Weeks before violent protests in Charlottesville turned to tragedy, Brendan Novak wrote a column in the University of Virginia student newspaper arguing that the city “should let the alt-right rally occur.”
In the column, Novak, an opinion editor at the Cavalier Daily, defended the constitutional rights of the white supremacist groups to assemble and express their views. He wrote that the city — and Black Lives Matter — should allow the “alt-right” to protest openly, and “watch as the rotting ideological foundation collapses under its own weight.”
After all, he thought, how could a “universally loathed” group with “downright repulsive views” thrive in the face of an inclusive and tolerant society?
But then, on Friday night, Novak, an incoming sophomore at U-Va., watched from his family’s home in Arlington videos of white nationalists marching through his campus with flaming torches, shouting racist taunts.
He realized in that moment that Saturday morning’s rally was “a disaster waiting to happen.” He stayed up late into the night, coming to terms with the scale — and severity — of the event, which would conclude with three people dead by the end of the weekend, a woman struck by a car that plowed through a crowd and two state police officers who died in a helicopter crash.
“It was naive of me to not take their threats seriously,” Novak told The Post. “You could see it coming … it wasn’t hard to predict.”
On Monday, Novak decided to write a second column — reversing his opinion.
“I was wrong about the ‘alt-right,’” the headline read.
“It’s safe to say that the words and actions of the agitators in town over the weekend have proven how foolish I was,” Novak wrote.
Novak wrote that the violence displayed by the white nationalist groups “no longer, and perhaps never did, qualify as protected speech.”
“The alt-right is a domestic terrorist organization,” Novak wrote. “They have no interest in engaging in reasoned, mature discourse within the bounds of civil society, and would rather rely on brute force and terrorism to achieve their goals.”
Novak’s reversal has attracted national attention and was published in the New York Times. He told The Post he hopes his piece will show students on campus, and readers beyond, that it’s okay to allow new information and circumstances to shape or alter existing beliefs.
Novak is one of thousands of U-Va. students trying to make sense of the weekend’s events just as fall classes are about to begin. Meanwhile, his short-staffed student newspaper has been tasked with covering one of the biggest stories in America this week.
“It’s definitely going to feel different being in Charlottesville after this whole firestorm,” Novak said. “There’s going to be this shadow hanging over the grounds.”
The Cavalier Daily, founded in 1890, usually relies on a robust staff of more than 200 students to cover campus and regional news. But as white supremacists descended on Charlottesville Friday, the newspaper was essentially a staff of four, since the rest of the staff had not yet returned for the fall semester, the newspaper’s editor in chief Mike Reingold told The Post.
Three Cavalier Daily editors wove through the streets they knew better than many of the national reporters who had swooped in. They documented the protests led by local white nationalists, having already become accustomed to seeing them in town. Managing editor Tim Dodson choked on chemical irritants in the air as he tried to live-stream the scene.
Meanwhile, Reingold was alone back in the newsroom, sharing updates, videos and photos from his team on social media. He recalled reflecting on the weekend with Dodson a couple of days later, thinking to himself, “Wow, this actually happened?”
“People are still trying to understand why this happened in Charlottesville,” Reingold, a senior, said.
But this isn’t the first time the Cavalier Daily has been faced with national news in its back yard. In fact, Reingold said, “almost every year at U-Va. there’s some kind of national story.”
During Reingold’s first year on campus, the disappearance of sophomore Hannah Graham captured national news. Her body was found five weeks later, and her death was ultimately ruled a homicide in November 2014.
Around that time, a blistering account of rape allegations at U-Va. was published in a Rolling Stone magazine piece, which detailed a brutal gang rape hazing ritual. The allegations were ultimately debunked and led to multiple defamation lawsuits against the magazine.
Reingold recalled how professors would pause lectures to discuss the magazine piece, and the issues surrounding it. The national news became ingrained in conversations in classrooms and across campus.
“A lot of students are kind of tired that there’s always this spotlight,” Reingold said.
Each time such news breaks, national reporters swarm the campus, placing the student body and newspaper under a microscope. And in the days that follow, the campus community is left picking up the pieces.
The same will likely happen this time around, Dodson, the managing editor, said.
“Because we live in Charlottesville, we have to live with the consequences of what happened this last weekend,” Dodson said.
The pressing question for the newspaper staff is, “will this happen again?” Reingold said. “What do we do next?”
“I think it will,” Reingold said. He recalled previous instances in which the white nationalist leaders from the weekend events have come into their newsroom seeking information. Charlottesville has already been the site of two Ku Klux Klan rallies this summer, and Reingold worries they will be faced with another gathering.
“These people just don’t stop,” Reingold said. “I really do think they’ll come back, perhaps in fuller force.”
But, he said, “I hope they don’t.”