High Schoolers Charged in Attack on UVa. Students
Town/Gown Issues Debated
Blake Caravati, mayor of the usually sleepy college town of Charlottesville, Va., is amassing quite a collection of hate mail these days — more than a hundred e-mails, some from concerned locals, but the vast majority from, “as I like to call them, the boys who wear white sheets,” Caravati says.
Police Chief Tim Longo, who came to Charlottesville from Baltimore, is getting his share, too —”a strong blast from all over the country,” he says, questioning “everything from my courage to my manhood.”
National Public Radio has been to town, along with a reporter from the Washington Post. George Stephanopoulos has called a few times about bringing an ABC News crew down.
These are developments regarded with almost universal dread in a small town that prizes its privacy and its sparkling reputation — and both are under serious threat now that nine African American high school students have been arrested in a series of attacks on White and Asian undergraduates at the University of Virginia.
The first reports, published under the headline “Arrests made in string of ‘race’ assaults,” hit the town like a thunderclap. The city was stunned by the seriousness of the charges — assault and battery, assault by mob, felony robbery, felony malicious wounding and malicious wounding by mob — and no less stunned by the identities of the suspects.
One of them was Gordon Lathan Fields, charged as an adult because he had recently turned 18. A football player at Charlottesville High School, he was named defensive player of the year in two separate polls. Fields appeared to have a college scholarship and a bright future ahead of him. Though the identities of the others alleged to have been involved are protected because they’re juveniles, two of the girls are widely known to have been members of Charlottesville High School’s undefeated championship girls’ basketball squad.
‘Children of Promise’
Observers agree there were definitely “bad apples” among the loose-knit group of nearly 20 kids — both male and female, White and Black — questioned in the attacks, which started with a lone assault in September, later followed by a series of apparently coordinated attacks in January. But there was also a heartbreaking irony for all who knew the kids involved.
“These were our children of promise,” says Gail Hyder Wiley, a Charlottesville parent who is close to Fields’ parents and has known the youth for many years. “Gordon is the least color-conscious kid I know. He’s a football star who still hugs his mom and dad in public, not some sullen punk with a grudge against the world.”
In general, Wiley, who is White, adds, “These are not kids from the projects who are full of seething resentment — and maybe deserved resentment. These are the ones whose moms have worked two and three jobs to make sure they get their graphing calculators so that they can take their college-bound courses. They’re mostly from two-parent families.”
When the story became an issue of national interest, reactions were strong. Only days after the arrests, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) — led by White supremacist politician David Duke — was demanding on its Web site and through the press that the teen-agers face hate-crime charges in the assaults. Not satisfied with the city’s response, EURO’s encore was to ask the FBI to investigate the attacks for possible violations of the civil rights of the White and Asian youths.
The FBI has since declined to get involved, so while city officials, parents and victims wait to learn if additional charges will be brought by the commonwealth’s attorney a surface calm reigns on the streets of Charlottesville and on the University of Virginia campus. There have been few public statements from the university administration since the mass e-mail warning of the assaults on Jan. 29 — nor has there been much of an outcry in the pages of the student newspaper.
The city, too, has seen very little in the way of public shouting or hand-wringing. Except for one meeting held privately to allow everyone the opportunity to vent, the public meetings organized by Dr. Alvin Edwards, a former mayor and pastor of the town’s historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church, have been models of civility.
Indeed, after newspaper reports accused the university of doing almost nothing to reach out to or provide services to the victims of the assaults, the parents working on a defense fund for the alleged assailants decided to change their name and mission to reflect changed priorities: The committee is now the “Charlottesville Youth Defense/Victim Compensation Support Committee,” Wiley says.
But many fear it wouldn’t take much to shatter the city’s tranquil façade. “There are gut-wrenching issues at the root of this that we’ve never talked about here in Charlottesville,” Caravati says. “I’m talking about the Civil War, the legacy of Jim Crow and segregation, and Vinegar Hill”— an urban renewal project in the 1970s that ended in the destruction of a vibrant, historically Black residential and business district of that name.
Dr. M. Rick Turner, dean of the university’s Office of African American Affairs, agrees that it is critical to break the silence on the issues that are at the root of the attacks.
“Whether you’re talking about Harvard or Princeton or the University of Virginia, there have historically been adversarial relationships between university communities and the Black community because most of the people who work in these institutions are cleaning toilets and working in the cafeteria. They are kept in a slavelike condition, and the stories of that are passed down for generations, so it’s no surprise that there are adversarial relations,” he says.
Turner argues that the roots of the attacks lie as much in class as in race. The kids who are angriest, according to Turner, are those “tracked” by their schools and feeling trapped, without a future. Turner visited Charlottesville High with a group of University of Virginia students that included one of the victims — Davin Rosborough, an African American Studies major from Centreville, Va.— but he noticed that the kids who needed to meet his students were not at the table.
“The kids were hand-picked,” he explains. “(City Councilman) Maurice Cox’s daughter, (the Rev.) Alvin Edwards’ daughter — those are not your problem kids. Those kids are going to college.”
Dave Chapman, the commonwealth’s attorney, is expected to announce new charges against students who may have been accomplices any day now. And it’s a matter of intense interest whether charges will be brought against a White girl who allegedly drove the “getaway” car in at least one of the assaults.
Caravati, buffeted by the media whirlwind, is worried. “This thing is still volatile. It only takes the wrong word said by the wrong person in a public meeting to set this thing off,” he says.
As for Turner: “I look at this as a teachable moment. But we have to be realistic. Nothing’s going to happen. All these committees, all this energy — it’s going to blow over by next fall unless something happens on this end (at the university) where all the resources are.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com