Charlottesville has been the stage of a high-profile civil trial of more than two dozen white supremacists and hate groups, whom plaintiffs accuse of conspiring to commit racially motivated violence during the deadly 2017 rally. The jurors are deliberating in a federal courthouse within walking distance to places overrun that weekend by racism and attacks.
The compact nature of the city has resulted in uncomfortable sightings of white supremacists during this unusual trial, now entering its fifth week. During breaks in court proceedings, the defendants head to the Downtown Mall, a stretch of restaurants and shops among leafy trees where locals and visitors alike grab lunch or catch up with friends.
Heimbach and his lawyer had walked into Christian’s Pizza, where Nancy Alvarado, a 20-year-old worker who was not living in Charlottesville during the rally, stood behind the counter. She did not recognize them, took their orders and then handed them their pizza slices.
Then a call came in. Hundreds of people follow “cvillefashwatch,” which tweets when a white supremacist defendant is spotted on the Downtown Mall, along with photos. The person on the other line told Alvarado that a white supremacist was inside the restaurant.
Confused, she peeked behind the register at pictures of the defendants on a flier that anti-fascist organizers handed out to local businesses. Then she looked at the men sitting at the window overlooking the pedestrian mall. “I wasn’t sure what happened, and it makes me uncomfortable,” she said in an interview after the encounter. “I didn’t know who they were.” Now she wondered, “What should I do next time?”
The federal courthouse where the trial is being held is a five-minute walk to the park where men in combat gear, with long guns and chemical irritants, showed up in support of the statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. It is about a mile from the Rotunda, where white supremacists with torches marched one night four years ago chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
And it is located just blocks away from the spot where a neo-Nazi plowed his car through the crowd of anti-racism protesters, striking four of the plaintiffs in this civil lawsuit and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
This closeness has put the Charlottesville residents following the federal trial on edge, as they process the trauma that lingers from what they refer to as the “Summer of Hate.” The people who call Charlottesville home are tired of others using their town’s name as shorthand for the sights and sounds of bigotry that were broadcast across the nation that weekend. They’re skeptical, too, of the outsiders coming to tell their stories.
Hours after Alvarado encountered Heimbach at his lunch break, residents called into a city council meeting with complaints about another troubling moment. The prior Friday, a group had come to town for a political stunt, cosplaying as white supremacists in the deadly Unite the Right rally.
It was offensive, the residents said, and particularly tasteless for occurring while victims of the weekend’s racist violence testified in court. Members of city council then blasted the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump Republican group behind the political stunt, saying in a letter that it “tore open a still-healing wound” and “caused a PTSD flashback to those traumatic days.”
Kanijah Brickhouse saw the horror of that weekend four years ago through social media posts. She was in high school on the Eastern Shore of Virginia at the time and remembers recognizing the city name as the same one that hosts the University of Virginia. “It was in Charlottesville. I was thinking about going there,” Brickhouse recalled at that moment when deciding on college. “It is such a good school, but would I be welcomed there?”
When Brickhouse first arrived on the campus, she was surprised that there were not more discussions about the white supremacists who came with torches and violence. She briefly met Natalie Romero, one of the plaintiffs in this suit, at a multicultural student event and introduced herself.
Brickhouse recognized Romero from photos of her published after the car attack that fractured her skull. “She probably won’t remember it, but I do,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to a tragedy.” Brickhouse, now a U-Va. senior majoring in cognitive science and member of the Black Student Alliance, said she has not given the trial much thought.
U-Va., like other institutions, has tried to reckon with its past, including its embrace and defense of slavery. Earlier this year, the university dedicated a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, after many students, activists, historians and descendants advocated for that idea for more than a decade.
It is near the Rotunda, the tall domed-roof structure designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by the people who were enslaved. On Aug. 11, 2017, the torch-carrying mob marched down the middle of the campus lawn, climbed to the Rotunda and converged on the students at a statue of Jefferson.
Now the memorial is a counterpoint to the Rotunda and honors the lives of the 4,000 people who were enslaved and forced to build the campus. Other signs of the city’s racist past have been removed. After more than five years of advocacy from residents, including a 2016 petition from then-local high school student, Zyahna Bryant, Charlottesville removed in July the statues of Robert E. Lee and fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.
Amid the trial, people walking from the Downtown Mall toward the federal courthouse passed a bus stop with “Antifa Zone” drawn in red on the glass. Nearby businesses have “Black Lives Matter” signs in their windows.
Though some people are avoiding the daily drumbeat of racism spewed by defendants or the evidence from plaintiff attorneys that they argue details the execution and celebration of violence, others are following closely.
Up to 500 people dialed in to tune in to the trial every day. Activists and journalists tweeted what amounts to a loose transcript of the proceedings to tens of thousands of followers. And members of the clergy and activists frequently stopped by the federal courthouse to show their support for the plaintiffs, often in the afternoons to greet people as they exit for the day.
Cora Schenberg, an assistant professor at the U-Va. Germanic languages and literatures department, had stood outside the courthouse earlier this month with a sign that read, “Nazis: Losers in 1945. Losers in 2021.”
Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel, who had stood alongside Schenberg, held a sign calling for “Justice for Charlottesville.” He penned a letter to his congregation the day before jury selection began, reflecting on if this trial could possibly bring them closure. To him, the answer was no.
“There will be closure when we figure out as an American people how to combat these trends, when we get some clarity on what draws people to these false theories, and those underlying dynamics which allow for the popularization of these ideas,” Gutherz wrote to his congregation.
While many people in front of the courthouse come and go, 49-year-old Rosia Parker and 52-year-old Katrina Turner have been a constant. The two Black women, who know some of the plaintiffs, positioned themselves in plain view of the door in hope of sending a clear message to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis back in town: Hate has no place here.
They play just three songs from a phone speaker: “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud,” “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “The Payback.”
When one of the defendants, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who coined the term “alt-right,” walked out of the courthouse following legal proceedings this month, they turned up the volume and danced. Earlier in the trial, when their friend Devin Willis walked out of the courthouse, they both dropped their “Black Lives Matter” banner and ran toward him.
“What’s up, trouble?” Willis said, a smile across his face. Moments earlier, the 23-year-old told jurors about the sound of white supremacists making “monkey noises” around him at the haunting 2017 march. He described how he feared for his life as a Black man in the middle of the mob.
Outside, away from the defendants, Willis exuded relief. “I’m so glad y’all are here. I haven’t seen you in so long. I love y’all so much,” he told Parker and Turner as they enveloped him in a group hug and swayed.