Remembering Charlottesville: Notes from the Frontlines
Guest writer Khristian Smith shares his experience as a counter-protester of the 'Unite the Right Rally' at Charlottesville on August 11 - 12, 2017.
Late in the evening on August 11, I turned away from my work to find that hundreds of real-life Nazis had descended onto the Grounds at the University of Virginia. I honestly wish I could say I was surprised by their clandestine march or the fact that they were wielding torches, but given the City of Charlottesville's, UVA's, and Thomas Jefferson's histories, pretending to be surprised would be dishonest and as much an assent to the violence that inevitably followed as, say, a condemnation of violence “on many sides.” Fortunately, I was not alone in my lack of surprise.
As hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists marched their way across the lawn to the Rotunda, 20+ third and fourth year students created a wall around the Rotunda’s statue of Jefferson. These students linked arms, held signs, and met “you will not replace us” and “blood and soil” with “Black Lives Matter” and civil disobedience. Their nonviolent determent of (mostly) white men retained even when “blood and soil” transformed into “we have the right to beat you.”
True to their word, white supremacists struck their Tiki torches against heads, and aimed their fists for any vulnerable places they could reach. Meanwhile, state and campus police remained unmoved, and only arrived once the group dispersed. But in their wake, they left two dozen or so undergraduates bruised, bleeding, and concussed, a Dean with a bleeding body, and a librarian who would later suffer a stroke as a result of the blows issued against him.
Tyler Magill was admitted to UVA hospital the Tuesday following August 11 and 12 due to injuries he received protecting students from Nazi assailants. Doctors at UVA’s medical center discovered that Magill’s carotid artery was partially dissected, causing a clot that resulted in a stroke. I personally do not know Magill that well. I am familiar with him, having seen him many times in the University’s libraries, especially Alderman. I’ve even collected recalled books from him as I wrote my Master’s thesis on a caffeine high over the last academic year. But Magill is good people. Most of who I know at UVA and Charlottesville are good people. But now we’re a suffering people, and while our suffering refuses to disappear, it also refuses to harden us, burden us, or disempower us.
After learning what had happened on Grounds late in the evening on August 11, I began questioning whether I should still attend the counterprotest the next day. I briefly thought about what my heroes would do, and the decision was easy: show up; speak up.
I was lucky on Saturday. I knew I was marching into a precarious situation—I knew that I was putting my personal safety at risk by just choosing to show up. But I reminded myself that millions of people have to do that every day, not just on protest days. And as a queer man, I have been and will continue to be one of those people who risks their physical wellbeing every day they live unless we all work to advance necessary social changes.
Nevertheless, regardless of how okay I am in body, nothing will change what I witnessed, and nothing will change what I have continued to bear witness to.
As my friends and I drove the length of Preston Avenue to the Downtown Mall, we saw a line of white-robed Klansmen and Nazis sporting khakis reminiscent of WWII brown shirts marching in lines down the sidewalks, armed with wooden batons, smoke bombs, shields, and rifles. I will never forget hearing their racist chants nor will I forget seeing the cruel, smiling faces of those unmasked white men who knew that they'd still have jobs on Monday—that their behavior would face no repercussions.
The “Unite the Right” rally had just been declared an unlawful assembly about half an hour before we reached the peripheries of Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. According to some friends, the costumed white supremacists dispersed out of Emancipation Park like a virulent fluid, armed with batons and black shields bearing fasces. Unbeknownst to us, they were marching through our City like a virus hellbent on breaking us. In the hurried and tense conversations that occurred as my friends and I regrouped in a parking lot behind a brick apartment complex with a Neo-Classical façade, we agreed to join counterprotesters currently stationed in Justice (formerly Jackson) Park.
When we reached Justice Park, the crowd was fidgety. An Antifa protester in the throng had purportedly risked her personal safety to rip a confederate flag out of the hand of a white nationalist as he wove it aggressively in the face of counterprotesters. She was still shaking with it in her grasp, knuckles white from her rage, when I overheard her speaking about it. Another counterprotester clad in a black ensemble with a blood red handkerchief tied around her throat ascended the small brick walls lining the perimeter of the park, and we heard that a regrouping effort was underway at the neighboring McGuffey Park.
We followed the crowd into what could only be described, as one UVA student put it, a resistance camp at the “literal end of the world." Spirits were high, but anxious. People gathered in drum circles, others just went around hugging friends and total strangers. Antifa protesters handed out cookies, sandwiches, and water with the Democratic Socialists of America and members of the clergy. Meanwhile, other counterprotesters made announcements, disseminated updates, and kept watch over livestreams and Twitter feeds and listened to walkie-talkies to identify the areas of the City where our presence was needed.
Standing amidst that crowd was the closest I have ever felt to being a literal domino. At any instant some force might have propelled me in a tumbling journey I’d anticipated but never thought I’d actually see. Sadly, I later found this to be true.
As my friends and I snaked our way down the Mall, we met with other counterprotesters lining the street near Union Bank and Water Street Parking. I stood as close as I could to my group as I watched a livestream of more riots occurring not two hundred yards from us on the other side of Water Street Parking. Our massive flood of bodies had stalled traffic, and we were just about to join them on the street when a great explosive sound reverberated off of the brick buildings encasing us.
A car had plowed through counterprotesters not twenty feet from me. My friends and I heard the sound of its impact and thought police had detonated tear gas canisters. We saw neon running shoes soar into the air.
We ran, but once we heard what had happened—we went back. We helped guide traffic. We remained vigilant. We heard paths needed to be cleared for street medics. We waited to see what would happen, then we watched armed guards glide along the alleyway. I will never forget the look of horror on that mother’s face as my friends and I ran to her and told her to get her children out of the area because an armored vehicle had arrived and a guardsman rose out of it, pointing his rifle at the crowd. That mother’s face still haunts my dreams.
I remember hearing other firsthand accounts from friends who saw their other friends thrown into the air or beneath the wheels of that car. I sometimes wonder whether the car I see hurling towards me is a dream or a premonition. Some nights, my blood still freezes in my veins when I recall how Nazis screamed, "go die faggot!” I remember how baton and shield-wielding white men stared at me and my friends as they walked past us, the edges of their lightless eyes hardening when they saw us. Those eyes still stare at me, try to force me to remember them. And I do, but I remember the things that keep me fighting, too.
I can never forget how total strangers reached out to me, assured my friends and me that we'd be looked after...whatever happens. I can never forget meeting new people, being hugged and kissed by them, crying with them. I can never forget the mic tests. I can never forget the religious leaders offering me, an atheist, moral and emotional support instead of trying to proselytize me.
I can never forget Heather, or how the community I sat recovering with screamed at television sets when our president opted to talk about our economy rather than her death. We screamed when he made false equivalence between our counterprotest and the literal Nazis who spent an evening beating us with Tiki torches and afternoon throwing smoke bombs at us, then mowed us down with a vehicle.
I stood in a crowd that, despite threats, gathered to mourn the loss of one of our own and to sing hymns in her name. I lit candles on the sidewalks, and held the hands of people who were shaking next to me. I cried as Hebrew dirges resounded over a sea of mourning faces.
I watched as antifa members silently walked on the peripheries of a community potluck and Heather's memorial as volunteer security. They weren't paid to do it; they weren't asked to do it; they did not make a spectacle out of doing it. They didn't advertise their campaigns or ask for praise. They showed up, and stood watch quietly so that we wouldn't feel afraid to go outside and celebrate the life and mourn the death of a woman who stood up to hate.
I marched with thousands of other Cavaliers and Wahoos with a lone taper in my hand. I watched its weak flame flicker but hold the breeze in contempt. I cried when Maya Angelou’s poetry thundered over the Lawn and our candlelit faces. “Still I rise.”
When people ask me why I still march, why Charlottesville still marches, even now knowing what we do, I tell them it is because we have to. When my community shut down the first City meeting following August 12, I told all my friends asking “why” — because we have to.
We here in Charlottesville are scared, but we are not going to be controlled by our fear. We are angry, but our anger only pushes us onward. And despite what Nazis have said, these “faggots” will not burn.