CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia —The governor had just declared a state of emergency when the silver Dodge Challenger ploughed into a crowd of anti-white supremacist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a paralegal from Virginia, and injuring 19.
Ambulances flooded the intersection of Fourth and Water in typically quaint downtown Charlottesville, medics scrambling to aid the wounded as faith leaders formed human shields to protect them.
Thousands of white supremacists who chose Charlottesville for a watershed gathering called Unite the Right had been driven from the area that morning after violent skirmishes, but one of their own returned on a deadly solo mission. Police identified the driver as 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr.
As paramedics’ lights flashed behind her, a woman in a black T-shirt that simply read, “NO!,” stood atop an overturned orange bucket to deliver an impassioned speech in an adjacent parking lot.
“In this key moment, it matters how we answer the call,” the young woman in black shouted over the chaotic scene. “Do we do what the Freedom Riders did when they came down to Mississippi? They had people spit in their faces. They had bottles broken over their heads. Buses of people need to come here tonight!”
People like Heyer were already in Charlottesville because they heard the call to counter a burgeoning American white supremacy movement and they answered. They saw the unification of Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler and David Duke in a college town in Virginia and felt the chill of Nazism in America.
They saw a White House all too comfortable with White Power and remembered the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement: the first step is to show up, in the streets, in the parks, in the churches, on the bridges, at the lunch counters or wherever help is needed.
In Charlottesville, they were the ministers and rabbis who offered counsel and shelter to wounded anti-hate demonstrators inside the First United Methodist Church, a designated “safe space.” The church is just steps from Emancipation Park, which became the target of Unite the Right after local leaders voted to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and rename the park.
They were students from the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, who held their ground against the assault of white supremacists wielding Tiki torches even as the police declined to intervene.
They were the young professionals from Washington, D.C., one black and one white, who drove down to Charlottesville in their Mustang convertible and sat triumphantly blasting the music of John Coltrane and Steely Dan near a statue of “Stonewall” Jackson, another Confederate general, through a megaphone to “increase the peace.”
They were the bandana-clad “antifas,” or anti-fascists, whose more aggressive tactics against the Alt-Right have made them the target of critics, who say they are just as dangerous as their opponents.
Perhaps most of all, they were the people of Charlottesville, who have known for months that the city was in the crosshairs of white nationalist rage after the City Council voted to remove the Lee statue in February.
Through a flurry of arguments and negotiations over permits, policing and tactics, city leaders readied themselves for an onslaught, knowing their home had become a battleground in a fight against the creeping scourge of white hate in America. The largely progressive city seeking to move past its Confederate, slave-state history, had drawn the attention of some who wanted to return to the past.
“The nation will be watching us, and our responsibility to speak truth and love to their messages of hate and division is stronger than ever before,” said Virginia state representative David Toscano, a former mayor of Charlottesville, earlier this week. “Just like the nonviolent warriors of decades past, to control the situation and the narrative for the benefit not just of the city we love, but the principles we embrace—love, diversity, respect,” he said.
But by Friday night, when hundreds of torch-wielding Unite the Right marchers faced off with counter protesters beneath the statue of Jefferson on UVA’s rotunda, it was clear the situation was spiraling out of control.
The violence had grown much worse by Saturday morning, causing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare the state of emergency around noon.
It was not enough to protect Heather Heyer and the 19 anti-hate demonstrators at the corner of Fourth and Water.
And Heyer’s death was not enough to elicit a true condemnation of white supremacy from the White House. But it was enough to finally capture the attention of Americans who had seen the warning signs of rising hate crimes and violent rhetoric, but had not understood that the country was headed into a state of emergency.
Now we know. We can’t claim we didn’t understand.
Walt Heinecke, a UVA professor and organizer for the Charlottesville-based protest group Peoples Action for Racial Justice, put it well.
“White supremacy happens all the time, it is the rule not the exception,” he said as he prepared to face down Unite the Right. “If the people of Charlottesville and the nation are waiting for the right moment to organize for a racially just and truly multicultural society, this is the moment to become focused.”
What more does America need to know?
Kevin McElwee contributed reporting from Charlottesville.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece had identified the alleged driver of the car as Alex Fields, Jr. We regret the error.