Safe, but Not Okay: When White Supremacists Came to Our Town
By Jabeen AkhtarAugust 24, 2017
In the “before” set, you’ll find close-ups of brunch plates at the Bluegrass Grill or South Street Brewery, always with a chilled Bloody Mary carefully angled in the shot. You’ll find groups of women in floral-print dresses sharing glasses of wine on the expansive lawn of King Family Vineyards. Stacks of warm, ripe tomatoes and eggplants at the Saturday farmer’s market. Jazz bands on stage at the Jefferson Theater. Tourists at the Rotunda. Brides in $10,000 wedding dresses posing on the stately balconies at Keswick Hall.
After August 12, 2017, you’ll find swastikas, torches, confederate flags, fist fights, Nazi salutes, blood-streaked faces, “#ANARCHY!” spray-painted on walls, a weeping Statue of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, the Pope, the Berlin Wall, the L.A. riots, KKK hoods, mugshots, handcuffs, candles, crosses, flowers, peace symbols, and a man holding a sign that says, “fuck yo statue.”
The reality of Charlottesville, the non-curated, unfiltered reality, lies somewhere between those two sets of images.
You probably never heard of this town until recently, unless you went to the University of Virginia (UVA) or are a die-hard fan of the Dave Matthews Band, which got its start at a local bar. Now, of course, after the Unite the Right rally wreaked its havoc here on August 11 and 12, the world has heard of Charlottesville.
“Why Charlottesville?” the media kept asking. Why, in all of the United States, was this small town the site white supremacists chose to spew their language of hatred and flaunt symbols of a painful past?
I’ve lived in Charlottesville for the past 10 years. I was asked by the editors of LARB to write something about what happened here that August weekend, to help answer the question: “Why Charlottesville?” Much documenting and analysis of the events has already been done, and done well, such as this chilling Vice video. What I hope to offer is a more personal view — to tell you what it was like to be a Charlottesville resident during those two humid summer days, and to provide some background on the events you may not have heard before.
It was in mid-July when many of us learned that a variety of alt-right groups planned to hold an August 12 rally in town. “Unite the Right” would protest the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee and the renaming of Lee Park, where the statue is located, to Emancipation Park. Here we go again, I thought. White supremacists had already been here twice this summer to protest the removal of that statue. First a white nationalist torch rally on May 13 and then the KKK just a few days prior. Now they were coming back a third time?
It was because of that damn Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville local who bills himself as an activist and blogger and who founded a right-wing, anti-immigrant nonprofit. Kessler wrote an article for The Daily Caller on the May rally, which was led by fellow UVA alum and more famous extremist Richard Spencer, and he clearly wanted in on the action. Kessler would organize a rally of his own, only this time it would be more than just those old bearded KKK types. Much more.
Unite the Right would welcome all the disparate groups that fall under the racist umbrella — neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, white nationalists, southern nationalists, neo-Confederates, fascists, as well as the KKK — together in one space, united at last, hence the name. The non-telegenic backwoods bigots of yesteryear would stand side-by-side with today’s meme-loving, podcast-producing internet trolls. Kessler wrangled with the City of Charlottesville to get permits to hold the rally at Emancipation Park. But as projections of rally attendance swelled, the city tried to move it to the out-of-the-way McIntire Park, which is mostly used for softball and skateboarding. Luckily for Kessler, they failed. This was his big moment and nothing was going to ruin his debutant ball.
Kessler’s acne-pocked face is familiar in this town. Many people here know him, including my husband Isaac. I’ve never officially met Kessler, but before Isaac and I married and moved to a suburban area, we were part of the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd that lives, works, and parties at the strip of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars that comprise the pedestrian downtown mall. This crowd has had frequent run-ins with Kessler. For years, I heard Isaac and his former roommates telling stories of Kessler obsessively showing up at their house trying to get them to appear in videos characterized by Kessler as artsy. “But seriously,” Isaac’s friend recalled. “Everyone knew they were porn.”
I heard stories from other locals of how Kessler was kicked out of Occupy Charlottesville (you read that right) for making too many women uncomfortable. Kessler was charged with assault for punching a man back in January and stirred up trouble again in June with a prominent attorney at a downtown mall bar.
With the Unite the Right rally gaining traction in the news, the Town Creep was quickly becoming the most well-known person from Charlottesville after Thomas Jefferson.
As warnings of the rally spread through town during the weeks preceding August 12, it was difficult to distinguish rumor from fact. Did you hear that right-wing extremists are coming by the hundreds this time? By the thousands? Counter-protesters too — Black Lives Matter, churches, ACLU, Antifa. Coming by the busload. Roads will close, businesses will shutter, events will be canceled.
Our first response wasn’t necessarily one of fear but of planning: I better get to the hardware store for lawn seeds before everything shuts down.
In the hours leading up to Friday, August 11, the gravity of the situation became clear. We learned that protesters were encouraged to bring weapons. State troopers would be armed in riot gear. The National Guard would be called in. Snipers would be patrolling rooftops on the downtown mall. Katie Couric was here.
This was shaping up to be nothing like the previous rallies. People were calling Unite the Right the biggest white supremacist gathering in contemporary American history, perhaps ever. But what were we to do about it? How do residents prepare for something like this? On Friday, we went to work. We picked up our kids at daycare or ran errands, went home and cooked dinner. Most of us did nothing. Isaac and I went to the gym. I met a friend later for coffee.
Saturday morning around 8:00 a.m., I picked up my phone to check the news. I saw a beautiful photo of candlelight all across the UVA lawn. A vigil of peace, I thought, in preparation for Saturday’s events. I clicked on the next photo and saw what can only be described as a Renaissance portrait of hell. Faces contorted in anger. Flames reflecting on black, cadaverous eyes. Row after endless row of white men holding torches, their mouths agape, screaming something I didn’t want to know.
They were here.
I checked the Twitter feeds of the local news. White supremacists were spotted at Wegmans and Walmart. Frightened shoppers had called the cops. With their clutter of flags and weapons, rallygoers were congregating in parking lots all across town. Businesses up Route 29 north, nowhere near UVA or Emancipation Park, shut down because they were on a main artery in and out of Charlottesville and that was good enough for them.
My phone chimed. It was a mass email from a neighbor. Check your curb, it said.
Sometime during the night, white supremacists had entered our neighborhood and tossed hate literature at our homes like a Sunday paper delivery. Clear, ziplocked sandwich bags with folded flyers inside, weighted down with either pebbles or cat litter. I imagined a coterie of right-wing extremists gathering at someone’s kitchen table to assemble them. Maybe they were offered pizza.
“Aww, look,” I told Isaac. “The Nazis crafted.”
We opened the bags and pulled out the flyers. When I say flyers, I don’t mean the laser-printed, high-resolution-image flyers of today. These were white pieces of paper printed in faded black ink with bad spelling, random capitalization, and uneven edges.
One flyer listed quotes from liberal activists they claimed were racist. At the top, in all caps, it shouted: “EXTREME LEFTIST RACISM IN THEIR OWN PUBLIC STATEMENTS. THIS IS THEIR CALLS FOR WHITE GENOCIDE!” At the bottom was the circular symbol for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It gave contact info, a 336 area code. North Carolina.
The flyer in another bag said, “SHOCKING CRIME FACTS YOU WERE NEVER TAUGHT” and gave crime data sourced from “FBI Statistics” that blamed blacks and Hispanics for all rapes, murders, assaults, and muggings in the United States. This bag had little teeth marks on it. An animal had tried to eat it.
So, the white supremacists had been near our house, maybe on our lawn. Even though Isaac and I only live a mile from UVA and two miles from the downtown mall and Emancipation Park, we thought that the racists, like good boys and girls, would contain themselves at their rally site under the full view of law enforcement. We didn’t think they’d venture into the residential areas, infiltrate our very own neighborhood under cover of darkness.
A heavy knock at the door startled me. All morning the streets had been empty. No joggers, kids on bikes, dogs barking, or hedge trimmers puttering into life. Everything was on lockdown. Who the heck was out there? Isaac and I answered the door together.
It was a young man holding a clipboard and pen. “Hello,” the young man said. “Our company is going around the neighborhood today to see if you had any window, power washing, or roofing needs.”
I wanted to yell, “Wrong day, dude!” but we told him we didn’t have such needs and thanked him for asking.
It was now about 9:00 a.m., and the protest was to start in three hours.
Friday night and into Saturday morning, Isaac and I debated going downtown to join a counter-protest and, admittedly, to see the spectacle. Isaac wanted to go but was adamant I stay behind.
“You can’t go! Are you crazy?” he said.
I understood his view. Isaac is white, but I’m from Pakistan, a brown immigrant. An affront to all that white supremacists hold dear. The knives would be out for someone like me. I could incite a riot just by crossing the street. Besides, Isaac asked, have I ever been in a fistfight, bar brawl, or mosh pit? Isaac had been in all of those. His mettle had been tested. What if something happened to him and he couldn’t defend me? Could I defend myself?
I told him that if he goes, I go. He said that meant neither of us were going. I crossed my arms and said, “Fine, then, let’s just sit at home and rot.” Another hour passed. Then we put water bottles in the fridge to chill. We were going.
For most locals, there was no debate. They knew from the outset they would not be going to the protests. That may surprise and upset some outsiders. Activists endured hardships to travel here and put their lives on the line to confront the protesters. Many of us could walk to Emancipation Park. We knew the local resources in case we got hurt. We had it easy.
But it’s different when it’s your hometown. These protests were not a local scuffle, but an invasion. And your first instinct if your town is invaded is not to fight but to protect. Your children are here. Your elderly parents. Your cats and dogs. Your business. Your property.
Less immediate is the psychological toll. You don’t want to associate your morning commute with violence and tragedy. Everyone else could exploit this town for the day and leave, but we would be left to endure the impact of whatever happened here for the rest of our lives.
The rally was supposed to last until 5:00 p.m., so there was no rush getting downtown. We cleaned the house. Around 11:00 a.m., we finally turned on the news.
I don’t need to tell you what we saw. Everyone around the world was seeing it with us.
My father called. I braced for what I knew he would say. “Jabeen, I forbid you from going to those protests. I forbid it!”
My father had watched skinheads march through our East End London neighborhood in the 1970s. “Oi! Go home, Paki,” they screamed. Their prominence grew as common British citizens became increasingly agitated by the presence of South Asian immigrants like us. My father helped my mother bandage my brother’s head after a skinhead threw a rock at him on his walk home from school. Soon after my family left England for the United States.
Now, two hours away in Washington, DC, my father watched as a new generation of skinheads marched through his daughter’s American town.
“Mera laal, please,” my father said, his tone softened. “Promise me you won’t go.”
Isaac’s grandmother called. “You’re not going to those protests, are you? Why are you still in Charlottesville?”
Texts from friends and family who were glued to their television sets in shock and disbelief inundated our phones. “What is happening over there? Are you safe? Where are you?”
Before we could even comprehend the violence taking place in front of buildings we knew intimately, on streets we walked every day, law enforcement kicked the white supremacists out of the park and it ended before it was supposed to begin.
I wasn’t technically breaking my promise to my father. The protest was over. Isaac and I grabbed our water bottles and headed downtown.
In October 2016, Douglas Muir, owner of the pricy Bella’s Restaurant on Main Street and an adjunct UVA faculty member, posted on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was the biggest racist organization since the KKK. That caught the attention of Wes Bellamy, an African-American Charlottesville City Councilman who called for protests and boycotts of Bella’s that led to Muir taking a leave of absence from UVA. Bellamy’s actions caught the attention of Jason Kessler, who retaliated by posting old tweets of Bellamy’s that were racist, sexist, and homophobic and calling Bellamy a “black supremacist.” Kessler also started a petition to have Bellamy removed from office. He was on the downtown mall trying to get signatures for his petition when a man he approached didn’t agree with it and Kessler punched him, leading to that assault charge. Bellamy resigned from the state Board of Education, but Kessler didn’t get enough signatures to remove him from office. Make no mistake, though — Kessler came out victorious. His battle against Bellamy put him on the alt-right national stage, where he gained a following big enough to organize the largest hate gathering in decades.
Somewhere in all of this looms the statue of Robert E. Lee.
To the world, the statue was the impetus for Unite the Right. And it was certainly the symbolism behind the rally and an easy media talking point. But in Charlottesville, we had witnessed the domestic dispute between a local blogger, a city rep, and the owner of an Italian restaurant. The Charlottesville City Council’s April 2017 decision to remove the statue was just the gunshot that awakened the neighbors.
Charlottesville is a confused town of disparate, awkwardly competing ideologies. It is at once antiquated Southern genteel and cosmopolitan liberal. It is a college campus of millennial microaggression safe-space political correctness that has an unhealthy obsession with its slave-owner founder. It is a downtown of elite-educated hipsters choosing low-wage service-industry jobs until their trust funds run low and living like a poor person is no longer “beautiful.” It goes on hunger strikes to promote the concept of “living wages” while the predominantly black Section 8 neighborhoods go unnoticed and unacknowledged on the drive out to the wineries or the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For a town billed as a progressive utopia, celebrated for its physical beauty, diversity, and history, Charlottesville remains segregated.
And a spate of high-profile crimes over the last few years has made the presence of news vans along the narrow, tree-lined roads a common sight. There was the death of UVA student Yeardley Love, savagely beaten by her preppy, wealthy, lacrosse-playing boyfriend. A national manhunt led to the arrest of a local predator who kidnapped and killed two young women and left their bodies to decompose in the rural outskirts of town. UVA was embroiled in controversy after Rolling Stone printed a gripping, horrific story of a student’s rape at a fraternity house. The article has since been debunked, but the story’s proliferation spoke volumes about how Charlottesville is not the idyllic enclave depicted in the travel brochures.
There is a darkness to this town, a price to be paid for appearing so pristine. The devil’s bounty in exchange for being named the happiest town in America.
Isaac and I arrived downtown around 12:30 p.m. The area looked like a cross between a block party and a war zone. There was litter everywhere — broken shields, crushed water bottles, mace bottles, balloons, spray paint, flyers, posters, and a cooler we saw overturned while watching CNN that was now on a sidewalk, upright. Armored vehicles, barricades, and rows of National Guards sectioned off Emancipation Park and most of the streets encircling it. We saw forensic analysts in rubber gloves combing through the park, placing numbers on the ground and taking photos. A helicopter circling overhead made it difficult to hear.
Most of the white supremacists were gone, but on almost every corner, a shouting match ensued between those who lingered and counter-protesters. When the white supremacists walked past us, always in groups, I noticed their high energy, their wild eyes and manic smiles. God, what was up with their weird, exaggerated smiles? These protesters didn’t just seem pumped up for battle. They looked like they were on something. I was not the only person to notice this. A few of my friends were convinced they were all on meth.
Isaac and I continued to explore the aftermath of the protests, stopping to chat with a few counter-protesters cooling under a tree. Our water bottles empty, we thought we’d see if anything was open on the downtown mall so we could get a couple of fountain sodas. The cops wouldn’t let us walk down 2nd Street, which was adjacent to Emancipation Park, so we went a block further on East Market. Around 1:40 pm, as we walked down 3rd Street toward the mall, we heard a sickening roar.
Everyone on 3rd Street, including me and Isaac, ran toward the sound. A few seconds later, we were at the top of 4th Street, where I saw a congestion of cars with a colorful collection of signs littered around them. People were on the ground and some were running back and forth along the street. A man flung himself against the wall of the Union Bank, screaming. Blood flowed down a woman’s leg and into her sneaker. An armored vehicle approached from behind. The state trooper at the top pointed his rifle at everyone as it rolled by. Someone screamed again. Isaac grabbed my arm.
In that span of approximately one minute, we knew something had happened but we couldn’t piece together what we had seen. Law enforcement in their yellow vests and black riot gear poured into 4th Street, so we quickly stepped back onto the mall. All around, people were crouched alone, sobbing. Bystanders tried to explain to a group of us that a car had just rammed into people on the sidewalk, but the information came fast and breathless and in shifting bits and pieces. Isaac checked his phone. Standing at the top of the street, the carnage a few yards in front of us, we huddled with another bystander and read an AP news alert confirming an ISIS-style attack had just occurred.
My neighbors, Jason and Emily, were injured by flying bodies. Jonny, who gave a speech at our wedding, was at the bottom of 4th Street, having arrived seconds after the crash. When James Alex Fields fled the scene, he pulled his wrecked car in front of Isaac’s co-worker’s house on a quiet street in the Belmont neighborhood. Matt was one of the town residents who had vowed not to participate in the day’s events. But like everyone else in Charlottesville, the day found him.
We needed to leave the mall. At that point, we were a nuisance to law enforcement and medics — two more spectators who served no purpose but could get hurt if something else happened, preventing those on duty from going home.
We started back to our car, which meant having to pass ambulances. I saw a stretcher with someone’s bare feet sticking out.
Once home, we showered, ate, and kept the television off. No more news for the day. We were the news.
We joined my sister and brother-in-law at a small gathering across town. For a few hours of denial, the 10 of us drank rum and cokes and watched bad Queensrÿche videos.
It was about 10:00 p.m. when we left, and Isaac took the quickest route home. We said nothing in the car. As a light rain sprinkled the windshield, we scanned parks and roads for any sign of the white supremacists. It was risky venturing out that night, and we probably shouldn’t have. We had heard rumors that the protesters had stashed weapons around town and planned drive-by shootings. The town was braced for more violence.
But they were gone. Vanished. Almost silently. Too silently? Did anyone see them leave, actually witness it? No one at the party did. No one we knew saw congestion on the roads to indicate a mass exit.
When we got home, I went into the backyard to fix the tomato plants. They had grown so tall that they’d toppled over one another and needed re-staking. As I tried to fix them, I noticed a light on in my neighbor’s shed. Gary, a retired firefighter, operates a ham-radio station out of the shed, which is more like a small barn with a separate room in the back for radio equipment, antennae jutting from the sides and roof. It was unusual for Gary to be out there that late, so I checked on him.
Gary sat on a recliner, wiping his damp forehead with a napkin in the muggy back room. Empty bags from McDonald’s and Hardee’s and Diet Cokes and gum wrappers were tossed on the floor. It was clear he had been in there all day.
“The helicopter crashed!” he told me, as voices coming along the frequencies muttered law enforcement lingo and codes. “The one lookin’ over the protesters. None of the guys know why. Or if they do, no one’s sayin’.”
Oh my god, I thought. The helicopter that was hovering over us all day. They died?
I listened in with Gary for a while longer, told him goodnight, and went back inside the house.
From the living room windows, I peered out at the neighborhood, at our parked cars illuminated under the streetlights.
What if the white supremacists shot down that helicopter? I thought. What if they had weapons of that caliber?
Then I did something I’d never done before — I closed the blinds.
What if the white supremacists didn’t leave? What if they were still in Charlottesville, spread about town, hiding in bunkers, waiting until nightfall to crawl out and wreak havoc again? What if that young man with the clipboard who appeared earlier was one of them, going around scoping out houses, seeing who’s inside, and he noticed we were an interracial couple? They were already here. What if they come back to target us? What if they try to get in through the basement? What if we’re asleep and we don’t hear them come upstairs because we keep the fans on because it gets so hot and …
What if, what if, what if, what if …
I had been through this kind of spiraling before and I needed to stop. I was not about to make the same mistake I’d made that time.
That was September 11, 2001. I was at work in downtown DC when the planes hit, and I spent a harrowing day trying to get out of town and to my parents’ house in the suburbs. I was going to stay with them for the next few days in case the terrorists struck again. But as the day progressed, a different fear spread throughout the Pakistani community: white people turning on us, blaming us for the attack. We heard about Muslims being shot at, beaten up, harassed, their property vandalized. “Beware the backlash!” community members said. “The backlash is coming!”
Sometime during the night, I awakened to the sound of footsteps outside. Then a pounding against the dining room windows.
I jumped out of bed and called the cops. I barricaded my parents in their bedroom as I tried to explain what was happening. I guarded their door on high alert, ready and waiting for whoever might have gotten in and was now lurking downstairs. When I saw the flashing lights of the cop car, I opened the window and called out to them.
They told me they circled the house and found no evidence of a break-in.
“But we did see a deer eating the bushes in front of that window,” an officer said, pointing to the dining room.
I felt like such a fool. The cops had enough on their plate that day and I had wasted their time. My parents seemed more frightened of me at that moment than any outside threat.
This is terrorism. Of greater purpose to terrorists than the immediate number of deaths is the radiating effect their acts have on everyone else. The fear, the paranoia. In Charlottesville, shoppers were intimidated, businesses closed, people stayed locked in their homes, routines changed. We will now avoid parts of downtown where blood was spilled and crime scene tape, in its obscene sunshine yellow, crisscrossed streets that before August 12 we barely looked up from our iPhones to notice.
Still, some of what we heard about the protesters was not imagined. Some of it was true. We later learned that they did stash weapons around town. Many of them didn’t leave after the rally. The president of our neighborhood association told me that a group of white supremacists stayed Saturday night at a rental house up the street from ours. He showed me the house. The owners were hard up for money and would take whatever renters they could find. The white supremacists will come back, he said. And when they do, they will stay here again.
On Sunday night, I attended a vigil for the victims at the crash site. It was difficult being back on 4th Street again, the very next day, but there was an aura of softness, almost of femininity, with all the candles and flowers. I saw a few friends and we hugged. I wasn’t ready to look at the spot where the flowers piled the highest, where I knew Heather Heyer must have died, so I kept my head down. Her death, the death of the state troopers in the helicopter, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates — I wasn’t ready to take it all in. That people had actually died. I kept repeating that in my mind. People actually died.
Different religious denominations offered prayers, and individuals stepped forward to make speeches. Someone started singing “Lean On Me” and the crowd joined in.
Here it was — the town bedraggled and beaten, filthy and grief-stricken. At its lowest moment. But at least it was just us again. The people who live here.
A man and woman, old friends, greeted each other and tightly embraced.
“How’s your family?” he asked her. “Are you okay?”
Everyone in Charlottesville was now used to answering this question, having been contacted by friends and family around the world wondering if we were okay, if we were safe.
She answered with the most common refrain of the day.
“We’re safe. But we’re not okay.”
Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan.
Photo courtesy of Brian Wimer.
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