Bob Powers: The View From Charlottesville

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. After graduating from Staples High School in 1971, then Amherst College in ’75, he headed to med school at the University of Virginia.

He loved life in the college town. His children were born there. He moved twice — to Minnesota, and back to Connecticut. But as Powers — a physician and professor at UVa’s med school — notes, he’s now spent 30 years in Charlottesville. That’s longer than he’s lived anywhere else.

Like any Southern town, Powers says, there’s a history of racial discord dating back to slavery. Though the university has provided an intellectual base, schools there closed in the 1960s rather than succumb to desegregation.

“I have African American friends here who helped integrate the schools,” Power says. “And I have white friends who were pulled out of them.”

One of his patients — an older black woman — was involuntarily sterilized.

“This is not ancient history,” he explains.

Dr. Robert Powers

As a youngster in Westport, he says, “I was blissfully ignorant of all that. It’s part of Southern history. There’s nothing like that in the north.”

When he moved to Charlottesville he noticed rebel flags, and statues of Confederate heroes. He saw “thinly painted over signs” for colored restrooms.

Since then, he says, the town of 45,000 has gentrified. UVa has drawn “carpetbagging Yankees like me” for years.

Much of Charlottesville remains “voluntarily segregated.” There are black and white churches, funeral homes and neighborhoods. “People feel a level of comfort” in separate cultures and identities.

There is little “overt animosity” between blacks and whites, Powers says. The university in particular has made great strides toward inclusion. The dean of the medical school, hospital director and Powers’ own boss are all African American.

What happened this weekend, he says, began with outsiders who seized on the fact that Charlottesville’s officials “dithered” about removing statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from prominent places. Issues like cost, and what to do with them once they were gone, made the city a “fat target and convenient flash point” for alt-right and racist groups.

However, he adds, 2 of the main organizers have ties to the area. White supremacist Richard Spencer graduated from UVa in 2001 (with high distinction in English literature and music), while self-described “white rights activist” Jason Kessler lives in Charlottesville.

A rally last month drew Ku Klux Klan members from North Carolina. It was “nasty,” Powers says, “but not terribly violent.”

A striking image from the Ku Klux Klan’s July 8 rally in Charlottesville.

That led to a national call to action, by a variety of alt-right, Nazi and KKK groups. It also galvanized opposition from around the country.

“It was very clear that people came this weekend expecting to fight,” Powers says. Protesters wore fatigues, and carried helmets, batons and shields. Virginia is an “open carry” state; some brandished civilian versions of AK-47s.

Storeowners boarded their windows. The UVa hospital discharged patients, keeping beds open for mass casualties.

The weekend turned into “much more than the First Amendment right of assembly and peaceful speech,” says Powers.

Mostly, he says, “this was not local people behaving badly. It was people coming in to our city to behave badly.”

A scene from yesterday in Charlottesville.

On Friday night — hoping to “demonstrate opposition” to the march, by “showing our faces and being counted without confrontation or violence” — Powers and his wife Sally attended a large community prayer service. Harvard professor Cornel West gave a powerful speech. Other clergy — including Muslims — spoke too.

Powers was gratified to see that the majority of attendees were white. “This is not about race,” he says. “It’s an outrage of principle.”

A torchlight alt-right procession came close to the church. As a precaution, police kept service-goers inside.

On Saturday morning, Powers and his wife went to a clergy-led march. It ended around 9:30. The couple went home.

Soon, authorities revoked the alt-right marchers’ permit. They dispersed — unhappily — into smaller groups around Charlottesville. Police could not control them. Confrontations ended when a car roared into counter-demonstrators, killing 1 woman and injuring 19.

“I’d be horrified to watch this from a distance,” Powers says. “It’s even worse when it happens in your own back yard, in a city not prone to this.”

Now, he predicts, there will be finger-pointing. Why were demonstrators and counter-protesters allowed to be so near each other? On the other hand, how could a small city be expected to handle so many inflamed people?

Powers is sure of one thing.

“The vast majority of the city — rich and poor, white and black, university-affiliated and not — were unified against this.”

And, he notes, the woman who was killed was from Charlottesville. The driver was from Ohio.

“Someone in our town was murdered by someone from elsewhere,” he says.

Bob Powers grew up in Westport. But Charlottesville is now his home town.

Like many Americans, he grieves for it.

And like many of us — in Westport and elsewhere — he wonders what comes next.

25 responses to “Bob Powers: The View From Charlottesville

  1. Nancy Hunter

    Removing a statue does not remove history. It would be the same as re-writing a school book.

    • No one said it does, Nancy. What it does do is remove something offensive from the daily sight of people who have no need to be reminded of an ugly part of our history.

      • Nancy Hunter

        True, but removing the ugly part of any country’s history doesn’t necessarily work.

        • No one is seeking to change any history books, Nancy. Statues and history books is a false equivalency.

          • Nancy Hunter

            Well, I disagree then. Statues and history are equivalent.

            • You said “history books.” Not “history.” Please do not respond, Nancy. This is a ridiculous discussion, and I’m sorry you roped me into it.

            • Peter Gambaccini

              Nancy, honestly, I’ve been coming here for quite some time and I have to wonder. What is the deal with you, anyway?

            • Statues and history are not equivalent. Suppose I, an American Jew, were to study in a German University and suppose the university town displayed a statue of Hitler. I’d leave for home. Imagine a Black student at U. VA seeing a statue of the leader of the Confederate Army each day as he walked to class. Would this young man feel at home in Charlottesville?
              ADW Staples 1956

  2. We’re in a national political climate where overt racists are less afraid to voice their agendas and less likely to withhold violence to back it up. It’s scary out there, and coming from many directions — health care, dismantlig the EPA, having a son-in-law with a background of walkig into his daddy’s real estate empire — talking to world leaders —yada,yada, yada.

    The only way I see out of this is if politicians — whose main job is to be elected — feel pressure from their constituants to act humanly for all of us.

    And I’m not optimistic.

  3. Bob, thanks for your insights. For those who don’t know Bob, back in high school he was not only one of the brightest kids in our class, he was also one of the most respected and most popular. And his mom was a longtime teacher at Staples.

    • Peter Gambaccini

      That must be why he looks familiar. At first I thought it was Bill Powers, class of ’67, who is also a doctor. The resemblance is strong.

  4. Unfortunately, hatred effects all zip codes, skin colors, genders, political parties etc. We haven’t resided in Westport long but months back we received a racist recruitment flyer at our home (which is really ironic). This type of hatred is not new and yet I feel our current president through his words, actions and yes inactions has poured gasoline on a long smoldering fire. It saddens but motivates me all at the same time to do my part to ensure this type of discord, anger, racism, bias, ignorance, and intolerance decreases not increases.

  5. Susan Iseman

    45 certainly provided ample criticism to HRC & BHO for not using the words “Radical Islamic Terrorism” on numerous occasions during his campaign. It’s clear he hasn’t called out these KKK/Neo-Nazi creeps as “white supremacists.” I wonder why?

  6. I can only blame our current “President” for stoking the flames of racism and bigotry towards minority groups (Including LGBT and immigrants). He has never disavowed the alt-right and, indeed, welcomed their support.

    David Duke himself said that Trump spoke to them and they voted for him based on his rhetoric and promises.

    And, if I’m offending some of my Republican friends, I wonder how you can look at yourselves in the mirror and still support him.

  7. Frank Henrick

    I agree with Fred Cantor. I too remember Bob and his family as bright, gracious, and loving..

    Bob, thanks for sharing your own experience with all of us.

  8. This is so sad for everyone and our country needs to figure out how to heal…that means we are going to have to work together. I attended a vigil up here in NH. We all need to come together.

  9. Carissa Simon Baker

    Bob Powers, I am grateful for your comments and reflections of this horrid event in your town. I am also relieved you and your wife are OK. Hugs and love.