Ian Nakayama had been looking forward to the start of the school year at the University of Virginia — catching up with friends, a block party, classes starting next week. When he learned that white nationalists planned a rally in Charlottesville, he was angry and made sure to get to town early to protest them.
But last weekend — after seeing people carrying torches through campus shouting slurs, after witnessing increasingly violent confrontations and being thrown to the ground as a car sped into a crowd and killed a woman — Nakayama bolted out of town. At every stoplight on the way home to Alexandria, he looked out the car window, worried other drivers might be white supremacists.
“It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Nakayama, 20, who is Japanese American. He knows he needs to return to U-Va., but he said the city and campus no longer feel safe. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”
As the new school year approaches, some students are scared to go back. Some, like Wes Gobar, president of the Black Student Alliance, are determined to reclaim the campus as a place welcoming to all. Some, like computer-science major Oronde Andrews, believe that the school is essentially safe, although targeted by outsiders, and that the best response to the national tensions is to focus on their own educations.
U-Va. has a complicated history with race. The state flagship school is a place of lofty principles, academic excellence and a deeply ingrained honor code. Its founder, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned U-Va. as a school of the Enlightenment, believing the nascent American democracy would fail without an educated citizenry. But Jefferson owned slaves. Enslaved people built much what is known in Charlottesville as the Grounds. Some scholars see a clear thread of white supremacist thought in much of the university’s history.
Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at U-Va. and a Black Lives Matter activist, said the university promoted white supremacy in the 1920s. In that era, she said, there was an influential eugenicist on the law school faculty and a Ku Klux Klan chapter at the university.
Two years ago, after a black student was bloodied by police, students demanded change. The university addressed many of their concerns, Gobar said. But ugly incidents continued last year, such as a racial slur found written on a door.
Two prominent figures in last weekend’s Unite the Right gathering — Richard B. Spencer and Jason Kessler, who call themselves white nationalists — both graduated from U-Va.
U-Va. declined to make university President Teresa Sullivan and other officials available for interviews Monday. A spokesman pointed to a Q&A in which Sullivan said her mother’s church in Illinois was burned by the KKK in 1922, and her mother served as an Army nurse at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Sullivan said she grew up with revulsion to the ideas espoused by groups such as the KKK and neo-Nazis. “I was personally caught in the gut by what happened” over the weekend, she said.
Sullivan sought to reassure students and parents about campus security. “We also want [our] students to feel a certain amount of psychological safety, but that does not mean they will never hear anything they disagree with,” she said. “We want students to become open and able to civilly engage with points of view they don’t agree with. That is how we grow as educated individuals.”
U-Va. students Wes Gobar, Aryn Frazier, Devin Willis on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Wes Gobar)
Gobar, 21, said the weekend events were overwhelming. He grew up in Fredericksburg, near four Civil War battle sites, on a street named for two Confederate generals. He knows the intense debate over Confederate monuments — the original spark that drew white nationalists to Charlottesville this year. “But it’s different when you see that up close — people with assault rifles, throwing tear gas at you, throwing rocks, surrounding your friends, walking through campus with torches.”
He was struck by how young many of the alt-right protesters were, too. “People say racism will die out,” he said. “This is an ongoing fight, because younger people are drawn to these ideologies.”
Andrews, 20, who is black, avoided both white-supremacist rallies to stay safe. He said he plans to keep his head down, focus on his education, “be the change we want to see in the university.” He said the incidents are upsetting, but the university community can overcome them. “U-Va. is diversity, not hatred or violence.”
Nakayama, who’s studying physics, had never before felt unsafe because he isn’t white. But Friday night, as he and other students went on campus to counter the protesters, he saw many of his friends surrounded by neo-Nazis. The matching clothing, which he perceived as emulating Hitler Youth, the torches and vitriolic screaming were intimidating, he said. He saw people throwing lit torches on the ground, and students getting sprayed with chemicals.
First they heard the chanting, said a senior who is white who was among the group of students who circled a statue of Jefferson and asked that her name not be used because she does not feel safe. Then the white nationalists rounded the corner outside the Rotunda and she felt like all she could see was flames. “It didn’t seem to end.”
They came down the stairs, shouting, ‘You will not replace us!’ and surrounded the students. Terrified, she grasped her counterprotesters’ hands tighter and tried to chant louder. Feeling the heat from the torches on her skin, she locked eyes with a white man in a white polo shirt and saw “the only thing there was this monstrous hatred. That was really, really frightening.”
The crowd pushed forward and students were pinned to the statue for a moment. People began to shove, and spray chemicals.
Devin Willis, 18, a sophomore who is black, said his heart was racing there. When a fight broke out between counterprotesters and the white nationalists, he took off. “We were running for our lives,” Willis said.
That night, as students saw the heavy police presence in town, and friends bought baby shampoo to wash the sting out of their eyes and skin, Nakayama worried Saturday might be worse.
At first the white supremacists and antifascists and other protesters were just screaming at each other, he said. Then someone threw a water balloon. “That turned into water bottles, turned into sticks, into rocks. Then someone threw a tear-gas canister.” It seemed to him that many were carrying guns.
Everyone was choking and coughing, he said, with arms linked to try to prevent the white nationalists from getting into the park, and people tried to shove their way through. When police began to shut it down, Nakayama said, it was cathartic: “Wow, we stood our ground — we faced them head-on.”
As he and other counterprotesters marched in the sunshine, he said, they were feeling good. Then he heard someone revving an engine. And then an unfamiliar and unforgettable sound: A rapid series of light thumps, the sound of a car hitting bodies. He heard screams, and then the smash of metal a few feet in front of him. People were flying into the air, creating a shock wave that threw many down, knocking him to the ground. Then he saw the car reverse, and heard people screaming and crying. Some called for medics. His friend told him to run, and they sprinted away. When they thought it was safe, they drove to his apartment and locked the door.
“I didn’t cry. I was in shock,” Nakayama said. “But some of my friends were absolutely sobbing, in heaves.”
Most people he knew left town, frightened and overwhelmed, and worried about rumors of violence.
“I don’t know how I’m going to handle the school year,” he said. “Charlottesville might be changed for me forever. I used to go down Fourth and Water Street to see a music show or go out to eat. Now I will never go there without thinking about what happened there.”
U-Va. has a lot of room to improve, he said. “But this wasn’t U-Va., or Charlottesville. This felt like an invasion.”
He goes back later this week. And then?
“I feel like I should be doing something, but I don’t know what that something is.”