The sun shone on Market Street Park on Sunday afternoon as residents perused more than two dozen tables staffed by organizations offering opportunities to create change in Charlottesville’s first Call to Action resource fair.
From gun control and abortion rights to regional library activities, organizations at the Unity Days event offered a chance for engagement and involvement.
“It’s been a good, solid stream of people and it seems like they’re here to see what’s available and to learn what resources there are,” said Rosia Parker, who staffed the table sponsored by the city’s Unity Days Committee. “They’re also here to make a point, and that point is this is our city and we’re taking it back “
The fair was in stark contrast to 2017’s violent Unite the Right rally during which James A. Fields Jr., convicted earlier this year of murder and hate crimes, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer, 32.
A Virginia State Police helicopter, which had monitored the events most of the day, crashed some time after Fields was apprehended, killing two troopers.
On Sunday, where white supremacists and Nazis once stood hurling epithets, representatives of the Charlottesville Immigrant Resource and Advocacy Coalition, Charlottesville Pride Community Network and Sin Barreras of Charlottesville answered questions and offered advice and swag. Near them were tables manned by representatives of the Charlottesville Free Clinic, U.S. Census Bureau and the local Habitat for Humanity.
Although calm and peaceful, the memory of 2017’s events and recent mass shootings were not far away.
Police were a steady presence Sunday. They pedaled in pelotons of six around and through the park on regular intervals. They talked with persons seeming suspicious or out of place. Motorcycle officers puttered past the park in groups. Officers and emergency responders cycled and strode about the Downtown Mall.
A white tent on the roof of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society building directly across from the park shaded officers watching for signs of trouble.
The presence of so many police, while not dressed in riot gear or toting assault-style weaponry, dismayed some.
“The powers-that-be had a chance to rebuild community trust with this event and they squandered it,” said Gail Wiley, who has for years been involved in local justice and equity efforts. “They announced that there would be a ‘soft police presence’ but there are police everywhere and Virginia State Police are everywhere.”
Wiley said she understood concern created by shootings targeting immigrants and minorities across the country. However, she said the city should have leveled with the community about the number of officers they could expect.
“They had a golden opportunity, to be honest,” she said.
Neither police nor the past dampened spirits of those dining al fresco on the mall or walking their dogs. Several pedestrians and diners, who admitted they were anxious about having their names in public and declined to be quoted, said the police presence was of little concern.
For the agencies and organizations passing out pamphlets and trinkets, Sunday’s resource fair was a boon to their causes. Among those was the Charlottesville Area Community ID Program, an organization that helps to provide verifiable personal identification credentials to area residents who are immigrants, homeless or otherwise lacking a federally approved form of identification.
“It’s another way for people to feel connected to their community and it gives them an ID that is accepted by area agencies,” said Chayla Rowley. “Some people have verified identifications from other countries. We have people trained to check into that. The idea is to verify their identity and be able to give them a form of ID that will help them.”
Applicants’ identities are verified by organization staff prior to an ID being issued. Similar programs have proved successful in North Carolina, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida and Ohio.
“We’ve done partnerships with churches and local organizations, and this is a great way to let people know we’re here,” Rowley said.
For Parker and others, the resource fair was also a way to reclaim their city.
“Even as I was walking the mall and walking in the park, I was claiming it for myself and all of the people who can’t be here, taking it back from those who took it from us [in 2017],” Parker said. “You have to walk into these places and you can’t back down or [they win]. We’re not losing this. Charlottesville belongs to us.”