February 6, 2017: The Controversy Begins
In 1924, a statue of Robert E. Lee was erected in Lee Park, near downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2017, the movement to remove Confederate monuments reached a group of city residents brought the issue to the city council. In February of that year, the council voted 3-2 to remove the statue, earning praise from some and vitriol from others.
May 13, 2017: The First Rally
News of the impending statue removal reached white supremacist Richard Spencer. On May 13, 2017, Spencer arrived in Charlottesville. His arrival attracted 100-150 protestors to the site of the statue. Most were reported to have come from Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. The rally was emblematic of a loud and proud white supremacist movement that had not been so acutely visible in this century.
The infamous "Tiki Torch Rally" was widely reported, with images and videos being shown in national and international media.
The following evening, residents of Charlottesville gathered in counterprotest, holding a candlelight vigil.
Photo: Wall Street Journal
July 8, 2017: The Ku Klux Klan Arrives
Following the May 13 rally, the Ku Klux Klan planned its own event to protest the statue removal. 50 KKK members, many claiming to have come from North Carolina, arrived in the city to protest. This time, counter-protestors caught wind of the event and arrived in far greater numbers; the New York Times reports that over 1000 counter-protestors were present that day.
The situation turned violent when the Klan members gave up and tried to go home. Protestors followed them to their cars, prompting police to declare that this was an unlawful assembly. Police arrested 23 people and used tear gas against a crowd that had gathered in Lee Park. The crowd quickly dispersed, but many were left with unanswered questions about why police chose to interfere in this event, and not the hateful rally from mere months earlier.
Photo: New York Times
August 11, 2017: Unite The Right, Night One
While the Unite the Right rally was not set to begin until the following day, on the evening of Friday, August 11, white supremacists gathered. At 8:45 PM, on Richard Spencer's command, a group of around 250 men bearing tiki torches gathered at Nameless Field on the University of Virginia's campus. A more organized version of the May 13th rally, these men were organized in formation, and marched across UVA's campus chanting "blood and soil," a Nazi slogan referring to racial purity and the right to a homeland.
At the University's Rotunda, this formation was greeted by a group of 30 students with arms locked in defiance. The white supremacists encircled the students, shouting racial slurs and mocking them. This escalated to violence, with injuries sustained by both students and agitators.
Police did not intervene. Campus police ultimately responded to the event, minutes after the violence had begun.
Image: Roanoke Times
August 12, 2017: Morning Clashes
While the Unite The Right rally was not set to begin until 5 PM, people were energized by the events of the prior evening. By 8 AM on the morning of August 12, 2017, supporters of the white nationalist movement had already started gathering at the former Lee Park, now renamed Emancipation Park. Some were armed with clubs. Others carried guns.
Nearby, counter-protestors were also gathering as local law enforcement stood by.
The groups mostly traded words that morning. The white supremacists shouted the same hateful slogans they had shouted the evening before, while counter-protestors shouted "go home," sang songs, and traded words with the white supremacists.
By 10:30 AM, violence had begun. It was not the brutal mess that would come, but it was enough for law enforcement to declare the protests an unlawful assembly at 11:35 that morning. Some protestors began returning to their cars and withdrawing from the scene.
At 11:52 AM, Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency, compelling residents to stay indoors. Counter-protestors marched down the streets of Charlottesville, feeling that they had successfully ended the rally before it was supposed to begin.
August 12, 2017: A Car Attack on Protestors
As the counter-protesters moved down the streets of Charlottesville, moods had shifted to something resembling victory. The white supremacists were driving away in droves amid the state of emergency, and those who remained on the street were largely isolated. While sporadic arguments and heated exchanges erupted from time to time, there was a feeling that most of the violence was over.
At approximately 1 PM, a vehicle rammed into the marchers, reversed, then rammed into another group. People were caught off guard. Local law enforcement initially reported a crash, but those who were at the scene knew that they had witnessed purposeful violence. The vehicle fled the scene, leaving 35 people injured and one, Heather Heyer, 32, dead.
The vehicle was found shortly after, and its driver, James Alex Fields, Jr, was arrested and charged, and later found guilty of an intentional attack on those marchers.
Like Dylann Roof, Patrick Wood Crusius, and so many other domestic terrorists, Fields appears to be a young man whose racial resentment was fueled by social media radicalization.
Heather Heyer, the woman who was murdered in the attack, was a 32-year-old white woman and passionate advocate for social justice. Her death prompted outrage, vigils, and memorials around the country.
Nearly 700 events cropped up across the United States in solidarity with Charlottesville. An outpouring of grief for the death of Heather Heyer erupted across the country. President Trump initially condemned violence "on both sides," prompting outrage. His office later walked those statements back, calling for national unity and condemning white nationalists and extremist groups.
The city of Charlottesville shrouded the statue of Robert E. Lee in a black tarp from August 23, 2017, to February 28, 2018, when a local judge ruled that the tarp must be removed. To this day, the statue remains standing in Charlottesville. The park in which the rally was set to take place, which had been renamed from Lee Park to Emancipation Park, is now officially titled Market Street Park. The statue has been vandalized several times, but remains standing to this day.