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Five years later, Charlottesville pauses to reflect on deadly White nationalist rally

<i>Carlos Bernate/The Washington Post/Getty Images</i><br/>A Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Carlos Bernate/The Washington Post/Getty Images
A Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville

By Chuck Johnston and Emma Tucker, CNN

On the five-year anniversary of a violent White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the city is pausing to reflect on the events of that weekend and hold several remembrance events in the coming days.

The Unite the Right rally took place from August 11 to 12, 2017, and resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The violence also turned the city into another battleground in America’s culture wars and highlighted growing polarization.

On Thursday, the president of the University of Virginia, Jim Ryan, said in a letter to the university community that it would hold a moment of silence at the university chapel, after which the chapel’s bells will ring “in remembrance of this solemn anniversary.”

The university is also hosting an online panel discussion titled “The Legacies of Charlottesville: A Fifth-Anniversary Conversation About Law and Democracy in America.”

Ézé Amos, a Charlottesville photojournalist and University of Virginia employee, documented the rally through photography. Amos is sharing the photographs in a public installation in the city’s downtown “that he hopes will focus attention on the community’s resilience, rather than the hate that was on display,” the university said in a news release.

The installation, which comprises 36 large photographs in the trees on the Downtown Mall, is titled, “The Story of Us: Reclaiming the Narrative of #Charlottesville Through Portraits of Community Resilience.”

“We cannot, and should not, forget those dark days five years ago,” Ryan said. “My hope is that the memory of those events, including the heroic and compassionate responses of community members, continues to inspire us to work to make the world a better and more welcoming place.”

Events remember rally’s violent legacy

The 2017 rally saw White nationalists marching through Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a phrase evoking Nazi philosophy on ethnic identity.

The violence in the Virginia city also empowered White supremacists and nationalists to demonstrate their beliefs in public rather than just online, CNN previously reported.

“I know that, for many, the five-year marker of the so-called “Unite the Right” rally brings difficult memories and a sobering reminder that our country is not yet free from bigotry, racism, and intolerance,” Ryan said in his letter. “But I hope that we can also recall the strength, compassion, and resilience of our community and our Charlottesville neighbors.”

In November 2021, a Charlottesville jury found that White nationalists who organized and participated in the rally were liable on a state conspiracy claim and other claims. The jury awarded more than $26 million in punitive damages to the plaintiffs, including town residents and counterprotesters injured in the rally.

The city of Charlottesville is “maintaining a status of heightened situational awareness” around a Friday evening concert the city is holding in downtown. However, the city stresses that there have been no specific credible threats identified and that the Charlottesville Police Department is constantly monitoring.

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook shared his remembrance of the day, which he said “felt like the day before a hurricane was expected to hit.” He posted his remembrance of the day on Facebook on Thursday afternoon.

The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish NGO, released a statement on Thursday saying that the event “stunned the nation and brought the profound threat of domestic extremism into sharp focus.”

“Today, white supremacists have reimagined their messaging and tactics, but remain a critical threat, as clearly evidenced by attacks in Pittsburgh, El Paso, Poway and Buffalo, and by their participation in attempts to intimidate vulnerable communities and subvert our democracy,” the ADL said.

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