Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy Is Neo-Nazis’ Worst Enemy
A talk with the hero who emerged from the white supremacist attack that rocked the nation, one month later
What rang in America’s ears the weekend of August 12 was neither freedom nor liberty. It was death; it was the shrieking of a crowd being deliberately plowed by a car on a street in Virginia. When President Donald Trump punted on providing moral leadership on that awful August weekend in Charlottesville in which a young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed, the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, rose to condemn the alt-right behind the now-fatal march. “Shame on you!” he cried, as a young black man in a bold “Menace II Supremacy” T-shirt stood behind him and nodded with vigor. Yet the younger man paused—many noted with amusement—when the governor also praised as patriots Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two of the top slave owners in Virginia history. Social media trendingly speculated: Who was this woke brother on primetime?
The man is none other than Charlottesville’s 30-year-old Vice Mayor and wunderkind Dr. Wes Bellamy, a rising star in state and perhaps now national politics. His campaign to bring down Confederate statues and symbols in VA have brought him much attention, some of it unwanted, like when alt-right organizer Jason Kessler tried to destroy Bellamy’s career months before the Unite the Right march by exposing offensive tweets about race and sex that Bellamy sent nearly a decade ago. “I was young and wild, kind of do whatever, say whatever, whenever,” he admits, but Charlottesville “really grew me up… I realized, ‘People don’t gotta look like you or have to necessarily have the same ideology as you to ride with you.’” And with the people riding for him, Bellamy intends to ride with them, too—all the way to a future he vows “God has promised.”
MASS APPEAL sat down with Dr. Bellamy to discuss his come-up, how he copes with feeling like a target, rebuilding Charlottesville in a new image and the future of the Democratic party—one month after that fateful weekend in Virginia.
You’re 30 going on 31, which makes you the youngest elected to the Charlottesville City Council in the history of the Council, as well as the only African-American currently represented on the council and the seventh-ever elected in Charlottesville to public office.
Yes sir, yes sir.
Tell me a little bit about your decision as an Atlanta native and South Carolina State graduate to move up north to Charlottesville, Virginia and become a teacher? Which is sort of the beginning of your career in public service.
It was crazy—I knew not one person, not a soul here in Charlottesville. My grandmother was like, “Really? You’re going to move to the north?” My two cousins packed up my college apartment and dropped me off. I originally moved here September 11th 2009 to work at a place called NGIC [National Ground Control Intelligence Center], which is a government facility. Loved my salary, hated my job. I wanted to do a lot more community-oriented stuff around the way in places where I felt comfortable, which was our public housing sites. I started volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club and we had a community day event: back-to-school haircuts, do stuff with the kids and have a good time, job training and what not. Subsequently, I used to see the kids always slap-boxing and I used to box. I started a boxing club and convinced the council at the time to give me some space at Tonsler Park, one of our traditional African-American parks—20 kids in a 400 square feet spot, with boxing equipment, everything’s hot.
That sounds like something from The Wire—like the character Cutty.
Yeah, my friends called me Cutty at first! [laughs] We’d just do stuff with the kids, show my commitment, and the people just started rocking with me. We got an award at a city council meeting one night, and one of my boxers asked me, “Coach Wes, why isn’t there anybody that looks like us up there?” And I didn’t have a response. He’s right though, so I decided to run for [city] council in 2013. The first time I ran, I was 25, a good speaker but I didn’t really know the political game. I wound up losing the election. They said it was a tie at the polls, but somehow there were four ballots that weren’t counted for my opponent. So I lost and people were a little upset about that but it was all good. We have four-year terms but they’re staggered elections; two years [later there] was another election. I got the most votes in 2015, won by a landslide and um, just continued to push. I was actually gonna go to law school before I became a teacher. Standing outside of the boxing club, I got talked into being a teacher and ended up getting my masters to be a principal. Then I officially just finished up my doctorate. Charlottesville has always kind of had this tug on my heart, like, “You’ve got to stay.” I love this place because it really taught me how to be a man.
At 22 years old when I first moved here—I’m sure people have seen the tweets and all of that—that’s not how I thought. We’d say the craziest stuff we could say on Twitter. I was young and wild, kind of do whatever, say whatever, whenever. But this place really grew me up! “Hey, this is how a man conducts himself.” I got a chance to experience and meet a lot of different people, white people, black people, older people and I realized, “People don’t gotta look like you or have to necessarily have the same ideology as you to ride with you.” I became a husband, got married, I have three daughters now.
A Georgia native attending college in South Carolina and moving to Virginia, you’re moving as close to the Mason-Dixon line as you’ve ever been. But Virginia is still the seat of the Confederacy.
Definitely still the South.
So you got involved in the effort to start bringing down Confederate monuments, a movement that is finally picking up steam and becoming a national movement. A lot of the Unite the Right protesters from the tragic weekend of August 12th, as we saw on the Vice coverage, identified you as one of their enemies. They’re marching through the streets with signs that say “Wes Bellamy is a Nigger.”
Yeah, “He gon’ die,” all this other stuff.
Death threats against you, and then one of their leaders described the town of Charlottesville as being run by “Jewish communists and criminal niggers.” How did you handle that level of attention, resentment and hatred?
Like you said, this has picked up steam throughout the country. I remember being on this side when it wasn’t cool, wasn’t like as positive as it is now. I remember people in these places who are writing the legislation [to remove the statues] hitting me up, trying to figure out what policy did we write, to use our policy. I feel like this is God’s work and everything that I’ve been through in my life was preparing me for these times. Now don’t get it twisted, it doesn’t make me the happiest to see signs like that, moreso because of my family and friends. They’re really, really concerned. My wife is from South Carolina, from a 99 percent African-American community that’s very small and close-knit, so she’s not accustomed to this. My middle daughter and older daughter are always scared something’s going to happen to Daddy. People in the community worry. Personally, I take it in stride. There is no progress without pushback. Ever. This is what God has ordered my steps to do. Cyhi the Prynce had a line, “Why panic if this is how God planned it?” I don’t want anyone to think I’m Super-Negro [laughs] and I don’t have bad days or get down sometimes, but I’m encouraged because the people have shown and proven that they are willing to go forward with me. These white supremacists, neo-Nazis and neo-conservative folks, they don’t get to write the story of Charlottesville. We write the story of Charlottesville. We’re not “erasing history” but we damn sure can change it and correct it. We’re talking about creating equity throughout the city.
To a lot of young people, civil rights history is kind of a blur of black-and-white footage and stirring speeches. But activists were being threatened not just by the Klan, but local and federal law enforcement—COINTELPRO and J.Edgar Hoover’s agents sending forged letters to turn people against each other and other tactics. Now you, a Vice Mayor, are being attacked by hackers or outed by alt-right people like Jason Kessler. You and this guy have been going back and forth for awhile now.
It’s like the Jay-Z quote, “Don’t argue with fools / cause folks from a distance can’t tell who is who.” I’m never back and forth with Kessler. That’s on him. But as far as the question, it’s very much reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. After I gave my speech during the rally on the 12th, the police came and I had security, one of these dudes is 6’6″, they’re like, “We gotta walk you out.” I can’t go anywhere by myself. And that’s becoming my norm now. But I think that shows that [their] playbook is tired and played out, for one. Secondly, we can anticipate these things. I appreciate those who had to sacrifice and go through this before me. They’re going to try to attack your character. That’s what they did with Dr. [Martin Luther] King—”Oh, he’s a womanizer” or Brother Malcolm—”He’s this or that.” So what’d they do with me? “Let’s go look up some old tweets from 2009 and 2010.” We’ve seen this playbook so we know how to handle it, right? And it doesn’t mean that we’re perfect but we know what’s coming.
I feel like God has promised that we’re gonna move forward and have equity in this city. God has promised that we gon’ wake up. I don’t know if you saw the city council meeting on Monday [August 21st.] There’s a lot of woke folks out here. People are passionate. We have to emphasize with them. I’ve been using the hashtag #NewCharlottesville. This is the new C’ville. It’s not going to be people just passive-aggressive or [quiet] when they see things going wrong. Nah. We’re gonna address it. They wanna be heard. That doesn’t mean that they’re gonna be violent. We owe them our ears to listen.
It seemed like sort of a mirror image of what a lot of Republicans were facing over their attempt to repeal and/or replace Obamacare—these town hall meetings that were so intense, some of the politicians were walking off the stage. As you know, a lot of your fellow council members at some point made the decision to leave, but you did not. It was striking.
We have to put ourselves in the shoes of other people. People have been marginalized for so long. These folks are traumatized and they have a right to voice that. I agree with them. We need to listen to them. I feel like that makes us better policymakers and government leaders. I didn’t take it personal.
Some people compared the patience that law enforcement showed in Charlottesville with the protesters of Unite the Right to the militaristic and aggressive tactics in other cities and situations like Ferguson, Missouri—like, “this is like when the police offered Dylan Roof some Burger King drive-through after he murdered a church full of people!” As a representative of the Charlottesville power structure as well as having an activist background, all due respect—we know the police lost two of their own that day—what’s your thoughts on that criticism and what’s your relationship like with local law enforcement? These alt-right people have promised to come back, defiantly.
People have a right to feel how they feel. I can see why they feel that way. I speak to our Police Chief, Chief Thomas, we talk often. I can’t speak to why certain things happened, that wouldn’t be fair. We haven’t been officially briefed. I do know we’re working very hard to make sure justice is served. People that know me know, we’re on it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure justice is served.” I’m sure there will be different things we can improve upon. I can assure the people that we will be ready, I know that much.
We’ve talked about the historic nature of your election. At Monticello in Charlottesville, the historians talk about the slave community there and their relationship to Founder and 3rd President Thomas Jefferson, a major slave owner and founder of the University of Virginia. He’s also the O.G. Democrat. You’re a Democrat in a very different time where the party is seeking fresh young leadership, not wanting to rest on the laurels of President Obama but to find the next Obama, the next Governor Terry McAuliffe and so forth. Tell me more about the New Charlottesville, the diversity of your city council and your party’s efforts to find new young leadership like yourself.
In my personal opinion, New C’ville is a group of bold, unafraid people of a multitude of races, right, that will not accept the status quo. A lot of truth-telling, a lot of very strategic grassroots community organizing. Also, a group of people who don’t always see everything eye-to-eye. It’s OK for everyone to not agree on every single thing. It’s OK to also be critical. “Wes, I wish you would be more bold.” I say, “I have to balance that with the position I’m in” but that’s OK. That’s the new C’ville: We’re gonna take care of our communities. We’re gonna stand up for each other, ride for each other. We’re gonna be vocal. The same-old, same-old—we’re not having it.
Nationally, you’ve drawn criticism from the President’s base; you’ve been outspoken in responding that those white nationalist elements are “cowards” and “false patriots.” You’ve referred to the 45th President, Donald Trump, only as “45” constantly, which Chris Cuomo of CNN asked you about. And recently President Trump said, “They’re trying to take away our culture, our history.” What’s your response?
I think 45 [chuckles] day after day, shows us more and more of who he is. I don’t really have much to say about 45; I’m moreso concerned about Charlottesville and working with people to build up our community. 45 is who he is, I don’t think I need to say anything else. I do wish that he was a better leader.
For those unhappy with his leadership, it’s going to require a lot of work from his political opposition prior to the midterm elections of 2018. Back to that question about finding new leadership: you’ve personally stepped forward, but one Wes Bellamy is not going to be enough. How will your party find more candidates to run in 2018 and actually do something about their issues with the President?
I don’t think it’s up to just them to find us, see what I’m saying? At some point, we have to find ourselves. I’m not expecting anybody else to do something for us that we should be doing for ourselves. We don’t need anybody else to come find us! We’ve got plenty of leaders. Dr. Wes Bellamy isn’t an anomaly. I’m not Super-Negro. I’m not the only one out here. But also, not everybody is meant to do this. There are several roles to play. We don’t need a monolithic figure or leader. There’s a lot of us who are working in our communities day after day, we just need the same opportunities. Either they’re gonna give us the opportunity or we’re gonna take the opportunity. I was with Van Jones last week and he was like, ‘When Dr. King got thrust in the national spotlight, nobody knew who he was. They knew his dad [Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. aka “Daddy” King.]’ The opportunity came and he seized the moment.”