The story of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville does not begin on August 12th.
It begins in 1924, when a statue of Robert E. Lee was erected in a park in the historic Vinegar Hill district of the town, which was predominantly a Black neighborhood at the time. It was put on a pedestal and stands 26 feet high, to intimidate Black community members, and to celebrate and deify a general who fought for a Confederacy that wanted to separate itself from America and further enslave Black people.
It begins in a town that has been complicit in the centering of whiteness and furthering the agenda of white supremacy for over a hundred years. It begins in a town whose University (built by Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner and a rapist) has a deep-rooted and well-known relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, in that the organization pledged thousands of dollars to the school, and also has had streets, parks, and buildings in the community named after its members. It continued with Charlottesville’s disproportionate Stop-And-Frisk practices and its steadily increasing gentrification.
I’ve spoken of my hometown of Charlottesville before. I know of its profound and fundamental racism, though not echoed by its townspeople, who retaliate against this accusation by citing its majority of progressive voters. I know the city’s history, its truths, and its culpability for the influx of white supremacy.
It continued on Saturday, May 13, when Richard Spencer led a group of white Nationalists in a “tiki-torch rally” to commemorate their fallen leader at the base of the statue, right across from the town’s annual ‘Festival of Cultures.’ It continued on June 1, when Jason Kessler met with a white nationalist group (including the violent Jared Taylor), to plan the infamous “Unite the Right” rally. It continued on July 8th, when the KKK met for a permit-approved rally in Justice Park (formerly named Jackson Park). There, community members were tear-gassed and met with violence by the police, for exercising their American right to protest white supremacy.
And the story culminated this entire past weekend.
Early Friday morning, the terror began to transpire. A group of white nationalists met outside of a Wal-Mart parking lot, brandishing weapons and threatening community members as they ran their weekend errands. Police were called, and were seen talking with the group in question. No arrests were made.
That same evening, I attended an extraordinary multi-faith service calling for unity at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. Across the street, at the UVA Rotunda, over 200 white supremacists gathered, assaulted college students, and beat community members who had come to protest their violent rhetoric. Then, they started to head for the church.
A number of phenomenal speakers, including Rev. Traci Blackmon and Dr. Cornel West, were held hostage inside the building. Numerous journalists, including Katie Couric, were not permitted to leave until the threat of violence left the area, which was sometime between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m. I sat in a room with West and other journalists while the violence and confusion dissipated. I never thought I would witness something like this in my own lifetime.
I walked with two fellow people of color to get to my car, and to drive them back to theirs, which was in the midst of the chaos on the UVA campus. There were five police cars in a row on the street, followed by a fire truck. Flashing lights. Onlookers with their cell phones out, capturing as much footage as possible. I was stuck in the crush of traffic. As I looked to my left, I saw a group of white nationalists cheering, laughing like it was a night at summer camp.
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil,” I said to myself.
I saw it fitting to speak, as I just got out of church.
The police asked the crowd to disperse.
No arrests were made.
This brings us to Saturday.
That morning I woke up early, way before the 6 a.m. church service I planned to attend. West and Blackmon, as well as community leaders and organizers, spoke at the First Baptist Church Sunrise Service being held at 7th and West Main, in the heart of the city.
After the service, I met with my affinity group at the Jefferson School. We recapped all the points of the nonviolent direct action training we underwent in previous weeks, preparing for the siege of terror about to ensue. We met with people we had connected with on social media, and finally matched faces to names. I’ve felt closer to these strangers than some coworkers I’ve stood beside for years. We wrote bail support phone numbers on each other’s arms and legs with Sharpies. We packed our bags full of water, fruit, and a change of clothes for the impending tear gas. We were ready.
We convened at McGuffey Park, a block away from the madness, doing our usual chants, which were met with both cheers of joy and middle fingers from drivers. Then we took to the Downtown Mall, planning to circle the chaos already happening and get to Emancipation Park. We were cut off by policemen in riot gear, so we circled back.
The city then declared a state of emergency at 12:20 pm. We watched all of the white supremacists march down Market Street, away to McIntire Park. Many of them looked despondent and rejected, but I imagine that to always be the face of a white supremacist: wrinkled and sneering, always angry and full of rage. Soon after, we watched Richard Spencer run down the street, surrounded by a security circle of Nazis. The onlookers cheered and screamed as he sped by with his group. Then the police in riot gear returned, preparing to disperse the crowds still remaining in the street. We returned to McGuffey in good spirits.
I remember positioning my bookbag as a pillow, finding a shady spot below a large tree, and lying underneath it. I laughed at all the idiotic phrases from those polo-wearing goofballs, things like ‘Jewish Privilege’, and ‘White Genocide’. I basked in the glory of the moment.
I thought the day was won. We all did.
Then folks in the park started yelling that there was another Nazi march coming our way. We bolted into action, returning to the streets and heading for the Downtown Mall.
It was 1:30 p.m. There were hundreds of us in the street. It felt like thousands. We stood hand-in-hand with one another, distant strangers, whose last names we didn’t even know. People from all across the nation, coming to help love, support, and defend Charlottesville. We chanted “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” as we walked down the street for almost three blocks. It was a beautiful, moving sight.
I got to the corner of Fourth Street. The crowd seemed to halt. I thought to myself, Why are we stopping? Let’s keep going! Let’s keep moving! Then I heard an engine roar. I thought that was impossible, since there were people filling the streets. That can’t be right, I said. No cars on this street are moving.
Then a screech of wheels. Then screams. A van rolled right beside me; the rear smashed from the back. Then a car.
People in the air.
People on the ground.
The car appeared suddenly, right in front of me. A grey Dodge Charger with the windshield smashed, and the bumper torn away from its right side. A man in front of me began wailing on the car with a large stick, bashing out the back window. The Dodge peeled away in reverse. Black smoke. I wanted to find a place to grab onto the vehicle; a place beside the ripped bumper, a secure place to latch on and risk being dragged. Maybe I could hold it in place, I thought, as ridiculous as that was, but I honestly thought it. STOP HIM, I thought. I searched for his face through the shattered windshield. I couldn’t find a figure in the driver’s seat. Perhaps Satan himself powered this vehicle.
I looked down to see a woman in front of me. Her left leg was split open, and I could see the blood pouring from her leg, like a small stream in the back woods of the county. I looked at her face, and I watched her eyes flutter, open, rolling into the back of her head. She shook. I wanted to touch her, and hold her, but I remembered all the medical programs I’ve seen on television, advising never to touch anyone who’s hurt like that. I thought it was television. This can’t be real. It couldn’t be real. For a minute I actually forgot how to talk. Then I found my voice. I said, Medic. I had to practice speaking. Then I said it again louder. Then I screamed it. We need medics. WE NEED MEDICS. I saw the woman fighting for consciousness, fighting for life, but I sadly, sadly knew there was no way anyone could survive that. I knew she was going to die.
I walked up to another woman. She was conscious, but her right leg was completely broken, the bone jutting out. Again, this couldn’t be real. I chased after the car, which was long out of sight. I ran in futility. I had to do something. I had to do more. An armored vehicle on the Mall came to life and sirens blared. I saw a state police vehicle come and I waved it toward where the Dodge had driven off. Finally, I thought, police are not just standing around in riot gear, they’re doing something.
I saw one lone sneaker in the street. The same street I would cut through to visit my friend who lived in the apartment complex down past the railroad underpass. The same street where I usually parked my car, since it was the most convenient place to park downtown without having to pay. The street I knew so well, that never invited any harm, on which I never felt danger, was now a crime scene. This is becoming a regular thing; parts of the Downtown Mall I walked as a teenager, places that I used to sit and relax and catch breaks in my busy days, have now turned to places that carry so many horrible memories. Teargassed on High Street in July. Almost killed at 4th and Water. These sites now hold so much trauma for me personally, so much pain.
We gathered the rest of our affinity group, and I watched the shock and disbelief wash over the faces of the crowd. I had to compose myself.
Stay strong, I said. Don’t cry. You can’t cry now. Your group needs you. I stood by the sidewalk and watched as the paramedics tried to resuscitate Heather. No hope.
We agreed to meet at Champion Brewery, which was a block away, and even that familiar place didn’t feel safe. Sean, the manager and also a good friend of mine, greeted me with open arms when I walked through the door. That’s when I lost it. And I cried. I cried as if I’d lost my own sister. I cried as if I’d lost a friend. All the friends I came with were fine, and not fine at the same time.
No one felt safe after that. We moved to a secure building, the workplace of someone’s friend, and laid low until the madness subsided until about 5 p.m. We prepared for everything. We prepared for tear gas, beatings, stabbings, shootings, everything imaginable. No one ever imagined this. No one expected this. Just as terrorists smashed planes unexpectedly into buildings, a terrorist unexpectedly smashed a Dodge Charger into pedestrians. How could you, I thought. How dare you.
I went from weeping in absolute sadness to complete numbness. I couldn’t tell who I was, where I began and where I ended. I wanted people around me, and then I wanted to be alone, and then I wanted people. I was out of body: somewhere else, yet right here. Someone else. Torn away from the earth. Lost in the ether.
I didn’t know Heather Heyer. I didn’t know her name when I saw her on the ground. Now, I feel closer to her than most acquaintances, coworkers, or classmates. She answered the call to action. She didn’t have to be here on the front lines, though she understood the call to defend our community, to love and support each other in times of need. She was a Charlottesville resident, and worked at the Miller Law Group as a paralegal, so she understood representation. She understood supporting those who could not get support. Her heart was so giant, and I know that from her actions, from her willingness to be there, and from members of her family, who I spoke with at the vigil that next evening. They wore purple shirts displaying her last words posted on social media: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Now she has the world’s attention, and definitely mine. I promised an undying dedication to the fight against white supremacy to her family, and I mean every word of it, fervently.
I will forever be changed after watching Heather lose her life. After seeing the carnage in the street in my hometown. After watching a terrorist strike the heart of Charlottesville with a two-ton vehicle.
Let’s call this what it is. This was terrorism. These people did not come to have a discussion. They did not come to rally and speak on issues of ‘white rights.’ They came to commit violence, intimidation, serious harm, and even murder. Before August 12, I spoke at the City Council multiple times, and at the Human Rights Commission as well. I told them, REVOKE THE DAMN PERMIT. Put moral authority over legal responsibility. And take these fucking statues down. Now.
Finally, people are listening. But Heather had to die for people to listen.
This is what happens when you give white supremacy a pass.
You invite terrorism into your town.
And you will be forever changed.