Five years later, Charlottesville is still reckoning with the Unite the Right rally
“The reason you are here right now is because of what happened five years ago. That thing you heard about us is what I'm trying to change.”
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—At the intersection of Heather Heyer Way and Water Street, I enter an unofficial memorial.
I’m in Charlottesville ahead of the fifth anniversary of the infamous Unite the Right rally. Beginning Aug. 11, 2017, the event attracted hundreds of people for and explicitly white supremacist rally, one of the largest gatherings in decades. Organized by Charlottesville resident Jason Kessler, the rally used the pending removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from downtown’s Market Street Park (formerly Lee Park) as a pretense to bring extremists together.
I’m waiting for Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia. Before our interview, she’d asked if I’d like to meet here, at the place where, on Aug. 12, a white supremacist murdered Heyer and left several others in critical condition when he drove through a crowd of counter-protesters.
In October 2017, Charlottesville renamed a section of 4th Street in remembrance of Heyer. But the city’s memorial attempt was not what made the space. Street signs are, after all, easy to miss. What let me know I’d arrived at the crash site was less official: “GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN”, “CHANGE”, and other messages chalked on the side of a building; a nearby street sign wrapped in ribbons.
While the intersection is hallowed ground for some, not everyone visits to pay respects. Following Heyer’s murder, her mother hid the location of her daughter’s ashes due to threats from white supremacists. So, unable to desecrate Heyer’s grave directly, these people go to the place where she died instead.
Schmidt is part of a clean-up crew that removes white supremacist graffiti in Charlottesville. She says the city’s police were absolutely inept during the rally. “They didn’t do anything and allowed community members to get beat up,” she scoffs. “You’ve seen the pictures.” She turns to point up the hill, adding, “They were supposed to be blocking the intersection at Market Street and 4th Street [and] inexplicably pulled the squad car away. That’s when the attack [happened].”
Even before the rally, Schmidt says, “we were failed by every level of government.” It was those failures that let white supremacists descend upon Charlottesville in the first place. After all, it’s not like they showed up unannounced.
The Unite the Right rally was a city-approved event. In June, Kessler, a designated white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, got a permit to hold a demonstration at Market Street Park to protest the Lee statue’s removal. Local organizers warned city officials that Kessler’s event would be trouble. Their cautions weren’t based on a hunch: Moles in the Discord servers used by rally organizers reported back conversations about stabbing antifa and tips on turning flagpoles or signs into weapons.
“The police said after, ‘Well, we thought it was gonna be like a rowdy frat party,’” Schmidt tells me. “They didn’t listen adequately when activists presented them with information ahead of time that said they are coming here [to hurt people].” The whole thing turned into a free speech issue, where the white supremacists were somehow the ones being persecuted.
Yet with the rally’s violent intentions apparent, some local leaders tried to stop it. Mike Rodi, the owner of the Rapture restaurant and nightclub, located less than a five-minute walk from Market Street Park, joined a lawsuit against Charlottesville in an attempt to relocate the event out of downtown. For a moment, it worked. On Aug. 7, 2017, Charlottesville told Kessler to move the rally to McIntire Park, a mile from its original spot, citing safety concerns over the crowd’s potential size.
But it wasn’t enough. Kessler filed his own lawsuit. And with support from, controversially, the American Civil Liberties Union, Kessler received a federal injunction the night before the rally, allowing it to go ahead as planned. As Rodi put it, “Before Aug. 12, there was this level of ineptitude in the city itself.”
And so white supremacists from across the country descended upon Charlottesville, given space to broadcast anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that have since become mainstream. They marched right past Congregation Beth Israel, the county’s only synagogue, while chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel connected the march explicitly to Charlottesville’s history of racism and discrimination. The reason the Lee statue even existed in the first place was because in the 1920s a local businessman named Paul Goodloe McIntire donated it, as well as land for the park it was placed in, which he said should be for white people only. “You have to ask the question: If [Black communities] had been enfranchised ... do you think that the Charlottesville city council would’ve accepted [those donations]?”
Photos by Ézé Amos
Charlottesville used to more officially acknowledge the Unite the Right rally and its lasting stain on the community. In 2019, the city hosted Unity Days throughout the month of August to commemorate the attacks, an effort headed up by city staffers Charlene Green and Brian Wheeler. But both Green and Wheeler have since left their positions, and for the rally’s fifth anniversary, Charlottesville shied away from official events. At a city council meeting, Mayor Lloyd Snook (D), who did not respond to requests for an interview, cited a lack of time, money, and staff.
The city’s decision didn’t come as a shock to Rodi. “The conversation needs to just be ongoing. The date itself is irrelevant,” he says.
Schmidt is a little more fatalistic: “I don’t know what, to be honest, the city could have done to commemorate this that would’ve been adequate,” she says. “It’s better that there are community members that are taking the lead with various events and projects.”
One of those projects is a new exhibition from the University of Virginia’s library featuring physical and digital materials related to the rally. In addition, Congregate Charlottesville, a local grassroots organization, collects funds for the ongoing support of affected community members. But in my talk with Schmidt, she points to the work of Ézé Amos, a local photojournalist. (Amos also took photos to accompany this story for Mic.)
The day I arrived in Charlottesville, I visited Amos’s exhibition at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. It’s a small space. The intimacy of it, however, gives you no choice but to engage with the photos surrounding you. Each one is accompanied with only a dated slip of paper; there is no explanation of what you’re looking at, no further context offered.
In our conversation, Amos is quick to give credit to the Center’s director Andrea Douglas who, he says, came up with the idea that “[it] should be about the point of view of the photographer. What made me take those photos? What was I thinking? Why did I choose that particular shot against any other shot?” That’s where the name of the exhibition — Witnessing Resistance — comes from.
“It took a lot to get all those photos together,” Amos says. “Since Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, I put those photos away. I locked them away and I never went back to check on them. I never needed them for anything ‘cause I know deep down that I [didn’t] want to do anything [with] them until, maybe, five years later.”
Then there’s Amos’s newest project: The Story of Us. In lieu of any official Unity Days events, the Charlottesville city council voted to accept Amos’s donation of an 18-photograph display featuring images taken in August 2017. Hung along the downtown mall, each photo will have QR codes that will allow the viewer to hear from the person featured in the image. I’m in Charlottesville a week too early to catch the display myself, but when I ask Amos about it, he laughs. “I’ll tell you the truth behind this whole thing,” he says.
“The reason you are here right now is because of what happened five years ago. That thing you heard about us is what I’m trying to change.”
“For this project to happen, I had to donate [it],” Amos explains. There are no permits available to put up an installation on the downtown mall, he says, so donating the project was the only available way to get the photos displayed there.
Ultimately, Amos wants to “reclaim the narrative of the city.” He points out, “The reason you are here right now is because of what happened five years ago. That thing you heard about us is what I’m trying to change.”
The more time I spend in Charlottesville, the more I see how deeply traumatized the city still is. During the rally, residents fended for themselves. And sure, they came together: Downtown business owners like Rodi organized to refuse service to white supremacists, going so far as to teach themselves how to recognize white supremacist symbols; churches established safe spaces. At the end of the day, though, the community was still attacked by white supremacists.
Of course, I knew all of this coming in. I’ve been through it in Minneapolis, where I’m from and organized during the police killing of Jamar Clark. But during my interview with Amos, it all falls together. He plays a sample narration from The Story of Us, which starts: “I saw it all. I ran an Airbnb in a little rental house. I didn’t know the Nazis booked my house and were staying at my house. I saw everything.”
With transcriptions, dehumanization is easy. You don’t hear somebody’s voice — the tone, the stammers, the way it falls on certain words. Amos’s audio keeps all of that in. I listen as the man recounts, “I heard the chants of the marchers, ‘Jews will not replace us’, ‘blood and soil’, and ‘F you faggots.’”
In Amos’s picture, the man sits with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, whom he says he brought to the protest “to experience what I was experiencing and what this community experienced.” The man finishes, “The sadness of that day, the pain of that day will never go away. I’m sad forever because of it.”
“Putting the monument up and taking it down were all battles in the ongoing war over memory.”
Charlottesville is a city marked by fights for memory. While the Unite the Right rally forced ugly conversations into public spheres, the question of who gets to remember the event, and how, has been ongoing. As Sterling Howell, the programs and volunteer coordinator with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, tells me ahead of a tour of the city, “Putting the monument up and taking it down were all battles in the ongoing war over memory.”
It’s easy to recognize white supremacy when it’s a literal Nazi yelling in your face. But white supremacy becomes especially dangerous when it is normalized. Market Street Park, where the Lee statue was, is a block away from Congregation Beth Israel. “We take our kids from the preschool and they’d play in that park,” Gutherz tells me. During Pride, he says, people would drape a rainbow flag over Traveller, Lee’s horse, without giving it a second thought. “It’s almost like it was a piece of the furniture.”
But the cracks in the façade were showing even before the Unite the Right crowd came through. On July 8, 2017, a group of KKK members from North Carolina came up to Virginia. “We all went to protest that,” Gutherz recounts. “And most of the signs were antisemitic. We’re thinking, ‘Wait a second. They’re talking about [Stonewall] Jackson, statues, and the Civil War. Why are we here? What’s the connection?’
“It took us a long time to get our heads around how central this antisemitic conspiracy theory was to that group of people,” he explains. “As a Jewish community, we had to wrestle with the fact that this ideology had not faded away but was actually getting stronger. And that meant that we were more vulnerable than we had felt before.” A month later the Unite the Right crowd put that same antisemitism on full display.
During my tour of the city with Howell, I can see where counter-memory — that is, resistance against the official versions of history — pushes through Charlottesville. In Court Square, I pause at a sign leaning up against a street light that reads: “In Silence, Bearing Witness To Black Citizens Murdered by Fellow Americans Then and Now.” The flowers surrounding the sign, Howell tells me, were donated by a local florist.
The sign sits next to a visible mark in the sidewalk that was once a bronze plaque marking the site as a former slave auction block. In February 2020, longtime activist Richard Allen, whose family enslaved people along the Gulf Coast, removed the plaque with a crowbar and threw it in a river. Not out of animosity, but because he found it to be insulting to enslaved people and their descendants. He told C-VILLE Weekly, “It became very clear to me that, for many in Charlottesville, it is the height of insult to place the history of Charlottesville enslavement on the ground where people with dirt on their shoes can stand upon it.”
The story illustrates Charlottesville residents’ willingness to confront the city when it fails — and to demand that it remembers its history better. Later, as we’re standing in front of the empty patch in Market Street Park where Lee’s statue once stood, Howell says, “History isn’t just names and dates in a book. It matters. People will fight and kill over it because history is identity. It’s heritage. It’s how we justify to ourselves [what] we did in the past and what we will do in the future.”
When I leave Charlottesville, I find myself lingering on how it isn’t all that unique. That’s not a diss: The mundane is what made Charlottesville capable of standing up to white supremacists in 2017. Counter-protesters were made up of regular people, just like in Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and all the cities to come.
“I love this place we call home,” Amos tells me. “It’s about time for us to start celebrating this place.”
It’s a sentiment Schmidt echoes as we’re wrapping up our interview. As we exit Market Street Park, we walk by a newspaper stand with “ACAB” spray-painted on the front, and an “ANTIFA WAS HERE...ANTIFA IS EVERYWHERE” sticker on its side.
Schmidt laughs and pauses so I can get a picture. Then she tells me: “That sums up Charlottesville right there.”