After growing up outside Washington, D.C., Jennifer Robinson was surprised to learn that racism still existed when she began college at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Thirty years later, that shock came once again for Robinson, now a member of the Cary Town Council and a Republican voter, when a series of protests by white supremacists and counter demonstrators turned violent in the same city.
“Maybe that’s being naive, but I feel like America should be beyond this at this point,” she said. “White supremacy – I just find that to be horrific that it is going on so many years later.”
Robinson is one of many elected officials in Wake County who were saddened, angry or horrified by the news coming out of Virginia this weekend.
Protests began Friday night as white supremacists demonstrated to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park. Three died and 35 people were injured, including the one person killed and 19 people injured Saturday when a car struck a crowd of counter protestors. Protestors were also said to have traded blows and hurled bottles and chemical irritants at one another.
“One of my primary concerns is the fact that the media keeps referring to these individuals as white nationalists instead of racists and domestic terrorists,” Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, a Democrat, said of the white supremacist protestors. “There is no place for bigotry, racism and anti-semitism in America – a country founded as a melting pot of races and cultures that combine to make us who we are today.”
Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears, an unaffiliated voter, said this type of protesting does not belong in our country.
“I’m saddened by the fact that this transpired,” he said. “The bottom line is, supremacy of a group of people, whether it be white, black or whatever, is just out of place. I think it hurts our country, and I just hope it stops. ... Violence, whether it’s in the street or in another venue, is never the answer.”
President Donald Trump’s response to the tragedy had its defenders and detractors among local officials. Trump said he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Some, like Sears, said Trump’s comments were appropriate. Others, like Holmes, said they didn’t go far enough.
“I am disappointed in President Trump’s response,” Holmes said. “I don’t feel that he explicitly condemned the hate and racism of the so-called white nationalists and believe that he needs to make a more specific condemnation of hate, bigotry and racism.”
Heather Hazelwood, a member of two organizations hosting a vigil in Durham Sunday in response to the tragedy, said the response from elected officials – at the federal, state and local levels – gives her hope.
“This is not a one-time thing,” she said of Sunday’s vigil. “We are hoping to be able to see more people aware of what’s going on and join us in our efforts to fight these sort of actions and fight for racial equality and justice.”
Robinson said she thinks this weekend’s events will help promote more dialogue about racial equality.
“Obviously, I think it’s a terrible thing that has happened,” she said. “On the flip side, I think it’s going to promote additional conversations about the role each of us plays in ending racism and being able to be at peace with our past but also to aspire to have better racial relations in our country.”
But Holmes said she thinks change would need to start with new leadership.
“I don’t see things getting better under a president that refuses to condemn this behavior,” she said. “I believe in order for things to change, we’re going to have to change our leadership and we’re going to need people who will not tolerate domestic terrorism and will not tolerate this hate and bigotry in our country.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon