Charlottesville and the shattering of America
Two middle-aged men, one black and one white, walked up a street in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia yelling at each other. It was a moment of relative normalcy in a day otherwise defined by mayhem.
Both men used the phrase “born and bred” to define their relationship to the smallish Southern college town, nestled in the hills of the politically contested state of Virginia.
The white man, Ed Knight, wore a Confederate flag bandana around his head.
“You, with that stupid Confederate flag, talking about history,” the black man, George Steppe, said. “You don’t know nothing about no history. Only thing you know is hate.”
“This is our history and it should not be destroyed,” Knight said of the statue of Robert E. Lee in the park, where authorities had just dispersed crowds from a “Unite the Right” rally.
Knight supported the event that brought hundreds of armed racists and fascists to his home city this weekend. It also brought hundreds of anti-fascists, some of them armed with sticks and shields as well, pledging to defend the area from right-wing terror. Now, after hours of bloody battle during which the anti-racist groups remained largely passive, riot police were breaking things up, pushing Steppe back, and inching forward behind shields. Knight walked alongside with a sign reading, “Make C-Ville Great Again.”
The chaos started the night before, as the Nazis and other racists gathered for the 21st-century version of a Klan rally—a Klanclave of khaki and tiki torches. At one point, a group of the white supremacists surrounded a group of counter-protesters, throwing punches and torches.
Within minutes of arriving in the downtown area on Saturday morning, we saw the first of many fights. White supremacists with helmets—some German World War II-era—and white polos, sticks, an assortment of flags, and homemade shields marked with the insignia of the racist group Vanguard America chanted at a smaller crowd of counter-demonstrators.
“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you get helicopter rides,” they said, a reference to far-right governments in Argentina and Chile in the ’70s and ’80s that threw leftists from helicopters to “disappear” them.
As the racists marched forward, anti-racists tried to block them. After one particular swirl of violence and swinging of sticks that we observed, three of the counter-protesters were left bloody. The racists seemed to target the faces of women, but after also taking some heavy blows themselves, ran away as cops finally rolled in to set up barricades.
A similar pattern continued to play out over the next several hours: Every time a new faction of the right marched in its crazed Tom Sawyer armor toward the park, another fight broke out.
The scrum was filled with every variety of racist imaginable, from the Nazi biker to the fashy computer programmer. They were almost exclusively white and male. The anti-fascist activists who packed the streets were predominantly white also, but there were far more women and people of color opposing the Nazis. Otherwise the two opposing armies seemed to be of roughly equal size.
The fights were swift, chaotic, and brutal. The two sides launched bottles and tear gas canisters back and forth as state troopers stood and watched, slack-jawed. At one point, as a few bottles whizzed by him in quick succession, a trooper perked up enough to pull out his phone and record some of the mayhem.
When the police declared the assembly illegal—before it even officially began—and told everyone to leave, it forced these groups together. Right-wing militia types wielding assault rifles and wearing MAGA patches on paramilitary uniforms roamed through the crowd. Guys with pistols seemed to keep their hands on them, ready to draw at any moment. It felt like something horrible would happen.
Then, as the various groups became separated, it seemed like the rumble had largely ended.
“I’m glad no serious gunshots rang out,” Steppe said at around 12:30 pm on Saturday. “I was threatened with a gun… Police wasn’t around when a guy pulled up his gun up on me, though.”
Though barely past noon, Steppe and Knight both seemed to think that it was the end of the day.
The racists, who had not been able to hold their rally, were trying to regroup at another park farther from downtown. Eventually, as a state of emergency was declared, they decided to leave—some of them even suggested hiding in the woods.
Antifa burned right-wing flags in a park, and then marched through the city. As two anti-racist groups converged on Water Street at around 1:35 pm, it felt triumphant. They had driven the bigots out of town—or at least those who were from out of town.
About five minutes later, as they continued marching, it sounded like a bomb exploded as a muscle car, which police say was driven by extremist James Alex Fields, sped down the street and plowed through the march and into other cars. Fields then threw the weaponized car into reverse, fleeing from the scene of terror.
Bodies were strewn through the road. Street medics, marked by red tape, delivered first aid while waiting on ambulances to arrive. Activists held Antifa banners to block camera views of the injured.
The right-wingers were nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, President Donald Trump meandered through a speech in which which he condemned the violence on “many sides.” He did not use the words “white supremacy,” or “terrorism,” nor did he say the name of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in the terror attack. Trump did not offer support to the 19 others who were hospitalized, or prayers for those who were still in critical condition.
Fields, who was photographed earlier in the day with the same Vanguard America shield we saw when we first arrived in town, was arrested and charged with murder.
I am writing this on the night of the attack, and I won’t pretend to know what it means for our country. The racism is not new. The argument Steppe and Knight were having in their hometown could have happened any time in the last 50 years. But the way the battle over white supremacy was being waged around them was new, and Charlottesville was not ready for it. None of us are.
When that gray car slammed into those people, it shattered a part of America, or at least the illusion of it. I don’t know what that means yet, because it shattered something in me, too.
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg