“We’re standing there trying to hold where we’re at,” said Donald Blakney, who had protested the convening of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.
Blakney, who was visibly bleeding from his elbow and knees, described to Rewire Saturday what had taken place not long prior, as a group of white nationalists approached a parking garage immediately adjacent to the city’s police station. “They had sticks, some of us had sticks, it just turned into a good whooping,” he said. “There had to be more than 200 [police] officers there and nobody did anything. Not one officer.”
The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville had begun earlier than expected that day. The first of the right-wing demonstrators began waving flags and chanting slogans hours ahead of the scheduled high noon start in Emancipation Park under the auspices of needing to arrive early to set up. By the end of the day, three people would be dead, with dozens more hospitalized. Yet despite such widespread violence, only a total of four arrests were made.
At around 9:30 a.m., a freelance photographer, Eze Amos, was punched by a white supremacist wearing a Hitler t-shirt. In a park filled with police officers, none of them reacted or moved to arrest the attacker. By 10 a.m., what was billed as a rally had turned to pandemonium. Hundreds of members of various white nationalist groups—including National Socialists, Proud Boys, Alt-Knights, and the Ku Klux Klan—milled around behind barricades in the park under the eyes of Virginia state troopers in riot gear. A larger number of anti-white supremacist protesters filled Market Street in front of the park. Several dozen militia members wearing para-military gear and carrying AR-15 rifles, who said they were opposed to the white supremacists but were also monitoring the anti-supremacist protesters, lined the edge of the park.
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At the top of the steps leading up into the park, the most heavily armored members of the white nationalist groups assembled. Some wore motorcycle helmets; others surplus military kevlar helmets. Many had either professional or improvised body armor, a few nearly indistinguishable from the police at first glance. As some in the crowd threw a rain of bottles and other debris toward the park, white nationalists with homemade shields ran to the front lines and tilted them skyward.
“I’m gonna find a rock,” said one white supremacist as he crouched down and felt under a bush for a projectile to hurl back toward the Market Street crowd. A stinging cloud began to taint the air, as people in the crowd threw canisters of tear gas toward the park. Dozens of white supremacists moved through the crowd toward the park, with fresh bruises and swollen, red eyes or faces. Chris Cantwell, a prominent YouTube personality and white supremacist, collapsed at the top of the stairs, screaming in agony.
The police observed and appeared to do nothing.
Melees began to break out at the edge of the park as the overflowing white supremacists came into contact with the protesters. Some fought with sticks; others used signs, flagpoles, or fists.
“This event has been declared an unlawful assembly!” came the crisp, official voice of a Charlottesville police officer through a bullhorn. “You are to leave the area immediately. Do not interfere with law enforcement or their actions or you will be arrested.” He repeated variations on those words again for the next hour or so.
At first, nothing changed. The teeming thousands of people in the street and in the park had no means of dispersing quickly, hemmed in as they were by barricades. Then more fights broke out in the street. A man collapsed on the asphalt as another man stood over him and beat him with a stick. In the park, white supremacists charged forward, using their flagpoles as spears. Cries of anger and pain came from every direction.
“The library is closed,” the police officer with the megaphone stated.
By noon, Market Street, still blocked to traffic, was largely clear of people and littered with debris: broken sunglasses, water bottles, paper fliers, disposable breathing masks, bandanas, and the multi-colored residue of pepper spray and tear gas. A police car, parked in the middle of the intersection, was covered in a pink spray. State troopers in riot gear moved slowly through the street and the park.
But as the crowds dispersed, the violence continued. Much of it centered on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall: a half-mile stretch of the former main street of the city bricked over and turned into a pedestrian-only area. At approximately 12:15, a group of hundreds of protesters left the mall and headed toward Friendship Court, a predominantly Black apartment community two blocks away where members of the white supremacy groups were rumored to be gathering.
“We were gonna meet them,” said Elizabeth Marfell, a woman in her mid-20s who marched with the group of protesters. “The community asked us not to march in their space. We respected that. They’ve got this.”
The protesters walked back toward the mall, where “we decided we were going to claim the mall as an anti-fascist, anti-racist space,” Marfell said to Rewire.
James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been identified as the person sitting at the wheel of a gray Dodge Challenger stopped on the 4th Street car crossing, which allows vehicles to cross the Downtown Mall. He had driven in from his native Maumee, Ohio, and spent the morning demonstrating with white supremacists. His car was surrounded by protesters. Blocking the street in front of him was the procession returning from Friendship Court, merging with a separate group of protesters.
Fields suddenly floored it and accelerated into the crowd. Screams and the thud of bodies hitting metal rang out.
“I heard an engine rev,” said Marfell. “I would guess he revved it and it was impacting at 40 miles an hour. I could feel the breeze coming off his car. I heard it and I saw debris and people fly through the air. Scattering, crying …. We, our group, encircled the back of his vehicle to keep him from leaving.”
Fields then put the car into reverse and accelerated backwards at high speed, toward the car crossing and through still more people. The front bumper of his heavily damaged car dragged and scraped on the ground. A shoe flew out from under the car as it sped off across the bricks of the mall.
“I don’t know how many people he ran over in reversing,” said Marfell, “but it was at least one that I saw … I ran across to the left side of the street, there was a very petite white woman with a shaved head. It looked to me like her entire upper arm was blackened. She was in pain. She was curled in the fetal position. They were moving her carefully, screaming for medics… I counted at least six people down, two people unconscious.”
Nineteen people were injured by Fields’ attack. One other, Heather Heyer, died at the scene. She was 32 years old and local.
Within minutes, the sidewalks were crammed with hundreds of protesters. No white supremacists were in sight. The crowd parted for medics to pass through and reach the wounded. People openly wept and hugged strangers.
The air was filled with the sounds of the crowd and distant sirens and the shorter siren taps of ambulances and police vehicles nudging their way through traffic. And all the time—nearly all day—there remained the ever-present sound of a state police helicopter hovering above.
Rumors and Mourners
Along the Downtown Mall, police officers stood in long rows of 20 or more each. Few businesses were open on what would normally be a bustling Saturday afternoon at the height of the tourist season. A lone pizza place served slices but kept the “open” sign turned off. Scattered bands of protesters and curious onlookers moved around.
Rumors began to circulate about drive-by shootings—in some tellings, from a white van marked “KKK.” These rumors were never substantiated, but the fear of such killings remained.
Around the downtown area, two other parks hosted anti-racist rallies.
At Justice Park, peaceful protesters milled around and chanted, “Police and the Klan go hand in hand!” Innumerable state police, both with and without riot gear, stood in long rows while blocking access to the park along a side street toward the Downtown Mall. Knowing locals led visiting protesters through a secret tunnel under an apartment building to circumvent the police and arrive in Justice Park. Famed musician John D’earth solemnly played his trumpet in the park, mingling his notes with the thrum of the helicopter and noise from the crowd.
Near the opposite end of the Downtown Mall, McGuffey Park hosted a smaller counter-racist event beside a playground. A small folk band played under an awning.
Rumors began to circulate among reporters that a helicopter had crashed somewhere in Ivy, an unincorporated area just outside of Charlottesville’s city limits. For the first time all day, the sound of the state police helicopter had gone silent overhead.
After following sirens and police vehicles toward Ivy, an unincorporated area outside of Charlottesville, Rewire and a few other journalists—including Amos, who had been punched earlier that day, and Amanda Darrach, a journalist from the Columbia Journalism School—found the helicopter.
According to a teenage girl who asked not to be identified at the scene, the smoke from the crash “smelled like fuel and other things,” she said, wincing at “other things.”
Both Virginia state trooper occupants, Pilot Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates, were killed in the crash. The cause of the crash is not yet known.
Back downtown, several mourners lit candles in the middle of the car crossing on the Downtown Mall. They sat in silence, cross-legged on the bricks.
Darrach and I chased a rumor about a police scene a mile away. Walking there as the sun went down, we recalled reports of the battered gray Challenger being seen stopped in the area and realized that must have been where Fields had finally given up and pulled over to be arrested.
We passed a woman drinking Guinness Stout out of bottles in her front yard. Seeing my press pass, she volunteered, “They didn’t even put their sirens on! Just one cop car, with his lights on and no siren, just following him.”
A gentle rain began to fall back at the scene of Heather Heyer’s death. More silent mourners had joined with more candles and flowers and a small shrine of sorts had been constructed. A circle of candle wax was dripped around it.
By Sunday afternoon the shrine and the vigil had grown and shifted down to the exact spot where Heyer had died. The gathering grew to dozens and then hundreds. It was clear that most, if not all, of the crowd that remained were native Charlottesvillians. The city kept the car crossing closed and then as they spilled out into Water Street, the city closed that street as well. As the crowd moved, they sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the spelling of Heather Heyer’s last name. We regret the error.