CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia—One year ago Saturday, white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia waging a violent, two-day rally that injured dozens and left three people dead, including a 32-year-old woman whom a neo-Nazi hit with a car and two police officers who were killed when their helicopter crashed outside the city. On the one-year anniversary of “Unite the Right,” community members gathered at a Presbyterian church in this college town in hopes of a different ending.
This year’s August 11 was largely a one-sided affair with security heavy as the state declared a state of emergency with police and national guard out in a show of force, and white nationalist protesters instead planning to rally in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.
The church crowd, dotted with purple shirts and flowers in memory of Heather Heyer, the Charlottesville woman killed during last year’s rally, filled the pews and spilled over into the aisles of the city’s First Presbyterian Church. The approximately 500 congregants—of all races, led by Jewish, Christian, and secular faith leaders—outnumbered the estimated 400 fascists who tried to upend their city last year. Later in the evening, approximately 1,000 anti-racist demonstrators marched from the University of Virginia, the state school campus where white supremacists threatened students as they marched with lit torches during a rally last August 11.
“We’ve come with common commitment and common courage,” Karen Georgia Thompson, a local minister told congregants during the service at First Presbyterian. “We’ve come in common witness and common faith, believing the world in which we live can be different.”
For Charlottesville activists, that different world is not just a return to the city as it existed before Unite the Right, when a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing Heyer and wounding more. As Charlottesville locals demonstrated against white supremacists, preventing them from rallying in the city this weekend, they also called on the city to reckon with its white supremacist legacy, from its history of slavery to ongoing issues of alleged police brutality.
“We’ve been seeing a lot more community engagement: folks showing up at city council meetings, at planning commission meetings, demanding affordable housing, police reform, and a police civilian review board,” Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, and an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville told The Daily Beast.
“The broader fallout from last summer has been looking at everyday white supremacy: gentrification, the lack of a living wage, the stop-and-frisk rate,” she said. “Eighty percent of stop-and-frisks here are people of color, even though we’re only 20 percent of the population.”
Since last year’s Unite the Right rally, Charlottesville has elected Nikuyah Walker, the city’s first black, female mayor. But the city is still reckoning with the institutional failures of last year’s rally, namely a slow police response and elected officials who allowed the white supremacist rally to continue, against locals’ warnings.
Saturday’s police response was an inverse of last year’s, when white nationalists strolled the streets, brawling with locals and counter-protesters. This year, the downtown streets were quiet behind several layers of police barricades and security checkpoints. The lockdown continued during the University of Virginia rally, where some demonstrators berated riot police.
“Why are you in riot gear,” demonstrators chanted before marching through the city, “We don’t see no riot here!”
The heavy police response comes as a contrast from last year’s rally, where a sometimes-disorganized coalition of police forces failed to keep white supremacists and anti-racist protesters separated. Some activists voiced skepticism about the new police presence.
“It’s understandable, but nothing really happened today, so it’s probably a little bit overkill,” Jae Em Cario, a local anti-fascist activist said. He was visiting an impromptu memorial at the site of Heyer’s murder, where community members had left flowers and chalk messages.
“The killer sped this way,” read one purple chalk message. “Pray for him too.”
Em Cario, who is currently running a longshot U.S. Senate bid in Tennessee on an anti-fascist platform, said white supremacists attacked him near a Charlottesville church during last year’s rally. Over the following year, he’s been among a host of Charlottesville locals to have their personal information spread online in racist forums.
On Saturday morning, while state and local police prepared a show of force around the city, officers stopped and questioned him in his car, Em Cario said.
Mark Martin, a Charlottesville local, said it took him two hours to navigate police barricades to arrive at a memorial wall downtown. “They sent me away with my chair, because my chair might be considered a weapon,” he said.
“I think there’s a feeling like police under-reacted last year, and now they’re overreacting,” Martin said. “Most of the hate groups decided not to come here, so whatever police prepared for, I think they were just trying to show that they didn’t do what they did last year. I’m hoping next time, they find something in between.”
At the University of Virginia Saturday night, student activists linked police violence to white supremacy. “Last year they came w/ torches,” read a large student banner. “This year they come w/ badges.”
Although James Fields Jr., the neo-Nazi who killed Heyer with his car came from Ohio, student activists called on the city to recognize homegrown hate-mongers. Two of the first rally’s key white supremacists — rally organizer Jason Kessler and speaker Richard Spencer — have lived in the city.
“Many of the people who attacked our town came from Charlottesville,” a University of Virginia student told a crowd of demonstrators before their march. “White supremacists walk among us every day. They are our coworkers, our neighbors, our teachers, our police officers. That scares me, and that should scare all of us.”
Em Cario said he and other anti-fascist activists had spent the past year calling out local white supremacists.
“I think we want to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We want to make sure that if there are white supremacists in the neighborhood, we know that they’re there and that they’re outed. That they don’t get to go to work from Monday to Friday as a normal person, then go to a torch rally on Saturday.”
The process of rooting out white supremacy is long, as is the healing process for Charlottesville residents affected by last year’s rally.
“A lot of people were very traumatized,” Schmidt said. “They still are; can’t sleep.”
Overcoming last August means embracing Charlottesville’s diversity and standing in solidarity with each other, Em Cario said. It means packing city council meetings and driving each other to doctor’s appointments as last year’s broken bones heal, Schmidt said.
During the First Presbyterian service, a local faith leader instructed congregants to turn to their neighbors in the pews. “This person in front of you did not close their eyes,” she said. “They have not walked away. Honor their courage.”