Our family trip to Charlottesville, VA had been in the works for months. The plan was to take a history-filled trip to Monticello and explore the University of Virginia. It included my 80-something history-buff parents, my brother, sister-in-law and their children, and my architect, history-buff husband who also happens to be Black. The rest of us are white.
After we'd heard about the white nationalist rally, our plan for a four day weekend shifted. We’d still go, stay away from the rally area, leave as early as possible on the 12th, and head to Mount Vernon instead. It would be a long weekend of founding fathers — a much more historically distant racism, prettied up by bucolic gardens and Corinthian columns.
Coming in from Brooklyn, NY, my husband and I joined my parents in Philadelphia, and we all drove down early on Thursday. As we Waze-ed towards our hotel, we noted signs that read “Disarm Hate” and “If Equality and Diversity Aren’t For You Then Neither Are We.” Those were really the only visible markers of anything happening, and that the town was tolerant and concerned. At our hotel, the staff couldn’t have been any more pleasant. We didn’t even ask about the rally but learned that we couldn’t be on one of two particular floors because journalist Katie Couric had booked them both.
At UVA, we met a Black student living in one of the fourth year dorms, right off the Rotunda. His door was open, and he welcomed us in. He told us he was studying public policy and had a possible gig at the Brookings Institute. My dad noticed their college-sized fridge and said with pure dad corniness, “I hope there’s some beer in there!”
Walking back on the lawn my husband commented how impressed he was with the student, “Brookings. So cool.” When my husband had visited UVA as a high school student he was paired with a Black fourth year who advised him not to go there because it wasn’t a welcoming place — and so few Black students in the architecture program. At this moment, he seemed happy to see a person of color thriving.
We lunched on Main Street in the Virginian, one of the oldest restaurants in town. Everything seemed okay until my sister-in-law noticed a KKK patch on someone’s jacket. She told us on the walk back to the hotel that she casually placed herself between him and my husband as a precautionary measure. We came up with a code word for any alt-right types we’d see, “Cauliflower.” At that point, it was a game: spot the Nazi.
When we got back to the hotel my husband mentioned to me he’d been looking at everyone we passed and thought, “Does this person here hate me? Does this person think I’m ok?”
“You were?” I said, surprised. I wasn’t aware of a thing. My privilege was showing.
The next day we were off to Monticello, Jefferson’s home, and nearly forgot about the whole ordeal. I kept a closer watch on Twitter, searching the term “Charlottesville” every so often to see what people were saying. The rhetoric was starting to pick up. Someone had spotted Richard Spencer and former KKK grand wizard, David Duke at the Boar’s Head Inn having a chat. Over lunch, I noted a comment about a possible torch-wielding march on the UVA campus.
Driving back from Monticello, we went through the downtown area. There was a lovely pedestrian mall, adorable shops. At one store called, memorably, The Impeccable Pig my sister-in-law found a strappy dress. Then, driving by Emancipation Park, my dad noted the racks of police blockades setting up for tomorrow. “Oh wow, well they’re ready,” he said with a bit of surprise. It was becoming evident that something major was about to go down. My niece noted the civilian men dressed as militia holstered up with guns, at the ready and standing casually by. “I’m scared mom,” she said. My sister-in-law told me later that she told her she was also scared for her uncle.
That night, we decided to stay in and order pizza. But the hate was gathering, right across the street. 200 or more protesters, white and predominantly male, marched on the very Rotunda we visited the day before. Wielding torches and reciting in a husky male-throated chant, “You. Will Not. Replace. Us.” We watched rows of white men in collared shirts shouting, fist fights, people getting maced, a small group of mighty UVA students defending themselves as they counterprotested around a tree. I thought about the student we’d met only the day before and that these disgusting people espousing their hateful message were marching right outside his doorstep.
The police didn’t show up until the tail end of the march, at which point most of the gathering had dispersed. In my Twitter-scrolling, I’d seen notes about the march hours earlier. I wondered, was I more informed than the police? Or were they not taking this seriously? The protesters didn’t have a permit to march on the UVA lawn.
Thankfully the next morning we were on our way out of town. Now the whole family was vaguely obsessed with the news. We wanted to get the hell out of here.
Packed up by 7 a.m, my husband and I headed down to grab breakfast sandwiches in the hotel lobby cafe — a hip little joint replete with iced cold brew and Kombucha on tap. My husband was wearing his black and white “Everybody Vs Injustice” t-shirt. He’d debated whether he should wear it, but we thought we’re leaving and it’s only a t-shirt.
As soon as we walked into the cafe seating area, we were met with steely-eyed glares from two burly white men sitting at one of the tables. I may never know their affiliations; I was making assumptions. Well, I may eventually know because Couric was there too, in a striped shirt and Converse sneakers. She was in the process of filming a piece about Unite the Right for NatGeo. She was clearly about to interview them.
As we got our coffee, we talked to the barista, a Black woman, behind the counter.
“Craziness in town right?”
She motioned towards Couric’s crew, “Yeah, it’s crazy. This is not a good place to be right now.”
As we went back to sit down and she was refilling bottled waters in a stand, she leaned in and said, “I’m afraid for my son, he was playing basketball last night, and I tried to reach him to tell him to come home. I’m afraid. This is ridiculous. But you know…”
Soon after the two men with Couric left, and then four much younger guys sat down at the same table. Going just by their t-shirts, these four were in town for trouble. One bespectacled guy wore a black shirt with a red iron cross; another sported a shaved on the sides, long on top Nazi haircut. As they sat down they kept quickly looking over at my husband and me, heads lowered, almost like they were sneaking a peek. We heard snickering. Measly 20-year-olds, I thought. Let me at ‘em.
We were feeling the panic and tension build, and feeling fear, hyper-aware, maybe injecting our own narratives, maybe working on instinct.
The snickering grew in volume, and my husband thought he heard one of them gesture and say "why is he with them?"
My brother and family joined us, dragging along their suitcases and I nodded in their direction.
“Cauliflower,” I said.
My brother looked at them and just said, “Yup, time to go.”
As we pulled our suitcases away from the cafe, I felt agitation in the air. I was suddenly very worried for the barista. After we left, she might be alone with those four. We decided to wait for a minute until the crew dispersed and my husband walked over to her to tell her to please be safe.
Soon after arriving at Mount Vernon, our phones alerted us to the violence in Charlottesville, starting right at 12:15 p.m. A few minutes later, my brother whispered to me, avoiding his children’s ears and said, “someone just drove into a crowd and ran over a bunch of people?! What the hell.”
We were so lucky to have left, so lucky to be far away. In some way, it felt like we hadn’t left it behind, it was following us. Meeting up with some friends at our hotel in Alexandria, VA, they reminded us Richard Spencer lived down the street.
That afternoon we caught up on the news, and I watched as the Dodge charger plowed into a crowd on the pedestrian mall, right past The Impeccable Pig where my sister in law had bought that dress. Then, my brother and I both spotted one of those very same guys who’d been sitting in our cafe, the one in a black t-shirt with a red iron cross, right there in the fray, pushing people around. It’s a clip they’ve been replaying again and again.
There he was and there he is. Terror is right here.