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Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer Talks About How Protests Were Handled


We want to turn to another voice in Charlottesville now. Michael Signer is the mayor of Charlottesville, and he joins me on the line now. Mayor Signer, welcome.

MICHAEL SIGNER: Thank you for having me.

SMITH: So you were a faculty member and an alum of the University of Virginia. That is where the white nationalists first marched on Friday night, holding the torches. We all saw those images. How did it make you feel to see that happen?

SIGNER: I thought it was tantamount to terrorism, to tell you the truth. I mean, it was a visual display that was clearly meant to intimidate and terrorize. And it was also just, you know, it was sad and outrageous all at the same time to see several hundred people carrying these torches down the campus of the visionary behind our Bill of Rights and our, you know, constitutional rights. And they walked right up to the front door of a historic church that is right off of the grounds of UVA, where there were several hundred people at that time who were engaged in an interfaith prayer service, praying for love rather than hate. So it was just a very sad display.

SMITH: The protests in your city began after it was announced that the city was planning to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. White nationalists have opposed that decision, but you also opposed it. You wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, saying that the city should keep the statue and other statues like it and provide historical context for them. Do you still feel that way?

SIGNER: Well, the great thing about democracy is that you've got different opinions and - on issues that divide people and that are complicated. We convened a blue-ribbon commission on race memorials in public spaces that met for six months, had 17 public hearings and had two charges - to change the narrative in Charlottesville by telling the full story of race through our public spaces. They were asked to look not only at the Lee statue, but a bunch of other things.

And it was a majority African-American commission. And they - after they did that public engagement, they surprised a lot of people by recommending that, no matter what, the statue stay within the borders of Charlottesville. And their reasoning was summed up by a conversation I had with a African-American neighbor of mine, a woman whose family has been in their home for over a hundred years. And she said I want those statues there, so that my grandchildren know what happened here.

SMITH: After President Trump spoke yesterday about what had happened in Charlottesville, you spoke and said that the president and the people around him were partially responsible for an increase in racially-motivated violence. What did you mean by that?

SIGNER: Look. I think anybody who watched the presidential campaign saw a invitation to these forces that call themselves alt-right to really come into a mainstream presidential campaign. And that was a choice. And, you know, I think it's a very regrettable choice. And I took special note that you didn't hear those words white supremacy. You didn't hear any specific, you know, reckoning with what white nationalism really is and this...

SMITH: From the president.

SIGNER: ...Bigotry and intolerance. I mean, there were people - this isn't just about race, by the way. There were chants on the campus of UVA on Friday night, saying, you will not replace us. That's what they keep on saying. And they were chanting Jew will not replace us. I mean, this was a chant that you're hearing. You know, there's blame to be had, but I'm much more interested now in all forces coming together and starting the hard work that we have to turn the corner on the mainstreaming of this kind of language and thought in our country. I feel in my bones that we will do it. Democracy is a very resilient system. It's resilient - actually, most energetic when it's tested.

I mean, we have overcome so many threats to our democracy and our country. We overcame McCarthyism and Jim Crow laws and segregation. And we did it through what we have - through the norms and the principles that make up the kind of beating heart of democracy. I know that we're going to overcome, you know, this new surge of bigotry that now has come up. And we - democracy's good at addressing these sorts of things from within itself. There's nothing that is what's wrong with us that what's right with us can't address. I'm just hopeful and confident that it's going to happen, and it, you know, partly is going to begin with what people saw this weekend on full display.

SMITH: Michael Signer is the mayor of Charlottesville. Mayor, thank you so much for being with us.

SIGNER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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