“Last year they came with torches,” said a large banner in front of a monument of Thomas Jefferson. “This year they come with badges.”
The mood in the crowd began to shift when, as speakers addressed a large crowd outside Brooks Hall, dozens of police officers clad in riot gear lined up along one side of the field. Many of the protesters called the police action a provocation — another symbol, they said, of the overpolicing of America — and started chanting at the officers, who were holding shields and wearing helmets.
“It’s really hard to defend our civil society when [police] do this,” said one protester, Tom Freeman. “They just marched down on us without any provocation. Nothing. It just fits everything they say about them, and I’m not even an anti-police person.”
One year ago, the police in Charlottesville were outnumbered and ill-prepared for the white nationalist Unite the Right rally that surged through the streets of the picturesque college town, leaving dozens injured and one counterprotester dead. Two Virginia State Police troopers who had been monitoring the day’s events were killed when their helicopter crashed. An independent report later commissioned by the city largely attributed the “disastrous results” to the Charlottesville Police Department for its response to the events.
On the first anniversary of that rally, which ushered in another painful reckoning with racism and hatred in America, the police were neither outnumbered nor ill-prepared. All of Saturday, they were in fact inescapable, blocking roads, sealing entrances to downtown, more than 1,000 strong, on a day when a white supremacist event was not planned, but was definitely feared.
In a city already divided over how forcefully it should confront historical and institutional racism, only inflamed by last year’s unrest, there was little consensus over how to understand the contrast between last year and this year. Some called the heavy law enforcement presence a difficult necessity to ensure everyone was safe. Others said the police made them feel anything but safe. And still others saw a racial disparity in the display of state power.
“I see a disproportionality,” said Lisa Woolfork, a U-Va. professor and an activist with the Charlottesville Black Lives Matter. “Unless there is something they’re not telling us and have some intelligence that the white nationalists will still march in force, it seems like who they’re gearing up to monitor and observe and contain and discipline are those of us who want to resist fascism and racism.”
Fascism and racism: It was just about all anyone was talking about Saturday. Up and down the streets of downtown, people discussed what those forces are in America, and what they are in Charlottesville.
A cake sold at a bakery said, “NO HOME FOR HATE.”
A chalkboard said, “May God watch over our citizens this weekend.”
A poster at the makeshift memorial where a car crashed into a group of protesters last year, killing Heather Heyer, said, simply, “Heather.”
A banner held at the front of dozens of Antifa members, who had come from chapters all over the country, said, “Good Night White Pride.”
And the President of the University of Virginia, said, for the first time, “I am sorry,” according to the Daily Progress, trying to atone for the tiki-torch march on the university’s grounds last year, which led to injuries among counterprotesters.
The whole thing was terrible for business. Around half the stores downtown were closed Saturday, and a few that were open might as well not have been. At the end of one barricaded alley, and down the steps, a store clerk named Jinny Cowgill looked over an empty vintage store, Low, and chatted with a friend. It was getting on toward noon, and normally by that time, customers would be coming and going, but the store hadn’t seen a single shopper.
“You’ve heard of food deserts — this is like a business desert,” said the friend, Carolyn Burgess. “ . . . Last year, we were terrorized by the KKK, and this year we’re terrorized by the police.”
“It’s a great line,” replied Cowgill. “But I don’t feel terrorized.”
“I feel like we’re under martial law,” Burgess said.
The downtown pedestrian mall, where last year Unite the Right rallygoers and counterprotesters violently clashed, and the university campus, where white supremacists shouted racist slurs, felt transformed into an heavily guarded police zone of checkpoints and metal detectors, fencing and barricades.
Every access point was sealed off, except for two, where pedestrians had to have their bags searched before they could enter. Nearby was a list of prohibited items, including glass bottles, axes, swords, skateboards, drones, and “any other item considered an ‘implement of riot.’ ”
“What is this?” one officer suspiciously asked a man trying to get inside, as she rummaged through his bag.
“A Nerf football,” the man, Nic McCarthy replied.
“No, I was just wondering why there was a hole in it,” the officer said, and McCarthy only shrugged.
Nearby stood a man named Mike, who declined to give his last name, smoking a cigarette and making his way through a few beers before he started his next shift at North American Sake Brewery. He watched the dozens of police all around him, and said he started to feel angry.
“It’s too much,” he said. “I’ve been here all of my life, born and raised, and I have never seen this . . . Being black in America, this doesn’t make me feel safe.”
Just then, a commotion roared past him, as 17 police escorted one man with a big beard and a tie-dye shirt toward the exit of the downtown mall. Soon the police officers formed a perimeter around him, 35 of them, and they took two handguns off him. John Miska was arrested, not for the guns — open-carry was permitted — but for other prohibited items that he had on him, police said. The Daily Progress reported that Miska, a veterans advocate, had pushed his walker to the CVS where he bought two cases of Arizona Iced Tea, a razor blade and other items.
He was one of two arrests police reported as of late Saturday afternoon. The other was on charges of trespassing.
Mike watched as Miska was taken away, then put out his cigarette. He had to get going. His shift was starting in a few minutes and, white supremacists or not, police or not, he had to live his life as he always had.
Hours later, at the University of Virginia, protesters took that sense of discomfort and made it action, marching along Rugby Road in a long line. Many were members of Antifa, and they held signs that condemned the university and the police, along with white supremacists. They chanted and marched as night descended and police cars whooshed by and a helicopter hovered above.
“It’s important to show any white nationalists or supremacists that we won’t stand for this,” said student Ameenah Elam, 21. She said the racist protests last year were indicative of deeper cultures of discrimination at the university and in Charlottesville. “This has happened much more than just last yea . . . The history [of racism] in Charlottesville goes way deeper than Aug. 12 of last year.”