The following is an excerpt from our project Charlottesville: One Year Later. Yahoo News spoke to over a dozen people connected to the deadly August 2017 rally about how things have changed over the past 12 months. To read the rest of their stories, click here.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker regrets running for office almost every day.
“But there’s a but,” Walker says with a laugh. “I walk into a room and I find out something I wouldn’t have known, and I challenge them and even though it’s frustrating, I know that at some point it will make conditions better for citizens who normally are ignored.”
If you want to talk about the changes that have occurred in the city of Charlottesville since last year’s deadly rally, you almost certainly have to start with Walker. A Charlottesville native, employee of the city’s Parks & Recreation department, and activist, Walker announced her intention to run for city council in the spring of 2017. She ran as an independent, because in Walker’s view, those who run on the Democratic ticket do so at the behest of the party leaders in the area. Her campaign slogan was “Unmasking the illusion,” a reference to her efforts to get the city council to deal with racial and economic inequality in Charlottesville, and a push for transparency in government decisions.
Walker won, becoming the first independent to win a city council seat since 1948. In Charlottesville, the mayor is selected by the five city council members from their ranks, and Walker was chosen, becoming the city’s first black female mayor.
This is the crux of Walker’s platform: The city cannot move forward until the wealthy and powerful refuse to accept conditions for the low-income white, black and Hispanic populations in Charlottesville that they wouldn’t accept for their own families.
“Nothing about August created this chaos that we have that’s been here,” said Walker, referring to the systems and generational poverty in place. Per the mayor, the Unite the Right rally has made it easier — although certainly not easy — to have difficult conversations about race and privilege. It’s difficult to argue that the U.S. is a post-racial society when white supremacists just brought violence to your streets. Although many are willing to engage in the conversations, Walker says there are others who believed that simply denouncing the white supremacists who terrorized the city would be enough to move forward.
“Some people — not all — [believed] the only thing they needed to do between last August and now was to distance themselves from crazed white men in polo shirts and khaki pants,” Walker says.
Local churches, the University of Virginia and the NAACP are holding events to mark the anniversary of the rally and Heather Heyer’s death, but Walker isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to attend. She has the dates and times, but plans to at least start the day where she spent it a year ago.
“I will be out making sure that people are treated right and treated fairly,” says Walker. “If there are any disturbances, I’m usually trying to keep the peace — that’s what I did last year. I hope I don’t have to do a lot of that, but that’s probably how I spend my time. … If things are going well, and being inside somewhere and speaking truth and hearing concerns of citizens is the best place to be, then I will be there. And if being on the street helping people fight against those with ill intentions is, then I will be there.”
Walker says she has been kept out of most of the planning meetings. The police and fire chief have told her they feel better prepared for a repeat of the United the Right rally, but she’s worried that the city has made itself a vulnerable target. The way forward is citizens of Charlottesville living their day-to-day lives differently, pushing for change, she says.
“I think even during the civil rights movement, where you get to the point where you’ve won a little bit — the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, things like Brown v. the Board of Education — all of those things happened and then the conversation starts to be dictated by those in power, primarily white people in positions of power who say, ‘Okay, you’ve won a little bit; that’s enough now. Now I’m uncomfortable; can we stop having these conversations?’” Walker explains. “And I think a lot of black people say, ‘Okay, we have done quite a bit,’ maybe not pushing too hard. I think everybody’s gotta be open to pushing until it’s done, until it’s done well, until it’s done right. That’s the major challenge.”
Read more from Yahoo News on Charlottesville, one year later: