On the weekend of August 11, white supremacists and fascists flocked to Charlottesville, Virginia, for the "Unite the Right" rally. Led by noted racist and UVA alum Richard Spencer, the rally distressed Charlottesville residents by marching unexpectedly through the heart of UVA's campus. The next day, the group assembled downtown and marched to McIntire Park to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from nearby Emancipation Park (renamed from Lee Park).
I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2016 and had made plans to visit a friend in Charlottesville before I knew about the rally. Once my friend, Gwyneth, and I heard about the march down UVA's Lawn, in which protesters surrounded a small group of student counter-protesters and hit them with torches, we decided we couldn't stay away.
"There was a lot of nervous energy," said my friend Sam Umbaugh, one of the UVA students counter-protesting that night in front of the Thomas Jefferson statue. Counter-protesters linked arms as white supremacists encircled them, forming two concentric circles.
Sam wasn't sure how exactly the protest turned violent, but he witnessed protesters assaulting counter-protesters. "I saw someone duck down and protect their head as two people ... started beating [the victim] with torches. Then somebody from the back of the crowd threw their torch into the center [of the gathering.]" Soon after, he said, pepper spray filled the air. While helping his fellow counter-protesters away from the statue, he sustained minor injuries to his hands and face.
I asked Sam if he was afraid, and he said that, though he was mostly calm, one thing unsettled him. As the counter-protesters waited for the protesters to show up, they couldn't tell who to watch out for.
"This question pops up in your head: 'Are those our people? Are they suddenly going to light torches and face us down, or are they going to stand with us side by side?' It's easy enough to spot the villains in comic books, because they're usually clearly marked, but in real life, people don't do that," he told me.
I'd gone to the Women's March in Washington, D.C., earlier this year so that I could stand up and be counted in the crowd. Attending the counter-protest on Saturday, after the attack Sam described, seemed just as important an event to physically show up to.
We arrived at the Downtown Mall just after a man drove his car into a group of nonviolent counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing one. Walking onto the Mall felt like stepping into an alternate reality. "Don't go out there," said a staff member at the nearby Omni Hotel as she looked at Gwyneth and me. "It's not safe. I urge you not to go."
The Mall is usually filled with people strolling in front of art galleries and coffee shops, but now everyone was hurrying either toward or away from the protest. Gwyneth and I glanced furtively at each pedestrian, not sure who the "good guys" and "bad guys" were. A state police tank lumbered across the brick in front of us. The droning of helicopters overhead made it hard for us to hear.
We walked on. A crowd of counter-protesters was assembled in front of police in riot gear. Some chanted, but most hung back. Once I started talking to counter-protesters, I realized why: this was where the man drove his car into the crowd.
"I saw that there was going to be a group of white nationalists organizing out here," said Ken Nwadike, Jr., founder of the Free Hugs Project, who was in Charlottesville to document and witness the rally. "I knew it was going to be important to document some of the footage and try to keep the peace. But getting here and seeing how extreme the violence was, and how the car plowed down people on that corner."
Nwadike was pointing to the alley beside the Urban Outfitters where I'd browsed sales during undergrad trips to the Mall: "It was right in this alley."
I asked Nwadike if he'd seen the attack. He had it on video, he said. "I've never seen anything like that in my life. As the car comes down, you hear him bottom out, and from there it rushes into the alley, and he accelerated and took out as many people as he could until he smashed into the back of a car ... and then reversed out and ran over those same people."
Gwyneth and I had heard something about a protester with a car before we came. We hadn't heard about a man running counter-protesters down in an alley or reversing back over those same counter-protesters. We asked Nwadike if everyone was OK.
"I don't know. I don't know."
Another counter-protester walked up to us. "I'm hearing two dead," he said. It was actually one — 32-year-old Heather Heyer — who died in the car assault, while two troopers died when their helicopter crashed.
Nwadike hugged the other counter-protester and hugged me. What else could we do?
Unlike Nwadike and many of the other counter-protesters, I am white. Although I shook with fear as I stood in front of the police barrier, it was the first and only time in my life I have felt so threatened. Americans of color — the Americans these so-called "alt-right" groups want to suppress back into the voicelessness of Jim Crow — don't have that luxury. This was a wake-up call to the white members of the Charlottesville community, especially white students at UVA. But the Black community has faced this kind of violence for centuries. After all, UVA was built on the backs of Black slaves.
I was lucky, I knew. Lucky not to have been subjected to microaggressions, taunts, beatings, police violence, and murder. My status as a white woman usually kept me safe from such overt violence. But that car had knocked back counter-protesters of every race, intruding into the bubble I was allowed to inhabit.
I asked a group of Black protesters why they'd come out in the face of violence.
"[I did it to] stand up for myself. Stand up for my people. I grew up in Charlottesville and I feel like you shouldn't allow [this] to happen," said one man around my age.
"I've been here 21 years, and I've never seen nothing like this before," another man cut in. "It's wild. We need more people out here, honestly."
It felt as if the city had dissolved in chaos — counter-protesters sat on the bricks and wept, protesters had splintered into armed militias roving through the surrounding areas, and police blocked off half the streets.
Gwyneth and I set off on foot towards UVA. We stopped to talk to employees of a Charlottesville business (they didn't want to be identified for fear of repercussion). I asked if they were afraid. Of course, they said.
I wondered what else they could have done other than feel that fear. The state police didn't provide protection to stores along the rally routes, even when it became clear that protesters were assembling on the Downtown Mall rather than McIntire Park.
Gwyneth and I left shortly after that, when a friend warned us about possible shootings in the area. (I haven't been able to confirm that, but other acts of violence, including protesters beating a Black man in a parking garage, did take place. Deandre Harris was assaulted by white supremacists carrying poles and received a broken wrist, chipped tooth, and eight staples to stitch up head injuries.) As we drove away, I thought of the words of counter-protester Megan Payne.
"I'm born and raised in the area, so it's hard for me to think that something like this would happen here. It's really unnerving," she'd told me on the Mall. "But I feel like so many people are drawn out to look and see what's happening and be a part of history. Because it's going to be. I think it's going to drive a movement."
For the sake of everyone in Charlottesville, I hope Payne is right.