Charlottesville: Why I Went & What I Saw

Reflections on Charlottesville

Part 1: Why I Went

I went to Charlottesville last weekend to oppose all the Unite the Right rally represented. I went to participate in nonviolent marches, to bear witness…and to “take notes” to prepare, should something similar unfold in Richmond.

I saw at close hand white supremacists wielding shields and weapons and waving flags bearing assorted white supremacist insignia. Some carried giant military-style semi-automatic rifles. 

I witnessed clergy preparing to put their lives at risk in a nonviolent direct action. I witnessed counterprotestors defending other activists, and the city, and collectively confront the gathering of heavily armed white supremacists. I stood with many people of all backgrounds, young and old, who participated in varying ways and at different levels of engagement, in churches, parks, and in the streets.

I’m the granddaughter of people whose family members were targeted by Nazi thugs during Kristallnacht in 1938. 

I understand what happens when people stay silent in the face of fascists.

For me personally, it was important to be there. I was not heroic, most certainly not, compared to many others. I am however glad that I could add my voice to the call to end white supremacy and reject fascism on what I believe is already proving to be a pivotal day in American history. 

I understand that one’s ability to “show up” at times like this varies, and most critically, that people of color, gender nonconforming folks, Jews in kippahs and Muslims in head covering, among others, face vastly heightened risk and an altogether different calculation. I also understand that people of color confront white supremacy in countless ways every day and that it was of particular importance for white people to be in Charlottesville. For me at that moment, standing with other protestors–some with similar and some with very different perspectives from my own–was the right choice.

I’ll add (because I’m concerned that media coverage will discourage future participation) that while there was some risk for everyone, those of us who went to Charlottesville this weekend to take a stand against white supremacy each made active choices about our forms of engagement and risk, and there were a variety of options for standing together.

The experience raised complex questions for me about the meaning of nonviolence in the face of armed white supremacists. It reinforced the importance of civic preparedness. It surfaced questions for me about the limits to “free speech and assembly” in the context of heavily armed white supremacist paramilitaries intent on inflicting harm.

These are questions that I expect I’ll continue to wrestle with.

Part II: What I Saw

I arrived early Friday evening, accompanied by RPEC board member Rob Jones. We planned to attend the interfaith prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church near campus.

With time before the church opened its doors, we walked the short way to the UVA Rotunda and down the steps, passing the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Children were playing on the grass. Someone was walking their dog. How strange that a short while later, after dark, that very spot would be occupied by hundreds of men with torches shouting “Jews will not replace us,” “Blood and soil” and “White lives matter.”

The church was packed, standing room only. I was happy to see friends and allies from Richmond and to reconnect with an old friend from out of state. Katie Couric was there with a small crew, recording. The mayor of Charlottesville was there. The interfaith service organized by Congregate Cville included powerful speeches by Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Traci Blackmon, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and other luminaries. They shared: “Never let despair have the last word.” “Speak love in the face of hate.” “When dreamers rise up, giants fall.” We sang the African American hymn “Oh, Freedom” (“And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free!”) Toward the end of the service, Rev. Sekou informed the packed house that a throng with torches was seen outside the building. We sang louder and stomped our feet to convey our strength and numbers.

After the service, we were told to leave by the side and back doors to avoid contact with the torch wielders. People lined up to leave.  Then a pastor took the microphone and asked everyone to return to their seats and sit down out of safety concerns. We waited for nearly 30 minutes. One little African American girl was clinging to an adult and crying for her mother, seemingly terrified.

I’d wanted to take the nonviolent direct action training that had been scheduled to follow the service. However, that training was cancelled because of the situation outside. (When I learned the next day what the trained clergy in fact did, in all candor I’m not sure whether I would have taken part in that direct action myself that day, thinking of my daughter. I deeply admire those who did.)

White Supremacists on the UVA lawn

White Supremacist torches flickering on the UVA lawn.

Outside the church, up the street the fire of lit torches glowed in the distance.  White power chants rang faintly through the air.

The next morning after a 6 a.m. Love Over Fear Sunrise gathering featuring Cornel West, most in attendance walked to Jefferson School. We met more than 100 other people already gathered, many in clergy garments. A rabbi sang with a guitar. Charlottesville vice mayor Wes Bellamy encouraged people to be upbeat. We marched to McGuffey Park, which sits perched on a small hill a few blocks away from Emancipation Park.  One protest sign said “Will trade racists for refugees.” Another read “Oh, I’m soooo afraid of your tiki torch!” A local pastor led the march.   

KKK counter demonstrator

Arriving at McGuffey Park we found the space well prepared. They had food and water, a medic tent, a speakers’ tent, and a microphone. We listened to speeches by clergy and local leaders. We sang civil rights movement hymns. We handed out flyers.

Meanwhile those who’d taken the direct action training from Rev. Sekou the day before, and who agreed to follow through , took a different march route from the church. They walked directly to Emancipation Park where the Unite the Right rally was assembling, to participate in nonviolent direct action. Only those who’d taken this specific direct action training were permitted to participate. We learned from a friend that they planned to stand feet away from a phalanx of white supremacists with assault guns, linking arms to block the entrance to the park.

Rob Jones and I left McGuffey Park to walk to Justice Park four blocks away, where activists were preparing for marching. As we walked, a pickup truck pulled up fast, behind us on our block, and 10 or so men piled out yelling “lets go lets go.” Unfurling flags with logos I didn’t recognize, they rushed in our direction. We crossed the street. They turned right to head down to Emancipation Park to join the Unite the Right rally.

Police entering Emancipation park

Police entering Emancipation park

Justice Park was more directly exposed to the street than McGuffey Park was. White supremacists of a variety of stripes passed by in small groups. There were no police in sight. Antifa–the Anti-Fascist activists–were providing security for the park along the perimeter. In the park one man had a child with him who appeared about 8 years old. A group of Quakers and Buddhists sat in silence. Lawyers Guild volunteers wrote an emergency phone number in permanent marker on my arm in case of arrest.

Over the course of the day we saw cars with groups of white men with out of state license plates. Pennsylvania…North Carolina. The men in the cars and the men walking in groups varied in their appearance–some groups looked clean cut in polo shirts and short hair. Others wore camouflage or black. Many walked with a swagger. Some drove big pick up trucks spewing black smoke.

After 10 a.m. counterdemonstrators gathered at the edge of the park to march to Emancipation Park to collectively challenge the white supremacists at the rally.

Rob Jones and I walked to the First United Methodist Church across the street from Emancipation Park, which was to serve as a safe place. As we approached the church, a man we’d spoken with earlier said “A woman just got her head bashed in. The police did nothing.” Where? He pointed a few yards away. The man lifted a clear plastic bag to show us its contents. It contained bloody towels.  At the church, multiple people recounted how white supremacists had beaten a demonstrator just outside, and the police watched, did nothing, then sauntered over and made no arrests.

One African-American member of the independent press who’d witnessed the beating outside said to me: “I was in Ferguson. I’ve covered countless uprisings. I’m telling you. This one’s different. The police will not protect you today.”

The day proceeded…I watched the Unite the Right rally-goers gather, from the steps of the First United Methodist Church facing Emancipation Park. There were so many different flags. Someone pointed out Identity Europa. Another flag looked like a dark blue or black American flag. Others waved Confederate battle flags.   

You could hear audio from the park, a strange low male recorded voice. I had trouble discerning the words.

Standing at the end of the street, separated from Emancipation Park by a metal barricade fence and Jefferson Street, we could see the confrontation between the antifascist protesters and the white supremacist rally-goers a block away. Objects were being hurled both directions, and then what looked from a distance like hand to hand fighting.

A grizzled older man with a beard holding a sign with a confederate flag approached the barricade and asked to get into the park to join the rally. The police told him he had to walk down to the Market Street entrance. He seemed older than many others I’d seen that day, and unlike the groups walking together, was alone.

Tear gas wafted out of the park.

At about 11:30 Virginia State Police assembled at the edge of the park, right in front of us, in helmets with face shields.  Around 11:35 they marched in to clear the park of the Unite the Right supporters. The police at the barricade announced: “The governor has declared a state of emergency.”

I was hugely pleased that the rally had been disrupted. If the Nazis had been able to complete this rally successfully, that would have been a step toward normalization. They had boldly crawled out from the shadows into the open, heavily armed. I did not want this day to be seen as a success and serve as a recruiting tool for them.

I “high-fived”  strangers. People were taking pictures of one another, happy. The white supremacists’ attempt to rally had been disrupted.

The police said that anyone in the vicinity, including us, would be arrested if we stayed on the street.

Back at the First United Methodist Church we recharged our phones. We could see that outside the church on the side streets, some of our friends were taking to the streets, many smiling, calling out: Whose Streets? Our Streets! and Who Keeps Us Safe? We Keep Us Safe!

Texts and whispered questions: “Where did the Neo-Nazis go?” I heard they were roaming around the city in groups. Then I heard many had regrouped in McIntire Park and would plan to retake Emancipation Park in the evening.

We wanted to know what had happened to Cornel West, Rev. Jeanne Pupke–from Richmond’s First Unitarian Universalist Church–and others who’d participated in the clergy-led nonviolent direct action. Had they been arrested? Were they safe? We had no information and saw no news reports.

I wished we could all gather in Emancipation Park and reclaim it.

There did not seem to be a plan for either side for how the rest of this day would unfold. The police seemed to have been instructed to only maintain the perimeter of Emancipation Park. They appeared to have orders to not intervene in any conflict or threats on side streets. Yet white supremacists and Antifa were walking about the city. As far as I could tell, no one was coordinating.

I stayed in the UMC safe space church for a while. They had a self care room and granola bars. There was a worship service in the sanctuary. Clergy were witnessing on the back porch overlooking Emancipation Park.

My friend walked to her car three blocks away and came back a bit shaken, saying she’d witnessed three fights and felt threatened by a passing pickup truck driven by white supremacists.

Rob Jones and I decided to walk back to McGuffey Park for a few minutes. As we were leaving McGuffey Park I noticed a few people including volunteer medics leaving just ahead of us, running down the hill.

My husband texted me to come home right away.

We set out toward the mall to head back to our car near the Amtrak station. Our plan was to retrieve the car then drive back to the church to drive friends to their car so they could safely leave town.

On the mall, a few people were running toward the left. Something’s happening over there, we noted.

A block ahead in the distance, on Water Street I saw Cornel West. “Dr West!” We caught up with him and walked with him for a few minutes. He said: “I’ve been under threat of death for 30 years and have never seen hatred like this.”  He shared what the direct action group had experienced that morning. There were too few of us, he said. He added “the anarchists saved us.” 

Just then, walking with Cornel West and Rob Jones, I saw Ana Edwards of Richmond’s Defenders for Freedom Justice and Equality. She asked: Had we heard? Someone had a short while ago driven into a group of demonstrators a block ahead. She thought a woman may have been killed. 

There were 6 ambulances. I saw one woman being lifted on a stretcher into an ambulance, her bare legs exposed. I do not know her identity.

The world soon learned the name of Heather Heyer, and all of us at the Peace Center grieve for her family and loved ones.

Coming Soon…Part III: What It Means & What We Can Do Now