Walt Heinecke had planned to hold nonviolent direct action training the night before the August 12 Unite the Right rally. Instead, he ended up doing nonviolent intervention and defending UVA students from torch-carrying white nationalists in front of the Rotunda Friday night, running two counterprotests at McGuffey and Justice parks on Saturday, and contradicting in the Washington Post President Donald Trump’s assertions that those opposed to Nazis didn’t have a permit, which they did, but in any case, didn’t need.
The Curry School professor and community activist was scheduled to do the training at 9:30pm August 11 at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. He’d parked at the architecture school a couple of blocks away, and on his way to St. Paul’s, ran into some legal observers who had seen Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler and headlining alt-righter Richard Spencer go by—with unlit tiki torches.
The church was on lockdown because of reports of white supremacists in the area, says Heinecke. “Someone screamed, ‘Your students are surrounded by Nazis in front of the Rotunda!’” Heinecke recounts by phone from Northern California, where he was regrouping under the redwoods.
“I was shocked by the number of neo-Nazis,” he says. “And I couldn’t believe the police presence—I couldn’t see any.”
Heinecke says he asked Dean of Students Allen Groves where the University Police were, and Groves said he didn’t know, that maybe they were patrolling with Charlottesville police.
“The violence and the temperature kept going up,” says Heinecke. “Some of my students were there.”
They had taken the nonviolent training and stood with their backs to the Thomas Jefferson statue and their arms locked together, which meant they couldn’t throw punches and couldn’t reach for pepper spray, he explains.
He started going around the circle of what he estimates were 15 to 20 students, asking them if they wanted to leave. “They were following the rules [of nonviolent direct action].” He adds, “They were scared.”
The scene was “horrendous,” he says. “I saw a neo-Nazi throw a torch at Allen and then they started macing. I got hit with that.”
He was aware Tyler Magill, who served the next day as one of Heinecke’s marshals to keep order at Justice Park, was there. “I didn’t see him, but understand he got hit in the throat.” Magill, who also chased Kessler August 13 when he tried to have a press conference in front of City Hall, had a stroke August 15.
Heinecke says he and Groves dragged students out of the fray and over to the side. “At 10:17, I called 911.”
After his call and many of the “fascists” had dispersed, says Heinecke, “police came and threatened to arrest us all—Dean Groves and the students and me.”
University Police arrested Ian Hoffmann, of Palmyra, Pennsylvania, at the Rotunda, and he was charged with assault.
Heinecke says he’s disappointed by the lack of police presence for something that was “common knowledge,” and he doesn’t understand why the UVA community wasn’t alerted.
“Last week we got a text there was a bear cub wandering around,” he says. “Why not text that there are neo-Nazis wandering around? What about the people of color on staff who were working? What about the faculty of color working in their offices getting ready for students?” [See UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s response to a student here.]
Heinecke is on the UVA Faculty Senate, and he says he’s called for an investigation into why there was no police response sooner and why there wasn’t an alert to what he calls a “credible threat.”
That was the first day of the Unite the Right infestation.
As hellish as August 12 was for much of Charlottesville, Heinecke says the counterdemonstrations in McGuffey and Justice parks “were very successful. There was no violence in either of our parks.” His team provided food and water to counterprotesters, as well as first aid for tear gassing and contusions, including to one white nationalist “who was pretty beat up,” says Heinecke.
“We provided a respite for counterdemonstrators before they went out to defend their community,” says Heinecke.
Which brings him to his feud with President Trump, who blamed anti-fascists for the violence against the peaceful, permitted white supremacists.
“Those were people from our community who went out,” says Heinecke. “Without those people the damages would have been so much worse.”
And Heinecke does credit a heavily armed out-of-town militia: the John Brown Brigade, which stood on a corner outside Justice Park all day. “As the level of violence by Nazis and white supremacists grew, I was comforted by their presence,” he says.
Heinecke says his mission was accomplished, but as the permit holder in the parks, “It was stressful having all those people under my care.” And he says he was disappointed by police “allowing beatings to go on around town without intervention.”
But he was also heartened throughout the day when the clergy, students from around the commonwealth and the Democratic Socialists of America marched in.
Says Heinecke, “There were really a lot of positive community endeavors in the midst of all that violence.”