Web Essays

Violence in Charlottesville

What I saw firsthand, and what it meant

By Mark Edmundson | August 28, 2017
Karla Cote/Flickr
Karla Cote/Flickr


I went on foot from my office at the University of Virginia, where I teach English, to the scene of August’s now infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a distance of about two miles. The governor had declared a state of emergency and I imagined that, if I drove, I’d meet one roadblock after another. The only sign of trouble I saw as I approached downtown was a police helicopter, circling. In a couple of hours a state police copter would crash in a field to the west of the city, killing two officers.

The Unite the Right rally I walked to on this Saturday was an attempt by various extreme right groups to collect their forces and make a statement. The ostensible cause for gathering in Charlottesville was to protest a movement to get rid of the statue of Robert E. Lee that dominated what was once Lee Park and is now, despite the towering image of Lee and his horse Traveler still in place, called Emancipation Park. Participants were to come from all over the eastern United States, and perhaps farther: Klansmen and alt-righters and bikers and pseudo-bikers and militiamen and members of Viking- and Aryan-inspired cults.

They all wanted to fight for their rights as white Americans: none of them cared much for liberalism, immigration, multi-culturalism, blacks, Jews, gays, the mixing of the races, or the making of much sense. They crept their way from out of caves, under rocks, and from the nether reaches of mom and dad’s basement to come to Charlottesville and rant about the plight of America’s white populace. On Friday night, they held a torchlight rally at the University of Virginia, walking in twos and chanting “blood and soil”; “you will not replace us”; “Jews will not replace us”; and other hateful rot—sometimes they went “woof, woof, woof” in unison.

I entered the Downtown Mall close to Emancipation Park at about 2 P.M. and the first person I saw was a basketball buddy named Alex. His face was puffy, his eyes half-open. “What happened, Alex?” He couldn’t speak. He wanted to but couldn’t. “Later,” was all he could say. “Let’s talk later.” A wiser man would have turned around, but I kept moving up the mall.

A group of five or so guys in their 20s, some dressed in black, came toward me. They were striding, chesty, and apparently in high spirits. As I got closer, I saw that two were wearing handkerchiefs up around their faces. They may have been fending off tear gas—there was a hint in the air. They may have been disguising themselves so they’d be harder to apprehend after they did what they were here to do. The Charlottesville mall, like nearly all American malls, is thickly sown with surveillance cameras.

As they got closer, I saw that these were not the visiting white nationalists. No, these guys were another breed. These were leftist street fighters, antifa, short for anti-fascists. (The pronunciation is sometimes rather refined, with the accent on the second syllable.) I drifted out of their way, but they had no apparent interest in a 65-year-old university professor in a button-down shirt.

I kept moving up the mall, heading toward a spot about 200 yards off where a crowd had formed. On the way, I encountered more antifa types, some alone, some in twos and threes, men and women both; they were sometimes wearing black, sometimes helmeted. One was talking loudly about how they had “crushed the Nazis.”

Another group came roaring toward me from up the mall: all white, all male, a couple wearing Make America Great Again hats. The lead dog was something to see. If there’s a dictionary page devoted to Aryan rage, his picture is there. He was tall, blond-haired, with a high forehead, and muscles popping through his T-shirt. He was on fire, throwing his middle finger here and there, grunting and bellowing.

More militant groups came my way: belligerent, apparently spoiling for a fight. Who are these people? I was convinced that I had less to fear from the antifa than from the white nationalists, but I wasn’t sure. Until you got close to them—some of the right-wingers wore black, too—it wasn’t easy to tell which was which.

There were also plenty of people on the mall from neither extreme. I ran into a few faculty colleagues, and people from the Charlottesville peace-and-justice community. Some were carrying signs denouncing sexism and racism; all were generally trying to stay out of the way of the belligerents. When I reached the crowd two-thirds of the way up the mall, I learned about the car assault that murdered a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injured dozens more. I found out that my friend Alex had been on the scene when the collision occurred—he was in shock for good reason.

Down Fourth Street, between the crash site and me, was an armored vehicle, the first one I’ve seen on an American street. A soldier sat in the turret, holding an automatic weapon on the crowd. Up on the mall there was a heavy police presence: at least three different kinds of cops, some of them in full military gear, battle-rattle as the soldiers call it. All the police were in formation, lined up against banks and restaurants, waiting for orders, waiting for something to happen.

Twenty yards ahead of me appeared three right-wingers, a woman well into middle age and two boys—her sons, maybe. They looked like country people, probably local. They were carrying an American flag and a Confederate banner on the same staff.

Quickly they were surrounded by antifa and local protesters, and a discussion began that was civil for a few minutes. The Confederates were trying to explain that they were not anti-black but pro-white. Matters heated up. I hustled back down the mall to the nearest state trooper in formation, a giant with jack-o-lantern teeth, and explained to him that something bad was in the offing. He’d have been more interested if I had told him my cholesterol count.

Up the mall I saw the Confederates retreating, with the crowd screaming after them. Then more right-wingers appeared, four or five young guys, including a tall one with an Amish beard, thick specs, and a red MAGA hat. Across his arm was a homemade battle shield covered with peculiar runes. He and his friends also seemed to be looking for edifying conversation, but soon the MAGA hat was knocked off his head. His glasses followed. The young man recovered his glasses, turned, gave the world a Nazi salute, and took a wicked lick in the jaw for his pains. He and his friends scurried for the police line and put themselves under the protection of the law. Meanwhile, the tall young man’s enemies stomped the life out of his emblazoned battle shield.

These sorts of exchanges repeated themselves for an hour or so. Some leftist protesters got face to face with the police wall and, under the eyes of multiple cameras, gave the cops hell, though the police were carrying shotguns and automatic rifles. The police stood firm, but the prospect of their running amok—shades of Chicago, 1968—was real enough to get me moving back down the mall toward the university.

I imagined that matters were going to grow worse, if not that afternoon, surely in the evening. But it all quieted down. The main action had taken place in the morning.

Reconstructing matters from film, journalistic accounts (including an excellent timeline put together by C-VILLE Weekly) and talking to people present on the scene, this is what seems to have happened. The right-wingers massed in groups at the Market Street Parking Garage, about a third of a mile from Lee’s statue, and at a few other locations. They made their way to the park under some police protection. The antifa greeted them along the way with bottles and rocks and smoke bombs. There was pushing and shoving and a lot of invective on the path to the park.

Once the fascists arrived at Emancipation Park, they took their places behind barricades the city had set up. But the two groups, already enraged, went after each other across the barricades and soon they buckled and broke. Then began the major clashes of the morning: fists, clubs, poles, shields: general strife. The antifa threw things into the park: balloons full of urine, balloons loaded with feces, water bottles filled with concrete. In a video clip, a fascist pointed to a splat on the ground and said that it was a mixture of urine, feces, paint, and mace. The fascists threw some of the projectiles back, and swung their clubs at the antifa when they got close to the barricades. The antifa fought back, full of righteous rage. Their presence in Charlottesville made me think of some lines from a dramatic monologue of Robert Frost’s:

Right’s right, and the temptation to do right
When I can hurt someone by doing it
Has always been too much for me, it has.

After 20 minutes, the police declared the rally over and announced that anyone remaining in Emancipation Park would be arrested. Many of the fascists moved on down Market Street in the direction of McIntire Park, an alternate site for the rally. Protesters stood on the side of the road: some of them local peace-and-justice activists, some hard-core fighters. Again, lots of scuffles and punches, and plenty of bitter words. For the most part, the local people chanted and booed and sometimes cursed; the lefty street warriors did more.

The antifa objective was to stop the rally from going on. They believe that right-wing talk is so toxic that it needs to be shut down at every opportunity. This is what they tried to do in Charlottesville and they succeeded.

The white nationalists clearly came to Charlottesville ready to fight. They were armed with clubs and sticks, and carried shields. A number of them had guns—Virginia is an open-carry state. There were militiamen from the Three Percenters and the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia.  They were not fascists or anti-fascists, they said, but had come to keep the peace and guard the white nationalists’ rights to free expression. They strolled down the mall and around Emancipation Park with semi-automatic weapons on display. Maybe the fascists wanted to hear some spirited speeches on the resurgence of white America. But they also came to fight.

Who did they foresee rumbling with? Probably not the well-intentioned Charlottesville peace-and-justice community: the people protesting the rally with signs about overcoming sexism and racism. (I saw a couple, male and female, wearing identical placards describing their family’s commitment to equality and inclusion: it took about five minutes to read.) Most of the peace and justice people backed off the scene when things got crazy.

The antifa I talked to all came from out of town. (Though there may have been some Charlottesville members.) They were also here to rumble. I spoke to a young journalist, who told me he had been covering the battles between extreme left and right for the past three months.

“I recognize a lot of these people,” he said. “They turn out for everything.”

“On the left and on the right?” I asked him. Yes. Both sides. Wherever white nationalists go, the antifa will be.

An antifa street fighter, who came to Charlottesville, wrote about the experience, anonymously, on the anarchist website, It’s Going Down. What he said was this: “I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that ‘there was violence on both sides.’ Of course there was.”

From the street fighter-writer’s point of view, the antifa’s actions in Charlottesville were little short of heroic, and there are those who agree with him. Cornel West, the well-known African-American writer and activist, was present in Charlottesville. He describes how brigades of fascists marched by him, shouting and cursing. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches,” West said, “if it were not for the anarchists and anti-fascists.” A number of other stories have come out about how the antifa intervened to protect innocent protesters. Clergy in Charlottesville who stood on the front lines demonstrating against the fascists praised the antifa for keeping them safe. One young woman described lining up with her pastor and other church members to block the entrance to Emancipation Park. When the fascists came at them menacingly, the antifa stepped up and drove the fascists back.

Why weren’t the police doing more to protect the protesters and to staunch the violence? This is the major unanswered question about the Charlottesville events. Clearly the police had been ordered to stand down. They didn’t get in between the battling right-wingers and antifa and they didn’t do much to protect the local peace-and-justice demonstrators. The non-reaction I got from the cop with the jack-o-lantern teeth was representative.

Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s governor, suggested that the police didn’t step in because they were out-gunned. He said he believed that 80 percent of the white nationalists were carrying semi-automatic weapons, and that the militias who turned up, ostensibly to protect the free speech rights of the fascists, were better armed than the state police as well. It’s hard to say. One group of state police I saw looked as though it was equipped to go into Mosul or Fallujah. The armored car on the scene did not belong to the militia or to the fascists.

It’s possible that the police did not want to be seen on film tossing around combatants from both sides, as well as innocent protesters. They’d been severely criticized for over-reacting when the Klan and the antifa came to town in July. (Charlottesville has not had a quiet summer.) The antifa generally hate the police, sometimes equating them with the Klan. If the police had waded in, the antifa might well have fought back and inflicted casualties. In the end, no property was destroyed and no one died from gun violence. The governor called that a victory for law enforcement.

The effect of the police stand-down was to raise the profile, and also the prestige, of the antifa. It’s clear from some reliable testimony that they did good deeds. But they also shut down a legally sanctioned rally because they did not approve of what the speakers would likely have to say. The fascists had a permit and the right to speak, however vile their speech was inevitably going to be. The antifa foreclosed that right.

Well, someone might say, the fascists needed shutting down. Their doctrines are pure poison—and of course they are. One can imagine a time and place when their right to speak would be so dangerous that something must be done. But how dangerous are the fascists at this moment in the United States?

There were only about 500 fascists, or fascists-in-training, here in Charlottesville, not a thousand, as the antifa writer claims. (Though one fascist is one too many.) That’s the best they could do. This was the major event for right-wing extremists in the eastern part of the United States, Wingnut Woodstock, and this group was all they could muster. The Ku Klux Klan was in evidence, too. David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Klan, a blight who never seems to go away, had triumphal words for the media. But a fact is worth noting: in 1920s America, there were between three and six million members of the Ku Klux Klan; at present, there are between three and six thousand. Most seem to be people who can spell “cat” only on the third try.

Yet the man in the White House surely projects the aura of a Mussolini. The pep rallies, which he continues to hold, have an ugliness that resembles fascist gatherings past. Though Steve Bannon, a leading alt-righter, is gone from the White House, he says that he will continue to be out there in the world, battling for Trump, probably with the boss’s encouragement.

If you’re a free speech advocate, as I am, and also take fascism, left and right, to have been the scourge of the past century and a serious potential danger for the future, the events in Charlottesville place you in a trying position. But is the situation now so perilous that we need to allow vigilante groups to decide who can speak in America and who cannot? Should we change our laws and customs because of these relatively few fascist miscreants? It would be ceding a great deal of power and importance to them if we did.


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