The events that unfolded in Charlottesville a year ago were a shocking and tragic reminder that the escalation of racism, nativism, and xenophobia in our national discourse is toxic and potentially deadly.
Last year, we saw a 12% increase in hate crimes in our nation’s ten largest cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. New research from Professor Thomas Main further documents that so-called “alt-right” websites saw remarkable increases in web traffic between September 2016 and February of this year—collectively reaching larger audiences than some mainstream center-right online publications. And a year that began with the President excusing the violence in Charlottesville has continued with his administration using vile, dehumanizing language to describe immigrants and implementing a racially-charged family separation policy that has shocked the nation.
At Democracy Fund, we know that defending our democracy and standing up for our core values means pushing back on these forces, wherever they emerge. In many ways, the story of Charlottesville over the past year highlights the importance of several of our core programs, from our initiative on the health of local journalism to our special project on a just and inclusive society.
Let’s start with the critical role played by local journalism.
Powerful reporting of the rally and counter protests captured the attention of the nation. At a time when local news outlets are shuttering, the Pulitzer Prize winning photo-journalism of the Charlottesville Daily Progress demonstrated the industry’s role in telling local stories, and of the importance of Democracy Fund’s efforts to support innovators reinventing the business model for local news.
The Daily Progress works hand in glove with Charlottesville Tomorrow, a non-profit newsroom that is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News – a Democracy Fund grantee that supports mission-driven journalism. Together, the outlets tracked the events of last summer and their aftermath, ensuring that the coverage was both meaningful nationally and true to the voices of the local community. Around the country we are seeing creative collaborations like this one beginning to stitch together news ecosystems in ways that make local news more resilient.
The courts have also stepped in to play an important role.
The Charlottesville community has found a measure of justice for the events of last summer through an innovative lawsuit by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University (another Democracy Fund grantee). Last year, ICAP sued the organizers of Unite the Right under a 1776 Virginia law prohibiting “unlawful paramilitary activity.” Recently, the rally’s lead organizer Jason Kessler became the final of over a dozen defendants to enter into a consent decree resolving that lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, Kessler promised he will not facilitate—and rather will actively discourage—armed paramilitary activity at any future rallies in Charlottesville.
Across the nation, our grantees are working to bring together Americans of all backgrounds to affirm our shared commitment to building a pluralistic, inclusive future. Veterans for American Ideals, for example, this year reached over 4 million people with their #WhatIFoughtFor campaign, a moving portrait that portrayed refugees alongside former service members to emphasize that embracing diversity is a core American value. Faith in Public Life is bringing together faith leaders to reject hate and stand at the defense of communities under attack. Pro Publica’s Documenting Hate project is helping to better track hate and bias crime to enrich the national understanding and conversation about hate incidents. And Civic Nation has joined forces with NBC Universal to relaunch #ErasetheHate, a campaign to help amplify and accelerate the work of people across the country who are combatting hate in unique and innovative ways.
Americans of all stripes have come together over the past few years to assert their commitment to the democratic values on which this country was founded. Across the nation, we’ve seen people stand up in defense of communities under attack, a strong public repudiation of the racist rhetoric and policies by public figures, and increased philanthropic giving to efforts increasing tolerance and inclusion. We’ve also seen record numbers of women and people of color run for elected office, claiming their place in American democracy as never before. These actions represent a counterweight to the types of hatred we saw last year in Charlottesville.
As we commemorate the anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, Unite the Right is preparing to hold rallies in Charlottesville and right here in Washington, D.C. While Democracy Fund believes deeply in the protection of free speech, we believe that these demonstrations must be met vigorously and must not be allowed to use violence to intimidate others. Today and every day, we find hope and inspiration in the actions of those who stand against hatred and against those actions and rhetoric that offend the human dignity of all.