Charlottesville Debates Civility In The Wake Of White Supremacist Rally After a deadly white supremacist rally in 2017, once-marginalized voices in Charlottesville, Va., are demanding to be heard by the City Council. That has led to a debate over civility.

'Hear Me By Any Means Necessary': Charlottesville Is Forced To Redefine Civility

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City leaders in Charlottesville, Va., are struggling to define what public discourse should look like. In 2017, a white nationalist rally turned deadly. Charlottesville became a target for that rally after the city decided to remove a Confederate statue. In the months since, the city has continued to reckon with its fraught racial past. As part of NPR's exploration of the meaning of civility, NPR's Debbie Elliott returned to Charlottesville. Here's what she found.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Charlottesville's city government was upended after a woman was killed and others injured in a car attack by a white supremacist in 2017. Local authorities faced harsh criticism for not preventing the bloodshed. Within a year, the city's police chief, manager, attorney and a spokesperson were all gone. And this is what it sounded like in city council chambers.


MIKE SIGNER: All right. So we're going to suspend the meeting.


ELLIOTT: Councilman Mike Signer was mayor at the time. Here, he struggles to keep order at the first council meeting after the tragedy.


SIGNER: But that's not the rules. We don't do that - just scream the floor. Well...

ELLIOTT: In the months to come, voices for change and accountability grew louder.

SIGNER: There has been a lot of very strong emotion expressed in our chambers by people who were deeply traumatized. The question was just - how do you have that happen when you also need to do the public's business?

ELLIOTT: As mayor in 2017, Signer's answer was to enforce rules - for instance, no heckling, harassment or foul language; in other words, pursue civility.

SIGNER: I see civility just as an instrument to let people with very strong opinions, very strong emotions, be in the same body to get things done.

JALANE SCHMIDT: Civility is used, actually, to shut down discussion.

ELLIOTT: Jalane Schmidt is a local organizer with Black Lives Matter.

SCHMIDT: It often is a way to tone police the folks that don't have power and that don't speak in four-syllable words.

ELLIOTT: Charlottesville has a reputation as a charming college town, home to the University of Virginia and its founder - founding father Thomas Jefferson. After what locals now call the summer of hate, Schmidt says it's time to rethink that legacy.

SCHMIDT: There is this phrase called the Virginia way, what I consider a false comity, that is based in an old way of doing things, you know, during an era when only white men, basically, were in power.

ELLIOTT: The pain and chaos have prompted reflection in a town where the politics are left of center. A prominent voice for change, community activist Nikuyah Walker, was elected to city council. And her fellow councilors chose her as mayor in January of 2018. At that first meeting, she said proceedings would be more open.


NIKUYAH WALKER: I don't have an issue with people expressing themselves.

ELLIOTT: She's the first black woman to be mayor in a city where African-Americans are one-fifth of the population. Now the council has two black and three white members. In stark contrast to previous mayor, Mike Signer, Walker has refused to use her gavel to impose rules of civility, even as meetings stretched to six hours. Here's what she said after a council debate on the matter well into her term.


WALKER: Even though meetings have been very civil in the past, the results of those meetings have been complete disasters for people lives in the area, especially if you were black and low income.

ELLIOTT: Councilman Wes Bellamy says now there's a more inclusive definition of civil discourse.

WES BELLAMY: I could have a conversation with you and because my vernacular is not the same and because a topic makes me more emotional and I'm more passionate about it, it doesn't mean that I'm not being, quote-unquote, "civil." It could just mean that when I was talking to you in a way that you may deem civil, you refuse to listen to me. So now you're going to have to hear me by any means necessary.


ROSIA PARKER: Y’all always looking crazy every time somebody say something when y'all are not doing right...

ELLIOTT: Community activist Rosia Parker is a frequent speaker at Charlottesville City Council.

PARKER: Like, I've come out of my character these last - you know, this last year and a half, and that's not me.


PARKER: Local government is not taking accountability for their wrongness and their actions...

ELLIOTT: Parker says on topics like police transparency and affordable housing, she feels like she's being listened at instead of being listened to.

PARKER: So that makes us argue more and more.


JIM HINGELEY: So let's call...

SIGNER: Let him finish, please.


SIGNER: Let him finish, please.

HINGELEY: Let's call it what it is. It's intimidation by an angry mob.

ELLIOTT: Jim Hingeley is a former public defender who's earned the nickname Mr. Civility for his repeated calls for order.

HINGELEY: What I mean by civility is something that reflects good citizenship and is orderly behavior.

ELLIOTT: But Jalane Schmidt, with Black Lives Matter, says orderly behavior hasn't worked for all of Charlottesville's citizens.

SCHMIDT: They've been coming to some of these public meetings for years, you know, and signing up, you know, dutifully to speak. And the powers that be, you know, nodded their head and smiled, you know, very politely and gaveled out the meeting and then gentrified the town right out from underneath us. So there's your civility.

ELLIOTT: Council members are split on whether city business is being hindered. Councilman Wes Bellamy says it might take a little longer, but important work is getting done. Others, including Councilor Heather Hill, say legitimate views are getting drowned out.

HEATHER HILL: The biggest fear I have for our local community is that this environment is now just inviting a small faction to come and speak in that way, and that's going to continue to turn away others from sharing their voice.

ELLIOTT: Charlottesville's longest-serving council member, Kathy Galvin, agrees.

KATHY GALVIN: And if we get to the point where we can't tolerate differences of opinion, then we create a chaotic situation. And we don't govern.

ANDREA DOUGLAS: It is a messy-seeming process.

ELLIOTT: The messiness of democracy evolving, says Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center in Charlottesville.

DOUGLAS: And the reality of any movement that changes the course of black people's lives is not about civil discourse, right? There is no movement in America that changes the course of American democracy, including the revolution, that was about civil discourse.

ELLIOTT: Things have calmed down at Charlottesville City Council in recent months, but people are of different minds as to whether a new climate is taking root or citizens here are simply exhausted by the hard work of reconciliation. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va.

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