In 'Cry Havoc' Former Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer Details A Tragic Day "The value of having fought for things and standing at the end, having the experience of having fought for them in the real world, there's nothing like it," Michael Signer tells NPR.
NPR logo

In 'Cry Havoc,' Former Charlottesville Mayor Details A Tragic Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815838267/871520175" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In 'Cry Havoc,' Former Charlottesville Mayor Details A Tragic Day

In 'Cry Havoc,' Former Charlottesville Mayor Details A Tragic Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815838267/871520175" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump's belligerent rhetoric toward recent protesters - at times, calling them terrorists - compared with his seemingly tolerant attitude toward largely white armed anti-government protesters complaining about stay-at-home orders have caused a number of people to shine a lens on his racial attitudes. But this isn't the first time. An earlier flashpoint came almost three years ago in August 2017, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. It was one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in years, and it devolved into violence with anti-racist demonstrators. One woman was killed by a white supremacist who deliberately drove his car into her, and dozens of others were injured.

Michael Signer was mayor of Charlottesville at the time. Earlier this year, he published a book with his reflections on those events. And he's been writing about what he sees as the parallels with the current moment. The book is called "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege." And Michael Signer is with us now from Charlottesville, Va. Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL SIGNER: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We'll get to the book in a minute. But I first wanted to talk about a piece that you wrote for Time magazine this week. And in it, you wrote that at first, you thought that the president's reaction to Charlottesville was an aberration. But then you wrote, quote, "I believe now that Charlottesville was not only a uniquely horrifying event but also a prologue to a pattern that includes Minneapolis and now the nation's capital with his extraordinary decision to stage a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John's Church after police tear gassed protesters to clear a path." Now, obviously, the underlying, you know, events are different, but what do you see as the prologue? What is this pattern that you see?

SIGNER: Well, what he did after Charlottesville was - it was so shocking, I mean, to do the opposite of giving a grieving community in a country that was shocked by this astonishing display of violent white nationalist and paramilitary groups who came with, you know, AR-15s and battle gear and Nazi flags to a college town armed for battle. So he said there were very fine people on both sides of that conflict. And he continued to throw fuel on the fire. Then, if you fast forward to watching Minneapolis, this kind of light bulb came over my head as I was watching it. And I said, my, God. He's doing exactly the same thing. He's throwing fuel on the fire. He's doing the opposite of trying to reassure, calm things down, figure out what the right solutions are to police brutality, especially in that community, which has a long history of conflict.

I mean, one of the things about Charlottesville and Minneapolis and other communities - these are very, very local issues. And if a president's going to get involved, they need to pay attention to the local leaders and the local context. And he did the opposite with Minneapolis. He was clearly speaking to a national crowd, and he had a strategy. And it occurred to me that this is really a feature and not a bug.

MARTIN: You know, your book was really fascinating because it went into kind of really granular detail about all the conversations about the monuments. Ostensibly...

SIGNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The rally was about defending the Confederate monuments in Charlottesville. OK? But you also point out - which is something I think a lot of people may not know or have forgotten - that there were a number of rallies that preceded that big rally in August but also that even, you know, African American residents in Charlottesville were kind of divided on what to do with these monuments.

SIGNER: Yup, yeah.

MARTIN: So how did it become this kind of big ugly thing? Is it because - you know, people always talk about outside agitators. But is that really the case, though, that outsiders decided to make it a symbol for their purposes? Is that really - is that what happened?

SIGNER: It's a complicated answer to - you know? And I - it took a couple hundred pages to explain how did we get in this one small community to the point where you had the level of conflict that we had. And you're right. There were two prior white nationalist events that happened before this. Some of it is explained by very individual conflicts between, you know, singular local leaders and activists on the very far right that caught the spotlight. And there was this one local right-wing blogger who went to UVA who really wanted to connect with this whole new, like, system of right-wing agitators and "alt-right" agitators. Like, Richard Spencer had gone to UVA, who founded the turmoil right and is an unabashed supporter of white ethnic cleansing around the country. And he really saw a benefit to coming to Charlottesville.

But the kind of bigger picture, which I think your question gets at, is that as we seek to solve problems in democracy, most of these problems are gonna happen at the local level. And the local level is where we're going to need solutions and leaders who have the stomach and the skills and the dedication to wade through the kind of insanity of mayhem that a lot of people find it necessary to create. So that's why I wanted to tell this really granular nitty-gritty story of what governance really is, kind of warts and all. And it's happening right now in Minneapolis. I mean, Minneapolis - to get this right, they have a lot of local work to do. I know leaders there. I've been talking to them. The work that they're going to have to do in cities around the country is going to be intensely local.

MARTIN: In the book, you write that as you were finishing it, quote, "Charlottesville remained a raw mass of contradictions, a microcosm for a nation wrestling to shake free from an angry and violent era."

SIGNER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, you know, mayors around the country are dealing with a lot of what you were dealing with, you know, almost three years ago. Do you have one piece of advice for them to kind of help them shake free sooner?

SIGNER: I just listened to a gripping interview with Jacob Frey, who's the mayor of Minneapolis. And I had such sympathy listening to him talk about how - the conversations he'd been in, the decisions he'd had to make the last - even last couple weeks, there was just no good option on any side. And I think that if I had one answer, it's that there's solidarity.

This is how governance has been for a long time. Too many books about politics and government are sanitized or their Hollywood-ized. We don't really see what it's like to be in the middle of mayhem, trying to grope your way through kind of a say all sides toward real answers, but that is what the work is. And I think we need a clear-eyed take on it. We need people with thick skins and with strong hearts committing to the work of government in our democracy because the stakes really are that high. So I wanted to tell this kind of warts-and-all story. But there is hope. And there is - there are real victories that we achieved. And I think there's solidarity between leaders all around the country dealing with this actual work on the ground.

MARTIN: Michael Signer is the former mayor of Charlottesville, Va. His book "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville And American Democracy Under Siege" is out now. Michael Signer, Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

SIGNER: Thank you again for having me.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.