What It Was Like to Witness the Terror and Hatred on Display at Charlottesville

Activists reflect on spending a weekend in a town besieged by white supremacists and experiencing a domestic terror attack.

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Aug 14 2017, 6:06pm

Photo by NurPhoto via Getty

When Luca Connolly, an organizer with Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, called Broadly on Sunday afternoon, she was sitting outside UVA Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was there to visit a friend being treated for a concussion, one of several people seriously injured after James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old white supremacist who had rallied earlier with a racist right-wing organization, allegedly plowed into a crowd of anti-racist protesters the previous day.

This was the third day of the so-called "Unite the Right" rally, a series of public demonstrations organized by the white nationalist blogger Jason Kessler, in which white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and other hate groups descended on the small southern city to biliously protest the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and perceived attacks on "white identity" in general. Even though Kessler had been effectively chased out of town, some of his hateful cohort lingered still; at one point, Connolly's voice was momentarily drowned out by the roar of a passing engine. "White supremacists on fucking motorcycles with Confederate flags," she explained darkly.

On Friday, a few hundred white supremacist protesters marched onto UVA campus, eventually converging on a statue of Thomas Jefferson. They were wielding torches, chanting racist slogans, not even bothering to cover their faces. Connolly was there, too, one of about 30 activists and students encircling the monument in counter-protest. "We knew that what they wanted was a photo op," she said. "Our goal was to prevent them from having this rally, to prevent them from celebrating, to prevent them from thinking that they were welcome on this campus." She remembers the terrifying sound of the marchers stomping in formation, shouting and chanting, "Jews will not replace us," eventually descending on the small group of activists. What's perhaps most striking to her, she said, is the fact that local and campus police were completely absent.

Community activist Emily Gorcenski live-streamed the torch rally on Periscope, and was also there when the marchers surrounded the crowd of counter-protesters. "At that moment, I flashed back to 1933 Germany," she said. "I had just gotten back from Berlin last month, and saw all of the places where these horrors happened early in the Nazi movement. In one of my streams I even talked about it: 'This is Bebelplatz, this is what it looked like the night before the book burnings.' It was not so much terror for my safety as it was a terror for the future of the country." White supremacists screamed transphobic and homophobic abuse at her as she continued live-streaming; one even pepper sprayed her, she says. She has since pressed charges against him.

On Saturday, violence erupted hours before the planned rally was even set to start in McIntire Park. Police instructed everyone assembled to disperse, and they did. As a group of anti-racist protesters made their way down a narrow side street, on their way to meet up with another group nearby, Fields slammed his car into the crowd. Numerous videos from the scene show what happened next, in clear and sickening detail: Terrified screams fill the air, and the car rapidly and deliberately reverses. As it speeds off, a single red sneaker falls from its heavily damaged front bumper and bounces down the vacant street.

White supremacists clashing with antifa. Photo by Chip Somodevilla via Getty

"The memory of it is so seared into my brain: of people laying on the sidewalk, screaming," Connolly said, her voice breaking. "No ambulance could get through. It was such a tight alleyway, and the medics were running, trying to get in." In all, she told Broadly, four of her friends were seriously injured. One suffered a concussion and broken leg; another had been cut so deeply that her bone was exposed. On Saturday evening, news broke that one of the victims had died, a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer. ("She died fighting for what she believed in," her mom told CNN.)

Gorcenski says that she was about 15 to 20 feet away from the scene of the attack. She had a gun on her for self-defense and began sprinting towards the car with her weapon drawn, believing that the assailant would get out of his vehicle and begin shooting. "I ran after him, and I saw a couple of other people nearby hitting his car with whatever they had in their hands trying to stop him." Fields allegedly sped off and was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit and run.

Like Connolly, Gorcenski knew someone in the crowd was also injured in the crash. "She has spinal injuries, broken legs. [She] had two surgeries. She will make a full recovery, but she was hit pretty badly." On Monday morning, she spoke to a friend who had been next to Heyer and had attempted to apply a tourniquet to stem blood loss. "The feelings he has of not being able to have done enough…" she said. "There's all sorts of things you go through when you see something like this: Maybe I should have gone to the medic training last month. Maybe I should have taken that EMT course… There's so many things that go through your mind."

"I don't want to use that language of, like, 'monster' and 'psychopath,' because I don't think that it's, like, 'Oh, this person is just a monster,'" Connolly said of Fields. "I think that white supremacy does this to people. I think that white supremacy encourages murder and violence and hatred."

In the aftermath of the attack—and President Trump's initial refusal to publicly disavow the white supremacists who spew hate in his name—there's been a refrain from politicians on the left and the right alike: These values have no place in American society. But to treat these rallies as an aberration is wholly specious, activists say. Systemic racism isn't only carried out by dangerous, bigoted buffoons in military cosplay, and the views represented in Charlottesville are not fringe, really. "The president is a white supremacist and got elected because of white supremacy," said Connolly. "That itself is emboldening them, but as I said, they've existed long before this. Long, long before Donald Trump and long before the renaming of a park."

That white supremacists proudly marched on Charlottesville is horrifying, but it's not shocking. This is not the first alt-right protest in the city in recent years, and it will likely not be the last. Gorcenski says that local activists believed the Unite the Right rally would descend into violence, and had been desperately trying to get the city council to revoke the permit for the rally. "We knew," she said. "For me it was not uncertain that there would be violence and deaths were possible. That's what motivated all of my actions leading up to it. All I was doing was necessary to save lives, to reduce crowd sizes, to implore people to not act violently, and to be prepare for violence when it came."

Many of the "Unite the Right" protesters may have been radicalized online and emboldened by Trump, but activists like Gorcenski argue they were also enabled by the local government, which agreed to let them gather over protests from city residents, and by Charlottesville police, who've been accused of standing by idly as heavily armed extremists roamed the city, wreaking havoc. Their inaction speaks volumes. "The police were just doing nothing. They were doing absolutely nothing," Connolly said. "Can you imagine if it had been a group of black or brown folks? Of queer people? Of queer, black folks? This would have lasted 30 seconds."

Still, even as the community reeled from this weekend's events, Connolly emphasized that she's optimistic for the future. "Maybe we'll see a whole lot more people start showing up for meetings and start showing up for actions and start showing up for vulnerable populations of color and low-income people and black people in the city," she said. "If they don't, it's gonna keep growing. We have to stamp out fascism. We have to actively work against fascism as a community and as a nation, or this is only going to get worse."