In what is normally such a slow and sleepy town, the city of Charlottesville felt as though it was in a stand-still the past two days, ultimately ending in mass injuries and at least one death after a vehicle rammed into counter-protesters at the Unite the Right rally today.
As the normal groups of UVA students and families walked the mall, an overarching feeling of tension hung dead in the air due to one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists in decades.
Coupled with the massive amount of fencing, caution tape, and increasing police presence surrounding Emancipation Park, as well as the torch-lit white nationalist march that went through UVA’s campus last night, the impending Unite the Right rally loomed ever closer until this morning when tensions finally came to a peak.
About 500 white nationalist protestors gathered this morning in opposition to the removal of the statues of Confederate Generals Lee and Jackson in Emancipation Park, which was voted on in April. Nearly 1,500 counter-protestors were also in attendance, including groups like ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter, and the ACLU, along with many others.
Although the gathering wasn’t scheduled to occur until noon, protesters and counter-protesters alike gathered at the park at least an hour beforehand. White nationalists were clad in body armor carrying rifles, wooden shields and swords, some wearing swastika patches sewn into their polo shirts and brandishing various white supremacist group symbols. Many carried Confederate flags along with the flags of various white nationalist and supremacist groups.
“Our bishop made a call to all the clergy in the diocese of Virginia to meet here to make a non-confrontational stand that hate doesn’t win, love does,” said Hillary West, the Rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Herndon, VA. “Hopefully, we can somehow in all of this see love and peace, because that’s the only thing that’s going to win.”
Congregate Charlottesville supplied a safe space at the Methodist church located just beyond the park for anyone who feared for their safety, or for those who preferred to meditate, pray, and have group discussions.
Someone had handed West a bouquet of flowers as she looked on from her place on the sidewalk while white nationalists threw rocks into the crowd of counter-protesters and ANTIFA members hurled colored smoke bombs in the street.
The constant roar of helicopters provided an eerie backdrop to the day as both sides engaged in violence. Many individuals in white nationalist groups carried bats, clubs, and pipes, swinging at counter-protesters who retaliated by throwing plastic bottles and other projectiles.
In one instance, a white nationalist protester attempted to push counter-protesters with a flag pole, resulting in a physical brawl. The man gave a counter-protester a head injury, at which point police intervened by dispersing the encounter with tear gas. Multiple instances of physical violence continued throughout the protest.
“I never thought in 2017, as a 25-year-old, that I would have to experience anything like this,” said Reneigh Jenkins, an organizer with Refuse Fascism, a group that identifies Trump as a fascist. “[Trump] is reason why they feel so emboldened to run these streets and hit people over the head with bats. We’re here peacefully to say that racism is wrong and that it’s not acceptable. I know this country was founded on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, but this is not acceptable.”
Unite the Right, organized by pro-white activist and Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler, received a city permit earlier in the summer. Despite requests from the city to move the protest to the larger McIntire Park, a judge overruled these pleas last night, allowing the gathering to occur at the original site.
Although the Confederate statues are still in place, many groups, including neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and alt-right groups believe removing these statues symbolizes the “tearing down of white people’s history and [their] demographic replacement,” according to Kessler.
“We have a right to be here,” said one man who asked to remain nameless and identified as a white nationalist. “We want them to leave our rights alone just the same as they want us to leave their rights alone. This is part of our heritage. People think that their rights mean more than ours do. [These monuments] are a part of my heritage.”
Groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, and Identity Evropa intended to gather together to listen to featured speakers Richard Spencer, Mike Enoch, and Matt Heimbach, among many others. While these aren’t necessarily household names, they’re well-known within white nationalist groups and the groups who oppose them.
However, due to the intensity of the clashes on both sides, few of these speakers could make their speeches. Richard Spencer was seen pushing police officers and later seen on the ground recovering from tear gas, as were many others during the few hours the confrontations lasted.
“My issue is there too much of a demonization and a bias against people who are right-of-center,” Justin said, who preferred only to go by his first name but did not identify with any white nationalist groups. “Some of those people deserve it, but a lot of them don’t. I feel like this is a chance for multiple groups to come together all across the spectrum, and to show solidarity and to set aside individual differences. That doesn’t seem to be the case today.”
The Charlottesville Police Department coordinated with the Virginia State Police and Albermarle County law enforcement agencies. As directed by Governor McAuliffe, the Virginia National Guard stood by during the entire event to ensure safety both for citizens and local police officers.
Both McAuliffe and Virginia Senators Kaine and Warner delivered statements disapproving and condemning the white nationalists groups gathering at Unite the Right, whose viewpoints McAuliffe described as “abhorrent.”
Police made continued efforts to retain crowd-control and sprayed gas from hand-held canisters when confrontations escalated, but some protesters were surprised by how little they seemed to intervene.
“There was lot of pepper spray, a lot of running, a lot of confronting,” said counter-protester John Quick. “They had their lines, we had our lines, constantly going back and forth. I’m surprised [the police] let all the confrontations occur.”
Regardless, only twenty minutes after the intended start of the protest police announced that the Commonwealth of Virginia had pronounced the gathering unlawful and asked everyone in the park and surrounding streets to leave the area. Earlier in the morning, McAuliffe declared Charlottesville to be in a state of emergency.
“I think [the police] held back, allowed things to happen and then that gave them an excuse to come in and shut it down,” said Justin.
Protesters and counter-protesters then moved to the streets surrounding Charlottesville’s downtown mall area continuing to demonstrate and march. Several of these groups gathered in parking lots adjacent to the mall where confrontation continued.
“The only state-sanctioned, justified anger in this country is white male anger and white male aggression,” said counter-protester Damani Harrison. “That’s what [the police] will protect.”
Verbal fights occurred between several of these groups until one confrontation between body-armored militia carrying assault weapons peaked when a car backed out of the parking lot, pushing its way into a group of counter-protestors; who then proceeded to chase the car through the streets.
A short time later, another car rammed into a group of counter-protestors on 4th Street, causing mass injuries and one death. Police reported that at least six people were struck by the vehicle as it backed out of the crowd before being found later abandoned.
“I support their First Amendment rights to be out there peaceably assembling, but I find the problem to be when their First Amendment rights and their Second Amendment rights come together, and they show up with machine guns and full body armor,” said Jessica Son, a counter-protester who stood with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. “When that happens, there’s no way that there’s not going to be an underlying tension of violence and that’s going to bring out the extremists on the counter-protest side of the people who are ready to stand up and fight for what they believe in. Of the same accord, they don’t realize they’re being reduced to the same level of hate and violence that the Unite the Right group has found.”
Some additional photo coverage of the Unite the Right rally can be found below from RVA Mag’s team on the ground today.
Stay tuned for additional coverage from RVA Mag on Unite the Right, as well as our video coverage below.
*Cover Photo by Jason Lappa. Video shot, chopped, and blocked by Charles Rasputin and Jacin Buchanan