Alderman library at the University of Virginia.

Charlottesville: Torches into birdhouses

Mike Selby

It was last August when a group of marchers descended upon the University of Virginia campus, located in the heart of Charlottesville.

Protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, these ‘Unite the Right’ protesters were carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” (inexplicably mixing up causes).

These would be terrorists were met by Thomas McGill, a librarian from the university’s law library.

A protester swung his torch across McGill’s neck, knocking him down and causing him to have a stroke. A dean and two professors dragged him out of the crowd, which was now assaulting a large crowd of university students.

Riots quickly broke out across the town of Charlottesville, leaving three people dead and dozens more severely injured. This rally of hate was organized by Jason Kessler, a 34-year-old white nationalist who was back at the University’s law library just last month.

Kessler entered the library on the afternoon of April 18, 2018, and sat down at a computer. When other library users recognized him, they quickly made makeshift signs reading “murderer” and “blood on your hands” to hold up.

One law professor — who has been the target of Kessler’s verbal and online hate outside of the campus — exited the library, worried that his presence would set Kessler off. He needn’t have worried; Kessler went off anyhow.

Another professor approached Kessler and asked him to leave. After claiming he was only here to do legal research, Kessler began to yell that Jews and women didn’t belong at the law school. The campus police finally arrived and escorted him off of university property.

Kessler arrived again the following week, and was receiving help from a reference librarian who had no idea who he was (Kessler does have a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville, who denied him a parade permit to celebrate the riot of the last August). He was recognized soon enough, and was soon once again yelling about any and every minority. The police once again escorted him out.

Administrators of the law library held a mini town-hall to ask the students how they felt about Kessler’s being on campus, and to let them know the university unequivocally supports them. Students felt “embarrassed,” “alienated,” “unsafe” “paralyzed,” and “devalued.” Many were worried about violence occurring; both students and faculty cried. Then they talked about final exams that Kessler interrupted, and — as future lawyers—if there anything legal they could do.

There certainly was. Kessler was legally trespassed from all University grounds, “due to multiple reports from students that Mr. Kessler threatened them, targeted them through cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment, and targeted them based on protected characteristics.”

And, even in the face of all the trauma he caused, they added “exception granted for emergency care at the University Medical Center.” Compassion was to be their final act against him.

Future U of VA students have supported them as well. The students from Charlottesville’s Murray High School made good use from all the torches left lying around last August. They made birdhouses out of them, with their teachers stressing that “each shelter is unique; different birds require different kinds of habitats to thrive.”

The students painted “humans are born to love” on the side of the houses — an amazing tribute born from a city that became a hashtag.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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