WASHINGTON — In the days leading up to the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one counterprotester dead and scores injured, Mayor Michael Signer took to Twitter to highlight the counterprogramming going on at the University of Virginia, the school where he earned his law degree in 2004 and where today he lectures at the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy.
Saturday, Aug. 12, was set to be a day of “reflective conversation” to coincide with the arrival of alt right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters in the central Virginia town of less than 50,000 people. Shops and restaurants in downtown Charlottesville, which is 23 percent black, posted signs in their windows declaring “We are a safe space” and “If equality and diversity aren’t for you, then neither are we.”
It turned out the reflection would come later, after a morning of clashes between right-wing protesters and a mix of antifascist, Socialist and Black Lives Matter counterprotesters led the governor to declare a state of emergency and prompted a young man with alleged Nazi sympathies to speed his Dodge Challenger down a street filled with counterprotesters on the march, sending them flying and killing Heather Heyer.
Since then, Signer, 44, has emerged as a fierce public critic of the president’s slowness to condemn the violent attacks in his city — and also as an important voice for the new South’s reckoning with its difficult history.
“[Trump] made a choice in his presidential campaign and the folks around him to go right to the gutter, to play on our worst prejudices, and I think you’re seeing a direct line from what happened here this weekend to those choices,” Signer said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, dubbed him “an unlikely hero,” and the Washington Post called him “one of Trump’s strongest critics.”
Few people in American politics, it turns out, were as well-positioned as Signer for the face-off. Signer wrote his PhD dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, on demagogues and how the Founding Fathers sought to prevent their rise in America. It became the basis of his first book, “Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies,” published in 2009. His second tome was on James Madison, the fourth American president, who also served as the second rector of U.Va.
“Trump is a demagogue. Not just in a casual sense, but in the most powerful meaning of the word, and he should be confronted as such,” Signer wrote in December 2015. Demagogues, he wrote in February 2016, imperil their countries in the international arena, surround themselves with incompetent and dangerous advisers, threaten dissenters and are at risk of falling prey to their own passions. After Trump’s disastrous Tuesday press conference, in which the president angrily described some of the torch-bearing night protesters who chanted against Jews as “some very fine people,” that analysis looks prescient.
A product of public schools and a progressive Arlington, Va., family — Signer’s mother was president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women — he attended Princeton and bought a home in Charlottesville in 2005, shortly after graduating from law school, before returning to the city full-time in 2013. For a number of years he worked as a counsel to now-Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., as well as other Virginia and national politicians, and in 2009 he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Elected to the Charlottesville City Council in 2016, he was selected by other members of that five-member body to be mayor. He is married to Emily Blout, an incoming faculty member at U.Va., and has twin boys.
One easy misconception about what’s been happening in Charlottesville is that it’s a Southern city seeing a resurgence of old racial dynamics, with local Ku Klux Klansmen standing up against African-Americans. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Signer told Yahoo News: Charlottesville has become a target for white supremacists from around the country because it is a progressive college town that’s been working hard to grapple with its complicated history, including questions about what to do about a statute of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces, and a city park named after him.
A debate over the statue that had been percolating since 2013 came to a head in March 2016 thanks to the efforts of council member Wes Bellamy and a local high school student, who petitioned the City Council to take down the statue and rename the park. That prompted a broader examination by the city, culminating in a February 2017 vote by the council to take the statue down.
Supporters of leaving the statue in place sued to challenge their authority. Virginia is the state with the highest number of Confederate monuments in the country. It also has rules on the books barring localities from taking them, or other war memorials, down. The case remains open and awaits judicial ruling. In the meantime, the park has been renamed Emancipation Park.
“When this protest first started a year and a half ago about the Robert E. Lee statue, my interest was in taking the issue as broadly as possible, not just having a debate on one statue or another statue but looking at the issue of race in our public spaces writ large,” said Signer, who has taught seminars on “Race and Policy” at U.Va. and co-founded the Center for the Study of Race and Law there while a student. “So we created a blue ribbon commission on race, memorials and public spaces. It had nine members, the majority of whom were African-American. They held 17 public hearings over six months. They were charged by the City Council with changing the narrative by telling the full story of race in our public spaces.”
Their conclusions “surprised a lot of people,” he said.
The commission recommended “that the statue stay within city limits of Charlottesville. When they did that, they cited numerous African-Americans who came and spoke to the commission and said that they were opposed to removing or erasing them because they feared that we would repeat the past if we don’t remember it,” Signer said. “But they also recommended a whole host of other ideas to us, most of which we’ve enacted, like rehabilitating an African-American cemetery that had fallen into disrepair. We spent $80,000 on the Daughters of Zion Cemetery. We put almost a million dollars toward the African American Heritage Center, which does really important work on programming on race. And we committed a million to overhauling those two Confederate parks installed during the height of the Jim Crow era so that we know the full story of how that happened in our city.”
The visible public grappling with that history caught the eye of the alt-right, drawing people to Charlottesville from elsewhere in the state as well as places like Ohio and Kentucky for a protest march in May and then again over the weekend for the “Unite the Right” rally, which the New York Post notes was advertised online without even mentioning the Lee statue.
“The vast percentage of these people were outsiders,” Signer said of the neo-Nazi and other alt-right protesters. “Charlottesville is one of the most diverse, progressive, dynamic and tolerant places you’ve ever seen. We became a target because we decided about a year and a half ago at long last to start telling the whole story of race in our city, as a Southern city. That made us a target for people who don’t want the narrative changed and the story told about race and our history. So they came here to try and terrorize us and intimidate us away from our work.
“But the thing is, they picked the wrong city. We will not be dissuaded, and we will not be intimidated, and if anything this will result in a more dynamic, more diverse and more effective city working for racial harmony and racial equity.”
That work involves bridge building across parties — Signer sat down with local Rep. Tom Garrett, D-Va., for the first time on Monday — and working with the Department of Justice’s community relations service, an office that started under the 1964 Civil Rights Act that works with communities that have experienced racial and ethnic tension and civil disorder.
“While I’ve been critical of the choices [Trump] made in his campaign, and while I’m very wary of the dangers of dancing with the devil in American public life, I am much more focused right now on the work that we all have before us of rebuilding and strengthening our democracy,” Signer said. “If he wants to join, that’s terrific. And if he doesn’t want to, the rest of us are going to do it without him.”