D.C. is preparing for an uncertain weekend as the same white nationalists who marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying tiki torches one year ago prepare to hold their anniversary event here, rather than in Charlottesville. The National Park Service initially approved organizer Jason Kessler’s application in June for his “United the Right Rally 2” event in D.C. but the permit is still pending and has not been officially issued.
Last year’s event came to a violent end when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and hurting many others. One of those hurt was D.C. resident Constance Y. She stood up just before he put his car in reverse and rapidly backed up into more people. She is helping to organize a “Still Here, Still Strong” rally at Freedom Plaza on Sunday.
Here Constance discusses her hopes and fears for this year’s rally, in light of last year’s.
What have you been doing since you found out that the same white nationalists you encountered in Charlottesville will be coming to D.C.?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want my response to be, how I want to plug in to any demonstration, any counter-protest, and I found a place for me that I think feels good—helping to coordinate a rally, and it’s called the “Still Here, Still Strong” rally to celebrate our resistance. Because marginalized folks—black and brown people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks—have been resisting this sort of hate for such a long time, and so the goal here is not so much to speak about the Nazis, or the white supremacists, but to really gather and celebrate and have a joyous occasion of what our resistance looks like and what it has looked like over the centuries.
What, in your mind, is a best case scenario for the rally this weekend?
They don’t come. They don’t come. Because we aren’t safe—I’m not safe when they are here.
What is your greatest fear?
Obviously I am afraid that the white nationalists that are coming will be violent, as they were last year. And I’m also afraid of what the response from the police will be like—if we will see a more militarized police than we normally do for protests.
How did you decide to go to Charlottesville, and what were your preparations then?
Last year when I decided to go to Charlottesville, I knew that it would be dangerous, I knew that there was potential for violence, but I did not expect it to be inescapable. I did not anticipate that the police would just essentially stand down. There were police officers just dressed in plain clothes that were snipers on rooftops, so they were very visible, but we thought that they were Nazis—we didn’t know that they were police officers. So that contributed a lot to the feel of having the day just be one long nightmare.
I think my principles and values compelled me to go. Charlottesville is not my city, but it could be my city, and it was my parents’ cities, it was my grandparents’ cities. And I didn’t want recently emboldened white nationalists to feel like they could come out of their cave and terrorize and harm a city.
What was the day of the rally like?
I went to Charlottesville the day before, and there was a terrible thunderstorm on the way. I went with a few friends, and we were going to go to an interfaith service, but the thunderstorm was so bad that we just pulled over and had dinner somewhere and we were delayed. And then we got word of what happened that night—that the white nationalists had become hostile outside of the venue and that they had their tiki torch rally.
And then the next morning I would say that the tension in the air was palpable. The tension in the air was something that I hadn’t really ever experienced before.
Where were you when you felt that tension?
I decided that day that I would stay at the permitted location because I did not want to have any direct contact with or be anywhere near by where the white nationalists were going to be. But at certain points during the day, even though we were at a park where we had a permit to be, the white nationalists would march around us, and say terrible things, and threaten us.
As the day went on, there were moments that were less terrorizing. And then toward the end of the day, the mood had started to shift a little bit. I wouldn’t say to a celebration, but we were marching in the street, and there were community members that were clapping for us and chanting with us, and it was almost over. As soon as we would have finished that short march, I anticipated that I would be going home.
But quite the opposite happened. That’s when the car attack occurred.
What was that like?
It’s easily, without a doubt, the worst thing I have ever heard. There were bodies flying everywhere. And the sound of a car hitting people—it’s loud, and it’s violent. And then there are screams. There are people crying for help. And even after I got hit, the first thing that I heard was people yelling at me—yelling at everyone—to move. Because he was coming back, because he was reversing. And then pandemonium ensued.
Where are you from?
I’m from the deep, deep South. When I was growing up, some, like, horrible humans spray painted KKK on our home. When my parents moved in to the home that I was raised in, they got death threats. We were the first black family in that neighborhood. My mom’s church had been burned down several times. This was the experience of my family since we’ve been in this country.
In an interview with Van Jones, you said that someone at the Charlottesville rally told you he wanted to lynch you and then he blew you a kiss. You said you’d never witnessed or seen or felt such hatred. But you have experienced hatred. What was different at that rally?
Because the hatred before would be condemned. People were not emboldened enough, did not feel empowered enough, to do these things out in the open. They were shameless, and there were so many of them. And they were all heavily armed—heavily armed with everything from knives to guns, multiple guns, pepper spray. They had shields. This was, without a doubt, a militia. And I had never seen that before.
Where do you think that hate comes from?
I think many sentiments can broadly be boiled down to love and fear. And I think that when people are afraid, they are able to dehumanize other folks such that they are able to treat them inhumanely. And it’s obvious that after lots of progress in this country, these white nationalists are conflating a loss of privilege with oppression. There’s something important to be said about dehumanizing folks and othering people, because I think that’s the bedrock of these folks having the capacity to do this. And at the same time, I don’t know how to humanize them either, because their message is absolutely unacceptable, and they should be stopped.
Any other thoughts going into this?
The only thing is—I think it’s outrageous that Facebook took down our page and spread incorrect information to every person, thousands of people that responded as “going” or “interested,” and said that we were not legitimate and looped us up with Russian bots.
They haven’t apologized, they haven’t made restitution. At the bare minimum they could contact the folks that they misinformed and say, “We messed up. These people are not Russian bots, they’re absolutely legitimate, and they’re trying to counter Nazis.”