Charlottesville DSA: Transforming Virginia Politics – Democratic Socialists of America


(Photo by Charlottesville DSA).

By Michael Payne

On August 12, 2017, Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia. The tragedy made national news. At Heather Heyer’s memorial service, Heather’s mother Susan Bro defiantly said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

Her words have proven to be prophetic. Since Heather’s death, thousands of residents have gotten involved in local politics for the first time, and the pervasive institutional racism long present in Charlottesville is being openly challenged and dismantled.


Our Charlottesville chapter initially came together in October of 2016. In our first few months, we were a small group of roughly ten active members. We now have about thirty active members, hundreds of supporters, and dozens of community members who we partner with on coalition work.

But Charlottesville DSA, small as it was, had been hard at work before the rally on August 12, 2017. In fact, the Charlottesville chapter’s first major initiative started in March 2017 with Ross Mittiga’s campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. Our engagement with the campaign, which Mittiga ran on an eco-socialist platform, was rooted in its potential to foster local movement building, particularly around environmental issues. The capaign made the front page of the Washington Post, resulted in national endorsements from Our Revolution and DSA, and generated widespread awareness of our chapter locally.

Toward the end of that primary campaign, Charlottesville was targeted in a series of escalating threats from white supremacists. In March of 2016, a local community organizer (and high school student) Zyahna Bryant started a petition to remove Charlottesville’s racist Robert E. Lee statue, ultimately resulting in the city council voting 3-2 to remove the statue. Throughout the process, there was a well-coordinated backlash from neo-confederate groups. They regularly disrupted city council meetings and launched a series of lawsuits and public demonstrations to prevent the statue from being removed.

While many of the neo-confederate groups were initially from outside of Charlottesville, a small group of local Fascist organizers coalesced and began garnering significant media attention. As the local Fascist organizers gained prominence, national neo-Nazi groups began to arrive.

In May, neo-Nazi groups violently disrupted an annual community event celebrating local diversity. This was followed by a flash demonstration with torches aimed at terrorizing local black residents. The threat continued into July, when a KKK group from North Carolina held a rally in Charlottesville. The rally sparked widespread counter-protests, resulting in the KKK being overwhelmingly outnumbered. After the KKK were escorted out of the rally by police, Charlottesville’s deputy police chief illegally ordered the firing of tear gas at peaceful counter-protestors. His only response to criticism of that decision was to say, "You are damn right I gassed them, it needed to be done”.

As the events of May and July unfolded, a broad coalition came together to stop the rising white supremacist threat. The coalition was principally led by Charlottesville’s local Black Lives Matter chapter, SURJ Charlottesville, Congregate Cville (a coalition of local clergy), Solidarity Cville, and numerous local organizers. It was within this context that the racist ‘Unite the Right’ rally was planned. 

In the weeks leading up to August 12, the coalition did extensive community education about the nature of the threat Charlottesville was facing. In addition, they initiated a campaign to get Charlottesville to deny the permits for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. However, Charlottesville’s local government instead advised the community to just ignore the ‘Unite the Right’ rally. A last minute attempt to move the rally to a more remote location was blocked by a lawsuit from the ACLU and the Rutherford Institute.

As a local chapter, we followed the coalition’s lead. On August 12, we joined up with DSA chapters from across Virginia, D.C., and Maryland to participate in counter-protests. It was an extraordinary display of solidarity that brought together progressive organizers from across the country. The white supremacist terror that occurred that day, a result of local and state police’s refusal to intervene against white supremacist violence, is universally known. It was the organizing work done by clergy, local anti-racist groups, the National Lawyers Guild, street medics, and numerous community defenders that unquestionably prevented racist groups from inflicting even greater violence on the local community.

The events of August 11 and August 12including the devastating loss of Heather Heyer—had a profound effect not just on our chapter, but the entire local progressive movement. Numerous community members are still struggling with the physical and mental wounds from August, and local organizing is filled with a sense of greater urgency.

The most encouraging development has been the growth of a local movement that extends beyond any one organizing group. DSA, BLM, SURJ, Indivisible, tenants’ rights groups, and numerous local grassroots organizations have started coordinating around local politics. This past November, our local movement helped elect Nikuyah Walker to city council, making Nikuyah the first Independent elected to city council in Charlottesville since the 1940s.

Since Nikuyah’s victory, local movement work has increasingly focused on confronting racist housing policies. In the 1960s, Charlottesville’s local government razed Vinegar Hill, a vibrant local black community, and forcibly moved residents of Vinegar Hill into public housing. Now the city is considering destroying what remains of Charlottesville’s public housing in a twenty-first century attempt to generate profits by displacing black residents. Our chapter continues to support work being done by the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Public Housing Association of Residents, and a newly formed Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition by rejecting gentrification and fighting for housing as a human right.

Within our chapter, we’ve been heavily inspired by both the work Cooperation Jackson has been doing in Jackson, Mississippi and what the Richmond Progressive Alliance has built in Richmond, California. Our members have advocated for the use of community land trusts in order to de-commodify land and ensure there’s a permanent stock of affordable housing for those living at 0-30% of the area’s median income. We’ve also been exploring the creation of local worker cooperatives, community-owned development corporations, and community gardens that can provide an alternative local economy for Charlottesville’s low-wealth communities.

We’ve already seen policy victories. After a sustained pressure campaign, Charlottesville city council adopted a pilot participatory budgeting program this year that will allow residents to collectively decide how a portion of the city budget will be spent. In December, widespread anger over the failure of the police to protect the community resulted in city council voting to create a civilian review board for the Charlottesville Police Department whose bylaws will be written by the community.

Our chapter has also successfully challenged multiple luxury development projects. In December, a sustained pressure campaign caused city council to vote down a million-dollar tax incentive deal for a luxury five-star hotel being built by John Dewberry, an Atlanta developer worth over seven hundred million dollars, whom Bloomberg has dubbed the ‘Emperor of Empty Lots’.

With our membership growth, we are diversifying the organizing work we do. We’re now engaged in electoral politics, local policy advocacy, community education, and base building (including a future brake light clinic). Our diversity of tactics hasn’t fractured our chapter. It has strengthened it and connected us to a broader local movement.

The institutional changes we’ve seen so far in Charlottesville are still just seeds, but the foundation is laid for a fundamental redistribution of political and economic power. We will confront opposition from state and federal government with a broad-based movement capable of scaling up beyond the local level. We stand ready to magnify Heather Heyer’s legacy and build a movement that will transform Virginia politics.

Michael Payne is an organizer with Charlottesville DSA.