Revisiting the Horror of Charlottesville 2017
Editor’s note: On the eve of the first anniversary of the infamous Charlottesville, Va., demonstration, and as Washington, D.C., prepares for Sunday’s “Unite the Right 2” rally, Truthdig is reposting Michael Nigro’s exclusive audio photo essay from Aug. 12, 2017.
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Look and listen to photojournalist Michael Nigro’s exclusive audio photo essay of the terrors he witnessed firsthand in Charlottesville, Va. Warning: Many of the photographs contain graphic imagery.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—American culture has always contained rotten seeds of racism aching to root white supremacy permanently into the landscape. For more than eight months, President Donald Trump has been watering this pseudo-patriotic movement, nurturing it with his violent rhetoric.
The “alt-right” is in full bloom now. Its members are empowered by Trump, as evidenced by the events in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.
The protest that brought throngs of torch-wielding white supremacists to the streets of Charlottesville was dubbed “Unite the Right” and consisted of a “who’s who” of racist groups. Participants identified as anything from neo-Nazis to KKK members, and included former Klan leader David Duke, who declared outright that the event was intended to fulfill Trump’s promises.
The violence started early between alt-right marchers and counterprotesters. The former came armed with AR-15s, Glock sidearms, baseball bats, pepper spray, tear gas and flagpoles with metal spear tips.
It was clear from the beginning that the police force, which consisted of local and state officers as well as the National Guard, were taking a laissez-faire approach to law enforcement.
“The police are going to incite a race riot,” Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter New York, told me in the middle of an early afternoon skirmish. And he was right; their inaction helped create conditions for the violence that ensued.
At one point, fights broke out in front of the Charlottesville police station, where at least a dozen officers stood by the entrance doing nothing but watching like hockey referees during a brawl.
Metal poles were used to beat protesters, and the police stood by. Alt-right members deployed pepper spray, and the police stood by. Blood poured from injured people’s large gashes, and the police did nothing.
I’ve been to protests in which someone simply steps off a curb and gets arrested. Why was the alt-right granted such leeway? During one of my livestreams from Saturday’s event, a whole phalanx of white supremacists pushed against a line of riot police. The police did nothing.
And then, things got worse.
Various counterprotest groups converged on Water Street in Charlottesville and began a peaceful march through an area known for its cuisine. The marchers, numbering in the hundreds, made an impromptu route change to round the corner and head up 4th Street.
I decided to run ahead and set up my camera so I could shoot down the narrow street. But then, behind me, the unmistakable screech of tires on asphalt. The sound was so brief, however, that all urgency normally associated with it was negated. So I didn’t turn around. I simply, and rather casually, took a step to my right.
That’s when my second camera, which was harnessed across my shoulder and resting against my hip, was obliterated by the front end of a silver Dodge Challenger. The car was now accelerating toward throngs of human beings.
My body was intact. But other bodies quickly became airborne. Horizontal. Upside down. Nothing looked or sounded natural. I heard terrified screams, and resonant, hollow thuds of bodies being broken by a car frame of fiberglass and steel, which was rocketing into them at approximately 50 mph.
Two other cars, inconveniently halted because the march was blocking the road, were at the base of the hill, waiting for the demonstration to pass. They were rear-ended. Hard. A young woman flipped from the Challenger’s hood into and across the other cars. She was terribly injured.
These two cars prevented the Challenger from going forward and plowing into the hundreds of other marchers. This, no doubt, had been the driver’s intent.
The Challenger reversed aggressively up the hill, sending those who were able to scatter into alleys and private driveways. And then the car was gone.
One person—32-year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville— died, 19 were injured. This was unmistakably a homegrown act of domestic terrorism.
The alt-right has always been lurking in America in one form or another. But now it is more obvious, and it is unleashed. It is muscular. It is ugly. It is not theoretical.
It is extreme nationalism far more pronounced and far more aggressive than, perhaps, some of us care to imagine (or, in some cases, care to admit).
But we should admit it. We should resist it and call it out at every turn. Because Trump is cultivating a garden of hate.