Reportage: surrealism in Charlottesville

Trolling and terrorism

‘A full account of the day’s events would demand something like a military historian to trace the movements and communications of different factions. Were the Nazis at McIntire Park? Would they regroup and return?’ The evil laid bare during a surreal weekend in Charlottesville.

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Charlottesville, 12th of August © Mark Peterson / Redux / HH

Already at eight in the morning there were many police, and more were arriving in vans and buses. Police had cordoned off Emancipation Park, née Robert E. Lee Park, with metal railings the day before. A civilian driver called to some cops from a car: “Thank you for your service today.” We met a woman with a flower in her hair and a PEACE shirt, who had driven in from Ashland, Virginia, after seeing a video of the previous night’s evil torch rally on Facebook: all those khakis and white polo shirts and suburban tiki torches chanting “You! Will Not! RePLACE us!” and “Blood and Soil” in a swingless martial rhythm.

The counterprotest headquarters at McGuffey Park, two blocks from Emancipation Park, was decorated with big origami swans, folded from brown paper. One table offered “FREE SNACKS FOR SOLIDARITY”; the sign showed a raised fist holding a fork. (Later in the day, back at this place, a voice over the microphone paged someone named “Riot”: “your comrades are looking for you.” I imagined forty guys named “Riot” heading to the desk.) The nearby Stonewall Jackson Park, renamed Justice Park, was another counterprotest headquarters. There were more red shirts there, and an organizer was talking with the cops. A DJ was setting up his kit under a tent. On a plastic table were orderly stacks of handouts: “Dismantling Racism Checklist,” “How to Oppose White Supremacists Safely and Effectively.” We met a woman in a red T-shirt that had a cute image of a slice of pie on it.

The only reason I was in Charlottesville at all was to visit a friend. I live in Amsterdam, teaching American Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and I’ve been going to Charlottesville a couple times a year for several years. My friend is a writer and we have a routine. We wake up early, eat the same breakfast, go to the same café to work and write, take the same spots at the same window and look out at the same intersection. Then we walk to the same spot for lunch and order the same meal. That’s been my experience of the town as a white American academic “expat.” This trip was different. What follows is an account of what I saw and what I thought. It is episodic and incomplete; I am neither a journalist nor a local. But I am an Americanist, trying to make sense of things at home and abroad.

Twenty or so white guys stood around Emancipation Park in full combat gear by 8:30 or so—desert fatigues, wrap-around shades, assault rifles, American flags and sometimes Confederate battle flags. This was the “Militia,” and they styled themselves peacekeepers. Nearby, a dude in a Hitler T-shirt smoked a cigarette and clashed with a woman who carried a cowbell and a flashy gold walking-staff. I don’t know who started talking to whom, but she rang the cowbell at him and said “I don’t want to talk to you.” He walked off muttering “liberal lunacy.”

Many churches and a synagogue dot the center of Charlottesville, and clergy were visible throughout the day. The counterprotest was an American mix of ecumenism and radicalism. Men in yarmulkes walked toward the Methodist church, next to which sat a prayer circle of unclear denomination. A woman had fashioned a Star of David out of masking tape to stick on her shirt, and one saw many ministerial collars, kufis and colorful stoles.

Gaggles of white supremacists marched to the park, some chanting “Blood and Soil” from behind white shields. The symbols ran the gamut of familiar and obscure. A few white shields were stamped with the logo of the Detroit Red Wings: a group down from Michigan, I learned the next day, but for the moment I wondered whether an ice hockey logo was a subcultural racist icon I hadn’t known about. The counterprotesting clergy walked in a solemn line up Market Street and stood before Emancipation Park, arm in arm. This was soon after 9. They sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and then one by one each offered a short prayer. The heckling began in the fifth or sixth prayer. A troll with a microphone and a backpack scoffed over the prayers, said that all of the lesbian ministers in America must have showed up this morning. He yelled something about Martin Luther King and his bestseller, “On the Jews and their Lies.” But that was Martin Luther.
The crowd joined the clergy, singing “This Little Light of Mine” several times, and chanting “We have already won.”

The rods of human retinas detect motion in our peripheral vision; the cones in our retinas let us focus. Between the chants and the songs, people stood around talking in a state of uneasy suspension. The rally wasn’t supposed to start for a few hours, after all. When a clash does break out, it intrudes first on the peripheral vision, or you hear the noise of a scuffle and feel the concentric reactions that move outward through the crowd: gasps, outrage, adrenaline.

There were several small clashes of that sort in the morning. We were a few blocks from Emancipation Park when things really erupted, blocks away from the mace, the pepper spray, the rocks and clubs, the urine, the tear gas. At 11:22, police declared an unlawful assembly, before the rally had officially begun. We saw white supremacists marching down the street out of the city center, taunting bystanders they happened to pass. They were an ugly bunch. At 11:52, the governor declared a state of emergency.

At 2nd Street and Market the crowd jeered the retreating white supremacists. It seemed like they were headed toward McIntire Park. A sign read, “FUCK OFF NAZI SCUM.” A counterprotester in a black T-shirt and a kilt held a “REAL CLANSMEN WEAR KILTS” sign. You could see scattered white supremacists separated from their gangs; one held a Klan shield in one hand and a Monster Energy Drink in the other. The crowd chanted “No more haters, Virginia is for lovers,” and cheered when the clergy arrived at the intersection. There was a moment of sudden worry at a purple smoke bomb, but it was just a smoke bomb.

A guy with really long hair and a purple tie-dyed shirt asked one of the helmeted cops, in a smiley singsongy nerd voice, “Excuse me, officer, could you direct me to the nearest waste receptacle?” Tie-dyed guy wanted to recycle a crumpled plastic water bottle. The cop didn’t know where the trash cans were. Probably they were both from out of town, not accustomed to the local rhythms of trash can placement. And anyway water bottles were strewn about everywhere.
Back at the McGuffey Park counterprotest site, antifascists belted out the union anthem “Solidarity Forever.” I now noticed among the decorations a giant papier-mâché head of Sally Hemings.

We wandered, seeing scattered crowds around the center of town. On a street between two parking lots, a few blocks from the pedestrian mall, 30 or 40 police in riot gear had surrounded a group of 15 or 20 white supremacists and teeth-armed white militiamen. One held a yellow “don’t tread on me” flag. This was about 12:30pm. They were going to their cars, which they’d parked in one of the lots. Normally on Saturdays there’s a farmer’s market in the other one, from 7am to noon. There had been one that day, too, but it had closed up early.

A troll with a microphone said that all of the lesbian ministers in America must have showed up this morning

With them in the middle of the crowd, sitting on a curb, was a red-haired woman with a mild head wound. She wasn’t with the white supremacists, as far as I could tell; she had a laminated badge hanging around her neck and might have been press. Various people crouched around her. The counterprotesters outnumbered the white supremacists, but the white supremacists had the assault weapons. After a while the woman was escorted to an ambulance.

The crowd yelled “Nazis Go Home” as the white supremacists went to their cars. A dark gray pickup truck didn’t have any license plates, but it did have a handicapped sticker hanging from the mirror. A pack of the full-fatigued, combat-ready militia types climbed in the back and waited. Soon we saw a large man with a prosthetic left leg, his hair dyed in bold red, white, and blue stripes. Even his beard was dyed. Everyone was waiting because another of their caravan had a dead battery and needed a jump. It was a Chevy with a Confederate battle flag in place of a license plate, and its driver wore a T-shirt with a Confederate flag over the phrase, “PEACE KEEPERS.” A holstered handgun was clipped to his belt. A kindly, non-Nazi Volvo shared its live battery.

As they left the parking lot, one of the cars clipped a counterprotester, a young white guy, and the crowd gasped. Some kicked the cars and chased after, yelling good riddance.

Across the parking lot we saw hundreds of counterprotesters marching down Water Street. There were red flags, Black Lives Matter banners, and some clergy. The mood turned triumphant as that march converged with another march coming up Second Street. “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” As far as we could tell, no cops were around to escort or protect this assembly. We walked with the crowd for a block.

There were screams ahead, and soon the crowd was pushing back in panic. I thought maybe there had been a clash up ahead with white supremacists; they were scattered around town, and the news from McIntire Park was inconsistent. I thought maybe the police had tried to break up this “unlawful assembly” (a flexible term) the way they had broken up or tear-gassed counterprotests in recent months. We had been a block from the crash, and moved back another block, unsure what had happened but sure it was bad. Some people passed us, crying or in shock. Many called out “Medic! Medic!” There were medics among the counterprotest all day, crosses of red tape visible on cars and sleeves and backpacks. We saw more clergy running toward the scene.

News spread fast yet confused that a car had mowed people down. We would learn before long that a dark gray Dodge Charger with tinted windows plowed murderously through the crowd, rammed a silver sedan, and then reared back again through the pedestrian mall away from the scene. But in the immediate aftermath it wasn’t yet clear. I searched Twitter for #Charlottesville, shifted from “top” to “latest.” Some people thought the silver sedan had done it; its crumpled trunk was the image that first appeared in the rapidly-forming news. The license plate read “GDKPME”: God keep me.

A full account of the day’s events would demand something like a military historian to trace the movements and communications of different factions. Think of those maps of battles in high school history textbooks: all arrows and dots and little explosion symbols. “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” was at once a battle cry and a euphoric cry of victory. The ubiquity of camera phones and Twitter would allow that historian a full, granular play-by-play—including even the strategic uncertainties that were themselves part of the play-by-play. Were the Nazis at McIntire Park? Would they regroup and return? One of the counterprotest marches was only coming up 2nd Street because there had been chatter of activity in a nearby apartment complex called Friendship Court.

What that tactical history would reveal about the police, I am not sure: it seemed like their orders emphasized de-escalation to the point of passivity. But it would certainly reveal the power of the counterprotest. It would also bear out the statements by several of the counterprotesting clergy that the much-derided Antifa forces had saved them from harm. The white supremacists were left whining that the police had not protected them, that they’d had a permit to speak and that their rights of free expression had been denied. But they showed up to the park early, strapped, before their permit began.

It is not surprising that all those Nazi clubs from out of town would want to get an early jump. Their impulse to terrorize is proportional to their vanity: of course they would want to show off their KKK cosplay costumes, their Confederate LARPing getups. Richard Spencer wears Ugg boots. They drape themselves in military valor and romantic heroism, deride “snowflakes” and “safe spaces.” The absurd self-overestimation recalls the preposterous self-regard of the South’s gentleman slave-owners who assumed that one Confederate soldier could whip seven Yankees, and who persisted in that assumption years into the Civil War, even when defeat was certain.

Ironically, the advice distributed to the alt-right rally-goers on websites like the Daily Stormer amounted to little more than advice on how to retreat: “If you get mixed up in something heavy, get scarce fast.” Such courage!

Imagine what we would be saying had the car attack not occurred—if the rally was dispersed and no one was murdered, and the Nazis just returned their rented U-Haul pickup trucks and checked out of their hotels. We would say that an unlikely but heroic alliance of Black Lives Matter activists, clergy, antifascists, anarchists, and communists had driven the Nazis from town. We might be saying that the police, while not exactly protecting the counterprotesters, at least didn’t beat them up. This is a low bar, but the bars are low these days.

That would have been a victory, but at the same time little would have changed. The Unite the Right rally would have been one more episode of evil idiocy, another symptom of the larger disaster. It would have been a sideshow—not because white supremacy is a sideshow but because systemic white supremacy doesn’t need a circus in order to rule. An aggrieved, polo-shirted assertion of white pride is redundant bathos.

The year 1619 saw the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” to Jamestown, Virginia, on a Dutch slave ship

I was never in the center of things. What I saw was only adjacent to the main drama and the real terror, and I was never in any danger. All I can really chronicle with any authority are the pauses, the parking lots, the dead car batteries. For a moment it felt ordinary. A reader might be tempted to find some comfort, somehow, in that calm. But the mundaneness of armed Nazis in a parking lot is no comfort. It makes everything worse.

On Monday, two days after the attack, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center hosted a community gathering to discuss what had happened and consider future plans. The auditorium was packed. The University of Virginia scholar and Black Lives Matter activist Lisa Woolfork took as her topic the connection between symbols and acts, symbolic violence and physical violence. There had been a white supremacist rally once a month for four months, she noted, and the Confederate monuments had been their invitation. So: remove the monuments. The auditorium erupted into cheers. We cheered too. Defenders of the monuments, in addition to invoking “heritage,” often suggest that removing them would be too expensive. The heritage argument doesn’t stand much scrutiny: the statues in Charlottesville are from the 1920s. As for the cost argument, it was easy for Woolfork to dismantle: “We have paid already.”

The weekend did have the feel of an invasion, even if Jason Kessler, who convened the Unite the Right rally, is from Charlottesville, and Richard Spencer is an alumnus of the University of Virginia. (Woolfork noted that he probably did not take African American literature classes.) Estimates before the event made it seem like a few thousand white supremacists might descend on the town from outside to buy their torches from suburban housewares stores. In the end it was only several hundred.

But of course it would be Virginia, and of course it would be Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a liberal enclave, a college town, with farmer’s markets and good coffee and a movie theater showing old French movies. The city voted 80% for Hillary Clinton, having grown more and more Democratic since the mid-1970s. It also has the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson but now, for the alt-right, a detestable symbol of the campus politics, “p.c. culture,” and the oversensitivity of coddled elites.

If the recent history of city offers so much that white supremacists hate, the state of Virginia has a history only white supremacists could love. Most U.S. history textbooks will point out the twin births of American democracy and American racial slavery in Virginia: the year 1619 saw both the election of the House of Burgesses and the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” to Jamestown on a Dutch slave ship. By the 1720s the slave population of Virginia could be sustained by slave birth rates rather than by the importation of slaves—a horrible novelty in the history of Atlantic slavery. It was this “natural” expansion of slavery that would allow Virginia’s slave-owning leaders to criticize the slave trade as barbaric while congratulating their own slave-holding selves as benevolent paternalists. This perverse moral high ground is the subject of Edmund Morgan’s classic 1975 account of colonial Virginia, American Slavery, American Freedom. There is nary a branch without that root.

Out of this milieu came the enlightened slave-owners Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe. Statues of these three august Charlottesvillean presidents line City Hall, just above the spot where Jason Kessler was tackled into a flower patch by a woman while running from his own press conference the day after the murder his rally had wrought. The crowd had drowned him out with chants of “Shame!”

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‘You! Will Not! RePLACE us!’ Charlottesville, 11th of August © John Rudoff / Polaris / HH

On Friday, the night before the rally, we had gone to the University of Virginia campus for a service convened by Congregate Charlottesville, the organization that had invited clergy to join the counterprotest. We couldn’t get in: Cornel West was a headliner, and the building was already filled beyond capacity when we arrived. Only later in the night did we learn of the torch march, and we watched the same video that brought many counterprotesters to Charlottesville on Saturday. Images from that march also generated a million mocking memes. But that meme-ification from afar was so instant that one could forget how terrifying it must have been to be in the center of it. To watch recordings of it after Saturday’s murder is more chilling still.

Of all the weekend’s events, that ritualistic scene was the most Gothic in its horror. It called to mind novelistic ruminations on American fascism and antisemitism from Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Arthur Miller’s Focus to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. It was also a modern Klan rally, a modern lynch mob, with polo shirts instead of white sheets. Some twenty or thirty people, mostly students of color, stood around the campus’s statue of Jefferson and faced down the mob. Would it really have been surprising if they had been lynched then and there?

When you watch a recording of it on the Periscope portal—the one from the Charlottesville transgender activist Emily Gorcenski is the most powerful I saw, and the courage behind it breathtaking—you see other viewers’ comments drip past the video itself, and you’re confronted with both evil and snark. Gleeful death threats alongside equally gleeful taunts of anyone who would take the gleeful death threats seriously. That distilled for me our era’s convergence of trolling and terrorism, eerie and awful.

Theater scholars define performance as a “twice-behaved behavior.” If the methods of military history would illuminate the events of Saturday’s protest and counterprotest, so the vocabulary of performance captures something about Friday’s ritual terror: the scriptedness of it, the overlap of horror and familiarity. It was both a real Nazi rally and a charade of one, both an action and the carnivalesque rehearsal of an action. I think this is what people meant when they referred to the weekend as “surreal.” We heard that word several times—from the woman in the PEACE shirt on Saturday morning to the speakers at the Jefferson School assembly. Nightmares are surreal, and demons are surreal. It was surreal because it was at once the evil laid bare and the evil most devilishly masked.

The Confederate monuments that have provided the setting for the American dramas of recent months are products of the Jim Crow era. But their vintage is not exclusively Southern, nor even exclusively American. The cult of Robert E. Lee’s purported chivalry and nobility was as alive in Europe as it was in the United States when these statues were cast. Charlottesville’s statue of Stonewall Jackson was unveiled in 1921, six decades after the Civil War itself, and its sculptor was from New York. The statue of Lee that went up three years later was started by a New Yorker and finished by an Italian immigrant. Henry James traveled through the United States in 1904 and 1905, when the modern romance of the Confederacy was being written and canonized. It was an expat’s return, after several decades in Europe. What he wrote about Virginia in his travelogue, The American Scene, stood out to me when I read it on the train leaving Virginia. He went to Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy.

The funny thing is that he arrived there hoping to find that Confederate romance—“scratching, scratching for romance”—but he found no deposit of it. He found only ugliness, and that chapter of the book is a study in boredom and disappointment. It includes some passages about black Americans that make a modern reader wince, though James also keenly saw the constant threat of anti-black violence. But his main target is “the old Southern idea,” “the hugest fallacy,” “a social order founded on delusions and exclusions,” “the immense, grotesque, defeated project … pathetic in its folly, of a vast Slave State.”

His Virginia wanderings culminate in a description of Richmond’s then-new equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. It was commissioned in 1876, and unveiled in 1890; it is one of the older ones. The sculptor was French. (It is still there as of this writing, but I am glad to see that the mayor has condemned it.) James’s commentary surprised me. He thought it was a fine statue in an empty, ugly place, like “some precious pearl of ocean washed up on a rude bare strand.” It had a “melancholy nobleness” but looked off into “desolate space.” The high pillar on which it stood was only a “high stool of penitence,” not a posture of triumph: Lee occupied “the very heaven of futility.” So the monument evoked something other than what its makers intended: not some romance of the Confederacy, but the condition “of having worshipped false gods.”

That seemed like an elegant way to close my own peripheral account. The American Scene captures both the non-historic-ness of the monuments and their pointlessness. James had the luxury of ironic distance, and I also have that luxury. But that conclusion left me bitter. It is curious, now, to follow James’s long weird winding complicated sentences from a century ago, because our moment is not very complicated at all. A man shouted at Jason Kessler as he fled his press conference, after the murder of Heather Heyer: “Her blood is on your hands; her blood is on your hood.” A few hours after the attack, before her name had been released, a speaker at McGuffey Park said “The blood of the person who died today is on Trump’s hands.” Often the truest sentences are short. The Charlottesville that I visit is not an empty, ugly place. It is not the Trumpist Nazi rot that came and killed and went.