By early afternoon on Saturday August 12, the rally was over before it was scheduled to begin. Militant counter-protesters had successfully driven white nationalists out of Charlottesville, without mercy to law enforcement, who, according to an independent report commissioned by the city, “systematically failed to intervene, defuse or respond to another way…despite clear evidence of violence. ”
“The day was won,” recalls activist David Straughn. The mood was festive as the counter-protesters decamped to a nearby shady park designated as a safe zone. Activists known as “Care Bears” handed out vegan burritos and peanut butter sandwiches. Someone brought in a larger-than-life Sally Hemings papier-mâché puppet and waved it through the heavy air. “It was the purest, most ecstatic joy,” recalls activist Bill Burke, who is still recovering today from severe injuries caused by what followed. “That was the highlight of the whole fucking day,” said activist Constance Paige Young, who was also seriously injured minutes later.
“That’s when the call for support came,” says activist Emily Gorcenski. The group learned that some struggling white nationalists were harassing residents of a nearby Section 8 housing estate called Friendship Court, which houses mostly people of color. The activists resumed their march. Soon it became clear they weren’t needed at Friendship Court after all – the residents preferred to handle the threat on their own – and they marched through the streets to their safe zone park.
That’s when a white nationalist drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of hundreds of cheering counter-protesters, killing Heyer and injuring dozens more.
The following oral history reconstructs the intense moments surrounding the car attack from over 150 hours of original interviews, including with numerous Antifa-aligned activists who have yet to share their stories, as well as documents court proceedings, public statements and other published interviews. This is the most comprehensive account of the 2017 Charlottesville car attack yet to be published. For ease of reading and historical accuracy, I have occasionally edited citations to correct verb tenses or clarify what the subject is referring to. Names, titles and occupations are recorded as they were on August 12, 2017.
Please note that what you are about to read includes graphic descriptions of the car attack, the injuries that followed, and Heyer’s death.
These are the voices of Charlottesville, telling their own story.
I. “It felt like we won”
Around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 12, things were winding down. Militant counter-protesters left Friendship Court and returned to the nearby park which they used as a safety zone.
Elizabeth Sines, counter-protester and law student at the University of Virginia: It was as if we had won: we had taken back our city and protected our people.
Constance Paige Young, counter-protester: I felt a kind of relief because I thought, Thus, an unlawful assembly was declared. The show is over. We are going out. I felt like maybe in an hour I’d find a ride [home]. So I was happy.
Counter-protester Marcus Martin joined the crowd with his fiancée, Marissa Blair, and friends Heather Heyer and Courtney Commander.
Marcus Martin, counter-protester: We found this big crowd of happy people: cheering, clowns, people singing kumbaya and shit.
Emily Gorcenski, counter-protester: Everybody was celebrating, but my thought is like, We are on a street that is not closed to traffic. The cops are still out. There’s the national guard outside, [we] a helicopter flies over us. And we are in a kettle zone. We are not well placed. So we need to go back to the streets where we are allowed to be and back to the parks where we are meant to be.
Charlottesville black matriarchs – and grandmothers – Rosia Parker and Katrina Turner were front of the crowd.
Rosia Parker, counter-protester: That’s when we turned around to go back to the Downtown Mall.
This particular officer came out of nowhere. It’s almost as if he were an angel. He looked at me and Katrina and he was like, Don’t go down fourth street, because I warn you, wherever you go, it will be considered illegal entry. Black Lives Matter, y’all are a danger right now, don’t walk down Fourth Street. So me, Katrina and her son looked at each other. We started talking to each other and we were like, We have to direct these people and make sure we don’t take Fourth Street.
Katrina Turner, counter-protester: We arrived at a place and we didn’t know which direction to take. And someone shouted, Where are we going?
Rosa Parker: And we were like, Don’t go down fourth street. Anywhere but fourth street.
Katrina Turner: And that’s what we were trying to tell one of the members of Black Lives Matter: that we were told, Don’t walk down fourth street. But he was the one handling the megaphone and all that. We know he says, Go ahead, go left.
Rosa Parker: And that was the fourth street.
Bill Burk: There’s a saying in the leftist world, when you don’t know, Always go left. So we started to sing, Always go leftand that’s when we decided to turn left and cross Water Street.
Elizabeth Sines: Fourth Street is quite narrow, I would say much narrower than a regular street. And it’s buildings on both sides, so that adds to the feeling that it’s quite cramped.
It was packed. There were many of us all lined up, like a big group. So it was tight.