Mayor compares her city to a rapist. She explains why
Richmond - Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker was having a long and frustrating day.
She has lots of them, like plenty of mayors, even though hers is a wealthy, picturesque college town that regularly pops up on those "best places" lists. Nothing in particular set her off, but the battles she had been mired in for months - with the City Council, the city staff, some ordinary Charlottesvillians - were getting to her.
So the mayor consoled herself by writing a poem - one that soon had parts of C'ville recoiling.
"Charlottesville: The beautiful-ugly it is," read the poem, which she tweeted late last month. "It rapes you, comforts you in its [semen] stained sheet and tells you to keep its secrets."
The United States has many outspoken mayors who do not mind airing their communities' dirty laundry. Walker may be the first to publicly compare her city to a rapist - and to drive home that metaphor with a graphic reference to soiled linens.
There was an uproar, calls for her resignation. But the city's first black female mayor - the lone independent elected to City Hall since the 1940s - said her message should have surprised no one: It's what she's been saying since 2017, when in the wake of a deadly white-supremacist rally, the political newcomer won a City Council seat on the slogan "Unmasking the illusion."
"The poem, of course, wasn't planned," Walker said in an interview last week after the furore over her tweet had died down. "I didn't sit and think, 'Oh, let me write this.' And I especially didn't plan for it to reach national attention, because I say a lot of things all the time."
In this liberal city, which Democrat Joe Biden won in November with nearly 86% of the vote, there was little pushback on the notion that black residents - who make up 18% of the population - experience a different city than white ones.
"As white individuals, we can only dimly understand the present-day impact of America's history of slavery, lynching and sexualized violence toward black people in general, and toward black women in particular," read a joint statement issued by council members Lloyd Snook and Heather Hill, both Democrats. "We see daily the pressure on Mayor Walker, as the sole representative on our Council of a marginalized and historically oppressed group. We do not - because we cannot - share her pain; no one can judge someone else's pain."
What Snook and Hill and many others took issue with was the rape metaphor, calling it potentially hurtful to victims of sexual assault, though Walker felt the metaphor was apt. In an interview, Snook also said it was problematic for Charlottesville's top elected official to issue that sort of statement, which some residents misinterpreted as an official municipal pronouncement.
"James Carville once referred to the 'glory of the unspoken thought,' " said Snook, referring to the longtime Democratic strategist. "And as elected officials, I think we have to keep in mind which thoughts will have impacts and what impacts they will have when we express them."
Charlottesville's seven City Council members serve staggered four-year terms, and every two years the council picks a mayor from within its ranks. The council chose Walker after she assumed her council seat in January 2018 and again two years later. But these days, even before the poem, she does not have a single ally on the council - which except for her comprises all white Democrats.
Walker won her seat months after torch-bearing white supremacists swarmed the city in 2017 to protest the council's plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. One young counterprotester, Heather Heyer, died at the Unite the Right rally when a self-professed neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd.
Walker criticized city officials' handling of the rally during her campaign. She also had a beef with how some white Charlottesvillians - expressing shock and revulsion at the gathering - reacted with a collective "That's not us."
While the rally did draw many out-of-towners, including James Alex Fields, the Ohio man later convicted of murdering Heyer, Walker often notes that two of the organisers were University of Virginia graduates: Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler.
"This narrative that they were outsiders who descended upon us and wreaked havoc and left, that's a false narrative," she told NPR in 2018, around the event's first anniversary. "And it's the narrative that people in positions of power, primarily people who are White and privileged, wanted to tell to get back to the business as usual, the return to their normal, because these were, you know, people from outside our 10.3 square miles."
Nothing but structural racism, Walker insists, can explain the city's yawning disparities in income, health, education and incarceration.
Some say that is unfair to Charlottesville. In their response to the poem, Snook and Hill listed a litany of social-justice initiatives, many of them long-standing, some launched in response to the 2017 rally. Those include job-training programs, the formation of a police civilian review board, fare-free public transit, "food justice" efforts and plans to address affordable housing.
Walker says the city's many social service programs and nonprofit groups the city bankrolls have not made a dent in those problems - and exist chiefly to provide jobs for the middle-to-upper-class White liberals who run the majority of them.
"They come to us with the expectations and the demands that we will continue to fund them, and yet there are no results," Walker said. "I tell people all the time, unless you believe Black people are incapable of being successful . . . then we have to look at the system."
For the past three years, without success, Walker has pushed to create a Measurements and Solutions Office to evaluate the programmes the city funds.
"That made a lot of nonprofits uncomfortable," said Jordy Yager, who works at one, as digital humanities fellow at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. "They'd always been given a check and asked to give a year-end report, but that was the extent of the oversight."
Yager, who is white and attended high school with the mayor, noted one of Walker's successes - launching Home to Hope, a city programme for returning prisoners that was designed from the ground up by formerly incarcerated people who help other ex-inmates get IDs, housing, jobs and transportation.
"City staff were very confused," Yager said. "They said, 'Well, Nikuyah, what are these people going to do?' And Nikuyah said, 'We won't know until they tell us.' . . . Because who knows the system better than people who have been through it? To me, that's empathy. This is deep listening."
The "beautiful-ugly" bit in the poem was not original. Walker heard a local pastor, the Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms, describe the city that way in a eulogy for Holly Edwards, a former vice mayor who died in January 2017. Walker, who had two children in her teens, thought the phrase perfectly captured the place for Charlottesville natives like her, who grew up "on that poverty side of this community."
"There's been so much trauma inflicted on them that they can't even see those beautiful mountains, the rolling hills, the tree-lined streets," Walker said. "And when you hear about your community . . . people are usually describing it as a place to come to drink wine, to get married, visit the great university. And we are often looking at those 'World's best place to retire,' those types of things, and saying: 'Really? For whom?' "
A longtime advocate for racial and social justice with a degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, Walker, 40, got into politics at the urging of Edwards, an African American woman widely praised as a bridge-builder between the city's haves and have-nots. Walker sees herself as carrying on Edwards's work, but with a more aggressive style that regularly offends what she calls the "tone police." Edwards was a "gentle spirit," said Walker, who calls herself "a warrior at heart."
"People say all the time to be more like her," Walker said. "I tell people if what she was trying to do had worked, we wouldn't be here. . . . Tell me where a Black person has conformed, has done what the White majority has expected them to do, and they have been successful."
Brown-Grooms said Walker called her when the poem started going viral.
"I hadn't seen it, and I said, 'Whoa, it's absolute truth,' " she said. "I've never seen a more beautiful city that has a very ugly underside. Everybody goes to great lengths to keep the manicure up, but that underside is very dark, and ugly and sinister. . . . It may be 2021, but this is a feudal state. Thomas Jefferson has never died."
Walker makes $20,000 a year as mayor. Without notice, the city website started posting all the City Council's salaries, including hers on her mayoral profile - a move she called a "subtle microaggression" from someone in City Hall.
"That is to make sure people understand that I am not in charge, because they think that dollar amount signifies that," she said.
Walker did the math recently and figured, given the hours she had put in that month, she had earned about 11 cents an hour. She says it's not a 24/7 job - more like "28/8."
The mayor said she has not decided whether to seek reelection to the council in November, when two at-large seats will be on the ballot. As an independent candidate, she faces no filing deadline. One other independent and four Democrats, whose filing deadline passed last week, have thrown their hats into the ring.
"I'm a very hopeful person," she said, "but this position is killing that hope."