I want to preface this post by pointing out that I experienced the August 11/12 weekend in Charlottesville as a person with white/middle class/cisgender privilege. I knew that my chances of being arrested were low compared to other people’s. I think it’s important that those of us who have this privilege are aware of it and try to use it to help people who don’t have this privilege.
Things were tense in Charlottesville during the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary of the deadly unite the right rally. Last year, armed white supremacists staged a full scale invasion and attacked residents while police stood by and did nothing. This year, Charlottesville was locked into a police state so tight that people who lived downtown had to submit to search before they could access their own homes. The organizer of last year’s violent rally was denied a permit for another one and abruptly withdrew his lawsuit over that decision. No one knew what to expect. Would nothing happen? Would rogue bands of white terrorists come to town to harass us?
I walked downtown on Saturday morning and all was quiet, although there were clumps of police everywhere and access to the downtown mall was limited to two narrow points and you had to submit to a bag search to enter. Some people reported that even the contents of their wallets were removed and examined. I didn’t have a wallet with me, but my bag was thoroughly searched, with the main compartment and zippered pocket all opened and investigated. There wasn’t much going on other than the enormous crowd of cops, so after chatting with a couple of friends and leaving a message on our free speech chalkboard wall, I walked home. I returned in the afternoon to the same peaceful scene. I felt curiously flat. Of course I didn’t want more violence and yet there was something unsettling and I chalked it up to the police.
At home, Jon and I ate dinner and watched a live stream of a planned student rally at UVA where things quickly went off the rails when student organizers, in a brilliant show of defiance, unfurled a banner that said, “Last Year They Came with Torches – This Year With Badges” and announced that they would not comply with the ridiculous security requirements imposed* on them by the University of Virginia and that they were moving the rally out of the designated secure area. Police in riot gear, armed with tear gas canisters moved in immediately and declared unlawful assembly. Students began to chant, “Why are you in riot gear? We ain’t got no riot here.” And then I heard someone say, why didn’t the police declare unlawful assembly last year, when terrorists with torches surrounded a small group of students and tried to kill them while the police watched and did nothing? Hearing that made me so angry that I grabbed my phone and a bottle of water and rushed out of the house to join. It took me half an hour to get there because the closest I felt safe parking was still about a mile and a half from grounds and I actually wasn’t sure where the rally had gone. I’d heard mention of Rugby Road and Jon suggested I walk toward the helicopter, which was indeed hovering over Rugby Ave, where I joined the crowd along with lots of other late comers. And so we marched, literally taking the streets, with a helicopter circling above and shining a spotlight on us, and police both in front and behind us, trapping us in a “kettle.” But they didn’t make any arrests and we kept marching, turning down different streets and keeping the cops scurrying to adjust and close streets ahead of us. At one point, as we marched down Grady Ave, police formed a barrier to prevent us from turning onto 10th Street. I think they wanted to shuttle us onto Preston Ave, which is all businesses, lest residents on 10th joined in with us. Somehow we got by the police and marched down 10th Street despite them. I don’t know if any residents joined us, but I saw people waving and smiling from their porches.
It was quite dark by now and we reached Main Street and started marching toward the downtown mall. I’d been getting increasingly frantic texts from Jon, who’d been watching the march from home and thought that the police were itching to attack us. I left the march as we crossed the street where my car was parked. The whole experience had been exhilarating and I realized that the reason I’d felt so flat earlier was because I craved vengeance and this impromptu march was a vengeance of sorts. We took to the streets and we took back our city. Below are a couple of very brief videos I took.
Sunday, I felt unwell. I was so keyed up from the march that I’d hardly slept and anxiety had kept me awake for most of the night on Thursday and Friday too. I spent the morning at home, but then went downtown in the afternoon, where a crowd had gathered at the site of Heather Heyer’s murder last year. Her mother, Susan Bro, had spoken there earlier and police had refused marchers access to the street. I walked down Water Street and ran into a tense standoff between police and protesters. Everyone stood around uneasily and suddenly screams erupted just across the street from where I was standing and the police plunged into the crowd and attacked someone. I have no idea why and after a lot of yelling and confusion, the person was pulled away, backwards, down the south side of Fourth Street. There was a tank and soldiers with guns, ready to attack, and state and local police. A group of cops on bikes made a chain across Fourth Street under the railroad bridge, cutting off escape that way. The north side of Fourth Street was barricaded and there were cops at both ends of Water Street. But nothing really happened except for some shouting and then it rained and I walked home. It became abundantly clear this weekend that the police were more concerned with controlling anti-racist, anti-fascist action than they were concerned about actual nazis. Also, the University of Virginia has no real interest in contributing to the eradication of white supremacists or in expressing true remorse for their betrayal of our community last year.
- See this brief article for an explanation of the conditions the University of Virginia imposed on student protesters. Link here.