Outside Emancipation Park, you could almost fool yourself. This could have been any summery Saturday morning in this college town. Vendors were set up in historic downtown. Families dined on patios. The sun shone through after a morning of on-and-off rain.
But everyone looked nervous.
It was Saturday, Aug. 12, at 11 a.m., and no matter what today would become, one fact presented itself: The military surplus industry was thriving. Everywhere, pouring in toward Emancipation Park: gas masks, gear bags, first aid kits, harnesses, goggles, gloves, boots and camouflage fatigues.
Do you think the white supremacists and those who came to oppose them shopped at the same stores for all of their gear?
First flew the water bottles.
Stepping into Emancipation Park, you could see the training and preparation the neo-Nazis had put into today. They had shields – riot shields painted over with racist slogans, the fronts of plastic barrels, wooden Viking-esque shields and other more obscure shapes besides. They had weapons. Bludgeons. Baseball bats. Men with rifles milled around the periphery of the park, about a mile east of the University of Virginia campus.
The white supremacists had formed a testudo formation on the pathway into Emancipation Park. This is an ancient Roman battle tactic, where legionaries would hold their shields to the front, sides and top. That was only the beginning.
Pushing against them was a hard knot of fewer than 100 anti-fascists and counter-protesters, most dressed in black, some with their faces covered by bandanas. The police stood behind barricades to the side of Emancipation Park, observing.
“Eggs!” a man, face hidden behind a black bandanna, shouted as a water bottle arched out from inside the park, from behind Kekistan flags and signs that read “THE JEWISH MEDIA IS GOING DOWN.”
“Is that piss?” a man asked, skipping away from a water bottle as it landed. It was not.
“Nazis go home! Nazis go home!” A group of anti-fascists chanted, holding a banner with “Smash White Supremacy” among other slogans painted across it.
Since Friday, hundreds of white supremacists and Nazi extremists had descended on Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest the city’s attempts to change its attitude toward its Confederate history. The City Council already had renamed Lee Park as Emancipation Park and voted to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. News reports predicted that thousands of counter-protesters and anti-fascists would turn out against the so-called “Unite the Right” rally.
Next flew the balloons.
“Eggs!” the masked man shouted again.
“Is that piss?” Again, it was not piss. Balloons the size of a clenched fist sailed into the counter-protesters, bouncing and rolling along the ground. A few exploded on impact – painting counter-protesters in thick blue paint.
On the surface, it appeared that the Nazis were outnumbered, but not if you looked closely at the people in the street arrayed against them. Most wore button-up shirts and khakis and had their camera phones up. They would chant idly when the energy was high but largely were preoccupied by Snapchatting the whole thing.
The whole herd would jump as one when Tasers growled from somewhere within the crowd.
Nearly all the Nazis on the front line wore some kind of armor – from actual riot gear to baseball and football helmets. They were organized. It appeared they had trained for this.
Last flew the gas and smoke.
The canisters came from within the park, burning fuses leaving a trail of smoke through the air. From most, only smoke erupted. A few were tear gas.
The camera-phone folk, most of them white, fled in their sandals, like they had never smelled tear gas before. It put a sting in the air. You found yourself blinking much faster than you had before. It was hard to speak.
“Medic!” people would scream, holding up those who had been hit directly. A bald anti-fascist in swim goggles and black running shorts sprinted up and down the street, dumping milk over his head and grabbing the canisters as fast as he could get to them, sending them sailing back into Emancipation Park, but it was not enough, and he was largely alone. The size of the counter-protester group shrank considerably.
To compound the problem, the police retreated.
“The cops are putting on riot gear!” was relayed up and down the street, and that may have been true, but the barricades that the police had been maintaining were now empty. The Nazis swarmed forward, and the crowds met in sporadic melees – clubs against clubs, with flags wielded as weapons.
Groups of white supremacists got bold and marched through the counter-protesters.
A man named Mickey, in a black helmet and glasses, carrying a bat, stopped a woman in a football helmet who was leading one of the groups of white supremacists. Mickey pushed her with his bat. She and most of her ilk wore bright green shirts bearing the name of the militia to which they belonged. “Johnny Reb from Tennessee,” her shirt read. This woman had come from out of state for this kind of fight. She was ready, itching for it.
“Touch me again,” the Tennessean dared. “Touch me again.”
“Mickey, don’t.” A woman, dressed head-to-toe in black, pulled on Mickey’s sleeve to get him out of their path. Mickey backed down, and the group continued by, until one of those in the rear said something smart to Mickey. It was not clear who swung first.
“Mickey, don’t,” the woman implored again, but this time Mickey did, and a melee erupted, and the green shirts scattered as the crowd surged around them. A circle opened up, and a member of the white supremacist group was caught alone; counter-protesters took turns kicking him and beating him with clubs. He curled up on the ground and covered his head.
Now orators, who before had been shouting their bile from within the park, came onto the street as the white supremacist shields advanced. A grey-haired old man at the front with a megaphone shouted:
“You’re the ignorant ones!” “Multiculturalism is white genocide! Diversity is white genocide!”
Apparently everything was white genocide, as his white compatriots laid into the mixed-race counter-protesters around them.
A woman in a Black Lives Matter shirt tried to rally the counter-protesters, shouting through a megaphone:
“We are right! Say it with me! We are right, they are wrong!” But the counter-protesters continued to back up. Most of them appeared to have come only with signs and air horns and their sanity, while the Nazis had made sure not to forget their bloody-mindedness, along with their armor, shields, bludgeons and melee tactics. They advanced as a terrifying unit.
“Just go home. You don’t live here. Please just go,” pleaded a large man with drying milk on his face and a Black Lives Matter shirt on. He carried a flag and pushed it between combatants, urging everyone to “Just go home.”
“You know it. The presidents have secret bunkers and shit! They’re going to be fine!” There were mutterings that the police were cordoning off the surrounding blocks.
“Let’s be civil!”
A man walked through the crowd, eyes red and bulging, laughing, milk in his beard, telling anyone who would listen: “I forgot to bring my gas mask! Lucky I have my inhaler to clean myself out.” He inhaled deeply.
It was not even noon yet.
The police returned, fully geared, and marched in from behind the white supremacists, beginning to push them out of the park and away from the forgotten Robert E. Lee statue.
With the police fast approaching, the Nazis fell back into the park and formed a shield wall, like Vikings – 10, then 20 and 30 men across, beating their shields. These were men and women living in the past in more ways than one.
“Burn it! Burn it!” A group of anti-fascists struggled to burn a Confederate flag but couldn’t get it to light, encouraging the counter-protesters to march with them into the park and form an opposing skirmish line across from the Nazis.
“Die, zombies!” a man in the Nazi formation shouted.
“Fire the first shot of the race war, baby! It’s been waiting a long time coming! It’s here now! Fire the first shot, and let’s get it going! Let’s start the race war!” a man in a baseball helmet shouted, waving an American flag.
The police milled around the Lee Statue. No one gave a damn about the statue anymore. No one drove across multiple state lines for a piece of bronze and cement. They were here for blood. The two lines yelled curses at each other. The police seemed unsure, not even in a cohesive line, and though more police were joining them by the minute, they weren’t ready for this.
No one was, except the Nazis, it seemed.
A man in the Nazi line took his shirt off. Screaming, he barreled into the counter-protesters, slugging anyone he could reach, but he was overwhelmed and mobbed. That was enough to fan the flames. Both skirmish lines separated into bunches and attacked each other. A circle formed in the center of the park, where combatants wrestled and bludgeon each other.
The police decided that was enough and advanced shouting through a microphone: “This demonstration has been declared an unlawful assembly. By order of the Commonwealth, disperse, or you will be arrested.”
The police marched forward as a unit, and the Nazis stubbornly wheeled about to face them. They battered the shields of the police but were pushed inexorably out of the park as police fired pepper spray over the tops of their shields.
The last remaining Nazis – two men wearing baseball helmets and white polos marred by paint – threw themselves into the shields of the police, desperate to get back into the park. The police battered them with their riot shields, and then, to everyone’s surprise, let them go after they visibly assaulted multiple police officers. The crowd howled.
“You would never let one of us get away with that!”
The crowd took it upon themselves to punish the scattered white supremacists, swatting at them as they zigzagged through the crowd. No one was sure who was who anymore. The police had blended the crowd together.
A Bible-thumping man stood in the center of the street. On one side of his poster board: an image of a bloody fetus. On the other were the words “Abortion, Adultery, Sin, CHRISTians Repent! America Judgement is Coming!”
“All lives matter,” his voice droned, loud and full of static through his microphone. “All lives matter!”
“Why don’t you go over there?” A young black man shook his head and motioned toward a garage where a number of white supremacists were washing pepper spray out of their eyes behind a barricade.
“No, don’t shake your head. I’m here with you, on the right side, the side of God. Like Martin Luther King said. All lives matter. Don’t you think all lives matter?”
“Like Martin Luther King said? Just fucking go.”
Small groups of white supremacists threaded their way through the crowd and were battered with insults.
“Look at that skinny faggot there. My one leg is bigger than his whole body,” shouted a man following them. People shook their signs at the retreating racists and yelled profanities. One sign read “I’m here to LAUGH at the boys from out of town with small flaccid penises.”
A woman in a Black Lives Matter shirt yelled from a megaphone, in a shouting match with the preacher. It became a noise competition.
“If you sin, God hates you!”
“Immigrants are full human beings!”
“God loves the righteous!”
“Disabled people are full human beings!”
With most of the Nazis dispersed for the moment, the crowd turned on the preacher, who had made an enemy of almost everyone.
“What are you doing with your life, guy? Get a different hobby.”
“Your fucking religion killed more people than those fucking Nazis over there!”
“Fuck their Bible, fuck their system, we must harm them and bring it down!”
“Free oranges, eat ’em or throw ’em!”
That was how things dissipated around Emancipation Park, as the police pushed everyone a block back.
Like-minded people gathered together, and micro-rallies, 20 to 30 strong, erupted around every couple of street corners. People wandered off – some looking shell-shocked, some looking bored.
In the Downtown Mall, between coffee shops and burger joints, a man walked with blood-red eyes, his head doused with milk, in a shirt that read “I am an unarmed civilian.” An older man reclined on a bench, holding a sign that said “Welcome Virginia Police! Please take the shot!”
It was 12:30, and more counter-protesters were pouring into downtown Charlottesville with their signs, asking each other the way to the rally, not realizing that racism and violence do not happen according to event schedules.
A paramilitary group, more than two dozen strong, came strolling by. There were men in the front, middle and back with assault weapons, bulletproof vests and Confederate flags, and with sidearms holstered at their thighs. The man in front raised a clenched fist into the air.
“Hold!” the whole group shouted. The men with assault rifles stopped to take a selfie in front of a coffee shop.
The world is a strange place.
A man approached the paramilitary marchers with his phone, asking who they are.
“Do you believe in the American Constitution?” their spokesman asks. The irony that he asked this question with a Confederate flag sewed into his bulletproof vest seemed to be lost on him.
The whole group appeared aimless, marching in and around downtown Charlottesville, doing loops around the police cordon. They communicated in terse military jargon.
“They’d circled around the counter-protesters,” a man said, eating ice cream with his wife. “They were never in the park. They were waiting behind the counter-protesters several streets back. Just waiting.” For what, he couldn’t say.
All that their spokesman would say is that they were here to “protect the First Amendment,” while toting their assault weapons, covered in Confederate and Roman iconography. They made their way toward a parking lot where a racist, middle-aged white man and three young black men were in a shouting match. The noon sun had now boiled off the last of the morning cool. Everyone’s faces ran with sweat.
“We showed up there with three masts and a fuckload of cannons while you motherfuckers were doing this around a fire,” the middle-aged white man said as he pranced around in an insane racist caricature. The three young black men shoved and screamed at him; the racist retreated into his car and drove away, the assembled crowd spitting on his windshield and windows.
A black mother, holding her kids by the hand, walked hurriedly through the parking lot. “Get your history books. Those are the Nazis, I guess.”
The crowd, worked up by the racist’s shouting, turned their attention on the paramilitary group and their Confederate flags, chasing them across the parking lot. It was not long before a crowd of more than 100 had cornered the paramilitary group against a kebab joint.
“We’re here to protect everyone’s rights!”
“Liars! You don’t give a fuck about our rights!”
“Fuck you! Let him speak!”
“We’re here to protect the First Amendment.”
“OK, you get a pass. Get out of here.”
“No, fuck you, they’re all the same! They don’t get a pass! And fuck you for trying to give them a pass!”
The paramilitary group continued on their patrol, followed still by groups of counter-protesters, police watching on from the other side of the parking lot – everyone sweating. Besides rocks, thrown, and terrible words, said, the confrontation fizzled out peacefully.
Later that day, people were not so lucky. As more counter-protesters arrived for the rally, marches erupted around Charlottesville. One group of marchers were struck at 2:30 p.m., a gray Dodge Challenger accelerating into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring 19 other pedestrians.
The driver was a 20-year-old white man from Ohio. He has been charged with second-degree murder, among other crimes. He was described by one of his high school teachers as “very infatuated with the Nazis, with Adolf Hitler.”
Jesse is a senior print journalism major and Arabic and Middle Eastern culture minor. He has walked in the valley with no water and bitten the heads off of snakes.
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