On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of about 20 students from colleges and universities across the commonwealth, all still on summer break, got together for dinner. After dinner, they’d planned to go to St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Avenue, where hundreds of people, including clergy, had gathered to pray and collect their thoughts in advance of Saturday’s Unite the Right rally.
All that changed, though, when they heard from a friend, who found out via social media, that Unite the Right rally organizer, Charlottesville resident and former University of Virginia student Jason Kessler intended to lead a torchlight march from Nameless Field through Grounds to the Rotunda.
Once these students learned about the march, they knew they had to be there. “We’ve admired and looked up to people who have stood up to hate in history, and it was just not a question—we had to do the same,” says M., a UVA student and Charlottesville native who agreed to speak with C-VILLE on the condition of anonymity.
“We didn’t exactly put out a call to arms,” M. says, “but I don’t think it crossed our minds to rally more people. I think we expected more people just to show up on their own,” especially because the torchlight march was public knowledge at that point.
At around 9:30pm, the students arrived at the Rotunda steps facing University Avenue. “It was eerily quiet,” M. says. She and her fellow students, plus a few antifa folks who had heard about the march as well, were the only people she saw on the plaza. Soon, they heard a roar from down the street that “sounded like hundreds of men,” M. recalls. A signal the march had begun. “I knew it was coming, but it was still terrifying,” she says.
“The image of flames on the Lawn is very triggering to all of us. …And to re-walk the routes felt, just, very off. Very off,” says M. Plenty of students and community members felt a sense of community at the vigil, and M. is glad for that, “but it did sting to hear that they were celebrating UVA and this community when we felt so abandoned Friday.”
The 20 or so students linked arms around the base of the statue—they only just made it around—and called for some onlookers to join them. A few students clutched a bed-sheet banner that read, “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy.” Antifa on the scene handed out baseball caps to the students, to help protect their identities and avoid future harassment from the alt-right.
“It stings to see people criticizing [the antifa] for violence, because they were really the only people who protected us” that night, says M., who was one of the banner holders.
M. didn’t look over the banner in front of her as the tiki-torch carrying white supremacists marched down the Rotunda steps, screaming “white lives matter!” as they flooded the plaza and surrounded the students. “The moment my heart dropped was when I could no longer hear the people next to me, or myself,” says M. “They were so loud.”
At one point, Curry School professor Walt Heinecke and Dean of Students Allen Groves ran into the crowd and offered to help the students, but they chose to stand their ground for a bit longer. After a few minutes, a fight broke out on one side of the statue. “I thought it was going to be a stampede because there were so many people,” says M., but someone in the circle yelled, “Don’t run!”
The students stood at the base of the statue, arms linked, for a few more minutes until dispersing for safety reasons—pepper spray and some other sort of chemical had been dispersed; there was fire; tiki torches were used as weapons. The students found their designated buddies and pushed their way out of the crowd around the statue, M. says. Some students flushed their pepper spray-swollen eyes with water; others needed help rinsing chemicals from their backs. M. estimates the entire thing happened over the course of 20 minutes.
All the while, the people in St. Paul’s across the street were kept in the church on lockdown, and other students, unaware of what was happening just steps away, were at bars on the Corner like it was any other Friday night in Charlottesville.
By about 10:30pm, police had shown up, declared an unlawful assembly and disbanded the crowd; folks were allowed out of St. Paul’s by about 11pm. It was a lot to process, but “none of us let it sink in,” M. says. “We just had to keep the momentum going” for the next day.
Saturday morning, this same group of students was back at it, first walking with the clergy from the Jefferson School to Emancipation Park, then participating in a musical protest that set out at about 10:45am from The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative to Emancipation Park, where the Unite the Right rally was set to take place at noon. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency at 11:28am; police declared an unlawful assembly by 11:37am.
For M., this felt very personal. “I’ve walked these streets since I could walk, and to see my hometown transform into this war was…I couldn’t process it at the time,” she says, her eyes welling up. She focused on staying with her friends during the Unite the Right rally and avoiding weapons and water bottles full of urine being tossed in and out of the park. Later in the day, she and other students were marching on Fourth Street SE when the car attack by a white nationalist that killed Heather Heyer happened. Some students were injured when the car plowed into the group of peaceful protesters.
On Sunday, M. went to her part-time service industry job.
The following Wednesday, August 16, many UVA students, faculty, staff, alumni and Charlottesville residents gathered for a student-organized candlelight vigil to retrace the route of Friday’s torchlight rally. M. and other students who were present at the Rotunda Friday night stayed home.
“The image of flames on the Lawn is very triggering to all of us. …And to re-walk the routes felt, just, very off. Very off,” says M. Plenty of students and community members felt a sense of community at the vigil, and M. is glad for that, “but it did sting to hear that they were celebrating UVA and this community when we felt so abandoned Friday,” she says.
M. doesn’t feel as deserted by her peers as she does UVA’s administration. “I don’t see a responsibility of my peers, a duty for them, necessarily. I hope that what they see would enrage them enough to speak out. …I’m not saying I’ve given up on them. But I see the administration as having an actual responsibility to protect us.
“One administrator and one professor showed up [on Friday],” M. says, noting that University of Virginia library employee Tyler Magill, who later suffered a stroke from injuries sustained at the Rotunda that night, was there as well. “That’s it. It shouldn’t have been that way,” she says.