On Sunday, August 13, third-year University of Virginia student Alexis Gravely woke with the smell of pepper spray and tear gas in her nose.
It wasn’t a total surprise for Gravely, senior associate news editor for the Cavalier Daily, a student newspaper at UVA, who’d spent the entire week before on a rather unexpected beat, covering the city’s preparation—court cases, press conferences and more—for the August 12 Unite the Right rally and eventually the rally itself.
Gravely joined the paper in the first semester of her first year on campus. “I just like knowing things,” she says, and even more than knowing things, she likes sharing what she knows with others.
On Friday, August 11, Gravely was in court, reporting on the arguments in Jason Kessler’s lawsuit against the city for its decision to move the Unite the Right rally from its original location in Emancipation Park to McIntire Park. The ACLU Virginia and the Rutherford Institute represented Kessler.
Arguments wrapped up around 5pm and Gravely headed home to work on a story for the Cavalier Daily website and wait for Judge Glen Conrad’s decision. Around 8:30pm, Cavalier Daily Managing Editor Tim Dodson sent Gravely a text message: They’d received a tip that something was going to happen on Grounds, but they didn’t know what. And with move-in day only a few days away, Gravely wanted students who weren’t yet on Grounds to know what was happening.
“I had a feeling it was going to be something big,” Gravely says, so she grabbed her camera and rushed to meet Dodson at the Rotunda. They spotted a few people carrying unlit tiki torches and followed them to Nameless Field, which was swarming with alt-righters.
But Gravely wasn’t scared. The torches weren’t yet lit when she started a Facebook Live video. Not long after, march organizer Jason Kessler arrived, and Gravely says she started trying to get his replies to other journalists’ questions on the Facebook Live feed. When she turned back around toward the field, the torches were lit and the march had begun.
“We followed them the whole way,” Gravely says, sometimes at close distance. When the white supremacists passed near Newcomb Hall, chanting “you will not replace us,” Gravely says she choked up a little. “It was booming, it was so loud, and there were so many people chanting…but I don’t think I was scared. I was just kind of sad.”
A short while later, as the marchers neared the amphitheater at the south end of the Lawn, Gravely says she decided to put a little more distance between herself and the white supremacists. “I generally don’t think the worst of people, but I’m black, I’m a woman [and] they’re holding fire,” Gravely says, and so she and her Cavalier Daily comrades walked around the Lawn rooms up to the Rotunda to try and catch the marchers coming over the Rotunda steps for the Facebook Live stream.
Gravely says it was a bit of a blur to her, but she’s seen enough video and photos to know what happened: Hundreds of marchers surrounded a small group of students that was standing around the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, chanting and waving their tiki torches, and after a few minutes, a fight broke out. At that point, the students protesting the march had left the statue and regrouped off to the side, administering first aid and chanting “black lives matter,” Gravely says. She interviewed a few of them while Dodson and another reporter set off to interview alt-right marchers.
Video streams saved, interviews recorded and photos taken, the three of them headed back to the Cavalier Daily office to write into the wee hours of the morning.
They were back out there again Saturday, too, arriving at Emancipation Park around the time that Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and police declared an unlawful assembly. Gravely was covering social media for the Cavalier Daily, Tweeting, Facebook live streaming and snapping photos to post right away, and the first thing she remembers seeing was a police car covered in pink paint. “It reminded me of something in a movie, or even somewhere else where riots occur,” Gravely says. She saw someone set fire to a Confederate flag and she saw newspaper boxes tossed. She and some other Cavalier Daily staffers caught a mouthful of tear gas, or pepper spray—she doesn’t know which—and Gravely thought, “I don’t know if I can do this because I literally cannot breathe.”
But she persisted, snapping photos at Emancipation Park before hopping in her car and driving with other reporters to McIntire Park, where the white nationalists had gathered.
Gravely says she writes because she likes to tell stories, and for all of the bad she saw that weekend, she saw a lot of good, and both kinds of stories are worth telling. On Sunday evening, she arrived at the vigil for Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday when a car plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters, on Fourth Street SE with her camera in tow, ready to document the event for the Cavalier Daily. But once people started handing out flowers and singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Gravely, moved to tears, couldn’t help but hug a few strangers.
“The town…I don’t know that they’d consider us [UVA students] a part of their community, which I completely get, because UVA is a very different place than Charlottesville. But I just felt like I was a part of Charlottesville, and I like that.” Alexis Gravely
After a few exhausting days of reporting, “I felt like I was part of a community,” says Gravely. “The town…I don’t know that they’d consider us [UVA students] a part of their community, which I completely get, because UVA is a very different place than Charlottesville, but I just felt like I was a part of Charlottesville, and I like that. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people thanking me for being there, reporting…it made me feel like it wasn’t a waste.”
You write articles and you wonder if anyone’s reading them, if anyone cares, Gravely says. And that weekend, she was certain: “People were watching, and reading, and they did care.”