Nikuyah Walker kicked off her 2017 campaign at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker had tears in her eyes Wednesday morning while discussing her choice to withdraw from this year’s City Council race.
In an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow over Zoom she confirmed the news she’d posted to her personal Facebook page a few minutes prior, that she had signed and submitted the official paperwork to withdraw.
“Which,” she said with a sigh, “was difficult.”
Her voice was peppered with sniffles. She held a tissue in her hand and closed her eyes in an attempt to hold back more tears. She took a quiet moment and a few sharp, shuddering breaths before wiping her eyes with the tissue and continuing.
“I’ve been struggling since March, with leaving, making an announcement,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s just been a hard term.
“Fighting overt, covert, and internalized racism every day, and feeling really alone while doing that, it’s been a challenge. I still get up and I do it, I do all my work, and I stay up late fighting with people, and I still stay up late and get my work done. It’s really taken a toll on me and my family. It’s been a really difficult process,” she said.
Despite that, Walker said she had a hard time clicking the “send” button to file the official withdrawal form with the Virginia Department of Elections.
Now, three candidates — democrats Juandiego Wade and Brian Pinkston, and independent Yas Washington — will vie for the two seats that will open next term when Walker and Heather Hill step down from the dais. Walker will not endorse their campaigns.
A difficult decision
Walker’s path toward reelection had a number of starts and stops. After announcing her intention to seek reelection in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived a month later and her focus has largely been on public safety and current council affairs in the time since. Then in May of this year, following speculation as to whether or not she was still indeed running, Walker announced via Facebook Live that she was still in the race and would begin campaigning.
During her May announcement, Walker discussed the stress and weight of being on council and wanting to seek a second term.
“One thing I’ve learned is that really no matter who you are, if you’re Black and female or just Black, people don’t want to listen to you,” she said at that time. She also noted the temptation to prioritize herself and not seek a second term.
“I’m not choosing me, even though I’m exhausted and my hair is turning gray,” Walker said in May. “My friends ask me, ‘What is your body telling you?’ and my body is telling me you are all destroying me.”
But on Wednesday, she revealed that she considered resigning from council in December of 2020, “after the credit card incident and being blamed for John Blair leaving, and then fighting with them about the city manager,” she said.
The start of 2021 saw challenges for the council collectively, and Walker specifically. The city grappled with finding a new city manager to replace Tarron Richardson, who resigned suddenly in September 2020. They appointed Chip Boyles on an interim basis for the year.
Walker would go on to become the focal point of a credit card misuse scandal, in which there was no criminal investigation and policy was later revised for more clarity. Walker also became the focus of national attention after she wrote an explicit poem on Facebook that highlighted racial inequality within the city.
Through these months, she said, she was also coping with a death in her family.
“It’s just been a steady spiral since losing my grandmother,” Walker said Wednesday. “That was in December and I didn’t even have time to deal with losing one of my favorite people, and I only have three: My mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother.
“Those women are amazing. There are a lot of people I really appreciate a lot, but those women are everything to me. I wasn’t even able to process that because of this mess,” she said through tears.
Walker said she sought advice on whether to stay in the race from friends and family. These were people who, she said, joined her in trying to imagine what she calls “a different world,” one that is equitable, one that actively works toward dismantling white supremacy and all of the systems that uphold and perpetuate it.
“I made the mistake of calling them,” she said with some laughter. She told them she was considering resigning, but they discouraged such a move. “They challenged me to not give up after bringing them into the fight. So I stayed,” she said.
But increasingly, she said, she couldn’t see the benefit of trying for another term. She said she believes that her work toward dismantling systemic racism throughout the city is important and necessary, but she alleges that other elected and appointed officials, as well as the community as a whole, haven’t supported that work in concrete ways. That, she said, was an enormous — and ultimately impossible — burden to bear alone.
“I have been willing to fight with everyone, and I mean everyone, if I felt the system was being upheld, through overt racism, covert racism, or internalized racist. I have called people out on it, and of course that has not made me a favorite of anyone at any one point,” she said.
In response to Walker’s decision, fellow councilor Sena Magill explained in a phone call Thursday afternoon that she is sorry that Walker has felt alone and unsupported. Magill also said that from her perspective, city staff have tried to support Walker and other council members, but that recent years have been challenging — particularly for Walker.
“I think this time has been very hard on everyone,” Magill said. “But I know that there are ways that it’s hard for her that I can’t even begin to understand — as being our only Black councilmember.”
Charlottesville Tomorrow also reached out to other councilors for comment.
Councilor Lloyd Snook asserted in an email that the rest of council supported Walker’s call for dismantling white supremacy, but acknowledged that he personally “didn’t agree with her that white supremacy was at work behind every decision that every public actor makes.”
Referencing the credit card policy issue they handled earlier in the year, Snook says that the city had tried to resolve the clarity issues “quickly and without drawing attention to the alleged violations of the law.”
At the time, Walker discussed the situation on social media and within subsequent council meetings — aiming for transparency, she said.
“Mayor Walker insisted on having the discussion openly, during which time she complained that white supremacists (like me) were just trying to stifle her work,” Snook wrote in an email. “We spent about three hours on the topic in a public meeting, after which we adopted the policies that we could have adopted quietly and without anything seeming to have been directed at her. She had insisted on the public airing of the entire mess, and in the end, the other four of us voted for the policies that corresponded with state and local law.”
Meanwhile, councilor Heather Hill said that she’s confident every elected official or senior leader in Charlottesville has struggled to feel supported while “trying to do important work for our community” and that she is “sorry that this is how [Walker] has felt often.”
“It takes all of us, listening to each other with an open mind, working collaboratively and respectfully, to achieve meaningful progress in dismantling systemic racism in concrete ways,” Hill said in an email. “The current environment has made progress on this and other priorities near impossible.”
Walker sees it differently.
She alleges that city officials, both elected and appointed, perpetuate white supremacy by not actively and genuinely working to dismantle it. She said she doesn’t want to be part of that.
“I don’t want to participate in it,” she said. “I don’t want attempting this work to change me.”
She also said that the city government does not value or practice transparency as much as she believes it should.
The last straw
Walker’s withdrawal follows the recent termination of Charlottesville’s former police chief, RaShall Brackney, and though it was not the sole reason behind her decision to not seek reelection, she said it was a contributing factor.
“There’s only been a handful of people who’ve been working on breaking down institutional racism,” Walker said last week following Brackney’s firing. “We’re losing someone who is doing this work.”
Brackney had been committed to doing reform work from within the department, said Walker. But because Brackney did not discuss that work publicly, most of the community did not see it.
According to recent news releases from the city, Brackney recently terminated officers for misconduct. Following those terminations, internal department surveys and an externally-conducted survey by the Central Virginia Police Benevolent Association (PBA) found dissatisfaction within the department.
Critiques in the surveys include a lack of communication between staff, lack of morale in the department, and indication for multiple officers that they planned to seek employment elsewhere.
After Brackney’s termination, City Manager Chip Boyles issued a release stating that the city needs a chief who is “effective at building relationships.”
Both Walker and Brackney are the first Black women to serve in their respective roles in the city. They came into their roles around the same time, in 2018, and now, their exits from high profile positions will be just months apart as well.
Walker’s announcement came the morning after Tuesday’s night’s contentious council meeting, during which Walker attempted to discuss Brackney’s firing with fellow councilors and constituents — including a back and forth with Central Virginia PBA president and Albemarle County Police Department detective Michael Wells that ended in him hanging up.
A long night
Tuesday night was a long one, Walker implied during her interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow. She made her decision then, but opted to wait until morning to announce it.
The last person Walker talked to before making her decision, a friend, urged her to continue, to not to pull out of the race, because “cowards quit,” and he didn’t care if she only got one vote, or if she lost, as long as she continued. She laughed when she told that story, because she knew he was encouraging, not disparaging, her. “He’s the last person I talked to about it! I was like, ‘you know what? I’m not talking to anybody else!’”
Over and over again, Walker said, people have told her that she can get through this, that she’s a strong person, even when she’s told them she’s “falling the f— apart, here, people!”
She’s well aware of her own strength — “people like to say that my only focus is equity, and I do see equity in everything, it is my primary focus, but I kick ass in every room I’m in, no matter what the topic is. I do my homework. I show up,” she said with confidence — and she’s grateful that some people see it.
But, in addition to acknowledging her strength, she feels she has to be as honest with herself as she is with others. “You can get through this,” she remembered people telling her. “Okay, but I don’t feel like I can,” she replied.
Walker will serve out the rest of her term, which she noted ends December 31, 2021, at precisely 11:59 p.m. After that, she said, incredulously, “I have to like, rest or something.”
Between now and then, she will cast votes on some major policies, including the city’s comprehensive plan update and thus the future use land map (FLUM), which will guide an upcoming citywide rezoning.
‘The community has to decide if it will uphold systemic racism’
Walker said that the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, in combination with the various neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies of 2017 — including Unite the Right — showed Charlottesville some of what Black people experience every day.
“I probably naively believed that it was possible for them to hold on to that fear a little bit longer, even though I study history and know how fleeting it is,” she said.
When there was not a repeat of Unite the Right in August 2018, Walker said that fewer people in the community have been willing to talk about race and equity. It’s continuing now that Joe Biden was elected president, she said, and she’s disappointed in that shift away from the yet unsolved issues.
“The community has to decide whether it’s going to continue to uphold systemic racism,” Walker said toward the end of the interview. Trump is gone, but there are more like him, and those voters are still out there, she said.
Walker pointed to Charlottesville taking down its Confederate monuments in July of this year as proof of the weakness of symbols. Charlottesville’s statues are down, but the things she said they symbolized — systemic racism and white supremacy —remain.
City officials haven’t yet decided on where the statues will go, and Walker has declined an invitation to join a committee to determine that.
“I don’t need to join a committee to determine where we send the statues when you are upholding racism that we claim to have taken statues down to symbolize. I’ll pass,” she said.
“I did believe that in 2017, that this community was finally ready to tackle what had been going on on this plantation since it was created. And even when it became clear that they did not believe in this the way they had claimed to, the pain of growing up here and the experience, and knowing that my strength, that other people don’t have it, and the experience of seeing families succumb to the conditions that’s created in this community, kept me fighting.”
Those people, those families, made this decision all the more difficult, said Walker, and she addressed that more directly in her Facebook announcement, writing: “Dear Black People: I feel like I’ve failed you. I know your struggles and I know what you face everyday in this community. I am sorry. Every time an image of a little Black girl pops into my head, I fall apart. I hope that at some point I can convince her that I’m not being a coward. I hope I’ve given her some tools to survive in this callous world.”
During her tenure, Walker has been criticized for seeming to prioritize her Black constituents over those of other races. She does not find that criticism fair.
She said she takes every opportunity she gets to lift up Black people, to say “you matter.” And, she added, destroying white supremacy does not mean destroying the lives of white people.
“That has been the challenge in this community, that some people who benefit from oppression, white supremacy, racism, pretend that they’re not. And other white people uphold that. I come into every room and I challenge that, whether there are people in that room that agree with me or not. And people have not had to deal with racism at this level that I have forced the community to deal with it.”
When asked if she’s proud of that, she laughed through a sniffle and said she would answer that when her head is in a different place, “when I’m not feeling terrible” about this decision, she said.
“I hope I figure out how to continue this work,” she said, following up with a determined, “I’m sure I will.” Then her voice fell again.
“But I’m also getting to a point where I don’t believe in people. I haven’t been there before, and I don’t want to get there,” she said. “I don’t want to get all the way there.”