But DeAndre Harris, one of hundreds of counterprotesters at the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, ran straight into a trap: The African American special-education aide scrambled into a downtown Charlottesville parking garage, where six men linked to militia or white-supremacist groups pummeled his 5-foot-10, 135-pound frame, all of it captured on video seen hundreds of thousands of times.
One man wore a military-style tactical helmet and a body-length shield and kicked him four times — once so hard Harris lifted into the air, and collapsed on the floor, where the same man kicked him yet again. Another smacked Harris with a wooden board while he lay crumpled on the ground.
“I kept falling,” said Harris, now 22. “I didn’t even realize I was being hit at the time. I was just trying to get up and run, but then I fell, then I got up again, then I fell. When your adrenaline is running so high, you don’t feel none of it until after the fact.”
The violence on Aug. 12, 2017 — which left one counterprotester dead and dozens injured — transformed Harris into a symbol of racial strife as the video of the beating went viral. The aftermath left Harris traumatized, forcing him to give up a job he loved and making him a target of unnerving threats for the past two years.
Last month, a Charlottesville judge gave the fourth of Harris’s six assailants a sentence that amounts to more than two years. The others received sentences of between nearly four and eight years. Police are still searching for the last two men, whose identities remain a mystery.
But Harris and his attackers are not done fighting in court. Two of the men are appealing their convictions. And on Aug. 12 — exactly two years after the rally — Harris sued his assailants, as well as the rally’s organizers and several neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups, alleging they violated his civil rights. He’s seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages.
As he sat on a red couch inside his Virginia apartment on a Sunday afternoon, Harris railed against their punishments, which he considers too lenient. He believes he could have easily been the rally’s second death, alongside Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal who was killed when neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr. rammed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people.
“In the next six years, all these guys will be right back at it. I thought they’d be going to jail for a longer time,” Harris said. “If it had been a white guy who was attacked, and it was all my friends beating him up, we would never have seen the light of day again.”
'Let me see your face'
Before the rally, Harris was thriving.
After graduating in 2015 from Lakeland High School in Suffolk, Va., he sold Nikes and Timberlands at a DTLR store. Then a cousin in Charlottesville urged him to move to the liberal college town.
He got a job serving lunch at a middle school and playing sports with kids in the aftercare program before he was offered a chance to work as a special-education aide at Venable Elementary School. He was assigned to help a pre-kindergartener with a spinal defect; she was paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair.
Over the next year, Harris made sure she could complete her arts and crafts. He played basketball and dodgeball with her. He was beside her as she learned to master a machine that helped her walk. When she finally nailed it, he shouted her name and took pictures.
“He had tears in his eyes,” said Erin Kershner, Venable’s principal.
“She was like my daughter,” Harris said, his eyes welling up.
By the spring of 2017, Harris — known to all the kids as “Mr. Dre” — got promoted to work as a special-education assistant at Charlottesville High School for the next academic year.
“I had my own apartment. I had my own job,” he said. “I was establishing myself.”
That summer, Harris kept seeing stories online about an upcoming rally called “Unite the Right.” The demonstration was being organized by Jason Kessler, a University of Virginia graduate, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville city park.
Harris said he wondered what the white supremacists would do. What would they say to someone like him?
Growing up in Suffolk, where his mother had worked in the city’s famous Planters Peanuts factory, Harris lived in a predominantly black neighborhood and said he never experienced blatant racism.
When he arrived in downtown Charlottesville on that August day, what Harris saw startled him: White supremacists and neo-Nazis were wielding shields and carrying guns. Some wore face masks. Counterprotesters were chucking sticks, cans and water bottles. When someone gave him the Maglite flashlight for protection, he took it.
Several minutes before noon, police declared an unlawful assembly and ordered everyone to leave the area. As Harris and other counterprotesters walked up Market Street, he saw a friend being struck in the chest with the tip of a heavy wooden flagpole.
He swung the Maglite, intending, he testified later, to hit the flagpole. But he wound up striking the head of Harold Crews, a North Carolina lawyer and state chairman of a white-nationalist group called the League of the South. Seconds later, Harris was pepper-sprayed — and quickly sensed he had become a target. So he fled into the parking garage adjacent to the Charlottesville police department, pursued by the pack of white supremacists.
All it took was about 10 seconds. After the beating, Harris needed eight staples to close a gash on his scalp. His left wrist was broken, a front tooth was chipped, and he was covered with cuts and bruises.
The next day, he FaceTimed with his parents, who had no clue he’d even attended the rally.
On the phone, all they could see was his apartment’s ceiling. “I said, ‘Hold up, DeAndre,” his mother, Felicia Harris, recalled saying. “‘Let me see your face.’”
When Harris finally obeyed her, all she could do was scream and cry.
The next day, his shaken parents came and moved him out of Charlottesville. They no longer felt he was safe there.
Harris later resigned from his job at the school. Children and their parents showered him with farewell cards.
“I’m so sorry this happened. I need you,” wrote one kid. One set of parents wrote, “Dear DeAndre, We were horrified to see images of your assault. You were so brave to be there, to stand up to hate . . . Please know that we are holding you in our hearts.”
'Look at the video!'
It didn’t take long for Harris to watch the video racing across the Internet.
The horrifying images of a black man being beaten by white men were reminiscent of those taken decades ago during the civil rights movement. He played it over and over, scrutinizing who did what to him.
“It was just shocking to know this video was seen by so many people and that something like this would happen in 2017, and that it would happen to me,” he said. “Thankfully, I am still alive.”
Harris testified against two of his attackers and faced a misdemeanor charge himself for hitting Crews.
He was acquitted. A judge ruled he didn’t intend to hit anyone with the flashlight.
But the trials tested his patience. He was especially outraged that defense attorneys kept showing footage of him inadvertently smacking Crews with a flashlight moments before the attack. How did that give his own assailants a right to ask for leniency from a jury or judge?
One of his attackers, Jacob Scott Goodwin, who was carrying a full-body shield and wearing a military helmet, claimed self-defense. Goodwin’s attorney, Elmer Woodard, tried suggesting to jurors that Harris had fled into the garage to continue fighting.
“I was like, ‘How?! Look at the video!’ ” Harris said. “I don’t have any weapons in my hands and I am on my hands and knees with mace in my eyes.”
He also dismissed the men’s apologies, especially the one from Goodwin, who told the court that “if me and Mr. Harris would have met on different terms, we’d be friends.”
“No, no, no, no, we would not be friends,” he said.
Still, Harris says he forgives the men.
“God is a forgiving person, and who am I not to forgive someone?” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I forget what happened.”
'He cried all day'
Harris said he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He tried unsuccessfully to find another job as special-education aide in his new location, which The Washington Post agreed not to disclose. Now Harris works for a car dealership as a salesman. But Unite the Right still has a way of finding him.
Last year, on his way into work, he got a Facebook message from a man named “James Stuart,” whose profile page featured a photo of a Lee statue along with quote attributed to the Confederate general: “Study hard, be always a gentleman, live cleanly and remember God.” The profile picture of “Stuart” — a reference to Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart — showed a bearded man holding a sign that said, “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE.”
His message to Harris: “I’m looking for a 2010 dark gray Dodge Challenger. Any suggestions?”
“I put two and two together and realized that was the car that killed Heather Heyer,” Harris said. “I sent it straight to my attorney.”
When he arrived at work that day, his manager told Harris to go home because someone had called the corporate office asking for him. The man had made racial slurs and asked what time Harris got off work.
“It freaked me out,” Harris said. “We got police involved. But they said there was nothing they could do about it. I was like, ‘Where is this guy? Who is this guy?’ ”
This year, on the rally’s second anniversary, he was at work on a lunch break when memories of the beating suddenly gut-punched him. He told his manager he didn’t feel right, that he had to leave, and went to his mom’s house.
“He couldn’t stop crying,” Felicia Harris recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know why I am feeling this way.’ He cried all day long. I hugged him. I told him I loved him. But he’s never seen a therapist. He doesn’t want to do it. He keeps saying he’s okay.”
The specter of the parking garage never really recedes.
A few weeks ago, he was out at bar with a colleague, who introduced him to one of his own friends. The man greeted Harris and immediately said, “You look familiar.” Harris shrugged and suggested maybe they had crossed paths somewhere. Or maybe he’d seen some of Harris’s hip-hop videos?
“Then the guy said, ‘No, I know you from somewhere else,’ ” Harris recalled. “Then he was like, ‘Charlottesville! You that dude from Charlottesville! You that dude from CNN!’ ”
Yes, Harris sighed, that was him.