This essay was written by a law student at the University of Virginia who decided to counterprotest on Friday when members of Unite the Right stormed the campus. She shared it in the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group with the hope of calling allies to arms to join Saturday's protest. It is reprinted with permission and edited for clarity and length.
My friend and I arrived on campus on Friday night and were met with hundreds of white nationalists — of course, 99% white men — carrying torches through what is known as the lawn, the main quad of campus. They chanted, "You will not replace us" and "white lives matter." Because they planned the rally for when students would not be on campus, and they held this rally as a surprise, there were comparatively much fewer counter-protestors. We tried to keep our distance but felt it was tremendously important to document what was happening, so we went live on our phones; below is that video.
The white nationalist groups walked around the rotunda, which sits at the front of the lawn, and began to gather around the Thomas Jefferson statue on the other side of the rotunda. At the statue, around ten of our fellow University of Virginia (UVA) students gathered with a sign that read "UVA Students Against White Supremacy." The Nazi group gathered around them for about 30 seconds, as the rest of the white nationalists came down from the steps and joined the circle, and then began to attack the UVA students at the base of the statute; the students were brutally beaten and outnumbered at least 50 to 1. Police began to intervene, seemingly spraying pepper spray or tear gas, forcing the crowd to disperse. Many people tried to run and were arrested when they were caught by the police, who had formed a circle around the group.
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Clashes continued to occur between the Nazis, counterprotestors, and police. In the chaos, Richard Spencer ascended the stairs and came to the balcony where my friend and I were watching in horror, trying to figure out what to do. When he reached the top, his security detail surrounded him, and it appeared as though he was attempting to make a speech. Someone brought out a megaphone for him but, as you can hear in the video, it was "out of juice." Richard Spencer screamed to the crowd, "We just won a historic victory. We occupy the streets."
When he realized he wasn't going to get the publicity he wanted, and when the fighting between protestors and counterprotestors intensified, Richard Spencer left, with his security detail and various other supporters (many of them much younger than I, probably about 15 or 16). I assume that he expected to be arrested for inciting a riot. His security detail surrounded him and escorted him back down the rotunda stairs, across the lawn, through campus, and finally to two cars awaiting his group. He left his younger supporters behind.
My friend and I were the only people who realized Richard Spencer left; no media were present. We were trying to notify media and police where he was on campus. We engaged very little — the Unite the Right members made it clear they would be armed, and my friend and I were concerned about our personal safety.
I have never been more terrified in my life than when I saw those hundreds of torches marching through campus. But the very few UVA students who were there held our ground. It was Richard Spencer who organized a surprise rally like a coward and surrounded himself with a security detail while his followers were tear-gassed and arrested.
This is a call to action. Saturday will be one of the largest white nationalist protests in modern history. While Charlottesville had a tremendous turnout earlier in the summer, when the KKK held a rally in one of our parks downtown, the KKK was outnumbered by thousands of counterprotestors. As you can see from this video, Saturday will be very different. These Nazi groups feel emboldened when they met with little opposition. We need as many protestors in Charlottesville as possible; there is strength in numbers, as well as safety.
I'm scared, of course I am, but I will be there because I have a duty to be. As a white person, I know it is easier for me to occupy this space safely than persons of color. I'm going to show up for all of the people who cannot.