I Survived the Neo-Nazi Attack in Charlottesville. Justice Still Hasn’t Been Served.

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters

I met the white nationalist who murdered Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

We had crossed paths earlier in the day, as James Alex Fields Jr. and his comrades-in-arms prepared to do battle with “Antifa.” One of the “very fine people” on Donald Trump’s side, he had trained with the U.S. Army and had recently driven his Dodge Challenger all the way from Lake Erie to join the “Unite the Right” rally—a widely publicized gathering of self-avowed white nationalists and other far-right groups—in Virginia.

The stated goal of the rally was to defend a bronze likeness of Robert E. Lee (“the greatest general in the history of our country,” Trump would later call him, approvingly).

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I had come to Charlottesville as an antiracist researcher, a student of social movements and an ethnographer of fascism in America. I did not know why, exactly, but I knew I had to be there. So on Aug. 11, I piled into a rental car alongside some young Black, Jewish, Muslim, and Asian American activists, and set out from New York City for points south.

Although I was a yankee in a yarmulke, I was able, at first, to do my field work “on many sides” of the battle lines, weaving in and out of the ranks of the right and the left throughout the morning of Aug. 12. I even snapped a photo of Fields as he posed alongside other MAGA militants affiliated with Vanguard America—sporting their signature white polos, buckler shields, and battle standards.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>James Alex Fields, carrying a shield, stands to the right of a man holding up a flag with Vanguard America.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Michael Gould-Wartofsky</div>

James Alex Fields, carrying a shield, stands to the right of a man holding up a flag with Vanguard America.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky

My camera also captured the future leadership of Patriot Front hanging out with Fields mere hours before the murder—including the Front’s founder and aspiring Führer, Thomas Rousseau. The Proud Boys were not far behind: among them members of their paramilitary wing, the “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights,” and their future chairman, Enrique Tarrio.

Clusters of Virginia state troopers stood guard alongside bands of heavily armed militiamen, mostly Oath Keepers and “Threepers,” fingers curled around the triggers of their AR-15s. Meanwhile, the city’s Black churches, its mosques, and its one synagogue—which was packed that morning with congregants observing the Jewish sabbath—were left undefended, abandoned to partisans of the “Jews will not replace us” persuasion who’d been menacing them all morning.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A Three Percenter anti-government militia member stands guard during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Michael Gould-Wartofsky</div>

A Three Percenter anti-government militia member stands guard during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky

By early in the afternoon of Aug. 12, mass resistance had forced the cancellation of the Unite the Right rally and the declaration of a state of emergency. Shortly after 1 p.m., James Alex Fields got back in his Dodge in a rage. He revved the engine, stepped on the gas, and proceeded to steer four thousand pounds of metal at top speed into a mass of human bodies.

I felt myself flung backward, and felt something breaking inside of me. Five years later, I still see the familiar bouquet of bloodied banners, running shoes, shards of glass, and bits of flesh flit before my eyes, tossed skyward by the impact of the collision before falling back to earth.

Again, and again, and again: the smell of burnt rubber, the taste of raw terror, the search for missing friends and the desperate cries for help.

“Medic! Medic!” “She’s not breathing!” “Give her space!”—all ringing in my inner ear. The locking of arms, and the struggle to hold the surging crowd back. The frantic, ultimately fruitless attempts to bring Heather Heyer back to life.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Rescue workers and medics tend to people who were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chip Somodevilla/Getty</div>

Rescue workers and medics tend to people who were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

How many lives might have been saved had America heeded our warning? Charlottesville was not the first scene of far-right carnage and it would not be the last.

The five years since have seen a marked increase in automotive assaults directed at antiracists, antifascists, and pro-choice feminists. Out of 139 attacks documented between May 2020 and September 2021, fewer than half were ever prosecuted, and exactly four out of 139 drivers have been convicted.

Today in the face of a resurgent far right, this Congress has planted itself, not on the side of the masses of anti-authoritarian Americans, but rather squarely on the side of the SWAT teams and riot squads they credit for saving their behinds from the barbarians at the gates. Legislators in both parties are even lining up behind new and expansive anti-terrorism laws—modeled on the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001—along with ever more advanced spy tech and weapons of war delivered to local law enforcement thanks, in part, to the federal government’s 1033 program.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Police respond in an armored vehicle following the vehicular assault on the crowd.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Michael Gould-Wartofsky</div>

Police respond in an armored vehicle following the vehicular assault on the crowd.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky

If we are to believe the claims of the Jan. 6 Committee, the only real antidote available to ordinary Americans is to “trust the institutions”—above all, those of federal, state, and local law enforcement. Two years after the federal government’s repression of the George Floyd rebellion, and amid renewed street protests for the right to choose, Americans are still somehow expected to entrust what rights we have left to police institutions that have shown the greatest propensity for violating them (whether in Portland or Kenosha or New York or the District of Columbia).

Agents of America’s state security apparatus share as much of the responsibility as anyone for our present predicament. From local police and county sheriffs on up to the federal Departments of Justice and of Homeland Security, U.S. law enforcement has proven to be one of the most unabashedly pro-MAGA (and arguably anti-democratic) forces in our society.

And it goes deeper than the participation of the 39 off-duty officers (or one in 20 rioters arrested) in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Despite the high-profile arrests of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in recent months, government records, when analyzed over a longer time horizon, reveal that arrests and prosecutions have skewed overwhelmingly to the left. Everywhere we see the same pattern—even in places where far-right violence was planned and executed, sometimes to lethal effect and often with zero consequences for the aggressors.

Between May 2020 and January 2021, while the threat from the far right was building, law enforcement was busy pursuing an asymmetrical campaign of selective incapacitation against thousands of American fascism’s most formidable opponents. Over the course of a single week following the 2020 election, riot police in Minneapolis, Manhattan, and elsewhere made more arrests than federal agents have over the entire course of the Jan 6. investigation.

To return to the scene of the crime, Charlottesville also represents a case in point: A mere three days before the Unite the Right rally, the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint bulletin with the Virginia Fusion Center, which called UTR a “free speech event,” and identified “anarchist extremists” as “the principal drivers of violence at recent white supremacist rallies.” Law enforcement acted accordingly, with the more than 1,000 officers on the scene opting to stand back and stand by (as Trump would instruct the Proud Boys to do on live TV in 2020)—until it was too late.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Flowers surround a photo of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chip Somodevilla/Getty</div>

Flowers surround a photo of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It was not MAGA alone that delivered us to dictatorship’s door. Rather, it was the homeland security state itself that permitted the “invisible empire” of organized hate to take root (again) on American soil, while criminalizing Black Lives Matter, demonizing “antifa,” and stoking a kind of Black-and-Red Scare within the American body politic. As a consequence of this asymmetry, thousands of predominantly non-white political prisoners sit in cages to this day, many with federal “terrorism” enhancements, while those who terrorized their communities walk free.

Yet building more cases, constructing more cages, and filling them with an equal number of white nationalists will do exactly nothing to change the underlying dynamic. After all, prisons, jails, and detention centers are places where the governing classes of modern states put problems they do not know how to solve, and populations they do not know how to govern.

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What America needs now is not more police, or more power to the carceral state, but rather, more power in the hands of those most vulnerable to this kind of violence. Not a more equitable war on crime, but a decriminalization of dissent—including an end to the practice of counterinsurgency policing at protests, a ban on cash bail and pretrial detention, a moratorium on the use of biometric spy tech like facial recognition, and the strictest respect for the right to record the police.

If we really hope to turn a new page, we also need a general amnesty for imprisoned protesters of every stripe. The release of right-wing prisoners could be accompanied by parallel efforts to help those who truly want to leave their lives of neofascist violence behind—and to deter those who do not from doing further violence to their communities, with first responders rooted in civil society, and with non-carceral social sanctions at the ready (such as deplatforming, boycotting, or refusing to work with or for known white nationalists).

Finally, the present moment demands more than another season of political theater in Washington. It requires a more rigorous search for truth, remedy, and reparation. And it calls for an independent fact-finding body with transparent processes and practices—something approximating the truth commissions of Latin America and post-apartheid South Africa, or the international tribunals convened on Myanmar and Kashmir in recent years.

Such a fact-finding body would need a broad mandate to investigate all political arrests and prosecutions, and acts of racial or sexual violence that occurred in government custody during Trump’s presidency.

Until the invisible empire of organized hate is made visible, its accomplices held accountable, and its friends in government made to answer, the survivors will keep waiting for our day of reckoning.

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