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.
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.”
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.”
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.