Ferguson and Charlottesville- Comparisons of Local Racist Histories
*Much of this information is based on my growing knowledge of Charlottesville history. There may however, be some instances where things are not right. Please advise me if you have found any glaring errors in historical fact or data, but please do not discount this analysis based on possible small errors.
** I hope to provide some references at a later date, much of this knowledge comes from materials available to all, again, please do not discount this assessment of history simply because I haven’t provided the references, just ask or call until I post material.
*** This may be a work in progress-toooo loooonnnnnggggg- if you want to edit feel free to send your changes to my e-mail address. Also- needs a better title.
The events in Ferguson, outside of St. Louis, are no surprise to many. Some have the tendency, however, to view these spontaneous uprisings as being apart of and separate from our own experiences. When we make some observations we might see that what is happening in Ferguson right now could happen here quite easily. We might even go so far to say that many of things happening in Ferguson are already going down in Cville.
History plays a role in all matters of race, and it is not just a vague distant series of events that cause individuals to react in certain ways. The racist history of this country has deep impacts on the racist histories of localities and are very much a living part of our current situation in Charlottesville. The historical themes we see relate to: promotion of white fear of blacks as an institutional program, the use of public funds to further private business interests, the exploitation of the cheapest labor that can be found, and the systems that enforce institutional oppression under codified law aimed at maintaining the racist continuum of history. We see Africa exploited, Slavery, Jim Crow, Urban Renewal, and the Drug war and mass incarceration. All common themes nationwide, but played out differently sometimes in Ferguson and Charlottesville and sometimes similarly, and some presenting a racist glimpse of Charlottesville’s future.
Ferguson is not Charlottesville. There are different histories, different themes to their local histories. Plenty of similarities yes, but plenty of differences. The differences however play out in a similar fashion in that they reinforce white dominance over and oppression of African-Americans. This dominance and oppression is largely driven not by individuals acting in a discriminatory manner, but driven by racist institutions that are simultaneously using economics as a weapon while seeking to fortify economic power as the end goal.
As someone who works very closely with the public housing community in Charlottesville I have had amazing opportunities to grow and to learn. One of the opportunities has been coordinating an intern program for PHAR. Part of what we do is learn the history of public housing in Charlottesville. Over the past few years I have gained a very solid understanding of Charlottesville’s racist past, present, and some seriously troubling concerns about our possible future.
So here’s what I have learned about Charlottesville. It begins in Africa (where all of human history begins) and with European empire expansion and the beginnings of the slave trade. White Europeans, in an effort to make money and secure a cheap labor force for their new empires being built in the Americas began kidnapping human beings from Africa, which had civilizations its own that were thriving, and brought them to the new world, the inhabitants of which were systematically being enslaved themselves, murdered en masse, or forced to flee. The Africans were forced to build the foundation of this country, and this continued for 400 years.
The natives and the Africans were not content with this arrangement and wars began both in the new world and in Africa. Slave rebellions, most of which we don’t learn about in standard US history, were crushed. At the time, news of slave rebellions were kept quiet mostly out of fear of other slaves getting wind of these uprisings. However, white landowners were consistently alerted of rebellions and the fear and propaganda promotion of the black person as being a threat began in earnest.
Systematically and as a matter of many laws and ordinances, white slave owners were told to fear the people they were oppressing and encouraged to carry out heinous acts of barbarism on their human property. The John Brown raid was one exception- we learn about John Brown because he was white, an attempt by modern Americans to alleviate some guilt and complicity in the continuance of perhaps the world’s greatest crime. This served a great purpose at the time- it was a warning to white people to not side with the people they were oppressing or it would mean their ass. This simple, though distant, observation of history should sound familiar to modern Americans: blacks are cheap exploitable labor and will make us all wealthy, brutal force is necessary to keep them from rising up, when they do rise up extreme force is necessary, everyone should be afraid because we have been treating these people so poorly for centuries.
Here in Charlottesville, the Saponi were killed off, enslaved, or driven away by white settlers. Africans came in to work the area plantations and Charlottesville itself became a hub for the slave trade (mostly internally after Europe stopped kidnapping people). Some very famous area celebrities profited immensely. Thomas Jefferson owned, and raped, a whole bunch of human beings. Contrary to popular belief but documented thoroughly, he was not one of the “good” slave owners. He was in fact notoriously cruel to his property. Lewis and Clark used dozens of slaves in the journey to explore the western parts of the new nation (hello Missouri! We’re coming right for ya!). Three of the most famous historical figures out of Charlottesville are considered founders of this country and great men. A few simple observations of local history show us that these “great men” were nothing without their property. The real human beings who built this country were forced to do so, and all right here coming out of little ol’ Charlottesville.
Of course, Missouri, including the area around St. Louis has a different history pertaining to enslavement and the elimination of native people. Westward expansion included the expansion of slavery and the forced removal of much larger Indian tribes. I don’t have a full knowledge of that time period beyond the Missouri Compromise. The compromise was that slavery was legal in the new state of Missouri but not in the rest of the Louisiana Territory (hello Lewis and Clark!). I wonder if the Africans had had a chance to chime in if that compromise would have been acceptable. In any event, the compromise led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision eventually playing a very large role in setting the stage for the US Civil War.
From a class perspective, the civil war was driven by the conflicting labor systems of slavery and the emerging capitalism. The northern free states enjoyed the raw material being produced in south, and reaped the profits. They had no need for slavery for a number of reasons, much of it being that the plantation system was not integral to its past. There was a huge concern however that the free labor source expanding into the west would undermine the ability of the capitalists and emerging industrialists to make profit when they had to pay their labor force. Of course, there were plenty of well meaning white folks who began to see this as a moral issue as well.
As we know, the Civil War happened and a whole lot of people died. President Lincoln, quite famously not concerned about liberation so much as ending the war, issued the emancipation proclamation. The idea was to gain some support of the oppressed slaves but more importantly to undermine the South’s ability to continue its war effort. In modern terms it was an attempt to have the slaves go on strike. The war did end and emancipation came to Charlottesville and Albemarle with Northern troops. With the end of slavery came the question- how do we deal with all of these people who used to work for free who now have to provide for themselves and more importantly to whites in the south and the north- how will this affect our economy? This is a question that should be studied and learned from if we are to become serious about ending mass incarceration and abolishing the current prison system. The US Congress had some ideas, but the emphasis eventually was moved from justice for the free slaves towards helping the US economy continue to benefit those wealthy white landowning men in both areas.
The system of sharecropping evolved in the south. Very few freed people migrated north, most stayed in the south. In spite of the government’s failure to provide reparations or institute some sort of justice for the newly freed Africans some blacks began to form associations, businesses, and began getting elected to public bodies. In Charlottesville the seeds for post-slavery black community were being sown in the form of schools, churches, businesses and associations. Political power began to be possible for a brief moment. Once the Northern troops had left however, terror, bigotry, and formal “Jim Crow” laws came into place to purposefully, violently, and implicitly returned blacks to their second class status. Charlottesville and Albemarle at this time became majority white. This is Charlottesville’s history as well as the history of many small towns in the south after slavery ended.
Despite Jim Crow and white terror, the black community in Charlottesville inched its way, struggle by struggle, towards building something for itself and determining its own future. Black businesses, churches, schools and other institutions grew in the 100 years following emancipation. Black people in Charlottesville owned homes, though most rented. They owned businesses, though most worked in manual labor or as domestics (not unlike today). What was built was enough to build an economic, spiritual, social, and political base for the community. Neighborhoods were created, mostly in what is called Vinegar Hill (where Staples is now onto West Main and up Preston), Cox’s Row (where Westhaven is now), Garret Street (just south of downtown) and Hartman’s Mill (around South 1st street and 5th Street). These neighborhoods grew organically and contained all of the institutions built by black people in Charlottesville. Some owned homes, most rented. During the depression, whites bought up property in these neighborhoods and became wealthy slum lords. Some homes were in good shape, others were severely run down. What matters when we look at this is that as hard as it was, and as many struggles as people had, a community that had self control and an economic, social, and spiritual base existed and thrived.
By the time the Depression and World War 2 ended, southern African-Americans had migrated in large numbers off of the plantations and farms and into the cities. At this time Charlottesville’s black population grew somewhat, but the great migration typically was towards northern cities where work was found during and after the war. Places like St. Louis grew immensely. In the larger cities, migrating blacks began to form similar institutions and neighborhoods on a much larger scale. In 1947 the Federal Government passed the Housing Act, which began the public housing program, this was later modified to allow localities to determine the need for public housing and to determine the locations where public housing would exist. Across the country, including in Charlottesville and St. Louis, conversations began about so called “slum clearance” and urban renewal. What wealthy white business owners figured out was that public housing and urban renewal provided an excellent way to get their hands on valuable land near downtown and business centers using public funds.
Urban renewal in Charlottesville, and elsewhere, was driven mainly by white business elites and city planners. Urban renewal was an amazing opportunity for the elite because they could try to convince the population that slum clearance was necessary and good for all. In Charlottesville, and everywhere else, this “conversation” was overshadowed by school integration. While white elites were very much in favor of public housing and urban renewal, poorer whites were opposed because the locations of the proposed housing could force integration of their schools. Wealthier whites tended to support urban renewal and the construction of public housing because of the economic benefits to them, and because they knew all too well that public housing would never be built in wealthier white neighborhoods. In short, urban renewal happened so people could use public funds to exploit valuable land in black neighborhoods. Public housing was constructed because in order to do so the government required replacement housing for displaced people. The locations were chosen by referendum based mainly on how little the housing would influence segregation of the schools.
These themes of redevelopment, school intergation, and the use of public funds to access neighborhoods occupied by black people in Charlottesville are all back on the radar with current attention to redevelopment of public housing and the planning for the Strategic Investment Area (more on that in a bit).
The demolishing of Vinegar Hill and the effects are not the end point for urban renewal in Charlottesville. After the construction of Westhaven, a new round of urban renewal happened in the area south of downtown, the Garrett St. neighborhood. Cville talks a big game about Vinegar Hill, but many quickly forget that the exact same thing happened about a decade later in valuable areas near the downtown mall. Business was allowed to expand, new roads were built and new housing was built. Slum clearance and access to the land never got into Belmont where poorer whites lived, just up the street. In the current conversations around the SIA about the area we see the same approach.
So, after 400 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, the black community still managed to have something. What they had was wiped out in matter of 4 or 5 years by vote of city council and the people of Charlottesville themselves. The devastation of urban renewal is well understood by current residents who were here, their children and some other sections of the community. Charlottesville has apologized, but has yet to account monetarily for this crime. The white community has remained oblivious to this history and are simply told that Vinegar Hill should not have happened and can’t again. What the white community here doesn’t understand are the lasting effects of urban renewal, and slavery and Jim Crow before that, have on the existing community. Much of white Charlottesville wasn’t even present for these events or the events that followed and have a hard time understanding the influence of these events on the present.
In St. Louis urban renewal followed a mildly different course with similar results. Following the war, St. Louis had grown in black population as African-Americans migrated to where jobs might be found. Jobs there related to the war were subject to segregation as was housing. The population peaked in the 1950s. Slums existed and the land was valuable. Urban renewal, like elsewhere, gave the elites there a chance to access valuable land and destroyed black neighborhoods, poor as they were, and public housing high rises were built, notably the Pruitt-Igoe complex away from the valuable land being sought.
Over time, St. Louis actually began to lose population since whites already with solid incomes began to flee the city to get away from the black population and the beginnings of school integration. At the same time, decent jobs that could be accessed by blacks were disappearing at the end of the war, blacks were not needed anymore for the remaining jobs. White flight into the suburbs proceeded rapidly. St. Louis (like Charlottesville) is unable to annex land from counties outside its boundaries so new lily white suburban towns grew. The intense reduction of jobs and population left St. Louis with a very small tax base for social programming, and local funds were not able to keep pace with the need to supplement federal funding of public housing in St. Louis. What remained was a black community with inadequate and dangerous housing, welfare policies that significantly stifled black family unity, no jobs, and a city and suburbs that still discriminated in housing and education albeit not with legal sanction.
In St. Louis we similar themes with different details. Slavery there was more related to westward expansion and trade rather than hunkered down southern production. Emancipation brought other types of menial employment as opposed to sharecropping and agricultural work. The majority of the black population was still located in the south during the early parts of white terror and Jim Crow, and a large population shift happened during the depression and World War 2. However, blacks had experienced oppression there and white fear of blacks was exploited time and time again.
White flight never really happened in Charlottesville the same way it did in St. Louis since desegregation and urban renewal played out in a way that insulated white Charlottesville. White flight to Albemarle county did happen somewhat, and has since picked up speed. However, it is wealthier whites moving into Charlottesville that has occurred here on a large scale, bringing with it gentrification and the new “urban revitalization” and “deconcentration of poverty” philosophies with it. As Charlottesville grows with newcomers and an expanding student population we are starting to see black flight. This has a serious connection with a different housing program- Section 8- and federal incentives (money) for private developers to house low-income people. More and more low-income housing in the form of Section 8 and tax credits are being seen in Albemarle County as land in Charlottesville becomes more and more valuable, and Charlottesville continues to rely less and less on jobs that require cheap labor. But lets not get too far ahead just yet.
Public housing in St. Louis was generally considered a failure by elites, and the land associated with it still valuable. St. Louis’ public image was worsening due to the high numbers of blacks and poverty. The section 8 program and the new “urban revitalization” kicked in, and has led to a much greater example of what was described above concerning black movement into the suburbs. Having built and re-built black communities, the black population was once again on the roster for more movement and another wave of decimation, this time to the suburbs. From 1990 to 2010 the small town of Ferguson, Missouri (inside St. Louis County) changed drastically in racial makeup, from 73% white in 1990 to 67% black in 2010. Section 8 played a part, lack of affordable housing and jobs in St. Louis played a part. However there is more to it.
In Charlottesville and St. Louis and Ferguson (and everywhere else) a new wave of oppression came in two forms- gutting of welfare programs, and the 2nd drug war. The fear built into to these two programs is staggering, the motivations behind them are so sinister, and the effects on human beings so cruel that we must place them among the greatest crimes in US History along with Slavery, Native Genocide, Jim Crow/White Terror, and Urban Renewal.
Welfare “reform” and/or “elimination” really began at the outset of the New Deal. In order to placate the population programs were developed to assist people in need and confront the US capitalist experiment in an attempt to make its effects less disastrous during the Great Depression. The federal government created public housing, and a whole host of other programs. From the very beginning these programs have seen decreases in funding. Public housing never stood a chance. TANF and its predecessors have seen from the get go a decline in funding, food stamp reduction has its ups and downs. In the 1970s, business elites with influence in Congress got wise, they figured out how to take public dollars out of publicly run programs and funnel them into private business ventures.
The Section 8 program was added to the Housing Act and developers and individual landlords found a way to maintain slum conditions and get paid by the government to do it. This led to the furtherance of once again diminishing communities that had managed to rebuild in public housing what they had lost in urban renewal by forcing “deconcentration” of poverty and simultaneously earning amazing profits. This was much more acceptable to elites, but most whites still held the view that public housing/section 8, welfare, and everything else was theft of their tax dollars. This notion has been promoted significantly by many political stripes since welfare programs were begun. Crime is easily seen in socio-economic terms, but when it came to their tax dollars another crime was seen to be being committed by blacks against whites- “they’re stealing our money!”
The Reagan administration kicked this attack into high gear, and it was carried out in full by the Clinton administration. The former outright gutting programs and the latter transforming what remained into impossible standards for people to meet, and free market schemes to transform poor people into assets for rich people in the form of cheap labor (hello again!) and public funds for use as capital. This “reform” still exists. Unfortunately, few see these handouts to the rich as wealthy people robbing tax-payers. What we have seen with attacks on welfare and public housing is a group of people, originally kidnapped from their home, building this country for others to profit under criminal circumstances, white terror and the continued reinforcing of poverty and marginalization and what very little that could possibly be of help being used to further decimate and enslave a population, and then even that disappears leaving a terribly desperate situation. This was the case everywhere in the country, Charlottesville and St. Louis/Ferguson as well.
But wait there’s more!
During this same time period when white fear of blacks was supplemented by white assumptions of black laziness and welfare queens causing whites to be robbed by way of the IRS the power structure had some problems. One was that black people were simply not scaring enough people. By the late 1970s, despite amazing turmoil in the preceding decade, the prison population was decreasing. The abolition of prisons (yes really!) was becoming a mainstream idea. Despite all that had happened to black people, the struggle had brought forth some mild protections. Blacks were beginning to get paid better and have a somewhat better shot at decent wages than before. Blacks were becoming part of the power structure and earning more money. Cheap labor was becoming hard to find. Unions were maintaining some power. It was becoming difficult to maintain white fear of blacks and to preserve a cheap labor force. The Reagan administration aimed to change that, not just with the attack on welfare but using another piece built on white fear that could be used to exploit not just poor people in the US, but also in Latin America.
America’s second drug war began and mass incarceration was one of the goals. The drug war was extremely well fueled by the US government itself. CIA and NSA goings on in Latin America in an attempt to crush popular movements and preserve a growing US interest in cheap labor in places like Nicaragua. Guys like Ollie North creatively funded covert military operations throughout Latin America using well protected drug and weapon smuggling operations. We now have ample and documented evidence of the CIA introducing a cheap cocaine supply to dealers in Los Angeles (namely Freeway Ricky Ross) and even taught them how to make crack. The DARE program kicked in, Just Say No turned into “spread the word fast, they took our welfare now lets find a way to make money.” Ron and Nancy, and George Bush the 1st exploited this to the fullest.
Fear of black people was deliberately promoted in the War on Drugs propaganda, the drug “crisis” being promoted as being a black problem despite more whites using drugs than blacks. This came with legal support in the form of stricter sentencing laws for crack and lesser for powder cocaine. Funds from the federal government were given to localities to upgrade equipment for use in confronting families in their homes. Police forces nationwide were well armed and well funded. US friendly death squads in Latin America remained well funded and armed thanks to the continued flow of CIA sponsored drugs coming into US cities. The drugs and gangs grew. The prison populations grew, and grew, and grew. Entire communities became war zones, and then entire communities lost their male populations.
Police brutality and oppression in the cities, once reserved for enforcing Jim Crow were now an everyday part of the black experience in the US. From the slave driver and master to the Klan, to the southern and northern local police forces, the continuum of racism thrived in a new form.
A prison industrial complex emerged to the point where now it is so vital to the US economy it rivals the medical industrial complex and even the military. Human beings have become commodified, their families commodified. Prison guards, prison construction, prison food, communication, and now for-profit prisons all bringing in big bucks for private investors using public money as capital, public law as guaranteed profit. To top it off, prison labor, some of it absolutely free, available for large corporations and small alike. Slavery and the ownership of human beings run explicitly by the state this time emerges in its largest form since the beginning of the US Civil War. (a quick glance at the US Constitution shows that slavery in prisons is entirely acceptable) Cheap labor from prisoners, a decimated black population once again forced to compete for the lowest wages possible thanks to community devastation and welfare reform, and cheap labor in Latin America. This was a scheme so spectacular I can hear the Star Spangled Banner playing as I contemplate it!
Charlottesville and St. Louis were not immune to these new forms of institutional racism. In Charlottesville crack came in the nineties in a large way. In the years preceding, the community had found a way to function and again sow seeds for self determination after urban renewal and the construction of public housing. You can talk to old timers and they will tell you that the neighborhoods were nice, families lived together, events were organized, political power was starting to form, change was becoming possible. Welfare began to be dismantled and poorer blacks in town felt the pinch, but then in a matter of a few years something changed. Drugs were being sold openly. People were arrested consistently and systematically. Federal and local funding for Charlottesville’s drug war flowed and the cops needed to produce. Crack hit the streets in the 1990s, the community changed rapidly. Young men seeking to help their families were labeled gang members. Instances of extreme police brutality were commonplace, though documentation is hard to find. One need only ask around the neighborhoods to hear how low level drug offenders were beaten to near death before being hauled off to prison. Crooked cops and informants emerged, the most notorious being Deke Bowen.
White Charlottesville’s fear of black people were inflamed by the increased police attention to black crime and the local and national media coverage of the drug war. Things were bad, the community was ravaged, families were broken up, children began going to kiddie jails in large numbers. The Commonwealth of Virginia passed a Three Strikes Law, supported by a large amount of people, that locked up members of the community for life. This drug war has not ended, though the police attention to it locally has shifted somewhat. A quieter version of the drug war exists. In the nineties large amounts of people were incarcerated and began sustained contact with the legal system. People now being released are simply reeled back in based on past records, lack of true rehabilitation, and petty probation violations. Ex-felons returning home from prison have an extremely difficult time recovering from this trauma due to harsh parole and probation restrictions, and failure to access the social safety net which was gutted in 80s and 90s. Concurrently, the Charlottesville black community as a whole has also had an extremely difficult time recovering as well.
Federal funding for the drug war internationally however has expanded. With Clinton’s NAFTA and Bush and Obama aggressively promoting neo-liberal privatization in Latin America the drug war continues its purpose in the form of US military presence in countries where US business interests and the globalization of capital has been challenged, a beautiful cover for strong arm military tactics under the guise of the drug war.
And all the while people are afraid. Afraid of drugs, afraid of drug dealers, afraid of (black) drug users who will steal your stuff, or beat you up, or whose kids will go to school with your (white) kids. The Republican and Democratic Parties both supporting this gutting of welfare and the the continuance of the drug war and mass incarceration. St. Louis too suffered this exact same thing, albeit a little closer in line with the propaganda seen in the nightly news. St. Louis is a large city, not LA big, but bigger than Cville. The effect on the community in St. Louis City and County was the same as in Charlottesville and in the larger US cities. Police brutality was more widespread, the cops were better armed. The effects of the gutting of welfare and social programs had an exponential effect in the larger cities. Neighborhoods post-urban renewal were reduced once again to slums, the people were locked up and murdered on a large scale. Recovery seemed impossible.
At the same time, “urban revitalization” went underway, forcing gentrification and pushing more and more blacks into suburbs in the county like Ferguson. Section 8 housing, that bastion of converted public money into private profits found a home in places like Ferguson. Ferguson’s white population started moving out as more blacks moved in, white flight from the suburbs back to the cities began, and black flight from the cities to the suburbs continued. The nearly all white police force in Ferguson has surely been influenced by the fear of black people that has been perpetuated for centuries and the funding for the drug war begun in the 80s.
And now, the latest trend in institutional racism, as old as slave rebellion itself, is being played out. Just as federal funds came to localities to fight the drug war necessitated their use, so too do War on Terror funds and surplus military equipment necessitate use. And not indiscriminately, but rather clearly with a purpose.
White elites learned that because they have oppressed people for a very long period of time, eventually they might decide to rise up, whites learned from slave rebellions that extreme force was necessary, and harsh measures must be taken afterward to further keep the oppressed in line, basically to keep the oppressed, well, oppressed.
As the rebellion there flourishes or recedes, we will no doubt here more of the racist history specific to the town of 20,000 people, but what we are hearing now is familiar to black residents in Charlottesville. As the conversations about privatization and Section 8-ization of Charlottesville’s public housing continue, we can see a possible future for Charlottesville’s black community: dilution of the community and possible dispersal to Albemarle County. We may yet see the current situation in Ferguson play out here as well. Our history of institutional racism, like every town in the U$A has provided a fertile soil for police atrocity and possibly the ensuing rebellion.
From Mass Kidnapping to Slavery, to Jim Crow, to Urban Renewal, to the Drug War and the New Jim Crow, African Americans in Charlottesville and St. Louis have built and rebuilt. The crumbs that are left over after great crimes are committed on whole communities are turned into the best that can be made by lack residents. Self determination begins, is destroyed, and begins again. Community adjusts. Recovery is slow. Some communities won’t recover. As mass incarceration continues to effect Charlottesville, and as Congress continues to either de-fund social programs or transforms them into money making schemes for rich people it is hard to see how the community can recover.
What remains are informal supports. Neighborhoods still exist. Those neighborhoods are under threat of extinction as the city, the university (built by slaves) and developers eye valuable land occupied by mostly black low-income residents in Charlottesville. Small area plans seek to force gentrification in the name of deconcentrating poverty. This could well be a fatal blow to black people in Charlottesville. We could be poised to add the next chapter to Charlottesville’s racist history, this time through a new round of urban renewal by another name.
The police in Charlottesville have no relationship with the African-American community. Like white people in Charlottesville, the police are afraid, and treat Black men and women as expendable. That is what mass incarceration does. A population as a whole is guilty no matter what. Stop and frisk data in Charlottesville shows that black comprise 70% of all stops. Juvenile statistics show that white kids are 3 times more likely to be diverted from the juvenile court system than their black counter parts. That’s just data. Ask around and you will find that police interaction with black people in Charlottesville starts with the assumption of guilt. It is only a step away from assumed guilt towards immediate punishment.
Like Michael Brown in Ferguson, when a community is guilty due process is only a formality, the oddball occurrence of imposing the death penalty without a trial is only a minor deviation from rounding up the scary people in this racist and criminal system. And it could happen here.
History is finite and its up to to us to interpret it.
The future is fluid and it is up to us to interrupt it.
Charlottesville is in a unique position to end the continuum of racism that has existed institutionally since its founding. We could collectively ensure that what remains of the black community despite these waves of racist attacks can remain and thrive. We could stop giving away public dollars to developers and instead invest those dollars in preserving neighborhoods. We could take the challenge of being a second chance city seriously by offering programs for ex-offenders that assist them in a meaningful way. We could find a way to address poverty beyond asking all black people to take “how to run a business” classes. We could commit to making reparations to our neighbors who lived through this racist history- economic reparations, and get serious about apologizing for urban renewal by putting our money where our apologies are. Ultimately, Charlottesville needs to find a way to ensure that the black community can determine its future and have some stake in its past. Self determination for the community, however, is not going to come from well meaning white folks. We’ve seen how that plays out.
Finally, I have not written much about rebellion in this piece. The odd case of John Brown is used to show how white history chooses which rebellions to highlight. We would do well to remember Nat Turner’s rebellion instead, or the rebellion in Haiti that was ultimately successful (though at war with the world ever since). I have the awesome experience of coordinating a program for residents of public housing. One of the more amazing moments happened recently. An intern expressed to me that she had never heard of any slave uprisings. This is a terrible failure on the part of educators and historians to not show how widespread these rebellions were. 150 years since emancipation and white people can still not bear to have black people understand that slavery was not taken sitting down by the slaves. We have to note that rising up is a part of the experience. From Mass Kidnapping to Slavery, to Jim Crow, to Urban Renewal, to the Drug War and the New Jim Crow, African Americans in Charlottesville and St. Louis have also rebelled in large ways and small ways.
I want to hear those histories. In Charlottesville there were the sit-ins, integration was difficult for whites because they lost at massive resistance. There was an instance of a group of black people marching down to UVA to destroy property there (I think in the 80s? somebody has to know about this). An uprising happened around the Safeway near Westhaven. I have heard stories of racist whites coming into the Garrett Street neighborhood (before urban renewal) and attempting to chain blacks to their cars and black people physically confronting the white people who would do this. I have witnessed and been a part of protesters confronting police as they evicted an elderly resident of public housing, and was glad to have been there when a mostly black crowd of people took over the basement of city hall where the housing authority is located. In the 1970s a Black Panther Party member escaped from a Charlottesville jail. These are small yet meaningful incidents that we need to share, and I know there are more. Please send your stories my way!
A long piece, yes. Please note that I don’t talk much about individual acts of discrimination and prejudice. Individual attitudes can be changed. The conservatives say it is the individual that must be respected at all times and that racist attitudes should be protected. The liberals say that we can end racism in the here and now by changing individual attitudes towards one another. I think that this (very long, so sorry!) piece includes observations that show that racism is institutional and follows its own rules. These institutions must be changed or replaced. History must be re-routed somehow. My fear is that it is too late. When someone asks if a situation like what is happening in Ferguson could happen here I think we can see it easily could, and in fact, with one black person being killed by police in the U$A every 28 hours it is kind of surprising that it hasn’t yet. Would Charlottesville show up and rise up when this happens? I think we could say certainly that the conditions are right.
Is looting really a proper response? To 400 years of kidnapping, slavery, rape, mutilations, Jim Crow, lynchings, racism, mass incarceration, urban renewal, daily killings of unarmed Black people, etc? Probably not… But you don’t want to see the proper response to all that.