This post contains graphic descriptions of Nazi violence and the injuries that they inflicted.
I was on the ground in Charlottesville, VA for demonstrations against the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally this weekend. I am a street medic: I am specifically trained in protest first aid, and I was in Charlottesville both to provide first aid for the antifascist protesters and to hold space as a Jewish Ashkenazi woman.
Here is my reportback from Charlottesville.
FRIDAY NIGHT TORCHLIT RALLY
My weekend started on Friday night, when white supremacists gathered for a torchlit rally on the campus of the University of Virginia (UVA). They marched from Nameless Field through the UVA campus to the Rotunda, about a five minute walk, fifteen minutes if you’re a crowd of Nazis trying to scare everyone.
We had a few teams of medics stationed around Nameless Field as the white supremacists assembled. We watched as white supremacists pulled up in their cars or walked up in small groups carrying unlit torches. Occasionally we pulled back to a safer distance. I wore a kippah (a Jewish skullcap) on and off that night, depending on how vulnerable I felt.
[pullquote align=left] We were trailed by a leering man wearing a red shirt who kept his eyes locked on my kippah-covered head
[/pullquote]In the driveway by Nameless Field where my medic team was posted, we tried to warn away unsuspecting college students who tried to park there. They quickly realized something was going on and, assuming we were with the violent men in the park below, rolled up their windows and refused to talk to us when we tried to urge them away.
Below us in the field, a white supremacist man with a loudspeaker offered torches to those who didn’t have any. The torches were lit and the march set off through the dark campus of the university, to chants of, “You will not replace us.”
My team paralleled the march, trying to keep it in view without running into it or into any rogue white supremacists who were itching for a fight. At one particular point, we were trailed by a leering man wearing a red shirt who kept his eyes locked on my kippah-covered head. We turned down a side road and lost him, and I took off my kippah.
The white supremacist march arrived at the Jefferson statue outside the Rotunda. They were greeted by UVA students and antifascist protesters who stood in a circle around the statue. As I watched from the outside, the white supremacists formed a ring around the counter-protesters and closed in. Suddenly the white supremacists started throwing punches, and the lit tops of tiki torches flew through the air, landing among the crowd where they continued to burn. Some of the fascists had pepper spray and used it indiscriminately – fascists and antifascists alike got hit.
[pullquote align=right] I was terrified. I had two friends in the middle of that crowd of fascists.
[/pullquote]I was terrified. I had two friends in the middle of that crowd of fascists and I had no way to know if they were hurt. (I did not find out until the next day that they emerged from that violence unscathed.) There were fascists who were on the edges, like us, and they were almost as scary as that ring of fascists surrounding my friends. We navigated carefully around the scene, avoiding eye contact and switching direction several times until we found a group of antifascists to stand with.
The police were nowhere to be seen. Finally someone shouted, “Fire!” (referring to the burning tops of the tiki torches that littered the ground) and a handful of cops rushed up the stairs to the statue to clear the scene. As people stumbled out from the fray, medic teams treated antifascists and journalists who had been pepper sprayed and bruised. (In case you’re wondering, flushing the eyes and skin with plain old water – and lots of it – is the best way to treat pepper spray.) There was one journalist I treated that night who I ran into several times on Saturday; each time he greeted me with a broad smile and a “Hey, Esther!”
The police forced everyone out of the Rotunda. The white supremacists and the antifascists dispersed. Medics continued to treat people for pepper spray until there was no one left to treat. Then we went home.
SATURDAY MORNING CLERGY ACTION
Medics gathered early on Saturday to meet and plan for the day. There were four central locations that day: McGuffey Park to the west, where there was a peace rally in the morning and a street medic tent; a couple blocks east of that, Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where the white supremacists gathered; another couple blocks east of that, Justice park, where antifascists gathered; and a nearby church with tight community-run security where mental health professionals and clergy were stationed to provide care to antifascist protesters. The church also had a decontamination station outside to treat people who had been tear gassed or pepper sprayed.
[pullquote align=left] [The clergy] faced the white supremacist Oathkeepers, camouflage-clad men armed to the teeth with rifles…and then sat down.
[/pullquote]After the medic meeting, we split up into buddy pairs and headed out for the day. I wore my kippah all day on Saturday; I felt safer in a crowd, in the daylight, and I saw a few handfuls of other people wearing kippot as well. We wished each other “Shabbat shalom” every time we saw each other.
The first action for the day was a silent clergy march (including representatives from Judaism, several strains of Christianity, Islam, and Unitarian Universalism, plus Cornel West for good measure) to Lee Park. They faced the white supremacist Oathkeepers, camouflage-clad men armed to the teeth with rifles, bullets, and body armor who lined the sidewalk around the park. There was a prayer, and then the clergy sat down in the street, facing the park.
Soon antifascist protesters arrived and filled the street south of Lee Park. Several groups of fascists marched through the crowd, waving flags depicting fascist logos. Plastic water bottles started flying from both sides. Then someone threw a rock, which got tossed back and forth like a ball. Antifascists and fascists raised shields to block the rain of objects. Fistfights broke out, and the fascists deployed some more pepper spray. Medics treated people for pepper spray and head injuries; we sent some people to the hospital for further care.
SATURDAY VEHICULAR HOMICIDE
Because of the fighting, the city of Charlottesville declared a state of emergency and said that the fascist rally – and the antifascist protest – were unlawful assemblies, ordering people to disperse. At this point, my buddy and I were escorting a patient back to the wellness center at the church, so we missed what happened next. When we left the church again, we heard that there was an antifascist march heading down Water Street. We saw the crowd in the distance and followed it.
[pullquote align=right] I saw a woman lying flat on her face, surrounded by medics.
[/pullquote]When we were a block away, people started shouting for medics. When we got to the crowd, someone told us that a car had rammed into the crowd of antifascists and fled. We tried to find someone to treat, but most people were already being treated by other street medics. I saw a woman lying flat on her face, surrounded by medics. She was clearly in bad shape; medics turned her over and started taking turns doing CPR. This was Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old Charlottesville native who subsequently died. As the medics worked, journalists poked their cameras at the patient and the medics, and the crowd of anxious and curious protesters gathered to watch. My buddy and I tried to set up a privacy circle around the patient and the medics. There was so much confusion and agitation that we didn’t get very far before EMS arrived.
EMS arrived at the scene, heralded by an armored police vehicle with an officer perched on top pointing a tear gas launcher at the crowd. Police officers moved in on foot and tried to clear the scene. They ordered the medics doing CPR on Heather Heyer to stop doing CPR and to leave the scene. The medics refused; those who were not actively doing chest compressions negotiated with the police to stay until the paramedics came to take over.
My buddy and I moved on to help other people. We spoke to someone who was sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the cars that had been hit by the Nazi. She was alert and didn’t appear to be hurt badly, but before we could offer care, a police officer put himself between us and the patient and forced us to leave.
We moved out of the intersection onto a sidewalk, calling out, “Does anyone need a medic?” Someone escorted us to a person who had been bruised during the crowd crush when people tried to flee from the path of the rampaging car. This was one of the most hopeful moments for me out of the whole weekend: The person who was injured had been separated from her friends, but a stranger was sitting next to her, holding her hand. When we asked if they knew each other, the stranger said, “We didn’t [pullquote align=left] When we asked if they knew each other, the stranger said, “We didn’t before, but we’re family now.”
[/pullquote]before, but we’re family now.” They discovered that they had both come from the same city, just a few blocks away from each other.
We found one of the woman’s friends, who turned out to be another medic. That medic took over and helped the patient to safety. After that, there wasn’t much for us to do. The paramedics were loading people onto ambulances, and other street medic teams were continuing to provide care to people did not need to go to the hospital. Then a friend approached us and requested that we escort them to safety, and together we left the scene.
A little while later, when my buddy and I were once again with a crowd of antifascists who were facing off (calmly) with a line of riot cops, word got round that Heather, the woman who I had seen lying flat on her face before medics started CPR, had died. Together, my buddy and I returned once more to the church, where we took a much-needed break and checked in with the medics who had treated Heather. As it turned out, nothing much happened out on the streets the rest of the day. Eventually we went home.
[pullquote align=right] The hospital was on lock-down.
[/pullquote]There was one medic who we hadn’t heard from in several hours. We asked around and found out that this medic had been injured in the car attack and was undergoing surgery at the hospital. We tried to go to the hospital to see them. The hospital was on lock-down: The main entrance was closed, so we had to park in a secondary parking lot and take a shuttle to another entrance where security gave us the most serious wanding I have ever received. We decided to leave and come back later. The entrance we had come through had been closed, so a hospital orderly led out via a circuitous route that involved passing through the hospital’s lobby, where hospital beds filled the empty space, waiting for another mass casualty incident (which, thank God, didn’t happen).
I made it back to where I was staying: The house of a friend I met through organizing the American Jewish community to come to Charlottesville. There were about eight of us staying at the house, mostly Jews. We made havdalah together to observe the end of Shabbat before we all went to bed.
On Sunday, my partner and I drove the four hours back to our home. We took our time, stopping for food and to take a walk through some woods along the way, trying to hold on to ourselves and the incredible solidarity and community that we witnessed in Charlottesville. Back home, some friends had organized a vigil for Heather Heyer, so we dropped our bags off at our house and went to be with our community.