Friday, August 10, 2018

Standing Up in Charlottesville

This is my personal account of August 11-12, 2017. I wrote it in the autumn of 2017, a few months after the fact. Then I put it away for a long time. I pulled it out several months later, updated it a little, and tried to slim it down a bit. I've felt shy and wary about sharing it for a number of reasons. But as we approach the anniversary, it feels like I should drop this chapter. There is a new chapter ahead. Onward.

 Prelude ~

i will wake in just a few hours to boil eggs, pack a block of cheese, fill my water bottle
on the check list: tent weights, folding chairs, a dolly cart, walkie talkies
i’ll pull on a skirt, because I may have to squat to empty my bladder
i’ll wear closed toed sandals, because I don’t have combat boots
i’ll tuck my “know your rights” card in a book by a revolutionary poet
(deciding which book may make me late)
i’ll leave my dog at home, even though she would bite a nazi
i will leave my son with a soul who is helping the cause by taking the children
i will stand on a grassy knoll because I have the privilege to feel less threatened
i will stand on a grassy knoll and feel threatened like never before

 August 11, 2017

On Friday, August 11, 2017, just a few hours before hundreds of nazis marched by torch lite to the Rotunda, I saw a baby born at the University of Virginia hospital.

I can’t tell you about the birth because it’s confidential, but I can share the mood, which is one of warmth and power and peace. I emerged from the glow of a love lit birthing room into a Charlottesville evening that felt volatile. Dusting dried rose petals from my sleeves, I felt the crush of anxiety. I tucked my doula bag into my car and grabbed a fresh bag of nerves. 

After 34 hours mostly awake, I turned my car toward the winding miles home, my mind frozen on tomorrow, forgoing the now famous service at St. Paul’s Church.

At home I had a fitful nap, tension coursing through my body, my eight-year-old son punctuating the air with his sounds, the rain expectant sky adding to the impending unknown. I knew I needed to eat and sleep but felt myself wading against the current. I checked messages, made lists, started gathering supplies for the next day. Before surrendering to my bed, I scrolled through community reports on social media, and found myself watching a live feed of nazis storming UVA.

That moment in time is both a pause and an autoplay. It’s a toxic hole that trauma digs. Before me was parade of white men illuminated by tiki flame-light, chanting Jews will not replace us, marching past red bricks of a University I had left just a few hours prior. I wanted to walk away from the screen but was frozen in place. I worried about friends at the nearby service, community members on grounds. I thought about the new parents I had just been with at the nearby hospital. Having been pepper sprayed a month earlier at a KKK rally, I had a sinking feeling the police wouldn’t help. And they didn’t.

Later that night UVA professor, Walt Heineke, posted on social media a brief and foreboding description of the very violent nazi march on UVA, where cops failed to protect a small crowd of students, employees, and community members who had joined hands around the statue of Thomas Jefferson and were sprayed with chemicals and beat with lit torches.

In the chamber of an already consuming anxiety, terror and despair settled in. Despite having had only a few fitful hours of sleep, I found myself up until 3 or 4 am, paralyzed with worry.

Walt, also a dedicated activist, had gained permits for two downtown parks, McGuffey and Justice, so community members would have grounds to stage and retreat on August 12th. In less than two weeks, programming had been organized for speeches, teach-ins, music, medics, food, and water at the parks. We would call it People’s Action forRacial Justice, or PARJ. While I had been involved in planning and communications, I hadn’t fully committed to being a marshal at the parks. I wanted to stick by my daughter’s side, who was determined to be present. Even when she announced late on August 11th that she would instead go on a hike with a friend, I remained uncertain about donning a black cap and red shirt to keep watch at Justice Park. Another one of my hesitations was a mounting fear.

August 12, 2017

I arose too late for the Baptist service on the morning of August 12 and found myself nervously puttering. I desperately asked my husband, Dan, if he would run some of the supplies into town and be there when I arrived to accompany me from the parking garage to the park. On a bright Saturday morning I was afraid to be alone on these familiar streets. Dan loaded the car with folding chairs and several weights for e-z up tents and headed downtown. I gathered my courage, prepared a cooler for the day, and in fugue finally drove the winding miles to Charlottesville.

I had no real sense of what I as entering. Dan had tried to text me a video of a large crowd of community members marching with the clergy from the Baptist church to McGuffey Park, but it failed to send. Lead marshal at Justice Park, and good friend, Megan, was sending me texts of horror. “Where are you?” she asked. When I finally reached McGuffey park, a militia man in camo suited up on the street in front of me with holsters and weapons. He grabbed a large AK and without even a glance at the people watching him with grave concern, he walked toward Emancipation Park. “I’m here,” I texted back. 

I climbed the steps to the park, a fortress in its own right, and was met by large origami peace cranes, activist groups, and community members gathered together on a playground where my child learned to pump his legs on a swing. I looked up to the top of the slide and thought, that could be a good place to keep watch.

At the mic Charlottesville vice-mayor, Wes Bellamy, was giving an inspired speech, followed by a clergy member who lead civil rights songs. I nodded to acquaintances and friends and scanned the scene, apprehensively snapping a few photos. I waved to a talented local photographer, who around that time shot a photo of the nazi who would later drive his car into a crowd of counter protesters, injuring several, and killing one. A domestic terrorist had been in that park with us on the morning of August 12 and we had no idea.

Megan had walked the three blocks from Justice Park to McGuffey Park to meet me, and then we found Walt, who I attempted to hand a set of walky-talkies. He refused to take them, looked at me directly and stated, “We need help.” And so, in that final moment, I committed to being a marshal.

Megan and I headed to Justice Park. We may have passed a few “alt-right” characters as we walked East on High Street. It is hard to know who hates you and who doesn’t in this era where nazis dress like hipsters and wear gauge earrings.

Justice was a hushed scene compared to McGuffey. Some protest groups were staging, food and water was available, people were arriving for a scheduled meditation. As I entered I received a text from a friend who asked if I would calm her mom, who was there and worried about weaponry. I found her and reassured her that no one was permitted inside the park with weapons, that several of us were keeping watch. She looked at me with a glazed expression and mentioned that she had been protesting since the 60’s. I could see by the distance in her eyes that this was something new, something different.

I greeted our park DJ who was manning the sound system for the day, and who the night before at UVA had been smacked in the neck with a Tiki torch. Tyler would say a few important words to to the local Charlottesville ring leader at a press conference on August 13, he would DJ his local radio show on Monday, and on Tuesday he would suffer a stroke in his workplace, attributed to a carotid artery that had been dissected by a Tiki torch. Tyler would live to write a letter to the UVA president and have it published in the Washington Post. He would continue DJ’ing, and creating music, and inspiring people who care. Tyler would loom even larger for many of us after August 12, while struggling with the demons of trauma and ongoing legal battles that had attached to him that weekend. But on Saturday morning, none of us knew that.

In that moment, as my shaky hands fumbled with my walkie-talkie, not really knowing what to do with it, Tyler dialed it in to the station the PARJ marshals shared. My other walkie went to co-activist, Liz, who bravely stepped into the fray around Emancipation Park, at its most chaotic juncture. I recently pulled out my walkie talkies for the first time since that day, and there it was, still dialed in: Station 10.

What happened in those fresh hours? My timeline of that day is a bit confused.

As I kept watch on the edges of the park, I listened to an activist group staging, getting ready to march out into the fray, their lead cracking jokes and trying to maintain a jovial mood. I watched a couple of women hang a big banner on the Stonewall Jackson monument that said, Goodnight White Pride, with an image of a unicorn stomping a nazi. I found myself concerned about a man packing heat and was informed that he was from the John Brown Gun Club, a lefty group present to protect us. I wasn’t comfortable with these folks with guns at first, but little did I know that by the end of the day I would view them as heroes.
In a sudden appearance, an angry nazi parade marched by, maybe about 40 men, representing the organization we would later learn the car terrorist was part of. They were in their khakis, walking by silently at first, with their flapping flags and symbolic shields, soon  yelling, “You will not replace us." They passed under a chorus of "nazi scum!" as we gathered at the edges of our park to bear witness. It was the first time I'd ever seen a live neo-nazi parade and I found myself hugging Megan, as we both sobbed. We were horrified, yes, and our hearts were broken.

Not long after this, the group of counter protesters staging in our park marched off, ready to face the gathering storm of hatred in Emancipation Park. A local therapist led a meditation as people circled around her, sitting in lotus, their eyes closed. I wanted to join that meditation but was too restless and nervy. A variety of threatening posses continued to pass by waving confederate flags, carrying offensive placards, and lugging guns. One such man wandered into Justice park wearing a stars and stripes bandana on his head, looking around suspiciously. Megan asked if she could help him. He said he was just checking out the scene and then claimed to be looking for one of the nazis scheduled to speak at the Alt Right rally. My gentle friend directed the man out of the park and firmly ordered him not to return.

A Quaker meditation unfolded on and around the steps of the courthouse, and I decided to sit with them and ground myself. By this time a helicopter had started circling above, its severe slicing adding to the tension. It set the mood for what was truly a battle zone. I tried to listen as Quaker community members stood up under the noise and reflected on peace and justice, but I was distracted by the chopper, and the muted sounds I was hearing from Emancipation Park just two blocks away. I could hear a distant rumbling of voices. Then someone told me the counter protesters and nazis were throwing things at each other. I would learn the details later, that, among other substances, nazis were throwing bottles of urine. 

Soon someone announced that the police had called Illegal Assembly around Emancipation Park. Troops of riot police and national guardsmen marched in that direction down Jefferson Street. We learned that a State of Emergency had been declared by the Virginia governor. Dan texted me asking for an update, wondering if he should still drop off our son with our childcare volunteer and join me. I replied with an affirmative. Their rally was canceled but the day of dangers was far from over. The nazis were now barred from their gathering spot and could show up anywhere.

Counter protesters retreating from Emancipation Park started to trickle into Justice and McGuffey. We were getting reports from Liz about bands of nazis marching away from Emancipation Park, some heading towards McIntire, a park on the outer ring of downtown, others heading East on Market Street in our direction, and still others potentially heading toward McGuffey.

No one really knew what to expect next.

And then a group of nazis appeared in front of the court house, at 5tth and Jefferson, next to our park.

Counter protesters gathered around the nazis and it was impossible to see what was happening. I later saw a video of the violent clash that unfolded there. I reported to Walt via walkie-talkie that there were nazis at our park and he came immediately. I called for reinforcements of some sort as the policeman guarding 4th and Jefferson did nothing. This is when our two private security guards suited up with weaponry. I watched as city police in riot gear marched up Jefferson Street toward Justice park. I felt relieved that they had come to protect us. But then they turned and faced us. Behind them the state police had gathered on 5th Street, and behind them the National Guard. The nazis were gone and a military force was facing down the counter protesters.   

I asked why they were facing us, gazing with troubled eyes at the line of police who stared back without emotion. Megan yelled to me, “You are on the front lines now, Zoe,” as I stood there looking into the neutral faces of militarized policemen. Walt asked me to help get protesters back into the park, as a sidewalk separated city and county property in front of the courthouse, and we needed to be on our permitted city property so as not to be declared an illegal assembly. Folks were puzzled but cooperative about crossing the line. Once we were all in the park, the police dispersed and moved on. We were left with a sense that the police viewed us as a threat, perhaps more so than nazis, and there was nobody there to protect us but ourselves.

At this point in the day both Megan and I were long overdue for a restroom. A co-marshal agreed to keep watch as we walked the block to the Methodist church, a “neutral zone,” that was offering their restrooms to all parties. There were nazis, counter protesters, and clergy members all gathered outside the church, collecting water, sitting, praying, scheming. The national guard was lined up, blocking entry to an immediate side street leading to Emancipation park. In front of the line of guardsman was a black man, facing them silently, everyone absolutely still. 

As we arrived, the church declared lock down, so we cleared away. After a brief consideration of relieving ourselves in the parking lot next to the national guard, some friendly neighbors on their front porch offered us their restroom. While Megan took her turn, I watched CNN on their big screen tv. For the first time that day I watched the violent clashes on national news that were happening just a block away. I heard a statement from Melania Trump condemning hate, a far more pointed message than her husband would later deliver, declaring “very fine people on both sides” and claiming that the counter protesters had no permit.

Dan had just arrived at Justice park and was texting. He said he was going to walk with a group of counter-protesters to a nearby public housing neighborhood, where it was reported that nazis were harassing a community of color. Megan and I returned to the park, which was thinly populated with community members that had retreated from the now off-limits Emancipation park area. 

We contemplated joining the counter protesters heading down 4th Street toward the neighborhood in question, but felt we shouldn’t leave our posts again. So we kept watch and waited. I was receiving texts from far off friends and family, on the West coast and overseas, asking if I was ok as they witnessed the unravelling violence on the news. I had talked to a reporter from France who said he came because people in France are trying to understand what’s going on in America. Megan talked to someone from Switzerland. Dan talked to someone from China. The world was watching our tiny town.

Suddenly our friend Liz spoke with a broken, desperate voice over the walkie-talkies. Repeat yourself, we asked. A nazi driving a car had plowed into a crowd of counter protesters on 4th and Water Streets, she said breathlessly. The despair and fear in her voice ripped through us. There were injured people all around, maybe casualties.

I will never forget that chilling moment of terror. Liz was uninjured but conveyed that she was traumatized and had to retreat. We didn’t hear from her again that day except to reassure us she was safe at her friend’s house.

That moment of knowing and not knowing felt like an echo chamber. Should we head down to the site of terrorism, or hold our park? How many injured? Killed? I heard soon from Dan that he had stepped away from the scene just moments before the car had torn through. He learned about the incident from an employee of Chap’s Ice Cream shop on the downtown mall, who had heard about it on tv. He was safe but returned to the site of the ambush and found himself providing medic help to a man who fell with a crushed leg before him.

I chatted with a soft spoken black man in our park who asked for water. He came from New York City. He was wearing thick chains, cuffs, and a collar. I later learned he is a brilliant bad ass who shows up and speaks up. I asked if I could take his photo, which he agreed to, and then I told him of the car incident. His eyes widened as he asked the location and I tried to explain in my shock and confusion. “Are you sure it’s down that street?” he asked nodding toward 4th. The incident was only two blocks away, on the street that bordered our park, but it somehow felt like miles. 

Then the first counter protester returned from the ambush. She fell to the sidewalk crying, repeating phrases, saying she had tried to tell them. She had tried to tell them but no one listened. She had tried to tell them that they were being led into a trap. She had tried to keep people safe, but failed. They didn’t listen. They didn’t listen. They didn’t listen.

We called for medics to provide emotional support. We knew she wouldn’t be the only one in need.

More counter protesters returned. I offered water, asked people if they were ok, asked if anything was needed. Community members quietly milled about in shock, sitting alone on benches, in groups under shade tents, near the base of a big tree I had stood behind for safety more than once while nazi groups were passing. Eventually people departed and there was just a dozen of us standing around that vulnerable park.

Someone told us that that weapons were no longer permitted on the streets and the John Brown Gun Club had left. Another person mentioned that nazis might be planning an attack on our park. A large truck passed full of angry white men in helmets. We called to Walt in McGuffey and said it was time to consolidate, that we were packing it up and would be meeting him there. It was around 3pm. In quick order, we tore down tables and easy ups and the DJ station at Justice park, leaving behind a pile of anti-fascist placards and unidentified detritus that we would pick up later, and moved everyone and all that we could to McGuffey Park.

McGuffey had an entirely different vibe than Justice. There were many more people there, and it didn’t feel as vulnerable, situated on the top of a small hill, less visible to the streets below. There were activist groups gathered still, community members huddled, hugging, chatting. Several of us that arrived from Justice Park lay down on the grass and rested for the first time that day, while our minds processed all that had just passed before us. The car ambush. The speculation. Had people died? How many injured? We didn’t know yet.

I shared hard boiled eggs from my cooler, wandered around the park, looked at scattered placards, observed community members sitting quietly staring off at the unknown. We were hearing rumors of shootings, of bands of nazis driving around town. We were wondering if a curfew would be declared, what lay before us when night fell.

A few nazis lingered at the edge of our park though the security guards successfully sent them away. Our false sense of safety in that park was slipping. Several of us started making motions that it was time to call it for the day. Walt, in his unwavering commitment to the cause, said, not without the speeches we had lined up for the aftermath. And so, community members and visiting activists started to take the mic. The overarching message was that this fight must not end once we all returned home from the day. That the Unite the Right rally is a symptom of a long prevailing systemic white supremacy and the real work of dismantling it was before us in our own communities.

Our day concluded with the creation of a memorial to the person who had been killed in the car ambush. We still didn’t know her name, her race, her age. But we knew there was one dead, likely a female. Someone had fetched fresh flowers that were passed out to all in attendance. We all in turn stepped forward and laid our flowers down. A circle of votive candles was placed around the flowers. It was a somber, sorrowful, circle of love, under the gathering clouds of a summer rain storm. 

We would learn later in the evening that her name was Heather Heyer and that she was a fighter for social justice. The cover photo on her Facebook page read, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” 

We also learned that the helicopter that had circled above us all day had crashed, and its co-pilots had perished. My daughter drove by the scene of the helicopter crash as she returned from her hike. 

Soon after, she saw a massive rainbow. 

That arc of love would expand in the days ahead, stretching like the rainbow across our community, forging a new but fragile bridge. Body workers and therapists would offer their services for free. There would be memorials and concerts and meetings, aimed at healing and action. Notable speakers would visit our town and address what happened and how to move ahead. There would be articles, and interviews, and analysis. Charlottesville would become a hashtag. In the core of our town there would be outrage, borne of love, and our city leadership would be implicated.

People who had never come together before, would join forces. There would be a stronger sense of diversity as people of color emerged and claimed their village, at least for a while. Eyes would meet eyes more often on our downtown mall. At the same time, divisions would grow, between those saying, you shouldn’t show up, and those who were there, or supported those who were there. There would be a call for civility from the mediocrity while activists and underserved community members rose up at city council meetings demanding change––systemic change––and accountability.

The trauma would unfold in various ways, on various timelines, for some immediate, for others later. Some would feel jumpy when hearing cars peel out. Dodge Chargers and big trucks would be held in suspicion as would signs of loyalty to the confederacy. There would be video accounts and countless testimony populating the narrative of what went down, showing the faces of those who need to be brought to trial, and those who were victimized.

There would be trials, many of them traumatic, with nazis pleading self-defense for their assault. Resources would be wasted on convicting community defenders, rather than those who came with hate in their hearts.

There would be interviews and investigations, reports falling short, and law suits serving to possibly hurt everyone in the long run. As I write this, it continues––the trials, the threat, the reactions, the actions, the paralysis, and the healing. And the president who fostered the climate of hate, who claimed a false equivalency, continues his rampage and unraveling of human decency and an endangered planet.

But in our small town of Charlottesville, known now to the world, the events of August 11 and 12 amplified widely and the study of it still unfolding across major media platforms, a new era of social justice is in its infancy. Community members are at work to dismantle systemic white supremacy, secure affordable housing, and fight the prison industrial complex that is ruining black lives and separating families. People are unpacking bias, and white privilege, and the illusion of a liberal Democratic oasis. People are speaking up, organizing, and holding leadership to the fire. Nikuyah Walker was voted in, our first female African American mayor, making history. And every month, twice a month, community members and city councilors come together, some fighting for progress, others upholding the status quo. Those specific confederate monuments that started a wave of statue removal in the south still stand, speaking of Charlottesville’s potential for radical change and its deeply intrenched foundation of systemic racism.

As deacon and local activist Don Gathers said of Charlottesville’s summer of hate, “This is our Selma bridge.”