Arriving in downtown Charlottesville about a half-hour before the scheduled noon start time for the Unite the Right rally on Saturday, it was clear that violence was inevitable. I rode past a throng of men with semiautomatic rifles slung across their backs, and a group of left-wing counterprotesters bearing sticks and clubs.
I was dropped off at Justice Park, where groups of peace-promoting hippies and religious liberals congregate blocks from the rally site. At the perimeter, observers from the National Lawyers Guild, wearing their trademark green caps, stood ready to offer protesters advice on their rights, and to stand vigil as men with assault rifles stood guard. The men were revolutionaries of Redneck Revolt, a left-wing group that embraces armed resistance. Virginia is an open-carry state, so there was no stopping anyone from arriving in Charlottesville with a permitted gun strapped to their bodies.
A counterprotester later told me that members of the pro-Trump group the Proud Boys had “menaced” the Redneck Revolt guards at the park’s perimeter. Proud Boys is a recently formed group whose fundamental aim appears to be to engage in physical conflict.
— Craig Stanley (@_CraigStanley) Aug. 12, 2017
A few blocks away, I arrived at the edge of Emancipation Park, where the rally was supposed to have taken place, to find skirmishes already underway between right-wing extremists and members of the loose alliance known as AntiFa (for anti-fascist). Smoke billowed near the AntiFa contingent, perhaps from one of its own canisters, or maybe a so-called flash-bang hurled by police. It was all so chaotic, that it was difficult to understand what was taking place.
I stood on the grounds of the public library for a while, seeing that as a relatively safe place directly across the street from one of the entrances to the park, a small square of a place with a narrow entryway, whose center is occupied by an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on his horse. That was the point of the site selection; the Lee statue has been slated for removal by the Charlottesville City Council, a decision to which white supremacists everywhere take offense. The statue, many of them said, honored their heritage, which would somehow be erased by its removal. But, as New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore explains it, the statue was not built in the aftermath of the Civil War; it was commissioned in 1917, the year Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted. It was a symbol of triumph, not one of a vanquished cause.
When it became apparent that the rally was expected to draw thousands of white supremacists and at least as many counterprotesters to the site, the city attempted to revoke the permit for the rally at Emancipation Park, seeking to move the event to McIntire Park, a sprawling public grounds away from downtown. Jason Kessler, the permit holder and a member of the Proud Boys, challenged the city’s attempt to change the venue, and the American Civil Liberties Union took up the charge, arguing that the move would violate Kessler’s free-speech rights, seeing as how the rally message focused on the planned removal of the statue. The ACLU won an injunction, and the stage was set for a day of conflicts in downtown Charlottesville, a 19th-century grid of small city blocks whose streets all flow into a brick-paved pedestrian mall.
When I summoned my courage to wander into the street near the park entrance, I was in the midst of a loose gathering of people on all sides, where violence could break out at any moment. Guns, sticks, flagpoles, clubs — all were in evidence. I found myself walking too closely to a young white man with a hammer in his hand. A hammer. He was dressed in blue cap, blue T-shirt, blue jeans, bearing no insignias or markers of any kind. It was impossible to guess, judging by appearance alone, which side he was on. (AntiFa protesters typically wear all-black clothing, and often sport black bandanas for protecting their faces from tear gas. Right-wing extremists often wear some sort of logo signaling their faction.)
From there I took in a view of the library grounds, where people bearing banners with the angular insignias of white supremacist affiliations stood just feet apart from lefties with rainbow-colored hair. A young white man carrying the green-and-white “alt-right” Kekistani flag displayed his standard as an older white woman nearby held a hand-lettered sign that read, “JESUS WASN’T WHITE OR CHRISTIAN.” Next to her was a young white male reporter from a local news channel with perfectly coiffed platinum hair. On the library steps, a young black man wearing a T-shirt that read “Life Liberty” had a worried look on his face as he surveyed the scene. He was flanked by a white woman in a green dress wearing an elaborate, silver Statue-of-Liberty crown, and a black woman in a pink top who smiled as she gazed into her phone camera, having caught a glimpse of something that amused her. The three had no apparent connection to each other. An older white man in a yellow cleric’s stole spoke into a walkie-talkie. Several people held up “Black Lives Matter” posters.
In the street, counterprotesters of all races donned surgical masks and particulate masks, as they approached a police car parked to block their path under a banner strung above by the city that read, “Our Diversity Makes Us Strong.”
Around the corner, where Third Street met East Market, came a contingent of 30 or so white men, some wearing helmets, bearing Confederate flags. Some had homemade “shields” of the sort that had sharp edges that were later turned as weapons on counter protesters in skirmishes across the mall. At this point, though, the group was headed for the park entrance at the next corner until a cadre of police in full riot gear jogged into the park and formed a line in front of the giant Robert E. Lee statue.
“On behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, this event has been declared an unlawful assembly,” a male voice intoned over a bullhorn. “Leave the area immediately, or you will be arrested.”
No arrangements had been made, apparently, for safe passage out of the park for anyone who was in it. The white nationalists scheduled to speak at the rally were turned out into streets where counter-protesters had amassed. “Alt-right” glamor boy Richard Spencer, who leads the white nationalist National Policy Institute, later complained of having been “maced” by both leftist protesters and “federal authorities.” His complaint was issued in a Twitter video, in which he appeared shirtless.
Counterprotesters trying to leave the park vicinity were met with contingents of angry white supremacists who skirmished with them on the mall. Law enforcement were amply represented, including the local force, state troopers and National Guard troops. Still, police did next to nothing to intervene in the mayhem.
To say that the racial history of Charlottesville is fraught doesn’t begin to touch the half of it. The town is based around the University of Virginia, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1816 — the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed the self-evident truth of equality among men while keeping 600 people enslaved on his plantation. Just miles away from UVA is Jefferson’s splendid home of Monticello, where he quartered the enslaved Sally Hemings in a windowless room adjacent to his bedchamber, where it is believed she bore him six children. During the Civil War, blacks outnumbered whites in both the town and the surrounding county, and the Confederate government pressed African-Americans, both free and enslaved, into its service. Today, blacks comprise 19 percent of the town’s population, above the national average.
Charlottesville also holds historical achievements of pride for African-Americans, such as the founding of the Charlottesville Baptist Church in 1863 with a black pastor at its helm, and the election of James T.S. Taylor to the 1867 state Constitutional Convention. In 1981, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies was founded at UVA.
As a university town, Charlottesville has a more liberal bent than other towns in Central Virginia. Its mayor, Michael Signer, is Jewish, and the Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy is black. The park where the disputed statue stands got a name change in June, from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. These facts do not sit well with the white supremacists and anti-Semites who helmed the aborted Unite the Right rally.
In the Twitter video he posted after his banishment from Emancipation Park, Spencer referred to the mayor as “Signer or Singer,” invoking a common Jewish surname in order to make his point. “I don’t actually care how you’re supposed to pronounce that little creep’s name,” he added. Spencer then referred to the African-American Bellamy as a “house you-know-what,” and the “pet of white people.”
For all his complaints, Spencer must have been granted a little advance notice of the rally’s cancellation; his video posted at 11:51 a.m., right around the time when police in riot gear formed their line in front of the Lee statue.
No one knew quite what to do after the cops threw everyone out of the park. I checked my email and Twitter feed, seated under the shade of a tree on Fourth Street Northeast, watching a contingent of neo-Nazis march up an adjacent street. Two cops stood at the intersection and waved them through. (This street had been cleared of automotive traffic.) The red-and-black banners with odd but ominous-looking symbols, as well as the occasional swastika, were now simply registering in my brain as set decoration. Vanguard America, the National Socialist Movement and the Traditionalist Workers Party were all there. I made note and looked back at my phone, seeing a tweet from the president issued at 12:19:
We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Aug. 12, 2017
That was it. Nothing condemning white supremacy explicitly.
Suddenly, a group of counterprotesters who appeared to be Black Lives Matters folks (not the black-clad AntiFa) began moving down Fourth Street at a brisk pace. I got up to follow them, but when I saw a reporter I knew at the corner of Market Street, I stopped to see what she knew. She had been approaching the intersection of Fourth and Water Street, when she heard a loud and terrible thud. A car had plowed into a march of counter protesters moving down Water; dozens of people were injured.
She began working her phone, and I moved toward the pedestrian mall on Main Street. No sooner was I on the mall when I found myself trapped there as a line of body-armored police formed a line closing off the intersection from which I had entered. There were frightened people, many of them counterprotesters from local churches, standing in front of buildings, as cops in fluorescent green vests ran past me. The bystanders told me that someone had just shouted “Sieg Heil” and punched someone else in the face. A couple who appeared to be of two different races — the man was brown-skinned and the woman looked white — stood wide-eyed. “We’re just trying to get back to our hotel,” the man said. “We had just come for a weekend getaway. We had no idea this was happening.” The people around him murmured empathetic responses. “Well, welcome,” one man said ruefully. “It’s not always like this.”
Then a large, white man, standing a head taller than most of the men on the mall, began striding down the sidewalk, menacingly, shouting racial slurs and threats. He wore a red shirt emblazoned with the triangular emblem of Identity Evropa, which was founded by Nathan Damigo, an ex-Marine convicted of armed robbery in San Diego for pulling a gun on an Arab cab driver and then robbing his victim of $43. In April, Damigo punched a woman protester in the face at “a rally of far-right groups in Berkeley, California,” according to Mother Jones. Identity Evropa takes its ideology from the far-right groups of Europe, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and “focuses on recruiting college-aged, white students in order to discuss ‘race realism’ and white interests, targeting disaffected young men by branding itself as a fraternity and social club.”
As the man in the red T-shirt menaced the mall, counterprotesters began to follow him. Police did nothing to separate them. A young, black man began moving toward him, shouting that black lives matter, that he has a right to be here. He was shirtless, and you could see the muscles in his arms begin to tense. A black woman around his age lightly touched his arm. “Don’t,” she said, gently but firmly. “It ain’t worth it.”
Though there were no shortage of police on the mall, they mostly stood in formations at locations where violence had already taken place.
Charlottesville’s liberal religious communities were part of the counterprotests, and also provided support and inspiration to other counterprotesters. Two centers of activity were the historically black First Baptist Church, which the civil rights leader Cornel West made his home base for the weekend, and the First United Methodist Church, a mostly white congregation that opened its doors to counterprotesters as a cooling station — a place to get snacks, water and medical help near Emancipation Park. People entering the church had to submit their bags to a search, and all were wanded by a man with a metal detector before being allowed to enter the building.
The United Methodist congregation and clergy were part of a non-violent resistance movement to the white supremacists who descended on their town. Many wore yellow T-shirts; some clergy wore yellow stoles.
By the time I arrived there, Heather Heyer, one of the counter-protesters mowed down by the car at Water and Fourth Streets, had died. The president had yet to make a statement.
Sitting outside the church, I saw a few counterprotesters sitting outside the medical tent the church had erected in its parking lot. An older man with a white beard lifted his cap to show me a flesh wound on his head, which he said he got when a white supremacist demonstrator clocked him with a stick. He declined, however, to give me his name or an interview.
I saw Rolling Stone’s Sarah Posner interviewing a young woman with a bandaged forehead. The bandage didn’t quite cover the deep gash, which appeared to run from her hairline into her eyebrow, that she said she received when a white supremacist demonstrator used the edge of his Plexiglas shield as a weapon against her. She had been to the hospital to be stitched back up, but it was clear her face would bear that scar for the rest of her life, never mind the psychic wound. I asked a young man who appeared to be of Asian descent, sitting among his colleagues, if he would be willing to talk to me. He declined, and looked a bit dazed. “I’m still trying to process all of this,” he said.
One counterprotester who was willing to talk went by the nom de guerre of Antonin Sotomayor. He is a white man who appeared to be in his 30s, with piercing blue eyes. Born and raised in North Carolina, where he still lives, he spoke with great passion of the armed resistance, by people of all races in the South, to the wealthy people who owned mines and plantations. He cited the Battle of Blair Mountain. He saw the sticks carried by many AntiFa protesters, he said, as weapons of self-defense. He is a recent law school graduate, he said.
“Earlier in the day, and last night, you had the ‘alt-right’ coming and actively seeking out people — some of them really had no part in this — to assault. So this is community self-defense,” he said.
When challenged over whether or not the carrying of weapons by counterprotesters was unnecessarily provocative, he replied, “Well, I think you see how effective the left has been since COINTELPRO,” citing the acronym for the counterintelligence program launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that often used illegal surveillance tactics on antiwar and civil rights groups beginning in the 1950s and continuing until 1971, as well as infiltration of those groups. “And I think that maybe we should turn back to the boldness of the pre-COINTELPRO days.” He expressed admiration for the tactics of the Black Panthers, but also for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters under the leadership of the late Jimmy Hoffa, who went missing in 1975.
I suggest that some people would say that the Teamsters in those days were a goon squad.
“Well, the right has a goon squad,” he replied.
When I left Charlottesville, President Trump had finally come to the cameras to address the violence that had engulfed the town. Rather than cancel his planned televised signing of a bill for veterans’ health care, he simply incorporated his weak, “many sides” condemnation of violence into his celebratory event, which took place at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Earlier in the day, David Duke told a reporter that the groups assembled in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally came to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Duke said that taking the country back — from whom or what he doesn’t make clear in the interview — “is the reason we voted for Trump.”
There is no mistaking that many among the white supremacist movement regard the president as their ally. Some marching with white-power contingents wore the Trump campaign’s trademark red “Make America Great Again” caps. In March 2016, Matthew Heimbach, leader of the white nationalist Traditional Workers Party, shoved a black protester at a Trump campaign rally after the candidate urged his supporters to “get ‘em out of here,” and advocated the use of force. Heimbach was to have been one of the featured speakers at the rally that was shut down in Charlottesville.
At no time during his televised appearance did Trump condemn white supremacy, white nationalism or the “alt-right.” When, as he concluded his remarks, reporters shouted questions asking if he condemned white nationalism, Trump simply walked away from the podium.
Later that evening, he tweeted this about the woman who lost her life when a car driven by a white nationalist plowed into the intersection where she was protesting peacefully:
Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Aug. 12, 2017
When the identity of the driver, James Fields of Maumee, Ohio, was revealed and his mug shot circulated, he was found to have rallied with Vanguard America, one of the neo-Nazi groups involved with the rally. Vanguard America denies that Fields is a member. The New York Daily News reported that Fields’s mother, Samantha Bloom, said that her son had told her he was going to a rally, which she thought “had something to do with Trump.”
Public outcry appears to have prompted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce, later that night, that the Justice Department would launch a civil rights investigation into the incident.
In an interview with Posner of Rolling Stone, Richard Spencer said he and his friends were celebrating that evening, seeing the day as having been a success, despite the shutdown of the rally. In fact, he said, they were having a party. As for his future plans, “I think we’re going to have to come back to Charlottesville,” he said.
Meanwhile, alt-right rallies are planned in at least nine cities for next weekend all over the country. One may be coming soon to a monument near you.