Nikuyah Walker, Charlottesville’s first Black female mayor, is throwing in the towel.
She came to power five months after the infamous rally of August 2017, when white supremacist groups bearing tiki torches descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues.
Today, the state’s troubled history with race has been an undercurrent in the hotly contested campaign for Virginia governor, and by extension, the local elections in Charlottesville, too. On Friday a group of anti-Trump Republican protesters, bearing tiki torches in a reference to the 2017 rally, showed up at Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s Charlottesville campaign stop — drawing widespread condemnation.
But Walker isn’t running in Tuesday’s election, when this liberal college town of 50,000 votes on two new council members — as well as the next governor. (After the election, the city council will select the next mayor.) Walker believes that Charlottesville isn’t ready for the change the city said it wanted four years ago. And when it comes to those she deems too slow to change, she doesn’t mince words.
On social media and in public meetings, Walker, the only person of color on the city council, called out people for focusing on “white privilege problems.” Most notably she tweeted a poem she’d penned earlier this year that called the city a “rapist.” And she’s clashed with everyone from the city manager to her colleagues on the city council to local residents in public meetings.
“When people talk about the fact that it’s going to take something revolutionary to change this world, that is it,” Walker told POLITICO Magazine. “There is going to be no gentle, easy way.”
Nationally the August 2017 rally was a clear sign that racist hate groups were moving out of the fringe and into the mainstream. Violence broke out on the streets. A woman protesting the protesters was killed. Then-President Donald Trump declared there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Locally, the “Unite the Right” rally prompted a more intimate reckoning. Charlottesville became synonymous with a national fault line around domestic hate groups. The city, after all, approved permits for the rally. White residents, many of whom considered themselves progressive, never really had to reckon with race before August 2017. After the rally they did. And Walker, as mayor, made sure that race was front and center of the city discourse.
Four years later the city — and Walker — are again in the middle of a maelstrom. A civil trial against the rally organizers kicked off last week, reopening fresh wounds for many. City leadership is in turmoil after the city manager fired Charlottesville’s first Black female police chief and then quit.
Just three months after the “Unite the Right” rally, Walker was first elected to Charlottesville’s city council in 2017 as an independent. Her fellow city council members, all Democrats, chose her as mayor later that year. But as Walker found out, the Charlottesville mayor is a position that comes with a fair amount of symbolism — but not much power.
Now, she’s stepping down, relinquishing her leadership in an overwhelmingly white, Democratic city deeply wounded by the rally and its aftermath. Charlottesville is still figuring out how to address the issues that the rally unearthed. And the debates taking place in Charlottesville on local issues like affordable housing, zoning and policing are a microcosm of a larger debate within the Democratic party about ceding wealth and power to marginalized groups.
During a virtual city council meeting early last month Walker confronted councilmember Heather Hill for defending parents of University of Virginia students — the moms asked for an increased police presence on campus in response to an uptick in violence.
“Don’t nobody want you to get on here and talk from your white fragility perspective,” Walker said. She accused her fellow council members, who are all white, of not paying enough attention to the needs of poor Black residents. Other council members and the city manager sat stone faced during the exchange.
To her detractors, Walker’s in-your-face style made progress hard in a pivotal moment when the city was ready for change. Hill said she wanted to be a part of moving the city past its history, but she felt silenced and sidelined by Walker.
“I do think 2017 opened the eyes to so many in the community, not recognizing the lengths of the disparities we have from a socioeconomic standpoint,” said Hill, who is also not running for reelection. “But now people are burned out and turned off by the rhetoric.”
Others say that Walker’s comments and tweets are a distraction.
“It was kind of unproductive when she’s constantly in people’s faces,” said Yas Washington, a local activist who is one of three candidates running Tuesday. Washington said the city supported programs for previously incarcerated people and a community garden in the past few years, but could have done more in a less conflict-ridden atmosphere.
“When people begin to feel cornered on race, it makes them racist as opposed to changing their viewpoints,” Washington said. “It no longer brings out change, but it brings uproar.”
But to many in Charlottesville, Walker was just speaking a truth that more residents needed to hear.
“We said we wanted to see change and she is a change agent,” said Brenda Brown-Grooms, co-pastor at New Beginnings Christian Community. Brown-Grooms said that Walker challenged the city’s notions of itself as a liberal, progressive place.
“People want to be progressive,” she said. “But comfort wins out every time.”
Read more from POLITICO Magazine’s conversation with Walker about her tenure. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity
We have seen a harsh spotlight on Black women leading big cities. Some like Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are not running for reelection. Do you think that Black women face additional pressures in political leadership?
It’s an interesting landscape that you find yourself in. If you’re really a change agent, then that’s going to be very frustrating because you spend all of your time attempting to break down those walls that people are putting around you.
You end up learning that you have daily battles that you have to fight, and you can’t really get any of your work done.
Why did you step down?
The final incident was the firing of our first Black female police chief. And she has faced, along with me, a lot of discrimination. This community did not honor her, did not trust her to do the work, and interfered almost daily in her ability to reform an institution.
Four of my colleagues supported the city manager in firing her. If that is how our government is working, what am I really doing here? One person can’t change the landscape of a community.
What do you think you have accomplished on Charlottesville’s city council?
I was still very productive, even though I spent a lot of energy fighting white supremacy.
My biggest accomplishment has been being willing to stick to my “Unmasking the Illusion” slogan to unleash a level of transparency on this community and to be willing to fight to tell the truth every day, no matter what it cost me.
There have been some other things that I’m really proud of, [including] a major reentry program that’s being run by people who have been affected by the criminal justice system. I have made sure that people understand that their voice is powerful. And that will be a legacy that the rest of the community will have to contend with when I’m gone.
I talked to a few people in Charlottesville about the trial, which is happening right now against the organizers of the August 2017 rally. They say it’s opening fresh wounds in the city. Is that how you feel?
That means that people are not paying attention. The fact that it took primarily white men to walk through the street with tiki torches, saying, ‘You will not replace us,’ for people to start paying attention about the living conditions of a significant number of their citizens is problematic to me. And the fact that you need a trial to remind you that we say, ‘We’re committed to fighting and undoing centuries of racist practices and policies in this community’ is why we don’t get anywhere.
I have never been afforded the luxury of having that kind of temporary memory. It is a consistent fight daily.
Talk about what this community has been through during the last four years.
What people have been attempting to figure out is, if this community can hold on to the ideas that we espoused after the summer of hate. We are not doing such a good job with that.
We have a group of white citizens who organize to prevent a land use map from being voted on. The individuals who are lower income, they don’t own the land. So if that land use map is actually going to create avenues for lower income people to have affordable housing here, there’s going to have to be a lot of intention from the government.
But the city council is set to vote on a comprehensive land use plan later this year to create more affordable housing. And it should pass, right?
It should be passing soon, but we’ve seen massive resistance. You hear that coming out now, where people are like, ‘Not in my backyard. Yeah, Black people should live somewhere, but it’s not here.’ A lot of people are comfortable and they own their space and they want to maintain full control over what happens in any space near their space.
What do you think is driving the turmoil in city government?
The narrative is that this unprofessional mayor is in a seat, and it’s hard and difficult for people to work with me. People have labeled me as unpredictable. People who wanted the moderate path, who didn’t want to upset people on either end of the spectrum and find consensus, they thought I was too radical because I’m an all or nothing type of person. I don’t want your crumbs because your crumbs are never going to liberate anyone. I show up at every discussion grounded in that truth. That’s difficult for people, even people who believe that they have the best intention.
But if you want things to change and look differently, where in history has that been a comfortable walk in the park? What I have told the public is that I’m going to always tell you the truth and that truth has been uncomfortable. The notion that you can just place someone who is reform minded in a position of power and then dictate everything that they do and that things are going to change is absurd.
Do you worry about alienating your colleagues instead of trying to bring them along with you?
If I’m alienating them, then it’s a topic that they were not going to choose the right side of anyway.
It’s like putting people on an auction block to determine their liberation, their freedom, what pace, how long the chain is that’s around your neck. I don’t want the chain on my neck. You don’t get to put one on my neck. And because your ancestors were the ones who had it on our necks, you don’t get to then tell me at what pace I will be free. You just don’t. And if that is alienating people, then that is what I am in this world to do.
Do you have any regrets?
In terms of would I spend more time trying to create a middle way for my colleagues to jump on? No. Would I spend less time calling people out, being less transparent? No. Would I spend less time talking about white supremacy, very overtly? No.
There is no middle way for this. People are going to have to give up some of the luxuries they are trying to hold on to.
[Look at] Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms. She’s not in a meeting [arguing], doing what I do. It was the same outcome. Why? You probably can’t find a mayor in this country who approached the seat as I did and what happened to them? Why are they having the same fate? If it’s me and my politics and my way of doing things, why is it the same fate?
The person that inspired me to run was my friend, Holly Edwards, who was vice mayor. She is the complete opposite. Everyone claims they love her. She is completely different — a very lovable, gentle person. She’s not calling anybody out publicly. And still, we ended up in the same place. She still only ran one term. She still fought with her white women colleagues and was disrespected by them. She was still exhausted.
What comes next for you?
I am frustrated. I need some rest. I need to heal my spirit. I’ve definitely ruined any opportunity of doing many things, and so I’m fully aware of that. And I’m OK with that.