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Democracy in Crisis is a syndicated column, a podcast, and a blog.
Two middle-aged men, one black and one white, were walking up a street in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia yelling at each other. It was a moment of relative normalcy in a day otherwise defined by mayhem.
Both men used the phrase “born and bred” to define their relationship to the Southern college town, nestled in the hills in the politically contested state of Virginia.
The white man, Ed Knight, was wearing a Confederate flag bandana around his head.
“You, with that stupid Confederate flag, talking about history,” the black man, George Steppe, said. “You don’t know nothing about no history. Only thing you know is hate.”
“This is our history and it should not be destroyed,” Knight said of the statue of Robert E. Lee in the park, the planned site for an alt-right Unite the Right rally.
Knight supported the rally that brought hundreds of armed racists and fascists to his home city on Saturday, Aug. 12. It also brought hundreds of anti-fascists, some of them armed with sticks and shields as well, pledging to defend the Charlottesville from right-wing terror. And now riot police, who had remained largely passive through hours of bloody battle, were breaking things up, pushing Steppe back, inching forward behind their shields. Knight walked alongside with a sign reading, “Make C-Ville Great Again.”
The chaos started the night before, as Nazis and other racists gathered for a 21st-century version of a Klan rally—a Klanclave of khaki and tiki torches. At one point, a group of the white supremacists surrounded a group of counterprotesters, throwing punches and torches.
Within minutes of arriving in town on Saturday morning, we saw the first of many fights.
White supremacists wearing white polos and helmets—some German World War II-era—and carrying sticks, an assortment of flags, and homemade shields marked with the insignia of the racist group Vanguard America, chanted at a smaller crowd of counterprotesters.
“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you get helicopter rides,” they said, making reference to far-right governments in Argentina and Chile in the 70s and 80s that threw leftists from helicopters to “disappear” them.
The racists began to march forward and the anti-racists tried to block them. After a swirl of violence and swinging sticks, three of the counterprotesters were left with bloody faces—the racists seemed to target women’s faces with their sticks—and the racists, who also took some heavy blows, ran away as the cops finally rolled in and began setting up a barricade.
Over the next several hours, this same pattern continued to play out: Another fight broke out every few minutes as a new faction of the right marched in its crazed Tom Sawyer armor toward the park.
The park was filled with every variety of racist you can imagine, from the Nazi biker to the fashy computer programmer. They were almost exclusively white and male. The anti-fascist activists who packed the streets were predominantly white, but there were far more women and people of color opposing the Nazis. The two opposing armies seemed to be of roughly equal size, and their fights were swift, chaotic, and brutal.
The two sides launched bottles and tear gas canisters back and forth as state troopers stood and watched, slack-jawed. At one point, as a few bottles whizzed by him in quick succession, a trooper perked up enough to pull out his phone and record some of the mayhem.
When the police declared the assembly illegal before it even began and told everyone to leave, it forced these groups together. Right-wing militia types wielding assault rifles and wearing MAGA patches on paramilitary uniforms roamed through the crowd. Guys with pistols kept their hands on them, ready to draw at any moment. It felt like something horrible would happen.
Then, as the various groups became separated, it seemed like the rumble had largely ended.
“I’m glad no serious gunshots rang out. I was threatened with a gun, though. Police wasn’t around when a guy pulled up his gun up on me, though,” Steppe said, around 12:30 p.m.
Steppe and Knight both seemed to think that it was the end of the day.
The racists, who had not been able to hold their rally, were trying to regroup at another park a little further from downtown. Eventually, as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, they decided to leave. Some of them even suggested hiding in the woods.
Antifa burned right-wing flags in a park and then marched through the city; two groups converged on Water Street at around 1:35 p.m. It felt triumphant. They had driven the racists out of town—or at least those who came in from out of town.
About five minutes later, as they marched through the streets, it sounded like a bomb exploded as a muscle car sped down the street and plowed through the march and into other cars. James Alex Fields Jr., who has now been identified as the driver, then threw the weaponized car into reverse, fleeing from the scene of terror.
Bodies were strewn on the road. Street medics, marked by red tape, delivered first aid while waiting on ambulances to arrive. Activists held Antifa banners to block camera views of the injured.
The alt-righters were nowhere to be found. Trump meandered through a speech in New Jersey in which which he condemned violence on “many sides.”
He did not use the words “white supremacy” or “terrorism.” He did not say the name of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in the terror attack. He did not offer support to the 19 others who were hospitalized, or prayers for those who were still in critical condition.
Fields, who was photographed earlier in the day with the same Vanguard America shield we saw when we first arrived in town, was arrested and charged with murder.
I am writing this later the same night as the attack and I won’t to pretend to know what it means for our country. The racism is not new. The argument Steppe and Knight were having in their hometown could have happened any time in the last 50 years. But the way the battle over white supremacy was being waged around them was new, and Charlottesville was not ready for it. None of us are.
When that gray car slammed into those people, it shattered a part of America—or at least the illusion of it. I don’t know what that means yet, because it shattered something in me, too.
Brandon Soderberg contributed reporting.