New Year’s Eve is upon us, a day when we can indulge in the notion that the events of the past 12 months are coming to a close and a cycle of renewal is about to start.
In truth, this notion is a bit of an illusion, brought on by a narrative we tell ourselves about what the numbers in our calendars signify. To our planet, completing yet another circuit around the sun and continuing on, one rotation is just like the next.
Yet there’s no harm in indulging in a night’s notion of a milestone reached and celebrated.
Really, though, a cosmic click on the refresh button would be welcome. Stretches of the past year were hard to take, and that was true for us at The Roanoke Times just as much as it often was for the rest of the populace.
Nonetheless we did the best we could with the resources we had, investigating and presenting the news that mattered most with a level of depth that few other news outlets in our region can match.
Some of the biggest news stories in 2021 will go on to be the biggest news stories of 2022, so as a way of looking ahead to the new year, we’re going to pause for a bit of reflection on what came before.
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Here are five, and by no means all, of the biggest Roanoke Valley/New River Valley news stories of 2021.
One: The COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, we’re tired of it too, but the virus doesn’t care what we think or what anyone thinks. It definitely doesn’t care about political persuasion, religious denomination or holiday travel plans. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a mindless biological organism that uses infection and contagion to replicate copies of itself and evolve into new mutations. Vaccinations and mask-wearing can help slow it down, and the number of people who aren’t interested in joining together to fight the advance of the virus has been a revelation. It’s apparently time to retire the phrase “avoid it like the plague,” because some folks won’t and don’t.
Our region is home to many health care personnel who are on the front lines in battling the virus and striving to save the lives it threatens to take, and our valleys are also home to scientists working to solve the COVID-19 problem permanently.
So many have stepped up to cope with myriad challenges the pandemic presents: teachers, business owners, store clerks, parents and students and more. Their efforts are all heroic, and we will keep sharing their stories.
Two: The Jan. 6 insurrection. Angry supporters of an ousted yet defiant Donald Trump, egged on by his claims that the presidential election was stolen from him, swarmed and stormed the U.S. Capitol building as Congress was trying to certify Joe Biden’s fair-and-square win. This alarming story came home to Southwest Virginia as a handful of local residents were charged by federal authorities for participating in the riot, including a pair of off-duty Rocky Mount police officers who took a selfie inside the Capitol crypt.
The story of the insurrectionists is not just a tale of militant extremists gone wild. It’s also a tale of ordinary people so caught up in a tsunami of dishonest, inflammatory rhetoric that it drove them to take actions that wrecked their own lives and careers. More details will come out as these cases finally culminate in trials or plea deals.
Three: Roanoke councilman indicted on four felonies. In an astonishing and ongoing development, ColorsVA Magazine publisher Robert Jeffrey, elected to the council in 2020, was indicted by a Roanoke grand jury in July on two charges alleging that he embezzled money from the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization. In October, two more indictments alleged that he obtained money by false pretenses from the city’s Economic Development Authority — which reports to city council, where he still serves. The heightened scrutiny that followed the charges unearthed a long history of troubled business dealings and bankruptcy.
Jeffrey, who proclaims innocence, did not take The Roanoke Times Editorial Board advice to resign or the suggestion from his fellow council members to step away until his legal issues are resolved. Should his case go to trial in March as scheduled, it will certainly be one of the most closely watched affairs of 2022.
Four: Virginia Tech football player charged with murder. On May 31, 40-year-old Jerry Paul Smith was beaten to death in his Blacksburg apartment. A freshman Hokie linebacker, 18-year-old Isimemen David Etute, was arrested and charged with second degree murder. According to court testimony, Etute and Smith met through the Tinder dating app, where Smith, an openly gay man, represented himself as a woman named Angie. The month after having a sexual encounter with the person he knew as Angie, according to the prosecution, Etute went back to determine if his Tinder date was in fact a woman, and when he discovered otherwise, fatally assaulted Smith.
The nationally observed case, which touches on a tangle of larger issues about consent and about violence against members of the LGBT community, is at present set for a trial in May.
Five: The 2021 gubernatorial election. Democrats had won statewide elections so often during the past decade that pundits had quit seeing the state as competitive. Surprise!
Independent journalist Matt Taibbi, known for his skill with sharpened words, described Democratic ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe as an “oft-flummoxed oratorial liability” and Republican Glenn Youngkin as a “private equity vampire turned earnest education advocate,” which seems like a pretty wry summation of how McAuliffe’s infamous gaffe (“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”) played right into Youngkin’s courtship of the state’s social conservatives.
In one of many possible takes on what happened in November, Democrats gambled on that apparent “blue state” surety the same way they did with Hillary Clinton in 2016 (remember all that talk of “the Blue Wall”?) and backed a candidate, ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, that not even their base was excited to see again.
Meanwhile, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s lack of any political record helped him be all things to all parts of the Republican base, enough to bring a surge of them to the polls in what political elites dismissively call “RoVa” (i.e the Rest of Virginia) and bring two years of complete Democratic rule to an abrupt halt.
We’ll find out what all this will mean after we’ve rung in the new year.