Colgate Reacts to the Events of Charlottesville


On August 11, neo-Nazi groups assembled in Charlottesville, VA with torches, pictured above. This event deeply disturbed the nation and Colgate.

On Friday, August 11, neo-Nazi groups and conservative protesters assembled together in Charlottesville, Virginia to challenge the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue from Lee Park. Violence erupted, leading to the deaths of three civilians and the injuries of 34 men and women. As a result of the renaming of Lee Park to Emancipation Park and the statue’s ultimate removal, clashes between political groups spurred conversations about racism, freedom of speech and the future of America. 

Although the protest was officially called to challenge the removal of the statue, it quickly became a venue for white nationalists to have a platform and assemble. On the night before the “Unite The Right” rally, hundreds of white nationalists gathered on University of Virginia’s campus, carrying torches and chanting slogans such as “White Lives Matter” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” During the morning of the Unite The Right rally the next day, counter-protesters also assembled to defend the removal of Lee’s statue and to protest the presence of the conservative groups. 

Clashes between the political groups eventually resulted in a State of Emergency for Charlottesville. The rally took a terrifying turn at around 1 p.m. when James Fields Jr., a white nationalist protester, plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer, marking the first death of the rally. Fields, who has since been arrested, also injured at least 19 others with the crash.

After the weekend’s events, President Trump addressed the nation, condemning the violence “on many sides,” causing many to believe that he was defending the white nationalists. While he spoke out against the violence, many noted that he did not explicitly condemn white nationalist or neo-Nazi parties in his speech. Colgate President Brian Casey reflected on Trump’s statement and the impact it had on the United States.

“I think he missed the entire narrative of what was happening. He misunderstood what was really happening at that event, and he misunderstood the impact it was having on Charlottesville and the nation. He should have responded with a much more pronounced sense of what’s important in America,” Casey said.

Senior Tasnim Ali also felt that Trump’s presidency emboldened the white supremacist protesters to be so outspoken and violent. 

“[Trump’s] campaign and presidency have unquestionably contributed to the resurgence of white supremacist/white nationalist movements,” she said. 

As a whole, the events that took place the weekend of August 12 upset many Colgate students and faculty. In particular, sophomore Jack Hochman emphasized the unpredictability of events such as the Charlottesville protests, and how these situations can occur on college campuses at any time. 

“Knowing that an event like this could take place so close to a college campus like ours makes it even more upsetting for students,” Hochman said. 

Many students saw Charlottesville as a microcosm of larger trends in America today. Ali continued to elaborate that the events in Charlottesville should serve as a “wake-up call” to students who deny that racism still exists in America. 

“Racism and racists didn’t disappear in 1865 when slavery was abolished or in 2008 when we elected our first black president,” Ali said. 

In a letter to the Colgate community, Casey described the events as “striking to the nation’s core,” and “deeply upsetting.”

“This past weekend we witnessed a series of shocking events: outside extremist groups marched across the University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, clashes in the streets followed with many injuries and three tragic deaths,” he said.  

One aspect of the Charlottesville protests that struck especially close to home for Colgate students was the use of torches. For years, many students have decried the use of torches in Colgate traditions like the Founder’s Day event and in the Torchlight graduation ceremony. Many have stated that the use of torches is too embedded in America’s racial past to be included in these ceremonies, while others believe the traditions can stand independent of any racial implications. 

Sophomore Brynn Ressa expressed her opinion about the use of torches on Colgate’s campus. 

“I think torches are an important part of Colgate’s traditions,” Ressa said. 

In contrast, Ali believes that torches must be removed in order to remove racist imagery from the ceremonies. 

“I think it’s time that Colgate realizes that the imagery is too similar, and as much as we’d like to, we can’t separate the historical and present-day use of torches by hate groups from our Torchlight Ceremony,” she said. 

Many believe that the imagery of the torches is too intertwined in racial tension to be justified on campus. 

“I think the Torchlight Ceremony is a publicity liability.  All it would take is for one photo of the parade of torches to go viral on the Internet, and the next thing you know, we’re the next Charlottesville, regardless of tradition,” explained Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Meg Worley.

Worley also provided insight on her personal experience at the Torchlight graduation ceremony last year. 

“I went to last year’s Torchlight Ceremony, and a lot of students made a third way for themselves: they didn’t carry torches. They didn’t carry university-issued candles. They carried light sabers, and pink flamingoes, and umbrellas festooned with colorful LEDs,” Worley said. 

“I would love for this organic expression to become our new tradition: Carry something that symbolizes you as an individual Colgate grad and yet participates in the tradition.”

Immediately following the Charlottesville protests, where some protesters carried torches, Casey sent an email explaining that, due to the recent violence, this year’s Founder’s Day event would not include torches as it usually does. 

“It seemed best and most respectful to pause and avoid the symbolism of a torch procession for our opening event,” Casey said. 

While this year’s Founder’s Day excluded torches, the future of torches at Colgate has not been decided. Colgate’s official seal includes a torch, and torches have been a part of Colgate’s history since its founding.

“Colgate’s seal includes, as its central image, a representation of the torch of knowledge.  And, as we all know, Colgate has used this symbol of enlightenment in the events that open and close the academic year for generations,” Casey wrote.

Casey hopes that through more meaningful conversations and reflections the campus can come together as a community to decide what the future holds for torches at Colgate.

Though nothing has been officially decided regarding torches, the faculty has taken steps to work toward a solution. 

“We clearly needed a space for a type of reasoned and productive conversation about how we want our rituals to be on the campus … prior to this moment it has really been a lot of shouting on both sides … I personally cannot imagine making any changes to campus rituals without engaging in some form of deliberative and creative process,” Casey wrote. 

Regardless of the solution that Colgate students and faculty arrive at, many hope these debates can serve as a platform to openly discuss tough topics and Colgate’s values. 

“In our work on this project, I hope we see the deepest values of Colgate coming to the fore,” Casey said.

Contact Zoe Frishberg at [email protected].