November 16, 2017

Charlottesville Libraries Weather Violent Protests, Offer Unity

Public and college libraries alike faced challenges and tough choices this weekend in Charlottesville, VA, when clashes between white nationalist demonstrators and counterprotesters took place on the campus of the University of Virginia (UVA) and across the city, leaving three dead and 34 injured.

White nationalists from across the country gathered at Emancipation Park early Saturday morning, many of them bearing Confederate flags and sporting Nazi symbols. Counterprotesters, who included representation from religious groups and Black Lives Matter activists, turned out in force as well. Confrontations between the two groups escalated into taunts and then turned physical. Police evacuated the park, but confrontations still continued on downtown side streets as local police stood by.

A car smashed into a group of some 100 counterprotesters on a pedestrian mall, injuring 19 and killing Heather D. Heyer. The driver, allegedly identified as James Alex Fields Jr., of Maumee, OH, was charged with second-degree murder, among other charges. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency.

The American Library Association (ALA) issued a statement condemning the incidents, saying, in part, “The vile and racist actions and messages of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are in stark opposition to the ALA’s core values. No matter the venue or the circumstance, we condemn any form of intimidation or discrimination based on culture, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Our differences should be celebrated, and mutual respect and understanding should serve as the norms within our society.”

A statement from the Association of Research Libraries issued on Wednesday read, in part, “Research libraries and archives are bastions of free expression and inquiry. However, hate speech and other inflammatory rhetoric that incites violence or any actions that threaten our community members cannot be tolerated. Racism, anti-Semitism, and bias in any form—whether based on ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other qualities—are antithetical to the mission of libraries to advance society by facilitating discovery, education, and innovation. The Association of Research Libraries and its members will do everything in their power to safeguard the dignity and safety of library patrons, in part by making it clear in words and deeds that we stand for diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice.”

JMRL SHOWS CVILLE STRENGTH

The Jefferson Madison Regional Library (JMRL) had decided in advance to close its Central Library in downtown Charlottesville, as downtown streets would be closed off and large crowds were anticipated. “The Board regrets having to close the library, but in the interest of safety for library staff and visitors it seemed closing the building was the prudent thing to do,” the July 24 statement read.

When staff opened the library on the morning of August 10, the Thursday before the rally, they found two signs with white supremacist messages on the building’s front door, which were quickly removed.

Park barricades were dropped off that Thursday afternoon, and the streets around the library—which is adjacent to Emancipation Park—closed at 5 p.m. on Friday. “We moved our porch garbage cans inside, moved our library vehicles (delivery trucks and van) away, curtailed library delivery activity downtown, and shut the Wi-Fi off to discourage people congregating on the property on Saturday,” JMRL assistant director Krista Farrell told LJ. “The local police removed the bricks around the library’s front garden earlier Saturday so that they couldn’t be used for harm.”

Director John Halliday stayed in the building all day on Saturday to monitor the activity outside and update staff. Although the original plan was for Farrell to spell him at lunchtime, Halliday texted her that morning telling her to stay home. The park was already filling with heavily armed men in militia-type camouflage who were not with the state or local police or the National Guard, he reported, and a large crowd was gathering.

The library had given law enforcement permission to use its loading dock area, which opens onto the park, and offered officers restroom and electricity access. Later in the afternoon, after the assembly had been declared unlawful and most of the crowds had left the area, Halliday emailed, “With Market Street and Emancipation Park nearly empty, I invited a few state troopers to come in and cool off, then a few more, now the library is full of exhausted, overheated police and soldiers. They are really knocked out.”

The building did not sustain any damage. And when the library opened Monday morning, its customary “Libraries are for everyone” sign was posted prominently in front. Refreshments were provided for customers and staff, and the children’s department staff set up a “Cville Strength” Popsicle stick mural, where patrons could write comments about what makes their community stronger.

JMRL has received numerous calls and emails of support, and libraries across the country have organized gatherings in solidarity with the Charlottesville community from Bedminster, NJ, to Danbury, CT, to the Maumee branch of the Toledo–Lucas County Public Library, OH—hometown of Fields, the alleged driver of the car in Charlottesville. A panel discussion of four local women politicians held on Sunday at the Champaign Public Library, IL, led off with a moment of silence for Heyer. Afterward, Champaign County NAACP President Patricia Avery said, “Looking at what has happened in the last couple of days, it is a participatory democracy. So we must participate, and that is where we get our strength.”

“I think we are all grateful that it wasn’t much worse, given the number of heavily armed people in tight quarters and the number of violent clashes and skirmishes we saw,” Farrell told LJ.

LIBGUIDES FROM UVA

The confrontations at UVA came a week before students were set to arrive for the beginning of the fall semester. In a statement released early Saturday morning, University President Teresa Sullivan said, “The University supports the First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly. Acts of violence, however, are not protected by the First Amendment. Violence and bigotry are not political positions. We strongly condemn intimidating and abhorrent behavior intended to strike fear and sow division in our community.”

UVA libraries could not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, Texas A&M University administration canceled a White Lives Matter rally that had been scheduled for September 11. In a press release, the event’s organizer—a former Texas A&M University student—had included the slogan “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M.” University officials cited safety concerns in their decision.

Before the events of Saturday afternoon, student members of the UVA Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation had mobilized to gather resources for a Libguide to educate users about Charlottesville’s history of white supremacy. The Charlottesville Syllabus provides contemporary and archival primary and secondary sources, including articles, books, a documentary, databases, and a list of terms for discussing white supremacy (“additional resources” contained in the syllabus are not available online, but can be found on JSTOR, at the UVA library, or for purchase).

Although the syllabus is not officially sanctioned by UVA, according to its website it “seeks to explore the local historical and contemporary precedents for this gathering; to give it history and context; to denounce it; and to amplify the voices of community members most affected by this ‘alt-right’ occupation of our community space. These resources are key to contextualizing the ‘alt-right’ and their racist motivations. The ‘alt-right’ have been working to distance themselves rhetorically from old-fashioned racist groups like the KKK, and it is essential that we do not let them falsify the narrative of white supremacy in Charlottesville and in this country.”

Additional resources for librarians and educators can be found at #CharlottesvilleCurriculum.

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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