By 1:30pm on Saturday, the “Unite the Right” rally had ended and there was a sense that white supremacy had lost. People were cheering, dancing, chanting “Charlottesville we got your back, we got your back, we got your back.” The thousands in the streets, representing different factions of the left, united and marched to celebrate withstanding hours of tear gas and pepper spray. The racists had retreated, we thought.
When I first heard of the rally in Charlottesville, I imagined it would be as small as these things usually are—a couple of Nazis parading around, drawing the attention of almost no one. But as it approached, it became clear it was not going to be a normal protest, that the “alt-right” was ready to fight. I could tell from the social media posts before the rally, alt-righters seething about how they got the unfair end of America’s bargain, that tension was high. The pictures circulating on Friday night of young white men holding torches showed their anger. The shields, guns, and batons they carried on Saturday morning signaled their intent.
Early on Saturday morning, a neo-Nazi from a group called Vanguard America who would only give his name as Thomas, warned me that many members were carrying handguns under their shirts. “We don’t want to do anything, but if the opposition starts something and the cops don’t finish it, we will.”
And yet at 1:30—minutes before a car would plow into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring dozens more—we all seemed to believe that the Nazis had been forced out of Charlottesville without much violence. Somehow we weren’t prepared, emotionally nor tactically, for what came next.
On the drive down to Charlottesville from Philadelphia, a friend who’s lived outside of the U.S. for most of his life said the difference between here and many other places is that after a war elsewhere, there’s usually something like South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” People are tried in court and the government makes an official vow to not repeat its crimes. That never happened in the United States. There were no trials, no reparations after the Civil War. Confederate flags still fly. We passed a few waving in people’s yards as we drove into Virginia.
The original purpose of the “Unite the Right” rally has been lost in the news cycle: It was organized as a response to the City of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, and marketed by its promoters like Jason Kessler, a local white nationalist, as being about free speech, specifically the freedom to honor and support the history of the Confederacy.
The Civil War, my friend in the car said, had never really ended. But until the chaos of 2017, it seemed to be waning. Yes, there were people arguing for white supremacy back in 2016, too. People of color were being killed, arrested, and oppressed in the same ways they are today. But now Donald Trump is president and the “alt-right,” the loosely affiliated groups of white nationalists who are united by their love of memes and racism, has a direct line to the White House in the form of Steve Bannon. They’ve become emboldened, angrier, and more militant.
The rally seemed to make it clear that the alt-right was not just a conservative meme factory, but an armed and dangerous nationalist group. Accordingly, the people of Charlottesville knew the rally had the potential to get violent, and even those committed to nonviolence accepted that their side had to have an adequate response. Cornel West told the Washington Post after the rally that “the police didn’t do anything” to protect the counter-protesters. “If it hadn’t been for the anti-fascists protecting us from the neo-fascists,” he said, “we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
The fact that peace-believing clergy were working with armed anti-fascists shows how much has changed in the last year.
Weeks before the event, anti-racist organizers in Charlottesville had been gearing up, meeting with different factions of the left, and gathering intel on their adversaries. A team of volunteers in the city was dedicated to infiltrating online alt-right groups and putting faces to names so they’d know who to look out for at the rally. One organizer said they’d assembled a dossier more comprehensive than the cops’ file.
On Saturday, down another street in another small park, anti-fascist groups gathered and prepped, putting on their face masks and helmets, discussing strategy. Some carried batons. A leftist group called Redneck Revolt showed up with black military gear and rifles.
Charlottesville isn’t a stranger to racial tension; the KKK had rallied there a month prior, and there’s been a brewing controversy over the city’s institutions and their history of supporting the Confederacy. But with Nazis and counter-protesters bussed in from seemingly every state, Saturday’s rally felt outsized for the sleepy city.
Adding to the tension was the fact that the city had tried to move the rally from its original location, Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, where the statue of Robert E. Lee still stands, to a larger park on the edge of the city where larger crowds can gather. But late on Friday night, the ACLU of Virginia, representing Kessler and his fellow white supremacists, successfully argued in court that the rally could be moved back downtown.
“I’m representing the First Amendment, the principles of constitutional governance,” Claire Gastanaga, the executive director of the organization, told me before the rally.
And so the rally took place in a park no bigger than a square block, surrounded by small residential streets and dozens of police barricades. Even though it was scheduled to start at noon, by 8am the white supremacists were arriving, eventually numbering in the hundreds, and counter-demonstrators had lined the streets.
Down the block in another small park, a coalition of liberal and church groups had set up a prayer circle, a water distribution tent, and an eyewash station. There, Wes Bellamy, vice-mayor of Charlottesville, told a crowd of about 200 counter-protesters that this was Charlottesville’s chance to “show the world that this is our community, our city.”
“Nobody is running us off,” he said. “Nobody is making us afraid. This is a celebration, not a funeral.”
Back at Emancipation Park, two men with a group called Alt-Right Minnesota told me the rally was just about the statue of Robert E. Lee, and that they were not here for violence.
“It’s part of white history, even though a lot of people think it’s a sad part of history,” said John, a man in his early twenties wearing the day’s agreed-upon uniform of a white button-down and khakis. “We’re not anti-anyone. We’re just pro-us. But if anyone is anti-us, then we have a problem.”
After that, approximately 100 white nationalists, most from Vanguard, marched into the park, chanting “Blood and soil! Blood and soil!”—a reference to the belief that those born to families on a specific plot of land (e.g. the United States) have an inherent right to that land. One member gave a pep talk to those assembled.
“If you don’t racialize, if you don’t tribalize, you will go extinct,” he said. “We’ll be a minority soon, and do you think we’ll get a reservation? Do you think we’ll get affirmative action? If we don’t adopt an ethnocentric mindset, we’re finished.”
The group then kicked out press and people of color from the park—even those who identified with the alt-right (“We have nothing against them, but this is a white identity rally,” one leader said). They closed the entrance with a barricade. A coordinated group of armed militiamen with semi-automatic weapons formed a line in front of the park’s entrance, helping block anyone who tried to get through. Progressive clergy, including Cornel West, formed a line in front of them and began reciting personal prayers, one by one.
“Forgive us for the sin of white supremacy,” one said. The rest of her prayer was drowned out by chants of “white Sharia now” emanating from the park, and the sound of drums down the street, signaling the arrival of the anti-fascists, who came in a line, headed by a banner with “FUCK FASCISTS” spelled out in black duct tape.
Then the tear gas and pepper spray started. Antifa groups had some, the white supremacists had more, and so the streets surrounding Emancipation Park slowly emptied as more and more people came into contact with the gas and spray. Volunteer medics down the block poured milk into dozens of protesters’ eyes. This continued for two hours—a few people were punched, a few others were badly beaten, and the cops stood by, down the block, for all of it. Eventually, only those most willing to risk their safety were left in front of Emancipation Park.
Nic Smith, a 21-year-old Waffle House waiter from Roanoke, spilled his coffee on a white supremacist protester, got punched, and punched the protester back, knocking him to the floor.
“They want genocide,” he said. “Is there a passive way to do that? That’s why passive resistance does not work. You have to resist and oppose it.”
I asked him if he had punched white supremacists before, and he said he couldn’t comment on that, but he did say that this rally was “the tip of the iceberg.” Bigger things are coming, he said.
A few minutes before the scheduled start time of the rally, riot police showed up. The city had declared the gathering an unlawful assembly. People dispersed. Some white supremacists went back to a larger park they’d used as a staging ground earlier that day; others went home. Counter-protesters went back to the two other, smaller parks to strategize, drink water, and eat orange slices. Two of them took a brief moment to lazily swing on the park’s swing set.
Half an hour later, after hearing that a rogue group of white supremacists had attacked a man named Dre Harris a few blocks away, groups of counter-protesters left the parks and converged on Charlottesville’s streets, passing cars with horns honking in support, disinterested police, and a white family sitting on a porch eating brunch. “We’re just observing the events,” said one of the men at the table. He did not want to give his name.
As the protesters headed toward where Harris’s attackers were last seen, they were met with another stream of hundreds coming from another section of the city. Cheers erupted from the entire crowd as more and more took over the streets.
And then, while turning up a small side street downtown, a silver Dodge Challenger sped up and rammed into a crowd of protesters, causing a tidal wave of bodies to fall back down the street. People ran. The driver, later identified as 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr., then backed up his car, and sped into the crowd again. The uninjured protesters dispersed rapidly. Volunteer medics stayed behind, clearing the way for ambulances. A block away, a small contingent of protesters held a black antifa banner above the bodies of the wounded to protect them from the sun. Paramedics performed CPR on Heather Heyer, who would later die of her injuries, and loaded her into an ambulance.
The sense of calm and celebration quickly transformed into terror. The scene was chaotic, but it was clear almost immediately that the act was deliberate. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that something like it could happen. The rally, after all, was in support of a white America, run by people carrying guns and shields, who said they’d resort to violence if necessary.
But maybe we were inadequately prepared because the alt-right is two-faced: On one side is the violence that showed itself in Virginia on Friday, and on the other is a group that insists they are simply internet nerds who support free speech. Until this weekend, the latter side was given the benefit of the doubt—and the majority of sympathetic media coverage.
On Saturday, the far-right showed what many people, especially people of color, have been warning is its true intent.
“All the young people who were drawn to the movement on vague anti-PC grounds have been forced to witness the gravity of the politics they are playing with,” Angela Nagle, the author of Kill All Normies, an extensive study of the alt-right, said after the rally. She sees Charlottesville as a turning point. “The alt-right will probably get more isolated, but more militant as a result.”
Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia who had been involved in organizing counter-protests, said she believed her side had won the day. The rally had exposed the alt-right and its “despicable ideology” and shown the strength of progressives and the left coming together. “Charlottesville can become a model,” she said.
She, and many others, also said they believed this wasn’t over. Even though Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged on Monday that Heyer’s death was an act of domestic terrorism, and Trump finally called out “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups” by name, it took almost 48 hours for them to do so, a move some on the far right are reading as covert support of their actions.
Back home in Philadelphia, I asked a young anti-fascist activist if she was worried after Charlottesville.
“People who have bigoted views seem to be emboldened,” she said. “Yes, I am pretty worried.”
Twenty-four hours after running from James Alex Fields, Jr.’s car, I attended a vigil for Heather Heyer in Philadelphia, held across the street from City Hall. I’d expected it to be small, but about 2,000 people had gathered. I also expected the vigil to be sad, the participants reflective. Instead they, like many of the counter-protesters on Saturday, were angry. Speakers told the crowd to fight on, to root out white supremacy in their own communities, to not fall back into forms of racism more subtle than neo-Nazis marching down city streets. Over a crackly loudspeaker with a police helicopter circling overhead, Asa Khalif, a leader of Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia, spoke to the crowd.
“One thing is clear,” he said. “Charlottesville was a battle. And tonight, we better make a vow, all of us: We will fight this machine, and we will not give in. This is a war.”