By Jonathan Haynes
The vaulted sanctuary of First United Methodist Church fell silent Friday night as survivors of the vehicular assault that killed Heather Heyer spoke one by one about their paths to recovery. Survivors organized the event to raise money for Heal Charlottesville, a local charity that provides financial assistance to people harmed by Unite the Right protesters on August 11 and 12, 2017.
Kendall Bills, the evening’s emcee, opened the November 9 event by recounting the concussion she sustained after a Nazi punched her in the face. She warned that speakers would be describing white supremacist violence and would not take questions, then she reminded the audience that donation boxes were stationed on the lectern and near all the exits.
Victims recalled the assault in graphic detail. Tay Washington, an EMT, was sitting in her car on Fourth Street when it was struck by James Fields’ car. “I heard a big noise, like a bomb had gone off, then I opened my eyes and saw people tumbling over the car,” she said, embracing her sister as tears trickled down her cheeks.
She also said that, as someone from Mississippi, she wasn’t used to seeing so many white people show up in support of black Americans.
Many survivors said they were initially hesitant to accept financial help from Heal Charlottesville. Another victim, Lisa, who did not give her last name, said she felt like she did not deserve money from the fund, but was prompted to accept it after she realized her insurance only covered 30 physical therapy sessions.
“When you feel like you’re not paying for yourself, you worry about becoming a problem,” said Washington, who has not been able to return to work. “It feels wrong to go and ask for more because you found a new doctor.”
The inability to return to work was a common theme. Star Peterson, who suffered injuries in one of her ribs, two parts of her back, and both of her legs, hasn’t been able to return to work after five surgeries and infections caused by the surgical metal doctors implanted in her leg.
Trauma also played a role. “I live with physical scars, though sometimes the more painful scars are mental,” said Courtney Commander, a friend of Heyer’s who went to the August 2017 rally with her. For her part, Al Bowie was skeptical of receiving help after spending time in the hospital, which she found more traumatic than the attack itself.
While it wasn’t mentioned at the event, many survivors of the August 12 attacks have been bracing themselves for James Fields’ upcoming trial. The 21-year-old from Ohio, who is accused of driving into a crowd of protesters, will begin a three-week trial for first-degree murder and malicious woundings in Charlottesville Circuit Court on November 26. He also faces 30 federal hate crime charges.
Despite all the pain and trauma, the sense of community that emerged after the attacks was a common thread. “I had the privilege of confronting fascism alongside some of the most beautiful people I’ve met in my life,” said Peterson. Bills echoed this sentiment, saying, “The most powerful thing of the summer was what my friends were able to bring out of me. That my sister, community, best friends stepped up with me.”
Still, the tone was urgent. Heal Charlottesville would need more funding to continue its work. Peterson implored people to donate to the organization, which paid for her rent, groceries, and medical bills in the aftermath of the assault. “They don’t have enough to help victims for as long as they need,” she said. “I want to ask Charlottesville to keep walking by my side.”