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Digital Collecting

"Unite the Right" Rally and Community Response

Friday Night: My Experience

Dublin Core

Title

Friday Night: My Experience

Creator

Keith Weimer

Date

2017-08-11

Spatial Coverage

Text Item Type Metadata

Text

I attended the prayer service on Friday night at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. I met Dave Ghamanadi and his wife BJ, and later Amber Reichert also sat with us.

I was grateful to be able to attend this service because I wanted to participate in some event countering Unite the Right, but had a prior commitment to be out of town on Saturday. While we were sitting in the pew waiting for the service to begin, Dave turned to us and said "This could be a major event. It could make The American Experience [PBS show] some day." I thought this might be a little much to expect, but acknowledged what he said. I was aware of the possibility of violence, but I was hoping and even somewhat expecting that the Unite the Right rally would be something like the Klan rally of the previous month--disproportionately small compared to the number of counter-demonstrators, spewing incoherent hatred, and ultimately fading out fairly quickly.

The service was a powerful,inspirational event, and it was gratifying to see that the church was packed with worshippers representing a variety of faith traditions (and probably none). While the songs were moving, and Cornel West's remarks were powerful (delivered in a sermonic style which I didn't expect), the Rev. Traci Blackmon's sermon was undoubtedly the highlight of the event.

The service was evocative of events that I'd seen dramatized from the civil rights era--not least, because it occurred to me that some of the people gathering for "Unite the Right" might want to confront worshippers as they left the church. Many of the leaders of the opposition to them were gathered in this one spot. And I noticed that people began to look out the main doors from the sanctuary to the street, and that we were kept singing hymns longer than scheduled.

Finally, an announcement was made that for our safety, we should stay in the church a while longer. I heard later that there were attempts to surround the church, but it remains unclear to me exactly what happened. After a few minutes, Dave showed us video of a torchlight parade originating around Nameless Field behind Alderman Library. The parade was near where we had parked, so we decided to stay put inside the church until we had a better idea where the marchers were headed, and what they intended to do. At this point, I was beginning to worry more about what might happen, though it seemed like the group was rallying at some distance from the church.

The clergy made announcements to the effect that it would be ok to leave for people headed towards the Corner and the downtown area of Charlottesville, but not if we were headed toward Emmet Street--the direction of the rally. We decided to stay put. It appeared that the marchers had headed away from Nameless Field and onto Grounds and were gathering in front of the Rotunda.

A man overheard our discussion about what to do, and offered to walk with us. We decided that we would be ok on our own, and would leave the church as directed--on the side facing the Corner--then walk along side streets and down Rugby Road to the Library.

As we left, we could hear shouting from in front of the Rotunda, and see the torches. The shouting was indeed frightening; it sounded like a football team pumping itself up before a game, but angrier. We walked along a side street about a block off University Ave., so we could continue to glimpse the "alt right" rally, and hear the shouting. As we approached the intersection of Rugby and University, I could now hear people shouting at the torchbearers. Something like "You lie!" It sounded like an altercation had broken out. At that point, a police car came flying up University towards the Rotunda. We had made a conscious decision not to spend much time observing the rally, and hurried towards out cars and home. We were definitely afraid for our safety, though I must say that while Dave was probably in most danger, being nonwhite, he was a little calmer than the rest of us, stopping to snap a photo of the rally.

I have to say that I did think the marchers might harrass us as we left the sanctuary. But I still didn't expect them to just attack us if we had passed near the march; even as a mixed group. Charlottesville/U.Va. are fairly diverse, and I expected the rally to be more careful about not overstepping in ways that could have attracted police attention than they evidently were willing to do. Recording these thoughts to show what my expectations were even on Friday night, even as an attendee at the prayer service--and how naive they were.

When President Trump referred to a rally gathered "quietly around the statue the night before," he must be talking about the torchlight rally at the Rotunda, because to my knowledge nothing took place in Emancipation Park that night. But there's a statue of Jefferson in front of the Rotunda. In still photographs of rallygoers framed by torchlight, it might look more peaceful than it was, but their intent was clearly aggressive, and it was certainly not quiet. And this should be evident to anyone who had read any detailed account of Friday night's events.

Citation

Keith Weimer, “Friday Night: My Experience,” Digital Collecting, accessed May 7, 2021, http://digitalcollecting.lib.virginia.edu/rally/items/show/15.