Our home: Charlottesville’s heartbreak and trauma

Thousands of candles shone peacefully together on University of Virginia’s Lawn in response to last weekend’s attacks. (© University of Virginia)

Thirty years ago when I founded the Southern Environmental Law Center, I picked Charlottesville, Virginia, to be this organization’s home. I rented an office on the town’s historic Downtown Mall, the same office I sit in today.

People around the world have now seen images from our Downtown Mall following Saturday’s tragedy—and they depict something jarringly different from the home we love. For those of you who have watched this unfold from afar, let me share what it has been like to live through the past week of heartbreak and trauma.

Last weekend hundreds of individuals, many of them armed with assault rifles and other guns, descended on our town. They chanted hateful threats and carried artifacts of our nation’s darkest hours and the worst of humanity: Nazi flags, shields with racist slogans, burning torches.

They sought to intimidate and injure and they succeeded. Three lives were lost, dozens were injured, and an entire community was traumatized.

On Wednesday, many of us attended a memorial service for Heather Heyer, a paralegal in a law firm in town. She was killed when a car deliberately plowed into a large group of peaceful protesters just a few blocks away from our office. Many more were injured, and it’s miraculous that more lives were not lost, including our personal friends and neighbors who were only a few feet away.

We remain on edge and emotionally drained. Those on our staff who witnessed the violence are trying to process it and recover. Many of us attended the University of Virginia and are grappling with the images of an angry mob surrounding students on the campus grounds. Another staff member has children who attend preschool at the local synagogue, which has now hired a security guard following threats to burn down the building.

And throughout this week of grieving, we’ve had to listen to the divisive and inexcusable rhetoric coming from our President, who has denied the truth of what our community experienced and who has failed to truly condemn the hate and racism that fueled it.

These events have left scars on all of us in Charlottesville, but also resolve.

On Monday morning, our staff came together to reflect on the tragic events of the weekend and to support each other. We left that gathering with a strong sense of love, pride in our work, and rededication to our mission. More than ever, we are committed to making Charlottesville, our region, and our country as good as they can possibly be for all of its citizens.

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