so important, but the reason I did all that was because in this environment today, Congress has become less and less effective. And the federal government has become more and more deadlocked. And this is something that Emanuel talks about in his book. You're seeing much more innovation and leadership from the cities, whether it's on climate, or criminal justice, or marijuana, or minimum wage, or job creation, or equity. On all those fronts, you're seeing much more leadership at the local level. And this coincides with the Back to the City movement where people really wanted to be back in cities where they didn't want to 20 years ago, but now it's really cities are in demand. People want to not have cars and be close to coffee shops and not necessarily have a big lawn they have to manicure. And so it's been a really exciting time to be a mayor and I really enjoyed going to the US Conference of Mayors talking to other mayors, getting to know all the dynamism that was out there in these cities, and it really has filled a void. And the other thing about mayors is I had Pete Buttigieg in his campaign for president, who was an old friend of mine, and I talked about some advice they gave me in dealing with the rally in the in the book. And he had experience with civil unrest because he'd been in Afghanistan. And that was one of the reasons I called him for advice. And, you know, his whole campaign, I thought really built on this premise that there's an exhaustion about the kind of talking points and the partisanship of high level national politics a lot, and mayors really speak a different language because they have to deal with people coming up to them at the grocery store and saying, why isn't my you know, why is the traffic light down at the end of the street or why hasn’t the brush been cleared off at the sidewalk. And they really can't afford to just kind of speechify and when they're going to do political things, like the resistance event that I talked about earlier. They have to do it with kind of a fairly short leash because their job still is to be tied to the core functions of government in a local community. And that's why it's so interesting that there's so much innovation happening from mayors and cities but they also have to do stuff. They can't just make speeches. And so I thought you saw a lot of that in Mayor Pete's campaign. I think you see a lot of that in this book, and kind of the full spectrum of what that puts you into. But still why at the end of the day, it's so rewarding. Even if you get beaten up a lot and the seat is very hot, you're still making a difference in people's day to day lives in the communities where they live.

The name of the new book is “Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and the American Democracy Under Siege”. Michael Signer is the former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia. Thank you very much for being with us. A great pleasure to have you on the program.

Thank you so much as I really appreciate the questions and the depth.

Thank you. Again, the name of the book “Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and the American Democracy Under Siege”, You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.