On Friday, August 11, 2017, a collection of white supremacists rallied on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, shouting anti-Semitic slogans. The next morning, they reconvened at the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville and clashed with counter-protestors, killing one and injuring many others in a car attack. James A. Fields Jr., of Ohio, was later convicted of the first-degree murder of Heather D. Heyer, a Charlottesville resident. Two members of the Virginia State Police, Trooper Berke Bates and Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, also died on August 12 when their helicopter crashed southwest of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. We interviewed more than a dozen people about their experiences related to that tragic weekend. The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
“WHAT’S GOING ON IN CHARLOTTESVILLE?”
Where the Heal Fund Came From
Rabbi Jake Rubin
DIRECTOR, BRODY JEWISH CENTER,
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
We had a student who was living on the Lawn. She is a Jewish woman of color, and she had just moved into her Lawn room on Friday afternoon and had gotten some sort of alert. After spending some time in a pavilion with faculty and staff, at some point she decided to go back to her room. Almost immediately they started marching up the Lawn. And it was terrifying for her. She was hiding in her room because, I mean, everything about her was antithetical to who these people thought should be Americans and should be allowed in this country. And watching them go past her room and listening to them chanting horribly anti-Semitic things was incredibly scary for her.
FORMER BOARD CHAIR, CHARLOTTESVILLE
AREA COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
We got off the plane in Montana on the night of the 11th and were having dinner with a nephew when we started looking at the news and Twitter and seeing the torch march on the Lawn and the chants of “the Jews will not replace us!” and other things. It was terrifying and sobering to think of this happening in the town that I had grown up in. I had never seen anything like that.
FINANCIAL ADVISOR, HEAL CHARLOTTESVILLE FUND COMMITTEE MEMBER
I was at home, so I wasn't downtown. We had known what was going to happen and my family had made the decision to just stay clear and not really engage with the people that were coming. And so we were at home and we saw on the TV the things that were happening.
We have three small children, and so we made a conscious decision to be out of the city that day, to go do other things. There is disagreement about whether you should be there and active in front of them and protesting, or is that just giving them attention? I think if it were just me, personally, I might have made a different decision.
I knew that there were going to be people there spewing hate speech, and I felt very strongly that we needed to react the same way that we wish we would have reacted had we been around when Hitler was alive. That it has to be shut down. It's not a both-sides thing.
WRITER, TEACHER, HEAL CHARLOTTESVILLE FUND GRANT RECIPIENT
I was in Martha’s Vineyard on vacation at the time. And my son says, “What’s going on in Charlottesville?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He was looking at CNN. So that’s how I found out about it.
As we were approaching Water Street, with the parking garage on the side, we saw the other activists, and it was actually a really joyful moment. Everyone was cheering. I didn’t see the car coming. I saw Heather’s eyes right after she was killed, and I remember just—it was kind of in slo-mo—thinking, “Well, that’s what someone looks like when they’re dead.” He knocked me over and broke two parts of my spine, both legs and a rib, and then ran over my right leg.
We got a couple messages from relatives as far away as Spain saying, “Hey, are you guys all right?” It was a little strange to have to explain to them, “No, we're not living in a terrorist zone. This is not an attack or anything.” It was just strange to have to engage with that question of what kind of place we were living in, because it was so very different from the experience we had had in the ten years since first coming here. Being Latino, and having my father be a Latino immigrant, it was just the way we have been treated coming here, so positively versus what happened that day.
I don't think once since August 11th and 12th have I said, “That's not Charlottesville.” I've said that, sadly, I think probably some of the people that perpetrated the violence probably did come from our community. I think the vast majority were from outside. But there is something about Charlottesville that—there's a reason that this happened here.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE WOMEN’S INITIATIVE
We had some of our staff [of mental-health professionals] on the front lines those days as volunteers in the community. It meant that they themselves also had gas in their faces and felt the pain and the trauma and danger. And we were trying to bring people into safe places to provide immediate relief from mental-health distress.
And subsequently my family and I had a discussion. And I said to them I thought that Charlottesville is a place that was ripe. That it had to be ripe before something like this would happen. This could not have happened in Washington, D.C., or any given number of places. But somehow, strategically, this well-thought-out plan by these white supremacists happened in Charlottesville, you know?
I remember wearing a T-shirt that says we’re the number-one city. That was less than ten years before this event. And there are a lot of things about Charlottesville that I am proud of and think that we are a number-one city. But I don’t think we’re a city that works the same, or a region that works the same, for everybody.
When I was coming down here to interview for a job one day, I decided to drop by the Cherry Avenue area. I hadn’t been down that way for a while and I was struck. It was very disturbing to me. Tonsler Park in the middle of the day, like two o’clock in the afternoon, was full of working-age black men … They’re not employable. They don’t have a dream. This is systematic. You cannot see that many men out there just in the middle of the day if this is not a systematic problem.
Yolonda Coles Jones
HAIR STYLIST, ENTREPRENEUR, GRANT RECIPIENT
For me, being a black woman in Charlottesville and a black woman in America, that wasn’t surprising. Like, it just wasn’t a thing that was a huge surprise. But I’m able to see how my experience is completely different from someone who never had a reason to question. If you’re living a life that doesn’t mean you have a panic attack when the police come up behind you or doesn’t mean that you’re aching inside your body because you’re raising black children in America—if you’re not feeling that in your physical body, then you never have a reason to think that things need to change. Or to ask, “What needs to change?”
THERAPIST, GRANT RECIPIENT
My mom actually lived in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood when she was a child. Her house is where the McDonald’s is now. And so she was one of the families displaced and moved into Westhaven. I grew up in Westhaven, but she tells me stories about their home [in Vinegar Hill], how they had their own chickens and hogs and all of those things. And some of the houses had dirt floors. She’s told me stories about that.
YOLONDA COLES JONES
Access to money. That’s really a lot of what it is. It’s like we just need the money to make these things happen. Economic disempowerment has absolutely been longstanding. And so, for the Klan to come to Charlottesville and to finally demonstrate to a portion of the population that didn’t understand that this was a thing—I appreciate that it mobilized folks into putting things in place that actually bring power back to people who have gone through sanctioned disenfranchisement.
My grandfather used to be a chef at Howard Johnson’s, and he talked about the students chasing him and his friends back down 10th Street when he got off his shift. And so, I think I’ve grown up in Charlottesville always aware of our community being separate from other communities.
Yolonda Coles Jones
My grandparents were not able to go to school because of Massive Resistance. My dad—not my grandfather, but my dad—was taught not to look up at the white woman when you pass her on the sidewalk.
FILMMAKER, GRANT RECIPIENT
Charlottesville is not the Charlottesville from twenty or thirty years ago when I was growing up. It’s a very different place with a lot of folks here now that aren’t originally from Charlottesville. And when you tell this story of local history and things that went on, people are often shocked. They’re not necessarily taught these types of stories.
Most students really haven’t had significant experience with anti-Semitism, so a lot of our work has been helping them process that and understand what that means. The thing that continues to persist for our students is this interesting question of where they fit within the community after August 11th and 12th. Clearly there were Nazis. People were walking with swastikas, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “Jews into the oven!” and “Blood and soil!” These are all obviously from Nazi Germany. It was clearly an anti-Semitic event. And yet most of the media coverage really didn’t focus on that piece. A lot of students didn’t feel seen or understood. They really felt like they had to justify their minority status and say, “You know, this was about us, too.”
I've had six surgeries, all related to the car attack. I've spent over thirty days in the hospital. Literally the ambulance ride just going from the hospital to the rehab center—again I didn't get any interventions; they just lifted me up and put me on a stretcher—that was $800. Just to give you an idea of medical expenses. I'm still in physical therapy, so it's been very expensive. It would be expensive even if I were able to work.
I don't recall ever connecting in my mind that the Community Foundation would have an opportunity to be part of the healing. I didn’t know geographically where Heather had been killed until I got back in town and drove down Water Street and looked to my left and saw the street closed and the flowers and the posters and the memorials. Actually, I turned around and parked and walked up here. That was the first time I saw that, wow, that's the front door of the Foundation and thought about how was our team and our staff holding up under all this.
PRESIDENT AND CEO, CHARLOTTESVILLE AREA COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
When I came back to work that Monday, we now had before us at the Community Foundation this real, very sobering challenge and opportunity to determine how we were going to respond. And we received an outpouring of generosity from people and businesses and foundations—locally, regionally, nationally, and even internationally. There was a concert organized by Dave Matthews Band that prompted thousands of contributions—all from people who wanted to support the recovery of those who were injured in the car attack. But also who really wanted to help our community heal and move forward.