Charlottesville: A Day of Death

Charlottesville: A Day of Death

On the evening of August 11, 2017, hate descended on Charlottesville. Hundreds of far-right men and women - white supremacists, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists - swarmed a college town in western Virginia with a sudden wave of spite on a boggy summer night. Their goal was to secure a cultural beachhead against liberalism, diversity, and immigration in America, a backlash to the rapid evolution of women's rights, racial equality, and the decline of the white majority so firmly entrenched in our country's sociopolitical framework for centuries. Many had feared a resurgence of bigotry and intolerance in the weeks and months following Donald Trump's election, but little else seemed to underscore that new reality than what transpired in Charlottesville.

I drove down to Charlottesville early that Friday with a group of four other independent reporters. None of us knew what to expect, only gauging a palpable sense of tension and danger. We'd all come from a background in covering activism and political unrest, but something seemed different this time. In the story of the rising far-right, this would be the climax; bloody skirmishes with anti-fascist protesters on college campuses and surrounding Confederate statues would all come down to this. Online, rumors spread about armed protesters intent on sabotaging "Unite the Right" with improvised explosives. Bogus as they were, it still felt like we were nearing a powder keg, primed to ignite at a moment's notice.

Nobody could have predicted what ultimately unfolded. I remember the five of us regrouping in our hotel room, hours after a sudden stroke of terror had claimed one life and injured dozens of others. We were tired, drenched in sweat, speckled purple from paint bombs, and utterly speechless. All we could do was sit in silence, trying to somehow internalize what we'd just experienced, both as reporters and as Americans. As a longtime photographer, I've found that my own photography allows me to process and reflect on the world and humanity at large. What follows is precisely that.

8/11: Torches

1. White nationalist Jason Kessler, organizer of "Unite the Right," speaks to media on a field at the University of Virginia before a pre-rally, torch-lit march announcing their presence in Charlottesville.

2. Hundreds of far-right men and women light up tiki torches on UVA's Nameless Field, preparing for a surprise march through campus. Reuters called me to license it after I tweeted it out, and it instantly went viral ending up on MSNBC, the New York Times, and international media as far away as Uruguay.

3. A marcher holds an "anti-communist action" flag, a take on the "Antifaschistische Aktion" banner commonly used by the loose network of left-wing protesters with whom the far-right has clashed.

4. Marchers snaked through UVA's campus in the dark of night, chanting nationalist, anti-immigrant slogans like "blood and soil" and "one nation, one people, end immigration."

5. Classes at UVA had ended for the summer, but marchers stormed passed student dormitories along the university's Lawn, the air at times sweltering from the tiki torches burning in close quarters.

6. Two men unfurling the flag of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group, on the steps to UVA's rotunda. James Alex Fields, who would commit an act of terror a day later, was a member of this group.

7. Clashes break out as marchers surround a small, student-led counterprotest beneath a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the middle of campus. I stayed on the high ground, where I saw jets of what I eventually determined to be pepper spray breaking out in the middle of a dense and confused crowd.

8. A truck full of spent torches after the end of the march. Trash cans were also full of them for blocks down the street.

8/12: Street War

1. What fleeting peace there was that morning can be largely attributed to these groups - faith leaders on the front lines, forming a human wall between the first angry anti-fascist protesters and right-wing groups arriving in Emancipation Park.

2. Inside Emancipation Park, members of the far-right - wearing helmets, hoisting shields - gathered along the fence, overlooking counter-protesters as they gradually arrived in small groups down Market Street. You'll notice that "Unite the Right" was awash with dozens of white supremacist symbols, flags, and banners, some seemingly innocuous, others more blatantly hateful. Most of the symbols in this particular photo belong to white supremacist group Vanguard America., but also present is a hateful twist on the Detroit Red Wings logo, altered to resemble a Nazi SS emblem.

3. Lost in the chaos that befell Charlottesville were counter-protesters who didn't participate in violence, many of them locals who turned out to denounce hate but remained wholly peaceful. This couple watched from a distance as the first fights began, and the mood dove south from hope to maelstrom.

4. Immediately noticeable was the abundance of protective helmets, goggles, wooden sticks, shields, and clubs among both the far-right and the more militant of the left-wing protesters. People will argue endlessly about who lashed out first, or who punched more brutally. Either way, two adversarial groups showed up fearing assault from the other side and only further escalated tensions by arming themselves to the teeth.

5. Before long, the intersection of Market Street and 2nd Street looked like this. "Black bloc" protesters moved to cut off incoming white nationalists, who sent armored reinforcements down from Emancipation Park. The clashes began here in earnest, long before the rally was even set to start.

6. Charlottesville was a case study in budget street warfare. Among the weapons of choice used by anti-fascist protesters were paint, eggs, smoke grenades, pepper spray, and bottles filled with a putrid concoction of urine and feces. Pictured is Ford Fischer, my colleague at News2Share, shortly after his camera had been struck by one such "paint bomb."

7. A squad of far-right regroup after backing out of the intersection. A lot of people, including journalists, walked away during the worst of the clashes drenched in paint, blood, and tears from exposure to irritating sprays.

8. Though they showed up in force, Virginia State Police rode out the worst of the clashes as observers from behind security barriers. Also pictured are two armed militiamen. Paramilitary groups from across the country deployed to Charlottesville determined to form a neutral buffer between the warring sides. Ultimately, they too stood to the side as clashes broke out.

9. A group of "Unite the Right" attendees flee from escalating violence. Pepper spray use was so rampant that goggles and gas masks were essential to report from that intersection and avoid being incapacitated by an errant chemical irritant.

10. If you're never experienced pepper spray, don't.

11. Wooden clubs, stones, and metal smoke grenades buzzed across the air. Flag poles became bludgeons and spears. I don't know who this man on the left was, or what he could have done to deserve an injury that severe. It's a miracle there weren't more casualties from the intersection considering the all the confusion and anger, coupled with the density of the crowd and sweltering heat.

12. An independent journalist is doused with Milk of Magnesia, often used by protesters to treat exposure to tear gas and pepper spray.

13. Virginia State Police declared an unlawful assembly somewhere around noon, clearing the park and intersection with tear gas and smoke.

14. Whereas the fighting had been limited to the area immediately surrounding Emancipation Park, Virginia State Police effectively made the situation more volatile by widening the scale of protests and skirmishes to the whole of downtown Charlottesville.

15. Self-explanatory.

16. CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, one of Washington's most prolific anti-war activists, stands in front of a police line in downtown Charlottesville.

17. Virginia State Police organizing on Main Street. Though brief but bloody skirmishes continued, police rarely moved to break them apart, instead holding position near businesses and municipal offices.

18. An militiaman receives first-aid treatment for a head injury. 

19. Escalating tension between remaining far-right groups and wayfaring Black Lives Matter protesters led Virginia State Police to gather on this Water Street parking lot in a show of force.

20. A Black Lives Matter protester confronts far-right protesters on Water Street. Meanwhile, a dark grey Dodge Challenger inconspicuously rolled down Water Street on the other side of the lot.

21. Disaster. At around 1:45 p.m., a Dodge Challenger allegedly driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. charged down 3rd Street into a crossroads filled with hundreds of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, died minutes later on the sidewalk from a blunt-force injury, surrounded by field medics and protesters scrambling to revive her.

22. A counter-protester destroys a white nationalist's wooden shield amid a wave of anger that enveloped Charlottesville following the ramming attack.

23. A local woman looks on as Virginia State Police hold their ground on Main Street.

24. By the time Virginia National Guard deployed to the streets of Charlottesville, most of the crowd had already left. News spread quickly about Heyer's death, and only small groups of people roamed Main Street hours after the fatal ramming attack. Gone were the protests, replaced by a few mourners and impromptu vigils.

25. The last shot I got that day was of a small collection of candles and flowers, standing alone in Justice Park under a looming summer thunderstorm. Other than police blockades and a few curious locals, downtown Charlottesville was deserted that evening.

8/13: The Aftermath

1. The following morning, candles and flowers lay on the pavement where Heather Heyer had died. The mood that morning was somber and reflective, and the notes and bouquets were soon joined by stuffed animals, 

2. A young girl joins her family in adding to the growing vigil for Heather Heyer.

3. As the tribute at the intersection became crowded with cameras, mourners branched out to nearby street corners.

4. A photo of Heather Heyer, surrounded by stuffed animals, flowers, and notes denouncing hate and violence.

5. The August 13 edition of the local Daily Progress placed at a vigil on 3rd and Main Street, a sobering depiction of the state of Charlottesville and a new wound in the national conscience. Two additional people had lost their lives the previous day - two state troopers, killed after their helicopter suffered an apparent malfunction.

6. Friends and relatives of past hate crime victims add to a heart-shaped circle of marigolds at Heyer's place of death,.

7. Jason Kessler, organizer of Unite the Right, suddenly called a press conference outside City Hall later than morning. Protesters hastily assembled a small tribute to Heyer below the podium, as both media and police staged on Main Street.

8. Shouting protesters worked their way through the media and approached Kessler, who fled down a nearby alley before his press conference could even begin. 

9. Virginia State Police, who had been staged at a nearby pavilion, quickly cut off a large group of protesters from pursuing Kessler. 

10. As local businesses reopened and the atmosphere in Charlottesville returned to some semblance of normality, the local black community led a speak out on the pedestrian mall on the continuing struggle against racism and bigotry in America.