I Almost Died in Charlottesville

By Spencer Sunshine Aug 15, 2017

The anti-racist demonstration against the August 12 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the most frightening I have ever been to. Yes, I was in the crowd when a car—driven by a man who had been marching in uniform with a neo-Nazi group—slammed into the crowd, killing one and injuring at least 19. But that was only part of it. With armed militias on the streets playing an unclear role, police being even more opaque about their intent and 1,000 fascists on the streets of what seemed like a ghost town, this was not an ordinary demonstration.

Although the event was set to start at noon, attendees of the White nationalist “Unite the Right” rally started gathering at Emancipation Park early in the morning. Various counter-protesters met up in different parts of the city rather than holding a single, unified rally or march, and anti-racist clergy members headed directly to the park early in the morning. Around 9:30 a.m., the antifascists who ended up having fights with White nationalists arrived.

Authorities almost immediately lost control of the situation and declared the White nationalist rally and the anti-racist counter-demonstration an “unlawful assembly.” At about 1:40 p.m., the car rammed into anti-racists who were celebrating the fact that "Unite the Right" had been halted.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a picturesque town, filled with precious little houses and statues of Confederate generals. It was the city council’s attempt to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that set off previous Far Right demonstrations. The first, a torch-lit rally led by alt-right figure Richard Spencer, was in May. The second, a small Ku Klux Klan rally, took place in July. But the August 12 event billed as “Unite the Right” ended up being the largest White nationalist gathering since a 1987 rally in Forsyth County, Georgia, in support of it remaining a sundown county where Black people weren’t allowed to live. That drew 3,000 people.

I have been warning people for the past year about the rising tide of White nationalist violence. In a July 2016 article for Colorlines, when it still looked like Republican candidate Donald Trump would go down in flames, I warned about a new wave of White nationalist and other Far Right violence. I saw that Trump was energizing the movement. A series of clashes with antifascists also seemed to invigorate some of the Far Right. I sounded the alarm in June—after Jeremy Christian allegedly murdered two men on a Portland, Oregon, light rail who were trying to stop his racist and Islamophobic harassment of two young women—that we should “expect more murders” from the Far Right. Their movement is a drumbeat of violence, created by the demonizing narratives they use against groups they perceive to be threats: "foreign enemies," historically oppressed groups and domestic political opponents. Whether they are people of color, Muslims, Jewish people, LGBTQ people or perceived Communists, the Far Right always imagines a monster that they can act monstrous toward.

Last week, I published another warning on the website of Political Research Associates where I am an associate fellow. I wrote that up to 1,000 people were coming to “Unite the Right,” including members of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America. James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old who was charged with murder for allegedly driving his car into a mass of counter-protesters, rallied with the group that day, sporting their logo and shield.

In fact, the only thing I was wrong about was that counter-protestors didn’t outnumber the White nationalists as I predicted they would. They appeared to be there in equal numbers, and during the face-off at the park in the morning, the White nationalists outnumbered the anti-racist counter-protestors by about five to one.

I was at “Unite the Right” for most of the day, even before antifascist counter-protestors clashed with White nationalist contingents attempting to enter the park for their rally. I like to think that I know all the major fascist groups and symbols, but a number of them I saw were head scratchers, even for me.

Every once in a while, portions of the crowd would break into a melee of sticks, fists, shields and mace—even as people who didn’t want to involved stood just 10 feet away. Bottles flew back and forth, then rocks. White nationalists sprayed bear mace into the crowd. One counter-protestor even turned a can of spray paint that had been thrown at him into a mini-flamethrower. The police simply sat by and didn’t intervene. 

Finally, though, they tear-gassed everyone and dispersed both groups shortly before noon, ending the “Unite the Right” rally before any of the speakers made it to the microphone. (On the all-male roster were Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, Mike Enoch, Michael Hill, Augustus Invictus, Baked Alaska, Pax Dickinson, Christopher Cantwell and Johnny Monoxide.) The fascists later marched to another park, but the police broke up their gathering. The White nationalists dispersed into different directions, many leaving in waiting vans.
The anti-racists, including me, regrouped in different locations, holding marches that spontaneously combined at around 1:30. There was a celebratory feeling among us—a mixture of Charlottesville residents and members of Congregate Charlottesville; various anti-fascists and anarchists; activists from Black Lives Matter and the Muslim Jewish Antifascist Front; and members of left-wing groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, Workers World Party and Refuse Fascism. We had just turned the corner, from a broad street onto the alley-like Fourth Street, when three vehicles barreled through the crowd, sending bodies flying. Then the last car—a gray car that pushed a maroon and a sliver minivan into the crowd—backed up over a woman who had been struck and sped away. If I had been in the street instead of on the sidewalk, I would have been directly in front of the vehicles. Heather Heyer lay dying while many others were injured.

I won’t deny that I am still in shock that this happened. But I would not have been shocked if a neo-Nazi had pulled out a gun and started shooting. While car-ramming attacks are not uncommon in the rest of the world, and they were waged on Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Portland, this is not a usual tactic of neo-Nazis. In my experience, they prefer firearms.

Fascist violence is not an anomaly. The movement itself is based on violence—the glorification of violence, the use of violent tactics as organizing tools, and the end goals of ethnic cleansing and genocide. There is no such thing as “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” as alt-right leader Spencer has advocated. It is White supremacy and antisemitism first, with hatred of Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists and leftists coming in at a close second.

The fascist Right and their allies united this weekend for what they hoped would be their big breakthrough. Before the march, AltRight.com, run by Spencer, posted, “People will talk about Charlottesville as a turning point. There will be a before Charlottesville and an after Charlottesville. Will you stand up for your history, your race and your way of life?”

For those opposed to fascism and far Right rhetoric and violence, there also needs to be a before and after. Just as fascists threaten so many groups, they provide us—Muslims, Jews, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists and progressives—an opportunity. Our common enemy allows us an opportunity to come together across our differences and work together, not just to oppose and contain their movement, but to do so based on a commitment to a vision of a cosmopolitan future based on respect and equality. I hope we seize this opportunity.

Spencer Sunshine is an associate fellow at Political Research Associates. Follow him on Twitter @transform6789.