Nikuyah Walker was elected Charlottesville’s first Black woman mayor in January. That means she is incharge on the one-year anniversary of one of her city’s most horrific incidents ever.
Last August, hundreds of white supremacists descended on this Virginia city for a “Unite the Right” rally that quickly turned violent when they collided with counter-protesters. The Charlottesville police force was caught unprepared and it failed to fully contain the escalating violence.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant and one of the counterprotesters, was also struck and killed when white supremacist James Alex Fields slammed his car into a crowd. He is currently facing state and federal charges for murder and assault, as well as a federal hate crime charge.
And while much of the media attention is focused on the same “Unite the Right” organizers’ rally taking place in Washington D.C. on Sunday — and President Donald Trump’s weak statements against white supremacy — Walker wants to keep the focus on the black and brown folk who are still struggling to survive in her city a year later.
“There have been many calls to return to normal … and I often have to say: ‘The normal for black, Hispanic, or low-income white people in this city is not a normal they want to return to,’” she told the Guardian.
She added: “What changed was that people were faced with the fact that we’re not a post-racial nation.”
And although the events last summer unmasked a level of hate that surprised many, Walker is clear that she doesn’t want people in her city to hide behind the blatant racism of last year’s rally. Indeed, white supremacy, and the policies that go along with it, can be seen in all facets of life in Charlottesville.
“It’s very easy for people to blame [the white nationalist] Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler [the organizer of last year’s white supremacist rally], but they haven’t been in charge here,” she says.
She adds: “I don’t know a Black native person [in Charlottesville] who does not have a significant percentage of their family who’s either been incarcerated or is still incarcerated. There is poverty all around, and all the trauma that goes with poverty, you see it on a day-to-day basis…”
It was her work to shine the light on these very facts, and to speak unpopular truths out loud, that won her the mayoral election this past January.
“I announced my campaign in March of 2017 and ran on the slogan of ‘Unmasking Charlottesville.’ This message is so important because I wanted to challenge this myth, the illusion that we were a world-class city, that everyone could thrive and that everyone was doing well,” she told The Grio.
And though her political colleagues often leave her out of conversations, or even speak in hushed tones when she enters the room, she is determined to continue working for her city.
She tells the Guardian: “I’m attempting to make sure – and it’s painful – that people who work for the city, people who receive money from the city, understand that if they’re not moving the needle, making progress, changing lives, if they don’t truly understand service, they will not be in a position to receive resources, or I will criticize you publicly.”