From Comedy to Tragedy: what I saw at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville

20708406_1686411514766643_3696740697917868792_nThe first thing I saw when I approached the Unite the Right rally on Saturday, August 12 here in Charlottesville was a guy across from Market Street Market selling bottled water for $2 out of his car, saying, “I figured I had to make the most of it.” The next thing I saw were a group of Unite the Right protesters gathered on the corner of Market Street and 3rd Street NE, dressed like middle-schoolers going to a war games-themed birthday party, with make-shift helmets, shields, and batons. All this was at first quite comical. The group paused on the corner for a moment, issued an obscure kind of war cry, and marched fast toward the park with various photographers running backwards quickly trying to capture the action.

At the park, the Unite the Right protesters had already gathered in a double fenced off section of the park, and you could stand and view them like exotic animals in a zoo. They all faced outward, pressing against the steel fencing, and harassed and verbally abused onlookers, many of whom returned the favor. There was a lot of vulgar harassment of women from the group, and I heard one guy say to a woman, “You’re a little chubby around the edges, but I’d f##k you, Bitch.” There were women with them, too, and I noticed how they had no expressions on their faces as the men they were with said this stuff. Still, it all seemed comical. Were these guys serious? Meanwhile, I spotted what appeared to be self-styled, bearded militiamen walking around in fatigues and assault rifles with odd assortments of insignia on their “uniforms.” They all looked very serious, and no one I spoke to could tell me exactly why they were there, but at that point their inscrutable countenance seemed comical, too. Were they expecting some kind of armed ambush from some opposing guerrilla army? Meanwhile, various public officials and notable citizens milled about, seeming a little amused by this particular circus that came to town. They could stand safely at the edge of the fencing around the park and observe various white supremacists and neo-nazis spewing slogans and insulting people. I saw friends and colleagues and we had time to chat. A couple of local guys had thought to put loud speakers on the top of a nearby building, and they had the words of James Baldwin playing in a continuous loop. Nearby a guy had set up an easel and he was painting comic book-style portraits of Robert E. Lee and Donald Trump.

20708191_1686411471433314_8139878792168219992_nOn the steps to the Market Street entrance to the park a group of clergy, including Harvard scholar Dr. Cornell West, blocked the entrance and quietly demanded that the Unite the Right protesters gathered below them “stand down” and not enter the park. this standoff went of for a few moments, until the Unite the Right protesters finally walked up the steps and pushed them violently aside.

That’s when things seemed to shift, that’s when it started not to be so comical. Fights in the street broke out shortly after that between Unite the Right protesters and counter-protesters. And over the next 45 minutes or so that intensified. At one point I was standing beside one of Charlottesville’s city councilors as he tried to film the scene, and had to nudge him aside as a smoke bomb canister came hurling toward us. Rocks, tear gas, bottles filled with bleach, and balloons filled with urine would follow. I saw bloodied heads and faces. I saw scared people running past me, other who looked like they would gladly smash you in the face if you looked them. A saw a TV crew flee the tent they had set up under across the park. I watched as an African-American TV camera man tried to put his camera on a tripod, but was having trouble because his hands were shaking so much. I heard someone say, “The cops have vanished.” And sure enough, I looked around and the state police who had been standing along the fencing earlier were gone.

20728279_1686410811433380_2776422500373341158_nI then looked up and a screaming, angry mob of white supremacists and neo-nazis had totally taken over the park, ringing its edges with their home-made riot gear. Not only was this not comical anymore, it was frightening. Why weren’t police stepping in now? At that point, you knew something bad was about to happen, that people were going to get hurt, that a surge of violent energy had been let loose on our town. Within the hour, three people would be dead, and dozens injured.

Wild West: Shootout on the DTM

Shot-aThe Hook–Early Saturday morning, March 16, at approximately 12:45am, three gunshots rang out on Second Street NW on the Downtown Mall, between the offices of the Hook and the Elks Lodge, leaving two men shot and wounded on the street. According to police, the two men have been identified as Frank D. Brown, 56, of Albemarle County, and Leon T. Brock, 22, of Culpeper County. As of Hook presstime on Tuesday, March 19, both were listed in stable condition at the UVA Medical Center and no charges had been filed. The police officer who has also acknowledged firing his weapon has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

According to a search warrant for Brown filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court,  a witness told police that Brown fired on Brock after Brock and three other men jumped him.

Charlottesville Police Officer Alex Bruner, according to the search warrant, told police on the scene that he had fired his weapon twice. A witness also states that Bruner shouted “Drop the weapon!” before firing.

The late night gun battle– witnessed by a Hook reporter– happened in the blink of an eye, but the repercussions of the violence continue to reverberate across the Downtown community. READ MORE

Ambassadors or bouncers?

DTM business owners and patrons have apparently been giving City Council an earful about rude or aggressive behavior from some folks on the DTM, and so council has decided to spend $80,000 to hire four “Downtown Mall ambassadors.” Councilor have been quick to say its not a “crack down” on the homeless, though much of the “problem behavior” likely comes from that population, but instead a way to make people feel welcome on the Mall. Ambassadors, they say, will “assist tourists, provide extra maintenance, build relationships with business owners, and help direct the homeless to appropriate service providers, among other things,” says the DP.  Hmmm…still unclear exactly how they will prevent bad behavior, not just from the homeless, but from folks pouring out of bars and shows late at night. This could be something to watch. And that’s what council has decided to do: fund the program for a year and see what happens. Photo by daquella manera

City pulls chairs out from under homeless

Five benches around the Central Place fountain were removed because of “behavior problems” from some of those who have been using them, the Newsplex reports. But one homeless man makes a good point: “I understand there’s some noise, but the thing is, you don’t have to take the chairs out for that; pinpoint the ones who are making the noise and deal with them that way.” The City says some business owners complained.

New fire truck can navigate the Mall

If there’s a fire emergency on the Downtown Mall, don’t be surprised if you see an odd little fire truck arrive on the scene. The Charlottesville Fire Department just bought a funky new Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV).

According to fire chief Charles L. Werner, it’ll be used to get to people on hiking or biking trails, on the Downtown Mall during crowed events, and at UVA football games.

The two-seater carries a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, an automatic external defibrillator (AED), berating equipment, and can ever flow some water and putting out some firefighting foam.