Defending Charlottesville: A Report from the Ground

Anti-fas­cist pro­test­ers march in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia on August 12. Pho­to by Paul J. Richards.

On Sat­ur­day, a young fas­cist came to Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, to par­tic­i­pate in the Unite the Right ral­ly at the city’s Eman­ci­pa­tion Park. After the far-right gath­er­ing was bro­ken up by police, he drove his car through a crowd of peace­ful counter-pro­tes­tors march­ing through the city. One of the marchers, Heather Hey­er, was struck and killed by the car. About 19 oth­ers were report­ed injured, and a true count of the vic­tims would also include those on the scene who imme­di­ate­ly dis­played symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress.

I was stand­ing near­by the crash, hav­ing come to Char­lottesville to par­tic­i­pate in the demon­stra­tions against the Unite the Right. For those of us in the march, Heyer’s death was espe­cial­ly shock­ing because it came at what appeared to be a lull. No one from the far-right ral­ly was in sight. Then, about 20 feet short of the inter­sec­tion, I saw the crowd in front of me pushed back. At the same moment, I heard a loud bang and ran for cov­er. By the time I turned around, sec­onds lat­er, the street was in chaos and medics were rush­ing in.

This was not, as it was report­ed by some media, a vio­lent turn, or an exam­ple of vio­lence “erupt­ing” on the day, as if pushed to the sur­face by nat­ur­al, sub­ter­ranean forces. On the ground, it was clear that Unite the Right was orga­nized to bring vio­lence both lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive unto the Char­lottesville com­mu­ni­ty. Alt-right lead­ers, armed with mace and pep­per spray, were not speak­ing in metaphors when they adver­tised their event as “The Bat­tle of Char­lottesville,” an image they reaf­firmed with Pho­to­shopped art that por­trayed these lead­ers fir­ing shots at peo­ple marked as “Antifa,” or anti-fas­cist.

The vicious hier­ar­chy of the par­tic­i­pat­ing alt-right and fas­cist groups was empha­sized when one of the lead­ers, a man who goes by the name Baked Alas­ka, was pep­per-sprayed and received pri­or­i­ty med­ical atten­tion because he was “a V.I.P.” It’s hard to imag­ine some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pen­ing among the counter-pro­test­ers. Thanks to a mas­sive orga­niz­ing effort, the res­i­dents of Char­lottesville stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der with out-of-town allies, form­ing a broad and pow­er­ful coali­tion that worked togeth­er to defend the city against hun­dreds of peo­ple who open­ly iden­ti­fied as fas­cists, Nazis, and white nation­al­ists. At a morn­ing ral­ly, a speak­er announced that he was new to Char­lottesville. Some­one in the crowd yelled back, “Wel­come!”

“Peo­ple of dif­fer­ent creeds and col­ors and lifestyles, they’ve come to mobi­lize,” David Straughn, a mem­ber of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Mat­ter chap­ter, said ear­ly Sat­ur­day morn­ing, while we wait­ed for a cler­gy-led march to hit the streets. There was a feel­ing of trep­i­da­tion in the air, but there was also a lot of love and, under­neath it, a tiny bit of exhil­a­ra­tion, maybe even joy, as we came to real­ize which side had actu­al­ly unit­ed. “We’re strong. We’re cre­at­ing the blue­print for the nation.”

Pro­test­ers would, Straughn said, con­front “oth­er white suprema­cist groups that come and that infuse their hatred in oth­er people’s neigh­bor­hoods, in Port­land, in Ten­nessee, in New York, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. We’re cre­at­ing the blue­print. You can do this. You can all get togeth­er and fight against white suprema­cy. If Char­lottesville can do it, then every­body can do it.”

This makes Charlottesville’s exam­ple espe­cial­ly use­ful. It was not, as the alt-right would like to believe, mere­ly Antifa who reject­ed these fas­cists — it was an entire com­mu­ni­ty, act­ing as a com­mu­ni­ty. At a morn­ing clash that took place between Eman­ci­pa­tion Park and High Street, inter­faith cler­gy locked arms behind a group of com­mu­nists who did the same. Fas­cists at the end of the block respond­ed with “White Pow­er” salutes, then tore through the side­walk. They seemed to be in a quite a hur­ry — until some in the group paused to rain blows on a mid­dle-aged man who had been knocked to the ground. In the after­math, peo­ple out­side First Unit­ed Methodist Church offered water to those who had been assault­ed. One priest in the park­ing lot told me that it made him hope­ful to see so many counter-pro­test­ers in the street. Then he gave me a hug. (Lat­er, this church became a trau­ma cen­ter for wit­ness­es reel­ing from the car crash.)

Restau­rants — some pres­sured by res­i­dents, oth­ers act­ing inde­pen­dent­ly — refused ser­vice to fas­cists who entered their doors. Even my Sun­day morn­ing brunch spot took a stand. “We have a lot of peo­ple in line,” the host told those wait­ing for tables. “So any­one who’s a Nazi ought to get the fuck out.”

Some of the orga­niz­ing on the part of locals was sim­i­lar­ly infor­mal. One Char­lottesville res­i­dent who didn’t attend the counter-pro­test­er told me that her neigh­bors had con­tributed to the cause by park­ing their cars along the street — it was a way to qui­et­ly block the white suprema­cists who might want to park their vans there.

Those Char­lottesville res­i­dents who didn’t par­tic­i­pate seemed to regret it: Over the course of Sat­ur­day I was twice approached by strangers who wished me well and asked how they could get involved in future anti-racist actions. One task in oth­er cities will be to help peo­ple like this join protests before they hap­pen and prop­er­ly pre­pare them for sit­u­a­tions that, as we have seen, can quick­ly become intense.

Char­lottesville was filled with this kind of orga­ni­za­tion: Much of its infra­struc­ture was built in advance of a Ku Klux Klan ral­ly in ear­ly July. The Klan had assem­bled in Jus­tice Park. On Sat­ur­day, Jus­tice Park became a place of refuge where counter-pro­test­ers had a per­mit to assem­ble. Left-wing atten­dees bus­ied them­selves in an impres­sive­ly coor­di­nat­ed dis­play. Red­neck Revolt, an anar­chist group, guard­ed the perime­ter with AR-15s while Quak­ers silent­ly prayed under the trees inside. Lat­er, in the ear­ly after­noon, the park became a meet­ing point for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and oth­er groups.

As far as I could tell, the idea of “diver­si­ty of tac­tics” was rec­og­nized by all par­ties. The words were repeat­ed fre­quent­ly in the meet­ings that laid the ground­work for Saturday’s defense. When the day came, the phrase was no longer nec­es­sary, for it quick­ly became clear that in a con­fronta­tion with Nazis — lit­er­al Nazis, call­ing for white pow­er and wear­ing armor cov­ered in Nazi insignia — you don’t need a tru­ism to remind your­self how to treat those you march shoul­der-to-shoul­der with, espe­cial­ly not when your com­rades are putting their bod­ies in dan­ger to pro­tect the city.

Every node of orga­nized activ­i­ty played its part, and each part rec­og­nized the oth­ers’ roles. Peo­ple over­see­ing the First Methodist Church didn’t pro­vide sanc­tu­ary only to cer­tain types of pro­test­ers. At least two faith lead­ers, Cor­nel West and Rev. Osagye­fo Sek­ou, even cred­it­ed Antifa with sav­ing their lives. Mean­while, those who favored Antifa tac­tics, at least those I spoke with, rec­og­nized that there was still plen­ty of work for those who were uncom­fort­able with direct con­fronta­tions, espe­cial­ly those like immi­grants who were par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to reper­cus­sions.

I should note that I was not in Char­lottesville as a jour­nal­ist (I didn’t intend to write this report until a friend sug­gest­ed it the fol­low­ing morn­ing). Because I was already relay­ing infor­ma­tion between off-site activists and those on the ground, social media wasn’t an impor­tant resource, and I wasn’t watch­ing my feeds on Face­book and Twit­ter. This made it more jar­ring when I final­ly logged on and found a few lib­er­al com­men­ta­tors — some well-known, some just a part of my own net­works — tak­ing long-dis­tance pot shots at some of the more rad­i­cal pro­test­ers with­in the Char­lottesville coali­tion, even while mem­bers of that coali­tion were still in imma­nent phys­i­cal dan­ger. Those who reject the “diver­si­ty of tac­tics” prin­ci­ple that helped hold this alliance togeth­er should seri­ous­ly con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they may not be “in between sides,” but sim­ply on the wrong one.

After Char­lottesville, no one can any longer deny that this fight is just that — a fight. Alt-right, fas­cist, and white suprema­cist groups orga­nized Unite the Right with the stat­ed goal of crush­ing anti-racist oppo­si­tion. They failed in front of the whole world. By Sun­day after­noon, one of their lead­ers, Jason Kessler, was lit­er­al­ly run out of town. (It even appears that he lacked body­guards because this fail­ure cre­at­ed a schism with the avowed Nazis of the Tra­di­tion­al­ist Work­ers Par­ty.)

Per­haps that makes the resis­tance in Char­lottesville a trau­mat­ic sort of suc­cess — though some­times it’s eas­i­er to judge that kind of thing when you’re not on the ground. From where I was and what I wit­nessed, any suc­cess was pred­i­cat­ed on based on two things. First, the strength, uni­ty and coor­di­na­tion of the coali­tion I’ve been describ­ing.

Sec­ond, it was cru­cial that near­ly every per­son I heard from — whether they rep­re­sent­ed Black Lives Mat­ter, Antifa, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia Black Stu­dents Alliance, a church or any of dozens of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions present on Sat­ur­day — explic­it­ly con­nect­ed Saturday’s events to sys­temic and his­tor­i­cal racism in Vir­ginia and beyond. In Char­lottesville, the chal­lenge now is to use the cur­rent momen­tum and orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ty to push for­ward in the fight against white suprema­cy as a sys­tem. Else­where, the chal­lenge is also to learn from Char­lottesville, which has proven that a city can orga­nize to defend itself when white nation­al­ists descend.

Author of the article

is journalist based in New York City. He is a former editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and has contributed to the New York Times, Pitchfork, and Vice.