Charlottesville: A Weekend Of Terror

CONTENT WARNING: VIOLENCE, RACISM, POLICE BRUTALITY

[Image description: close-up photograph of the bright flame of a lit torch.] Nicholas LabyrinthX / Creative Commons

[Image description: close-up photograph of the bright flame of a lit torch.]

Nicholas LabyrinthX / Creative Commons

There aren't really words to encapsulate the terror, anger, grief and pain of this past weekend in Charlottesville. “Desperation” certainly comes to mind – but I would rather this be characterized as a moment of determination. Determination, because Black organizers have been doing anti-racist work for years, and this was yet another step down that seemingly endless road. Determination because, despite our efforts to stop this nightmare before it started, Kessler and his myrmidons would be marching through our city. Determination, because we knew that neither our city council, nor the Charlottesville Police, nor the University of Virginia, would do anything real to protect us. Determination because we had no other option. We had to face this incursion and defend our city on our own. It was organizers from across the country working together with local activists who stood for our city on Saturday. Those of us who could put our lives and our bodies on the line to protect our community, willingly and defiantly.

My name is Sylvan Miller; describe me with they/them pronouns. I'm white, multiply disabled, nonbinary and queer, besides many other things; however, for the purposes of giving my testimony, and owning my perspective and positionality, I feel these facets of my identity are the most important ones to mention. I've been a student at the University of Virginia for the past four years, and am putting down roots here in Charlottesville for the foreseeable future. The connections I've made here, especially those which have plugged me into activist networks both in West Virginia and further afield, are some of the most valuable I've found in my lifetime.

Last Friday night, I wanted to protect the people and the community I love, and take a stand - metaphorically speaking, as I was using my wheelchair at the time, both so my joints wouldn't dislocate out from under me and because I broke my ankle about two weeks ago. I first heard about the torch-lit white supremacist rally at about 7:30pm that Friday: they were planning to march to the Rotunda from Nameless Field, carrying flaming torches all the way, with their route ending at the Jefferson statue. Information regarding the march, particularly its final destination, were supposed to be highly secret, but somehow the information was either leaked, or their security was hacked (good job either way, folks). As soon as I heard the news, I dropped a medic friend at a strategy meeting for the night, tried to spread the word as much as possible, and got to the Rotunda as fast as I could. I got there around 8:40, having heard they'd be marching at 8:30, but ended up just watching the area for a while and alerting people when I saw things developing.

When they actually arrived several hours later, those of us present (including a number of UVA students, some local organizers, and several out-of-state folks here in solidarity) were told that some 200 white supremacists were expected to march. With our 20-30 people at most, we had to make a strategic decision as to how we were going to disrupt the terror they intended to enact. Since they were aiming for the Jefferson statue, we decided to block them from it, surrounding the statue arm in arm, with antifascists around our line working to support us and defray the alt-right’s violence. Once we were surrounded by angry, fire-wielding fascists, both groups began shouting back and forth, our side with “no Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “Black Lives Matter”; theirs with “blood and soil,” “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and eventually “white lives matter”. I'm proud to say that, despite our smaller numbers, we out-shouted them nearly all of the time, even evident in videos taken from deep in the thick of their crowd.

A few minutes in to this verbal stand-off, something snapped. The crowd to my left was suddenly being buffeted, pushed in and back, and then the fire was flying — I think initially one man’s kerosene canister from inside his torch might have fallen out, and it seems the rest of the crowd thought that was a wonderful idea. They threw their flaming gas canisters at us, started beating people with their torches, and sprayed some sort of potent mace into the crowd. Some have suggested it was bear mace; having been hit with it myself, I'm inclined to agree. People around me were burned and poisoned, but we still held the statue for almost another minute.

I put my wheelchair and myself in front of other people who were more vulnerable: some Black activists who made one last stand getting up upon the statue’s pedestal, and one person whom I think had been maced directly in the face, who couldn't see and was stranded with us inside this ring of feral white men. That person was drooling, as one is wont to do when maced at close range, and I didn't even think about it until I later heard some of the wildly inaccurate rumors surrounding certain events. Someone moving past us actually thought the racists had poured fluid from the torches on my legs, which escalated in the game of social media “telephone” until the rumor became that they had “doused a girl in a wheelchair in kerosene.” Not quite - firstly, I’m not a girl; secondly, I'm a wheelchair user; and, lastly, I wasn't hit nearly as badly as many of the other people there, several of whom put themselves physically between me and the violence that surrounded us. Beyond that, my experience was limited to receiving medical care, as I was having my eyes flushed by our own medics. However, through footage (and various retellings) I know that my comrades, our people, had still been standing just a few feet away from the statue, in a reformed line, holding our banner high and chanting back despite the beating we collectively took. I was also approached by UVA’s Dean Groves and a couple of police officers, all of whom were checking to see whether I'd received medical care. The officers asked me to see paramedics — which I appreciate, but I’m also sure that the treatment I received as a white, “female-coded” disabled person wouldn't have been extended to non-UVA Black and of color activists. It was around this time that the police finally formed a riot line, declared an unlawful assembly, and went to sweep the crowd, which at that point was made up only of the wounded and those receiving care, not a neo-Nazi in sight. Thanks to Dean Groves for buying us another moment to leave the area so we wouldn't risk being arrested on top of our assaults and trauma. It was a dangerous and horrific night, but we protected each other and we set a precedent of resistance for this weekend that, from what I hear and I hope, continues to demonstrate tangible support and defense for the people of color in our community.

We didn't do it to protect UVA grounds and monuments, least of all a statue of slave-holder, child molester, and racist Thomas Jefferson; nor did we do it to preserve some sanitized, wholesome peace, supposedly characteristic of the University of Virginia - "the university we know." We certainly know that racism is nothing new to UVA, and this is something we must all take accountability for and recognize.

We didn't do it for Mike fucking Signer who, along with his cohorts — most particularly City Manager Maurice Jones and Police Chief Al Thomas — left us to the dogs in a mangled, misplaced crusade for "free speech."

"If we weaken rights for them, we weaken rights for us." Listen: protecting neo-Nazis and virulent white supremacists does not in some circular way protect us. The hard-won progress in the Civil Rights Movement towards freedom of assembly for people of color and other marginalized groups, so many of whom gave their own lives to the cause, was not in the service of safeguarding Jason Kessler, Richard Spencer, the Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, Vanguard America, the League of the South, and numerous other skinhead, neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist organizations. The “alt-right”.

Does it upset you that we refer to the alt-right this way - as Nazis, as fascists? That is what they are, and a great many of them are open and proud of it. What underpins the ideology of each of these organizations is their commitment to the oppression of Black, Jewish, and other people of color. That is white supremacy, and upholding white supremacy involves not only this overt terrorism, but also enforcing racist systems and social structures that ensure white prosperity and dominance at the expense of everyone who falls short of their definition of humanity: though many white supremacists are most vocal about their hatred of Jewish people and Black people, they revile and seek to destroy Rroma, Muslims, immigrants, queer people, people with disabilities, trans folks. There is no appeasing fascism. A friend recently pointed out that the Nazis of the 20th century would have reviled a great many of these enthusiastic modern-day followers for failing to meet their own Aryan standards – and that, considering historical periods and differences, “Nazi” isn't always the most apt descriptor. But why shouldn't we take their Hitlergrüße, or their chants of “Blood and Soil,” at face value? I'm not too worried about stepping on the toes of Richard Spencer and his ilk; “neo-Nazis” is a good enough catch-all.

I want to spread far and wide the full context of what happened this weekend. Local organizers worked ceaselessly to appeal to the Charlottesville legal code, which includes “provisions to revoke or refuse permits based on untenable headcounts and a reasonable expectation of violence” – no violation of free speech, but with adequate protections for our infrastructure and residents.

We knew this violence was coming. The perpetrators of this violence told us it was coming, announcing to various news outlets their intention to bring firearms and bats.  We told the City Council this violence was coming, and they in turn declined either to believe us or to take any action to prevent it. Their “shock”, their condolences, and their manufactured regret mean nothing to me. Heather Heyer was killed. Several people have been in critical condition in the hospital. These invaders brutalized my friends and neighbors. Alexis's leg and ankle are damaged, and her daughter Noelle's arm broken; Allie's pelvis is shattered, Star’s legs damaged and spine injured, Natalie's skull is fractured and her body battered. 8 staples are holding Deandre Harris' head together. At one point, the throng of angry white men (and women) around us was seven people deep.

Those are just the people I’m familiar with, whose accounts I heard personally, but literally countless other people were beaten, run over with cars, or shot at from a passing white van. Friendship Court, in a Black neighborhood, was targeted and attacked and those Nazis were only held back by the residents and Antifa who opposed them. We began to hear that the fascists were threatening to "burn the town down," news which prompted those who were able to evacuate, and those who were left to hope that Redneck Revolt could patrol neighborhoods, scrambling to keep ourselves safe against these roaming caravans of brutal racists. Thank god the rain hit when it did, and that the police finally instituted – or perhaps “suggested” would be more accurate – a curfew. We had been alone and entirely unprotected for most of the day, and I have no reason to believe that we would have been any less exposed that night.

Let it be known that the police deserve no credit for our safety, and that the City Council did nothing to ensure our wellbeing. Thanks to out-of-town support, such as Antifa, Redneck Revolt, and so many others, we kept ourselves as secure as we could. The Clergy Collective provided huge support, the Socialist Snack Squad and other dedicated volunteers kept us hydrated and fed, and medics and people running mental health support worked diligently to mitigate the trauma of the day and hold us up as we fought back the violence rising up in our city.  We took care of us, in a loose approximation of how the saying goes. We cannot extend enough gratitude to the UVA Hospital and the Martha Jefferson Hospital, one set of institutions who really did fulfill their purpose and cared for so many people. Despite the tank at the end of the Downtown Mall blocking their way, they fought to carry people wounded by the car attack back to the ambulances they couldn't bring any closer.

While the other failings of Charlottesville infrastructure are egregious enough, I'd now like to explain the context of the KKK rally in Justice Park on July 8th, including the brutality of state and local militarized police after the Klan had left and absent of any threat from peaceful counter-protesters in the area. I was there that day, too. We had no sufficient time to leave the premises before several police departments decided there was imminent danger, and deployed a BearCat, geared-up riot police, three canisters of powdered tear gas, brutal beatings, and severe and disproportionate escalation against unarmed and dispersing crowds. A queer black person was kicked in the head at least 3 times by a police officer, an older woman was dragged to the ground to be handcuffed, a survivor of domestic abuse faced additional trauma due to their violent treatment, and countless other people were jerked around, displaced, and even beaten with batons.

Those collapsible batons, ASPs, were used during the several different stages of police intimidation:  as I remember the events of July 8th, there was first the period before and during the Klan's arrival, followed shortly by the tear gas, armored vehicles, and assault rifles. The third stage took place during a time when mostly Black community members were talking and supporting one another after the Klan coming to town, and two lines of riot cops came back out from behind the barricades and formed two lines, batons extended, threatening further violence in a day already saturated with it. The sound of those batons being snapped out from a few feet away, in response to no provocation, as we stood and decompressed and sought our friends and loved ones after the chaos of the tear gas, will haunt me for a long time.

Following that much-protested treatment, and criticism of the Charlottesville Police Department, the CPD seemed much less anxious to get involved this time around. Congratulations: they managed not to brutalize us last weekend (as far as I know). But their inaction, standing by in lines of armored officers as we were attacked with flaming torches and pummeled by fascists and maced on Friday night - standing safely behind barricades on Saturday, even turning away from us as our community members were beaten and assaulted and begged for help in front of them, was a great failure to our city nonetheless.

If my writing seems disjointed, or out of order, it's because the past two months have been nothing but turmoil and the familiar flaring symptoms of old trauma being compounded by each new incident. My mind is frantic and frenetic, struggling to break down hundreds of years of anti-Native genocide, Jewish persecution, Black enslavement, oppression, exploitation, and so many other structural and cultural divides that have led us to where we are now. This problem did not end with the civil war, did not end with the civil rights movement, and did not start with Trump - though racists and bigots of all persuasions are certainly emboldened by him. These armed, institutionally protected, bloodthirsty white men, acting against their supposed “erasure” and “oppression,” are willing to kill to do it. This is deadly. This is real. We have work to do, and we have communities of color to defend.

Click here to donate to the legal and medical funds of the anti-racist activists who showed up to oppose fascism in Charlottesville this weekend (CW blood, violence).


Sylvan Miller is a sociologist and activist, trauma survivor and part-time wheelchair user, doing work especially around race, queerness, and disability. They are small and tired, but fighting to throw down as needed.