Don Gathers as Activist & Witness: Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Speaks Out

Contributed by Sam Heath | Photos by Derrick Waller

Don Gathers was on the streets of Charlottesville on August 12, 2017:

That Saturday when we got called to race down to Water Street. It was like a bomb had exploded in the intersection. There were bodies literally everywhere. Just blood and broken bones just all over the place. I stood there on the corner while the EMTs and paramedics worked just feverishly trying to save Heather. And it might sound weird but I literally saw the life leave her body. I was done. I was finished. They had won. I was through. That took everything out of me.

 

Don Gathers was on the streets of Charlottesville on August 12, 2017

Before he told me this on my back porch, with an evening breeze blowing and cicadas sounding off for our socially-distanced conversation, I’d decided I needed to get to know Gathers deeper than what I could glean from the public square, which is really the public rectangle of my phone. I knew he was co-founder of the Charlottesville Black Lives Matter chapter and that he was a deacon at First Baptist Church on West Main, where my wife and I sat after the 2015 Charleston shootings for a memorial and mourning service.

That was the first time I saw Gathers.

Don Gathers

The second time was on August 12, 2017 at the sunrise service he organized, again at First Baptist Church, where Cornel West spoke. The crowd marched from First Baptist to Market Street Park, where the Lee statue stands that the white supremacists were determined to preserve. Of that Saturday Gathers relates, “You can’t unsee the things that happened that day.”

The third time was at the Virginia Film Festival in the late fall of 2017. He was on a panel following the screening of Charlottesville: Our Streets, a documentary by Brian Wimer about August 11-12. The moderator expressed how he was so struck with the violence in the documentary that he had to step out of the theater. I remember Gathers replying forcefully yet paternally that those who were actually there on the streets that day did not have that luxury.

I wondered who this man was, this seemingly fearless truth-teller.

Gathers, a seemingly fearless truth-teller

What we cannot unsee we also cannot un-remember. And Gathers, 61, remembers much. Of his childhood, he recalls growing up in Richmond as the last of six boys. He recalls segregated lunch counters, segregated schools, then desegregated schools and counters. He recalls Monument Avenue’s Confederate monuments. Presently, the only monuments remaining are that of tennis superstar Arthur Ashe, a Black man, and General Robert E. Lee, a sight he calls “a true dichotomy.”

Charlottesville, where he has resided for many decades and raised his three sons, the youngest of which attends and plays football for UVA, might likely be the last city to remove its Confederate monuments, despite helping spark a national reckoning with statues to white supremacy.

Don Gathers

Commissioning Deacon Gathers
Before the trauma of August 12, Gathers was already engaged in the center of the Charlottesville monuments debate. Gathers remembers that Wes Bellamy, a former church congregant, “stayed on me” to apply for the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces. Reluctantly, Gathers applied for a spot and was not only appointed but made chair of the committee. Their review ended in a 6-3 vote to keep the monuments in place, with Gathers dissenting.

Still, he calls the Blue Ribbon Commission “outside of family my most impressive body of work” and remains “completely overjoyed with what we put in.”

Gathers’ wife, DeTeasa, was on the steering committee for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, and Gathers believes that the memorial is both important and flawed. He holds that the statue of Jefferson should come down and be placed in the Rotunda rather than remain in a geographically and potentially symbolically elevated position “looking down” on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. That has too much of an echo of Jefferson’s view from Monticello where he watched slaves building UVA.

Like with Jefferson’s legacy, racism enters spaces and makes waves that channel themselves through history. August 12 was “beyond surreal” when “the things I saw that day you can’t get away from…things that no person should have to see or experience.” It was a crossroads for our city and “in so many ways we’re still sitting at that crossroads” where “we have to determine if we want to move forward.”

Gathers loves his city but also sees the need for boldness and a willingness to fight the real enemy, “the enemy of racism, the enemy of white nationalism, the enemy of white supremacy” rather than fellow brothers and sisters in the cause.

That insidious power of privilege remains even after A12. “That scab was pulled off that weekend…and still lays open right now.”

Biden and Boldness
One way the city could be bold would be to take up Gathers’ insistent and consistent demand that Joe Biden visit Charlottesville. When Biden announced his candidacy in April of 2019, he stated that his motivation to run came from hearing Trump morally equate white supremacists with counter-protestors in Charlottesville on August 12.

Gathers was “very much bothered and troubled” by Biden’s use of “Charlottesville as a prop,” which is why Gathers has publicly asked that Biden visit Charlottesville so Biden can hear firsthand the story of what happened, what ended, and what parts of the story continue. “He owes us that,” Gathers admits. Biden’s presence would be dignifying and a way to help the city further admit that there is more work to be done. “We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on these artery cuts before we eventually bleed out.”

Just Something That’s There
“Activism, I think, you’re called to do,” Gathers says, and it is not something you wake up feeling, but rather are born with “burning inside.” It’s “just something that’s there.”

Gathers is an activist. He leads protests, dedicates markers like the one to John Henry James, goes on civil rights pilgrimages, and even ran briefly for city council before death threats to him and his family ended the campaign.

He distinguishes a movement from a revolution. A revolution—and he credits this moment of Black Lives Matter as a revolution—“keeps coming back around.” A revolutionary spirit is always willing to alter itself based on the needs of the moment, whereas a movement might be best labeled after the fact. Of Charlottesville, he notes, “We started a revolution.”

These efforts are exciting, necessary even, but, Gathers says with a sigh, “Yeah, you get tired.”

Part of that activism included starting the Charlottesville Black Lives Matter chapter with UVA professor Jalane Schmidt. It was at the end of 2016 that Gathers began to hear that white nationalists were organizing. Schmidt and Gathers wanted to bring together like-minded people around an organization Gathers likens to the Black Panther Party. He says Black Panthers were “just a group of Black men who got together to protect their neighborhood and to provide for their neighborhood. That’s all they did.”

Like the Black Panthers, the work of BLM is in response to how people “saw a real need” and worked to meet it.

Gathers and activism

Part of BLM’s work is to ensure that the work does not stop. “It’s cyclical. It only picks back up when another incident happens.” And BLM is there to “make sure the work doesn’t stop.” That work means not just reforming but rebuilding the system, particularly the criminal justice system.

“The system itself is not broken. It’s doing exactly as it was designed to do.” Since “you can’t reform that system,” the only option is “to throw out the baby with the bathwater and the crib and the stroller and start all over.”

BLM is here to help make sure that happens.

Martin, Malcolm, & Jimmy
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin all gave different answers about how to address “the system,” but Gathers works to “encompass and incorporate and even represent a little of all three.”

Like Baldwin, Gathers bears witness to our city’s story. But “I am much more Malcolm than I am Martin,” Gathers says, and yet he concedes, “I like to think that I am the ultimate peacemaker.”

Growing up on the east side of Richmond, an area that helped Richmond become the murder capital of the country for a season, exposed Gathers to gang wars, riots, drugs, and shootings. He grew up and left, but, he says, “I remember where I left it if anyone needs to take me back there…. I don’t like that dude a whole lot, but I know that he is still around.”

It was the combination of “that dude” and “the ultimate peacemaker” that ran for City Council in 2019, a run that ended after the FBI came to his door with a “2 ½ inch folder” of threats made against Gathers and his family. Gathers resigned from the race and publicly spoke to the man from Florida, Daniel McMahon, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison:

Jesus says to love the sinner but hate the sin, but I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near there…. I realize that this is of no consequence to you, but I pray for whatever sin-sick soul is possessed inside of all the hatred that you spew; I pray that one day I might find it in my heart to forgive you, but today is not that day.

Don Gathers

After telling me this Gathers pauses and breathes deeply as he recalls the threats, concluding, “I very much embrace my spirituality.” He leans forward: “I’ll pray with you, I’ll pray for you, but cross and me and you’ll find me praying over you.”

Faith in Activism
Faith is “very much woven into the fabric of one’s being.” This seems especially true for Gathers as an activist.

He notes a parallel between his work as co-founder of BLM Charlottesville and being a member of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, since both groups labor in the areas of community, faith, and are “trying to help people.”

But the connection of faith and activism goes back much further than these two groups:

Jesus was very much an activist. Jesus got angry. Jesus turned over tables in the courtyard because of what people had done to his temple. We need to look at what he’s given to us as a temple, and we need to make sure that we preserve it, that we take care of it, and that we don’t let anyone do any damage to it.

Gathers sees bodies, homes, and communities as sacred spaces we should “respect and be responsible for.” These enemies—white nationalism and white supremacy—endanger our spaces. Yet no one with privilege, no one with malice, no one with threats can occupy these spaces forever. Like the temple courtyard in the New Testament book of John, Charlottesville needs a cleansing of the white supremacy that invades the sacred space of our city.

Many do not want to see a “parallel between activism and spirituality and religion, but it exists,” most practically in how “we’re supposed to be responsible for and help our neighbors.”

Called to Do Something
Of our city, he says, “The story’s not over yet.” And that story for Gathers was deeply influenced by his experience on A12. After seeing Heather Heyer’s murder, he walked away from the scene, distraught:

Buckets of tears [were] flowing. That had sapped everything I had in me…. [Then] I just felt someone, a barrel of a man, grab me and just squeeze me and hold on to me. He whispered in my ear, “Don, you can’t give up. We need you too much. You gotta keep going”.… I truly think that God sent him at that moment, because I really was done.

Gathers was present on A12 and is still present, giving strength to our city. He is resolute in his commitment to “attack the beast” prowling our city and nation’s policies and hearts.

October 14 was the two-year anniversary of his heart attack, after which Gathers realized, “Nobody’s called to do everything, but everybody’s called to do something.”

The something Gathers is called to is to help others recognize that “the needs, the causes, the necessities are still [here].”

With one like Gathers bearing witness and working as an active presence, we are more likely to remember and to heed his call to “do something.”

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