Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe had a rocky start to his book tour at Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose on August 1, when survivors of the August 12, 2017, Fourth Street car attack showed up to denounce his account of that weekend. But he found plaudits and praise among fans at the National Press Club a few days later.
Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism has received mixed reviews, and McAuliffe has gotten a potpourri of reactions ranging from exasperation and anger to admiration over his “take” on white nationalism.
Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis wrote the forward, setting the tragedy in Charlottesville in the context of the movement against white supremacy. But McAuliffe’s opening page has no fewer than five “I” statements. The book, critics say, is not about activism, the struggle of black lives in Virginia under remnant shadows of the Confederacy, or even about August 11 and 12, 2017, in Charlottesville—it’s about McAuliffe.
At his book tour stop at the National Press Club on August 6, McAuliffe was charismatic, lifting his greatest hits in fighting for equality straight from his resumé.
An enthusiastic audience celebrated him taking the Confederate flag off Virginia license plates, giving 200,000 former felons voting rights, and his “F” rating by the NRA.
Attendee Heather Cronk, an activist and survivor of August 12, was not as charmed by his casual jokes and verbal tackles of President Trump. “[McAuliffe] thinks he’s the one who discovered racism,” she says. “But it’s blacks—black activists—who for over 300 years have known and experienced it in—most in shackles. And it’s clear he still doesn’t get it.”
McAuliffe describes many incidents that took place in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12 from a first-person perspective, as if he was at ground zero from the night the violent weekend began, though he reportedly arrived Saturday. “Hundreds of torches coming up over the mountain on UVA…such evil,” he said.
Some of the book’s firsthand accounts were even taken from those who were there without their knowledge. “I found out from Twitter,” says activist Emily Gorcenski about her multiple quotes in McAuliffe’s book. “He has not reached out to me, and he did not seek my permission.”
McAuliffe weaves a soliloquy about how he “got the rally shut down before it even started. I chased them out—I told them to leave our state, leave us alone, and the Nazis left,” he recounts—although Charlottesville citizens don’t remember it quite like McAuliffe does.
He waited to declare a state of emergency until after neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters in the streets, injuring many, including Cronk. One later rammed his car into a crowd of dozens, killing Heather Heyer.
“I needed to balance the First Amendment, so the key was to keep them separate, then they started fighting, and I had to stop it,” he recounted at the press club. This reporter has sued Virginia State Police for the release of the August 12 operations plan under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, and McAuliffe said he thinks “it should be released for everyone to see.”
In discussing the deadly summer weekend in 2017, McAuliffe failed to mention its origin: a petition to the city from then-Charlottesville high school student, Zyahna Bryant, seeking to take down the Confederate statues. A recent story by the Daily Progress’ Allison Wrabel said the book “includes factual errors and omits important context.”
In fact, for a book touting a focus on race relations, there are stark voids in the conversation: black people, black names, and black activism.
“It’s hard. People who have been here, who have been involved, are not surprised,” Bryant says. Earlier this year, the incoming UVA freshman published her own book, Reclaim, about the realities of being a black activist, and living in Charlottesville.
“He should be saying our names,” says Bryant. “He needs to remember, he wouldn’t have ever been in office without us and white people doing the anti-racist work out here. Black women show up the strongest in Virginia voting polls, and yet, here he is, erasing us, harming us.”
Bryant says the voices of black activists are still marginalized, and “like in so many historical excerpts, the narrative has been whitewashed and romanticized by someone who wasn’t even present.”
McAuliffe said book proceeds would go to the Heather Heyer Foundation and the Virginia State Police Association. The backlash he faced for supporting police prompted him to say he’d donate to survivors, too—when proceeds come in.
“He’s published a book. He’s accumulated a national platform, he could now use it to make this right. But that’s not the decision he’s made,” says Cronk. “He’s never met with survivors.”
Brendan Wolfe with Heal Charlottesville says he can confirm that McAuliffe has committed one-third of the book’s proceeds to the fund.
Nearing the end of the talk, McAuliffe declared “the white nationalist movement is over.” It was a curious statement given the slew of white supremacy-based violence and terrorism that has risen over the past two years, most recently in El Paso.
Gorcenski says, “The white supremacist movements were harmed in part, helped in part, by what happened on and after A11/A12…Terry seems to not understand that the roots of white supremacy do in fact rely on civility, the state, and the ‘both sides-ism’ that we see coming from too many Democratic candidates.”
McAuliffe has more stops on his book tour—but none in Charlottesville, and activists aren’t holding their breath.
“I don’t expect anything more from him,” says Bryant.