Tomorrow is the anniversary of what is called ‘August 12th’ in Charlottesville. That’s the date in 2017 when the Alt-Right came for the last and biggest protest culminating in the death of Heather Heyer, and briefly catapulted Charlottesville into the national media frenzy. Thinking of the events of that strange year, and this even stranger year of Covid and police protests–with an election coming in November that will surely be contested–I wanted to find something useful or meaningful to share. For me, August 12th started in May.
Saturday, May 13th 2017 I happened to be walking with my daughter on the mall (If you’re not from Charlottesville ‘the mall’ is a street that the city paved with red bricks and made a pedestrian plaza back in the 1970s. The Google Maps image above shows what I’m talking about). My daughter was 5 at the time. We lived in Belmont and would walk over Belmont Bridge to the mall and kill time wandering around. We were near the ‘Free Speech Wall’ (If you’re not from Charlottesville that’s a wall with a ledge of free chalk for anyone to write anything. It’s the grey slash in the upper left of the photo.) when three teenagers rush up to us. The oldest kid I knew because he had been a volunteer at my daughter’s preschool.
“There are Nazis in Jackson Park!” he said. He wasn’t panicked, but definitely energized. There was a drastic seriousness to his voice. He and the other teenagers waited, expectant, looking at me like I would now say something meaningful or useful.
What I immediately thought was, Wow, kids today have never seen skinheads before.
Back in the late 80s I worked at a school for kids with behavioral issues. Many of the white kids–kids about the same age as these three teenagers–passed in and out of various groups–punks, hardcores, straight edges, neo-Nazi skinheads, anti-neo-Nazi skinheads, and others–with different names, identities, politics, and music. I read on fringe and extremist movements while studying Sociology in college and as a history-buff knew something of the violent movements in the post-Civil War South. I also lived a couple years in Europe–as a student in Greece and an English teacher in the Czech Republic–and I came across skinheads and fascists in both. I’d seen a KKK march in Asheville, NC in 1997.
So having seen all that and known all that, a protest in a park on a Saturday in May didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that they proved organized enough to come back. That hasn’t happened for a long time. First that night they gathered for their first tiki torch rally at nearby Lee Park. A short clip of them standing with their torches beneath the statue of Robert E. Lee made newscasts around the world. There was a counter-protest the next night that I attended. It was much larger that the tiki torch rally but didn’t get as much TV coverage (Perhaps partly because the organizers covered the Lee statue with a banner prominently included the word ‘Fuck’ which meant FCC regulations prevented TV stations from broadcasting images of it for more than a couple seconds.) Then a North Carolina Klan chapter came in July. Then the Alt-Right were back in August for a Friday night tiki torch march across the UVa grounds. They surrounded and attacked counterprotestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Then, of course, came Saturday, August 12th.
On that Saturday the clashes of protestors and counter-protestors played out on TV screens across the country. The day reached its horrifying conclusion that afternoon when a young man drove his car into a crowded intersection two blocks from where my daughter and I had been walking back in May. (In the wider google map image below the original image at the top of this post is roughly the area of the blue rectangle on the right. The intersection where Heather Heyer was killed is the smaller rectangle on the left.) Another of my daughter’s caregivers for her first playschool was severely injured. At the time everyone feared she would never walk again.
For weeks and months after that people came to Charlottesville to report what-it-all-means stories or write who-am-us-anyway think pieces. Earnest young men in imitation army gear would come from far away to march through our downtown in hopes of protecting us from the dreaded ‘antifa’. Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign by referencing Charlottesville, though he had little to say other than This is not who we are. He was certainly wrong about that.
I don’t think anyone from the South can be truly shocked by suffering, bigotry, or violence. I don’t think anyone who studies history can be surprised by aggressive groups attempting to impose their will on others. But the rise and fall of factions and movements, people and families, political parties and nations, are always perplexing because every story is unique, every outcome is mutable.
The Alt-Right rose on the coattails of Trump’s election, became a national phenomenon with a tiki-torch rally in May, and by the end of August had utterly destroyed itself as an organized movement. The people who made up the Alt-Right will go on to new iterations and other mayhem but they won’t follow the same leaders and they won’t present themselves as the Alt-Right. It’s one of those rare cases in history where we can say people got what they deserve.
We all make the ground by walking, and what matters to me is not the Alt-Right but the rest of us, so I’d like to circle back and share what else was going on, starting with a story about the police.
Next: Police Stories