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Reporting from Charlottesville
The front line of the racial violence last year in Charlottesville is not where anyone wanted to be. Placed in that position, however, journalist Hawes Spencer provided an invaluable service to his community, and indeed the whole country, by filing an urgent series of reports for the New York Times that relayed the dramatic, and ultimately tragic, events to a readership that could barely believe such things could happen in America. We all had to process an enormous amount of reality-shifting information in a matter of days. At the University of Virgina Press we felt strongly that we had to respond to these historical events (although recent, the term is not too strong). We felt Spencer, a national voice who is also part of this community, was the right—and only—choice to author that book. The result is Summer of Hate: Charlottesville USA, a book that seeks to make sense of these events through the most clear-eyed, objective reporting possible. As the one-year anniversary of this cataclysm approaches, we spoke with Spencer about what he witnessed and what he hopes to contribute with his book to our understanding of those two fateful days and their aftermath.
Q: You were there on August 12th when the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville. What was it like being on the ground as the events unfolded?
Spencer: I was so afraid that I urged my kids not to attend. By contrast, during the KKK rally in July my two eldest children showed up unexpectedly to watch, and I wasn’t overly worried. The KKK rally was relatively contained; August 12 was out of control.
Q: You’re a journalist, and your book does not seek to editorialize. What were the challenges of approaching such a volatile subject “objectively”?
Spencer: Just as a doctor I quoted in the book said that he wouldn’t consider giving anything other than his best treatment to any patient, regardless of political persuasion, I wouldn’t consider twisting anyone’s words based on the person’s purported beliefs. I teach journalism, and one of the points that I stress to my students is that that we can never get inside anyone’s head. So that’s yet another reason not to play the role of psychologist or cop. Journalists have a rather simple mission: tell what happened.
Q: Trump only seemed to enflame the fallout from Charlottesville when he infamously said there was blame on “many sides.” What distinguishes your findings from the president’s “both sides to blame” appraisal?
Spencer: I want to let the book speak for itself. I have an entire chapter about the president’s remarks and the fallout, but it turns out that that’s not the chapter that answers this question. It’s the other chapters that may lead readers to draw their own conclusions about the president’s leadership—or lack thereof.
Q: Can you talk about where you think we are a year later, both in Charlottesville and as a nation, in processing what happened in August 2017? Where do you see things moving in the future with the alt-right and neo-Nazis and groups such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter?
Spencer: Well, for starters, every major player who touched this thing left their job. One year later, all three police chiefs (city, state, and UVA) have retired. The contract of the City Manager was allowed to expire, the city attorney took a job in another jurisdiction. The once-outspoken Mayor Mike Signer got his political wings clipped. And perhaps a few dozen members of the alt-right lost their jobs. Meanwhile, alt-right leader Richard Spencer has withdrawn from public events— going so far as to say that antifa has won this battle.
Summer of Hate is available now.
Also available is Louis P. Nelson and Claudrena N. Harold's Charlottesville 2017: A Legacy of Race and Inequity. This book collects original essays by Univeristy of Virgina faculty that address the community's troubled racial history and the many urgent issues brought to light by the events of August 11 an 12, 2017.