There was a quick succession of loud bangs — loud enough to be heard over the hundreds of singing and chanting protesters.
They sounded more concussive than gunshots, but that’s what I thought they had to be as people scattered in terror. The only thing I saw over the crowd in the intersection was a pair of neon green and orange shoes launched impossibly high into the air.
We ran down a side street, stopped, and looked back. There were still people near the intersection, but they weren’t running away. Instead, they were moving back towards where the noise had come from.
“What was it?”
“I think someone got hit by a car.”
The intersection was pandemonium. People were crying, hugging, frantically making phone calls, yelling, limping, in shock. Protest medics, many of them Antifa, were stabilizing the injured. What had seconds before been banners decrying Naziism were now shields to block press photographers from taking pictures of those with the worst injuries. It was impossible to know how bad it was.
A massive armored police truck rushed in down the same road the silver Dodge Charger had traveled. The officer in its mounted turret pointed his rifle directly at the distraught protesters. One shouted, “why are you aiming at us? We’re not the ones who did this!”
Police tried to push people onto sidewalks as emergency vehicles approached, eventually delegating the task to the clergy. EMTs swept in with stretchers.
I found the bulk of the group of mostly-local student activists I was shadowing a couple streets away. Two of their people had been hit, one, we would come to find, had been taken to the hospital in critical condition.
No one knew exactly what to do. There were people eating and drinking as if everything was fine inside the bar next to us. Some asshole was still shouting bullshit and waving a confederate flag down the road.
“Should we go to ____’s house?”
“Yeah, but we definitely can’t all go in at the same time. They could see us.” (“They” probably being the patrols of Nazis in the backs of pickup trucks with wooden poles and worse.
The group made its way from the downtown mall toward a residential area.
“Stop. Stop… STOP!” one young man from the group yelled at a Ford Escape that had not yet come to a complete halt in front of the crosswalk as the group crossed a street. Shock is not a particularly rational state of mind.
When we were a couple blocks away, the group split in half. Eight or so people went ahead to the house, the rest of us sat down on the sidewalk in a nicer neighborhood. Then the shock wore off and everyone fell apart.
“It was so close. I jumped out of the fucking way of it. I felt it go by. It could have been me,” someone wept.
At the moment that it was most needed, a woman walking her Corgie stopped to ask if we were OK. She had seen the news on TV and must’ve been shocked that she’d stumbled upon a group of people who were there. She let everyone pet her dog for as long as they needed to. It was the softest dog I’ve ever pet in my life.
Safely in the house, we hung sheets over the windows and pushed furniture in front of the door (the group included some especially vocal anti-Nazis). Someone explained where to go if the wrong kind of people came to the door. Some people cried quietly. No one talked for what seemed like hours.
At least one uninjured member of the group had ridden in the ambulance to the hospital. Between their updates and the messages in an organizer group text, we got an idea of what was going on outside.
“____ said more people have come into the hospital from another car [that hit people].”
“They just said there are Nazis in a white van driving around and shooting at people.”
“Police are saying to try to stay as far from the road as you can if you walk on the sidewalk.”
It was impossible to know how true any of it was. On one hand, misinformation always cycles around after major tragic events like this. On the other hand, several hundred of the most irrational and unhinged people in the entire country had convened in the city.
This was terrorism.
What made the attack especially disheartening was that it occurred at the absolute high point of the day. It was the most unified, organized and seemingly safest moment for the people involved in it.
The “Unite the Right” rally and counter-protest that morning were incredibly dangerous. There hundreds of often heavily armed racists (as well as some anti-racists), but the police didn’t put a barrier between the two sides to even try to keep them apart. The Nazis filled the park, the State Police watched from the sidelines, and the counter-protesters took the streets nearby. The intersection of 2nd St. and Market saw wave after wave of incoming groups from both sides smash into the other. At times both fascists and antifascists were totally intermingled.
There was almost a constant hail of small objects from and onto both sides — mostly water bottles, some paint-filled balloons, the occasional smoke or tear gas canister. Short scuffles broke out, usually between two people who were yelling into each others faces. Many ended with one or both sides getting pepper sprayed.
The riot police did not break up fights or make arrests; the most I saw the State Troopers do was chase off a guy who jumped their fence to escape getting beat up. I was under the impression that their tactic was to wait until something bad enough happened that they could shut the whole thing down. After talking to them, I’m worried they really weren’t adequately prepared or organized.
After they finally did clear the park, I asked six different troopers whether a state of emergency had been declared — if so, it could’ve meant that the permit for Justice Park nearby was cancelled too and going there could get us arrested, so it was pertinent. The first was unsure. The next two said no. A friend’s New York Times news alert begged to differ. The next two didn’t know and the last one said there had been one declared. He knew because his wife had called to let him know.
When I asked them how they could not know, the fifth trooper said “well, the National Guard usually handles that kind of stuff.”
Amidst the confusion, the group found itself at a different park with a large playground and swings that had been taken over by 100 to 200 members of the more radical left groups, mostly Antifa and Democratic Socialists of America. It all looked a bit Mad Max. Spirits were high, and for the first time the different groups could actually talk about what they wanted to do next, as opposed to the shear chaos of earlier.
It was there that we heard reports of Nazis harassing people in the local community and realized that many of them hadn’t left town.
All of the groups at the park left in a march to confront the Nazis. That group merged with a large Black Lives Matter contingent. Then an even larger Antifa group joined, riling up the entire march with call-and-response songs.
“We are the people,
The motherfucking people,
Fighting for justice,
And black liberation,
And brown liberation,
And queer liberation,
And trans liberation…”
The march moved into the downtown mall. The chants were louder than they’d been all day. “Fuck off, Nazi scum!” echoed across the surrounding brick buildings.
Then the silver Dodge Charger happened.
And the president blamed both sides.