There’s a phenomenon in American English, that when something really bad happens, we perform a little ballet wherein we tiptoe en pointe around referencing the specifics of the event. Instead, we refer to where the event took place, letting the listener fill in the gaps, as if describing the event reflects our complicity, as if it is taboo to talk about bad things in polite company. And so the neo-Nazi rally and terror attack that took place in Charlottesville is simply “Charlottesville;” the mass shooting of elementary school students at Sandy Hook Elementary School is just “Sandy Hook.”
We flatten a city with all its dynamism and living challenges into a point in time that we can more easily bundle into “good” or “bad” categories, ignoring the substance and complexity of what made the event good or bad. Places and events both leave a tattoo on one’s soul, for those who have experienced those places and those events it is an ongoing reminder of a sequence of choice and consequence that can never be undone. When we reduce a city to a point, we leave it to those who made those choices and lived those consequences to reckon with the rest of the complexity all alone.
And so it is that Charlottesville employs a man who stormed the US Capitol during the insurrection, while on probation for a violent road rage crime, who claimed to be working for Alex Jones, a man who recently settled a lawsuit over the lies he told about a person who witnessed the neo-Nazi terror attack in Charlottesville and lost an even bigger one over the lies he told about the parents who were murdered in Sandy Hook.
We have to say the words. A neo-Nazi committed a terror attack. Children were murdered.
Five years and about a week ago, I was training for the many ways that Charlottesville would be distilled to a single point in time. In the meeting room of a disused church a short drive out of the city, my peers and I practiced for all manner of scenarios, throwing our bodies on the ground and crawling on our elbows to prepare for a mass shooting, running drills for how to deescalate a furious racist, walking around the grounds single-file and calling out potential hazards, like loose rocks or wasp nests. I sometimes say that there’s no real skill in surviving a terror attack, because the victims are so randomly chosen, but that’s not entirely true. These skills have value, and on the weekend of Unite the Right, I put several of the scenarios we modelled into practice.
I was not naïve then. I knew the risks and knew the consequences. Throughout the summer, I would tell people, “some people are doing activism, and some are fighting a war, figure out which you’re doing.” We knew violence was coming—for months there were far-right rallies all around the country, each with increasing intensity and violence over the last. The community watched the alt-right openly discuss bringing firearms, egging each other on about the kind of violence they were going to commit and to whom. We were also prepared for violence of a different sort. Just a month before Unite the Right, the KKK held a rally in town, and police deployed tear gas grenades against peaceful counter-protestors with their backs turned.
Between July and August, the media affinity group I organised with put our focus in three areas. First, we organised a response to the police violence at the July 8 KKK rally. Second, where we put most of our energy, we focused on driving a media campaign to pressure the city to revoke the permit for the August 12 Unite the Right rally. Third, we explored what August 13 would look like. How would we respond to mass arrests? How would we respond to violence? How would we respond to terror? What if someone died?
For me then, the outcomes were clear. Either we would win, and fade into obscurity, Unite the Right just another distant memory remembered only by a small handful of obsessive journalists and activists, or we would lose, the alt-right gaining a key tactical victory in their political ascent.
Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t foresee that we would win the battle and lose the war. I knew that Donald Trump was a fascist, but I was surprised to hear his “both sides” comments. I knew that the FBI sides with Nazis almost every time, but I was still shocked to see them leave easy PR victories on the table. I never predicted that Charlottesville would be reduced to a single point.
What happened in Charlottesville left an enduring legacy on American politics. Whatever dignity was still afforded the Office of the presidency was stripped away when the President gave cover to terrorists, a massive breach of political norms. It wasn’t the first of those norms to wither under the tainted boot heel of the Trump administration, but it was certainly the most noteworthy. For years, the twisted, vengeful, shouting white faces, lit as they were by tiki-torch flame, was the go-to image for hate in America, and oh boy was hate every increasing. That trauma, my trauma, was a daily fixture, even when I wasn’t spending hundreds of hours poring over video, looking for the next neo-Nazi to chase from the shadows. It was unescapable.
America is no stranger to political scandal. We have a playbook for this. A shamed leader resigns in disgrace after sufficient flogging in the press. Politicians distance themselves. We all come together and celebrate the fulsomeness of our democracy. Indeed, dozens of civil servants with bipartisan White House experience left their posts. Steve Bannon, who already had one foot out the door by August, had that same door slammed on his ass. Washington Post ran Mark Bray. A massive civil suit was filed. For a moment there, it felt like maybe that glorious fade into obscurity would happen after all. America is really good at getting the stain out, and when it can’t, it’s really good at convincing you that that’s just the print.
But that’s not what happened this time. We let up. We ran 26.1 miles and decided to call it quits. Charlottesville did its part. We stood up to an ascendant fascist movement and made them sit the fuck down. We weren’t Portland and we weren’t Berkeley; we were a tiny community that half of the country thinks is in North Carolina, a soft target that had no right fighting in that weight class. But the people who were supposed to follow through and preserve our decency-based system of governance failed to do so. Several politicians raced to his defence. Media spent as much time wondering if maybe Trump was right, that maybe Antifa were the bad guys, too. Even fellow activist communities let us down. In October 2017, I joined some friends for a private meeting in Little Rock, where national activists were gathering to talk about what to do in a world after Unite the Right. The Charlottesville delegation came with a list of no fewer than 50 immediate requests for support. Everyone else came wanting to talk about a 100-year plan for fighting racism.
Five years after Unite the Right, the antifascist movement claimed several victories over the alt-right. Many of the neo-Nazi groups that organized the rally disbanded, rebranded, or dissolved. Dozens of formerly-anonymous fascists were unmasked. Social media policy turned on a dime: within a year, several alt-right influencers found themselves banned and deplatformed. Entire businesses that cropped up to support neo-Nazi fundraising were shuttered.
In Charlottesville, we ran our mayor out of town, and terminated the political careers of a couple city councillors. The city manager left, and the next one, too; the police chief left, and the next one, too. One by one, we showed the municipal officials who failed us the door. Lead rally organizer Jason Kessler was run out of town, more or less literally, and several fascist leaders have loudly refused to ever set foot in the city again. By every measure, the Battle for Charlottesville was decisively won by the community.
Yet we stand now five years later, our mouths agape at the horrifying news of teenagers being charged with having abortions, of newly-formed fascist groups assaulting community drag events, of libraries being shuttered after withering threats from right-wing terror organisations, who operate in the open. Joe Biden, not Donald Trump, is President of the United States of America, having successfully won a campaign that he launched with the words, “Charlottesville, Virginia.” Despite this, America is more fascist now than it was five years ago.
We won the Battle for Charlottesville, but we’re losing the war. I ask myself, was our stand too little, was our stand too late?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know many of the people that fought for what is right, and I do know that our resistance is worth more than the collapsing of Charlottesville to a simple point in a timeline. The fight is not over because the people of Charlottesville refuse to let the fight be over. What I learned in Charlottesville and in the five years that have passed is that we can win. I learned that decency is a great principle for life, but a terrible foundation for government. I learned that small people can do enormous things. I learned that small decisions can reshape the world. I learned that courage isn’t when you don’t have fear, but is what you do despite the fear. I learned that the universe will always surprise you when you look upon the reflection of your impact on it.
Five years later I’ve never been less sure of whether we won. I’ve never been less certain on what a victory will cost. I do know that we are people, not numbers; communities, not moments. As long as we don’t forget that, then I am certain that no matter the cost, no matter the time, that the demons of fascism will be returned to hell once again. And when that happens, the people of Charlottesville will keep working, because I know now that victory looks like liberation.