CHARLOTTESVILLE — This city woke up early Sunday morning groggy and wondering, praying even, that the pitched battles in the streets, the full decibel race-based hate, the people crushed under cars and the helicopter that fell from the sky were all just mad scenes from an end-times nightmare.
But the truth was darker. The city had a body count. Heather Heyer, 32, was dead. She lived here and worked here. Virginia state troopers H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, who would have turned 41 Sunday, were dead. They served the people who live here.
The rally that almost no one in Charlottesville wanted and many here protested ended in death and sorrow and, for the time being at least, a fruitless search to make sense of it all for those who call it home.
How, they wondered, did their quiet and beautiful little city on the lap of the Blue Ridge Mountains become the focal point of so much anger and misery?
At 7 a.m. Sunday, the groaning belch of a leaf blower sent plastic bottles and trash scattering down Market Street in front of Emancipation Park as cleanup crews worked to put Charlottesville’s face back on. They picked up the refuse of a rally turned riot responsible for bringing news crews here from around the country and the world.
On the corner, television reporters prepared for their first feeds of the day. Overnight, Charlottesville had become known for something for which it never wanted to be known. America struggles with race everywhere, but here the full fury of its most committed racial antagonists had been displayed. It no longer hid in the shadows or barked from anonymous Twitter handles. It marched with torches at night and with shields, clubs and guns in broad daylight. It shouted out “Niggers!” and “Faggots!” and “Kikes!” and it raised its arms straight out in Nazi salutes.
There was brave and reassuring talk by the local politicians, who at times like this are supposed to be brave and reassuring. There were strong words from the governor, who told the hatemongers they weren’t welcome in the commonwealth.
But from the residents there was fear, anger, despair and above all else a deep desire to not let Charlottesville’s story be shaped by the actions of others.
“I don’t think it will define the city,” said Chad Freckmann, who has lived here for the past 22 years and first came to Charlottesville as a student at the University of Virginia in 1978. “I think what’s happened here is the result of the politics of the moment. These wackos are coming out from under the rocks because it’s now politically acceptable to spew hatred.”
Freckmann stood on the block where the day before 20-year-old white supremacist James Alex Fields allegedly roared his Dodge Challenger into a crowd, mowing down Heyer and injuring 19 others. A street sweeper scoured the asphalt, removing whatever hadn’t been washed away by a heavy rain the night before.
Pamela Buckner is scared and angry. On Sunday morning she went to church worried, she said, about whether she would be attacked. Buckner, 54, has lived in Charlottesville for 27 years.
“Everything’s not okay,” Buckner said. “Everyone is on pins and needles in Charlottesville. It’s a whole lot of these racists and Nazis and KKK, and it ain’t over yet. There’s going to be more tragedy and more death. I think it’s crazy as hell.”
For many here, the desire is to put the last two days in the past and move forward. But they also know that the city’s decision this year to change the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park and to order the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the park has made it a lightning rod for white nationalists and extremists who see it as an attempt to erase white history.
“We’ll get past it, but it isn’t going to be easy,” said Larry Sabato, who moved to Charlottesville in 1970 and is a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the university’s Center for Politics. “That serpentine David Duke is right when he says, ‘We’ll be back.’ He’s right.”
Sabato watched the white supremacists parade by torchlight through the university grounds and across the campus’s vaunted Lawn on Friday evening and tweeted: “In my 47 years of association with @UVA this was the most nauseating thing I’ve ever seen. We need an exorcism on the Lawn.”
In an interview Sunday, Sabato talked about how the events of the past two days have been an effort by the extremists to mar the city.
“I think of the beautiful name Charlottesville and how these people have now created a new image for Charlottesville and tried to turn it into this evil, horrible name,” he said. “People have to wake up to what they’re trying to do here.”
The weather was perfect by Sunday afternoon. No suffocating August humidity. Sunny and breezy instead. Along the downtown mall, outdoor restaurants that had all been closed a day before reopened and filled with customers. Ice cream shops and used-book stores and cafes were all back in business. There was a hint of normalcy in the music of a guitar duo and the shrieks of babies and the shake of coins in the cup of a homeless man. The day before felt almost unimaginable.
“Those of us who live here and love Charlottesville are just afraid that the rest of the world now sees Charlottesville as a hate-filled community, and we’re not,” said Amy McLeskey. “The things that happened yesterday are really not Charlottesville. Charlottesville is unity and love, and the people that came here are not from Charlottesville.”
It wasn’t ignorance of reality that residents here suggested for their city. They know they have problems here like every American city has. With racism. And gentrification. And poverty. And education. What they don’t want is to allow a hate to come in and swallow everything.
Franklin Barbour, a 58-year-old landscaper who has lived in Charlottesville his whole life, watched his city come apart at the seams on CNN on Saturday. On Sunday, he came to Emancipation Park to take a look around and take stock.
“We walk up and down these streets, and we don’t interact with each other like we should,” Barbour said. “We need to be more together. We need to talk to each other. We need to love each other.”
Zoeann Murphy contributed to this report.