The 111 mile protest march from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Washington, D.C., is nearing the halfway point, and has so far been met with a gunman at McDonald’s, stalker pickup trucks, rain, and a lot of supportive horn honks.
The march was organized by clergy and activists in the wake of the deadly August 12 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which turned into a riot that caused dozens of injuries and claimed the life of one anti-white supremacist protester, Heather Heyer, as well as two state police officers who were killed in a helicopter crash.
As the marchers left the friendly environs of Charlottesville, they moved north into rural counties where many locals, including an armed man whom police considered a threat, expressed anger at them.
“He was waiting all day at a McDonald’s for us and he had a gun, open carried,” said Puja Datta, national membership organizer for the Working Families Party and one of the organizers for the trek from Charlottesville to Washington. “He made the state police pretty nervous. We had to change our ending route for Tuesday. We just ended up at a different location but we have our starting and ending points posted on our website so the guy was there again in the morning. He was staring at us and the police thought we had to get out of there as soon as possible.”
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Datta told Rewire that the Virginia State Police have been helpful and responsive throughout their journey. There have been plenty of reasons to want them around.
“We actually had a bunch of pickup trucks following us,” Datta said. “Looping around. We pulled off at a gas station and they all pulled over, waiting for us to leave. People overheard them talking and they were saying things like, ‘We’ll text you when they leave.’ Every day we see the same cars drive past us, looping. So it’s good that we have police with us. The state police have done a good job of protecting us.”
The march has also encountered more conventional political responses. On top of a highway overpass, a crowd of people held up Trump signs and chanted through megaphones. Common refrains included “all lives matter,” “Trump,” and “get a job.”
But Datta said most people in passing cars have been supportive. “Overwhelmingly, the people driving by and honking are positive for the last few days,” Datta says. “If folks are in the area and want to come out and support us, that would be welcome.”
Their major challenge has been the weather. While late August has been unusually cool for Virginia, the group has seen a lot of precipitation. On Tuesday, they marched 13 miles through the rain. “I was cold,” Datta said. Wednesday brought heat. On Friday, they planned to complete 18 miles under a gray sky with a torrential downpour forecast for the afternoon.
About 50 people are participating in the march right now, but the number changes daily. Logistical challenges include finding safe places to sleep each night and keeping everyone fed. Datta is in charge of housing. In some places the marchers have been able to arrange housing with churches and other friendly organizations, but smaller towns have been a challenge and the group needs to be prepared to pay for motels.
“We are still looking for donations,” Datta says. “We still have another five days to go.”