A reckoning in Charlottesville

A reckoning in Charlottesville

In the middle of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville on Saturday, two young women, one white and one black, took each other's hands and held them tightly, and with their other hands they gripped the steel barrier in front of them.

A few feet away, a young white man with a buzzed haircut and sunglasses leaned towards them over a facing barrier. "You'll be on the first f*****g boat home," he screamed at the black woman, before turning to the white woman. "And as for you, you're going straight to hell," he said. Then he gave a Nazi salute.

For the third time in a few months, white nationalists had descended on the small, liberal city of Charlottesville in the old Confederate capital of Virginia, to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee.

This time they came under the banner of the so-called "alt-right", for a rally they called "Unite the Right". They were a motley crew of militia, racists, and neo-Nazis, and some who said they simply wanted to defend their Southern history.

They gathered early in the morning at Emancipation Park - formerly Lee Park - where the statue sits, some dressed in full tactical gear and openly carrying rifles. Others wore black shirts, helmets, and boots.


In a column they surged into the park, using sticks and their fists to shove aside anti-fascist counter-protesters. Then they blocked off the entrance with shields. Inside, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, grinned and waved as the crowd, almost entirely white and male, cheered him on, chanting his name and putting their arms up in Nazi salutes.

They had reason to be pleased. They were in the middle of the largest gathering of white nationalists in America for decades.


A reckoning in Charlottesville

In the park, in a pen ringed by steel barriers, they shouted anti-immigrant, anti-semitic and racist slogans and targeted white women counter-protesters, calling them "traitors" who "needed to get subjugated". Outside, anti-fascist protesters threw bottles of water at the white nationalists and chanted "Off our streets, Nazi scum". Pepper spray, used by both sides, filled the air.

Eventually, riot police moved into the park and the streets around it, pushing everyone back. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency and the rally was cancelled. The national guard began to close off the area, but not before a driver ploughed into a crowd of counter-protesters two blocks away, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.


Within a few hours, her prayer went unanswered. About 200 white nationalists gathered after dark in Nameless Park, down the road from where she sat, and marched through the University of Virginia campus holding torches and chanting racist slogans.

At the base of the university's statue of Thomas Jefferson, on the Main Street side of the campus, they clashed with university students who had come to confront them. The air was hot from the torches and acrid from smoke.

"The heat here is nothing compared to what you're going to get in the ovens," shouted Robert Ray, a writer for the white supremacist website Daily Stormer. "It's coming," he spat.

"White supremacists walking through my university with torches, I never thought I'd have to see this in America in my lifetime," said one of the counter-protesters, a student who did not want to be named.

Directly across the street that night, at St Paul's, more than 500 people were packed into the church for a multi-faith service. There were readings from the Bible and the Koran, spirituals sung by a choir, and a speech by activist and Harvard professor Dr Cornel West that drew everyone in the house to their feet in applause.

"It is bleak that we are about to see the largest neo-fascist gathering in decades, but it is also a joy to be able to struggle against it, to bear witness to it," said Dr West after the service.

A reckoning in Charlottesville

"The alt-right is a new danger. We have a right-wing gangster in the White House who emboldens them, who empowers them. So they feel they have permission for their hate to come out in public, and maybe even harm others. We are in a dangerous moment."

As the service drew to a close, and the last spirituals were sung, the congregation filed slowly out of a side door to avoid the white nationalists who were walking back up Main Street.


Three years ago, Charlottesville was named America's happiest city by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. "Joy Town, USA", the media called it.

But around Joy Town on Saturday, locals were saddened to see violence and hatred on their streets. "I wonder if Charlottesville will ever be the same after this," said Henry McHenry, 63, a 30-year resident. "We must get past this state of us against them."

Late on Saturday night, after a day that began with a dawn service at 6am, Reverend Brown-Grooms tried to reckon with what she had seen on the streets of her city that day.

"I come from a people who were enslaved, and if you are going to make it through that misery, there has to be a spirit which allows you to see past what your eyes see in front of you and what your ears hear, and to understand how hope forms in your heart," she said.

"As our people used to say, trouble don't last always. It might last all of my lifetime, but not always."



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