Charlottesville, VA – A community can bounce back from almost anything — a natural disaster, or maybe an economic downswing.
But some things leave a mark, a deep wound, and for Charlottesville, a small town of some 50,000 accustomed to order and calm, the white nationalists who took over their streets last year — first in July, then on two consecutive days in August — dealt a blow.
If the “You. Will not. Replace. Us” chants bellowing from their torchlit faces wasn’t enough of a shock to the system, law enforcement’s inaction when faced with that aggression was. It led to more than hardship or hurt feelings: Heather Heyer, 32, was among those mowed down that day by a white nationalist who turned his car into a weapon by that day. Others survived their injuries. Heyer died.
Coping mechanisms include taking a collective deep breath at a Presbyterian church service intended to restore troubled minds and hearts, spontaneous mini-vigils for Heyer, and community meetings where people show up wearing “CVille” and “strength” t-shirts and buttons.
One year after year later, last year’s protests in Charlottesville, white nationalists are marching again — this time on the nation’s capital. But people here are still reeling from what unfolded on their streets and how the nation — including President Donald Trump, who said there were “fine people” marching for white supremacy — has responded.
For some, there’s fear.
Shown, 46, who like so many wishes to be identified by his first name, had his then 9-old daughter with him — she stays with him and his fiancee on the weekends.
He stayed in last year, as per law enforcement recommendations, but when his daughter saw the news she was terrified.
“For the first time in my life, after being a father, I felt like I couldn’t protect my child. And that was a helpless feeling,” said Shown, who lives in an ethnically diverse part of town. He said when he told his daughter that maybe she shouldn’t stay with him this weekend because the white supremacists might come back, she started crying, fearing not just for her own safety, but for that of others.
Shown said he can’t afford to miss work, so he can’t leave town, like others have. He said he will try to keep activities close to home, and will come back during his break from his overnight job as a floor technician at UVA to check on his daughter and fiancee.
“This is the first time I have experienced racial tension of this magnitude … actually coming face-to-face with nazis and white supremacists, it’s a shock to me. And it’s a shock to me that it’s in 2018,” said Shown, who is black.
For others, there’s a determination to stand their ground, come what may, this weekend.
Marissa, 24, who lives in the low-income Friendship Court Apartments, a block from where Heyer was killed, is a certified EMT and nurse’s assistant. She is determined to drop everything and head to the streets to help should anything happen.
She says last year was a total “disaster” and vows not to let that happen again. “Virginia isn’t for racists. Virginia is for lovers,” she says, repeating the state’s popular tourism slogan.
She worries, though, that the police will fail yet again to protect the community. “It’s a purge,” she said, referring to the film horror film franchise criminals are allowed to take part in a no-holds-barred crime spree with impunity. People don’t feel like they can count on law enforcement, she said, which is why a network of off-duty private security guards have also come to town.
“You have to be ready at all times,” she said.
Many cops, little security
For a few tense minutes, it looked like things were about to go horribly wrong. Barely into the start of a planned student rally on the campus of the University of Virginia (UVA), police in riot gear marched into formation, shields raised.
Those who had gathered to protest the police’s response to last year’s white supremacist march chanted, “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here!”
It seemed like a baffling escalation in an already tense situation. The university had angered organizers by trying to control who could participate, at one point trying to limit attendees to students and faculty.
Protesters who supported them denounced the police, comparing them in a leaflet they passed around to the white supremacists. “Last year they came with torches, this year they come with badges,” it read, listing the many reasons why they feel that way. “They’re not here to protect us. They’re here to control us.”
Lisa Woolfork, associate professor of English at UVA and a Black Lives Matter organizer in town, describes feeling “under siege” as hundreds of extra officers patrol her town, which feels like living “in a police state.”
“We have no information from law enforcement officers or the city as to any type of threat they might be gearing up for. We know that [white nationalist rally organizer Jason] Kessler has withdrawn his [marching] permit application, so it seems as though the community wants to come together in grief, in resilience, to show up and resist white supremacy…and yet, we are being met already by an overwhelming show of force. And that is very distressing.”
Sgt. Tony Newberry, spokesman for the Charlottesville Police Department, told ThinkProgress that said the city “has to prepare for the unknown.”
“We have to enforce the law,” he said, adding however that people need to “have their right to free speech protected.”
Just how that can be achieved under a state of emergency, which does not allow for rallies or marches in public spaces, is unclear.
Newberry directed ThinkProgress to the Police Chief’s office, which did not reply to a series of questions posed in e-mail. Nor did the City of Charlottesville, which is tasked with answering media inquiries.
This lack of transparency worries Woolfork, who feels that police sometimes fail to exercise nuance and deftness in dealing with the public. “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” she said.
Jalane Schmidt, professor of religious studies at UVA, worries that any attempt to show defiance with their physical presence, as they move to reclaim their streets, will be quashed by the heavy police presence.
Schmidt said people were essentially being told by law enforcement to treat it like a blizzard weekend — buy provisions, “stay home and hunker down.”
“Yeah, we resent it. We resented it last year too,” she said, of being told to stay home, to stay quiet, to avoid the white nationalists who were allowed to march the streets.
“Why don’t you tell the white supremacists that?” she asked.
What does resistance look like?
For some in town, simply going out and about their business is an act of resistance.
While most people patiently put up with the increased police presence — one would be hard-pressed to find a more cheerful group of officers, smiling broadly at their posts — some bristle when faced with never-ending street closures and bag searches. At the two entry points, into the downtown mall, protocol changes. Some people have their medications taken away, some have masks taken out of first-aid kits.
A befuddled man tries to enter with his bicycle, only to be told he can’t. Having locked up his bike, he is then told he can’t enter with his helmet while not in possession of a bike.
“Can’t you just lock your helmet in your car?” asked an officer.
“I don’t have a car! I have a bike!” the man replied, almost at the end of his tether.
Still, people manage to maintain their cool as their city streets are blocked and helicopters thud overhead with regularity — an unwelcome and unfamiliar sound in this town.
Bashir Khelafa, owner of Bashir’s Taverna — one of the very few business open on Friday night — said that the city had shown “some flexibility” in its plan and had been regularly communicating with businesses.
“For this weekend, money is on the back-burner, and whatever we make, the proceeds, will go to her foundation,” he said,referring to a non-profit set up to honor Heather Heyer.
“We’re not going to let all the isms — racism, antisemitism, Trumpism, dictate our lives,” said Khelafa. “And also for the memory of this young lady,” he added, pointing to a sign from Heyer’s funeral.
For Sarah and James, two local anti-fascists (“antifa”), resistance is being here, protecting their city, ready to show up if the white nationalists return.
“It used to be that people would make arrangements for being arrested. Now, they’re calmly accepting the possibility of death. And they’re still showing up,” she said, a tremor in her voice. James added, “I’m a business person. I work five, six days a week. I’m only doing this because I have to.”
The fact that police stood down last summer, protecting the white supremacists while teargassing counter-protesters, said Sarah, is a signal to white nationalists that they are immune from any action from law enforcement.
When the KKK came to town last July, and again in August, police stood down, which was a signal to white nationalists, Sarah said, that they will encounter little or no action from law enforcement.
This is why Sarah isn’t convinced that the white supremacists won’t come. “That’s taking the word of white nationalists,” she said.
“That should scare everyone who is not a white nationalist,” said Sarah, who added she’s alarmed at how normalized the presence of white nationalists is becoming, in the media, especially this weekend, when they will be marching on the nation’s capital, in front of the White House.
John Tiernan Low, a native of Charlottesville, will spend this weekend in D.C. to participate in the counter protests on Sunday. The 22-year old was in Charlottesville last year, and was taken aback by what he saw on August 11, when then white nationalists carried out an unscheduled torchlight march that turned violent.
He worries that people are buying into this narrative, that counter-demonstrators who “don’t protest in the right way” are criminals.
Low feels that only those who aren’t directly affected by white supremacy are fixated on “the idea of the ‘right way’ to protest white supremacy being in the most civil way — like you can’t walk in the road, you can’t disrupt people’s lives.”
The antifa, meanwhile, are revered by some locals and feared by others, who worry that they might choose to pick a fight police just to make a point.
“That’s just silly,” said Torrie, who is antifa and was at the scene when Heyer was killed.
The Tampa native, who is a street medic, wept at the small shrine to Heyes in the alley where she and other protesters were deliberately struck by James Fields Jr..
“We’re anti-fascists. Nothing else,” said Torrie, who is heading to D.C. on Sunday. “See you there?” She said, wiping a tear.
But ultimately, grief
As of Saturday evening, no one’s worst fears had been realized — the white nationalists had not appeared, the antifa’s only real showing was a mournful march to Heyer’s shrine, and the police, other than searching the daylights out of everyone entering the downtown mall, had largely left them alone.
With more events planned, the weekend is not over, though, and for Charlottesville, neither are the tears. They well up, sometimes surprising even those shedding them.
Symbols of love, strength, resilience, and anger dominate this town this weekend.
But through all of the “we’re going to get through” it talk, there is also enormous sadness.
Sarah and James both wept thinking of friends who were injured and the hatred they openly faced in the streets of their own town.
They wept for Heyer. People listening to buskers would well up, worried looks on their faces, their parting words to friends always “stay safe.”
At the First Presbyterian Church on Saturday afternoon, the congregation practiced breathing together at a “Remember and Repair” event organized by Congregate C’Ville, a faith-based community group.
They got up, facing each other, expressing their gratitude for the presence of the other. There was poetry, song, and some rhythmic movement in performance, and practice.
“Courage, my friend, you do not walk alone,” they sang from the safe confines of the church.
But Woolfork, who was also at the service, wondered, “If we are not allowed to express our rage in a part or through a downtown street…The police,” she said, “would be doing the work of white supremacists for them.”