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Biden uses Charlottesville to talk about political violence. But he hasn't been there

The street where Heather Heyer was killed during the Nazi rally in 2017 has been renamed to Heather Heyer Way. Residents in Charlottesville say that day still leaves an impact on the town.
Deepa Shivaram
/
NPR
The street where Heather Heyer was killed during the Nazi rally in 2017 has been renamed to Heather Heyer Way. Residents in Charlottesville say that day still leaves an impact on the town.

It's been more than six years since images of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., shocked the world — hundreds of people with tiki torches chanted antisemitic slurs, and a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed.

The events of Aug. 12, 2017, were so shocking that they motivated Joe Biden, who had mostly retired from political life, to run for president against Donald Trump. He said hearing Trump saying there were "very fine people on both sides" that day in Charlottesville was a defining moment.

"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime," Biden says in his 2019 video announcing his run for president.

But as much as Biden talks about Charlottesville, some residents are wondering why he hasn't visited the town.

What it would mean for Biden to visit

"If that made an impact on him ... he said that was one of the reasons he ran, then why wouldn't you? I mean that would be something you do," Carla Hunt, a former educator, said.

Student Amy Little said Biden should "absolutely" visit.

"I think there's a certain gravity in coming and seeing where those things happen and really kind of getting a sense and breathing the air and seeing the sites," she said.

Amy Little (left), a student and longtime resident in Charlottesville, said Biden should "absolutely" come visit the town.
Deepa Shivaram / NPR
/
NPR
Amy Little (left), a student and longtime resident in Charlottesville, said Biden should "absolutely" come visit the town.

Others said a visit from Biden wouldn't make much of a difference.

"2017 was a long time ago now. There's a pandemic, there's a whole bunch of other places that have happened since then. He's going where the news is," local resident Kelly Vo said. "It is what it is."

Kelly Vo (left) told NPR that Biden is traveling where the news is, and it wouldn't make much impact if he visited Charlottesville so many years after the 2017 events.
Deepa Shivaram / NPR
/
NPR
Kelly Vo (left) told NPR that Biden is traveling where the news is, and it wouldn't make much impact if he visited Charlottesville so many years after the 2017 events.

Barbara Perry, a professor of presidential history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told NPR that despite how shocking the events in Charlottesville were, political memory is short.

"Perhaps the further we get away from August 2017 and from the attack on Charlottesville, it raises a good point: Do we still have a sense of the urgency there?" Perry said.

Still, Perry noted that it's important for Biden to speak up on the issue.

"It's certainly a responsibility, it seems to me, of an incumbent president of the United States to remind Americans what we are fighting for to maintain our democratic republic," Perry said.

For Biden, democracy is a central message

In private events with donors and in some official events, Biden has started to direct more pointed attacks at Trump — saying he and right-wing Republicans are an existential threat to the nation.

At a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, Biden said "democracy is at stake" in the next election and said Trump is "running on a platform to end democracy as we know it, and he's not even hiding the ball."

President Biden, at a speech in Tempe, Ariz., made some of his most pointed attacks against former President Trump, and said he and extremist Republicans were a threat to democracy.
Rebecca Noble / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden, at a speech in Tempe, Ariz., made some of his most pointed attacks against former President Trump, and said he and extremist Republicans were a threat to democracy.

At public events, he's starting to make the same arguments. At a September speech in Tempe, Ariz., Biden said it was up to Americans to decide where they stand on the country's values.

"Do we still believe in the Constitution? Do we believe in the basic decency and respect? The whole country should honestly ask itself — and I mean this sincerely — what it wants and understand the threats to our democracy," Biden said.

"I'm asking you that regardless of whether you're a Democrat, Republican or independent — put the preservation of our democracy before everything else," Biden said. "Put our country first."

Polling shows the state of democracy is an issue voters are deeply concerned about. A recent pollfrom Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult showed a whopping 82% of voters are worried about it.

The Biden campaign said the president will continue to make combating political violence part of his reelection bid, but it did not specify how he plans to talk about it going forward.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.