Last weekend, the country watched white supremacists swarm the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. University of Virginia Law Student Elizabeth Sines was on the ground, counter-protesting their hatred. MTV News asked Elizabeth to share her experiences and thoughts on how young people can similarly counter bigotry across the country.
When I moved to Charlottesville about a year ago to attend the University of Virginia’s law school, I never expected to witness a parade of KKK members in full robes, hoods pulled over their heads, pouring out of the local courthouse. Ironically, I decided to come to UVA because it’s considered the most collegial law school in the country. Alumni rave about how friendly Charlottesville citizens are, and how close-knit the UVA community is.
Saturday, July 8, 2017
One afternoon in early July, I found myself face-to-face with about 50 Nazis who had been protesting the removal of a Confederate statue in the area. As they marched, they gave the Nazi salute and carried barely legible signs that read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”
But that KKK rally was just a kickoff to what’s been dubbed Charlottesville’s summer “#BlockkkParty.” An even bigger rally, organized by Unite the Right, was scheduled for August 12. Nearly 20 white supremacist groups led by neo-Nazi leader and UVA alum Richard Spencer were planning to descend on Charlottesville to protest the removal of Confederate statues from local parks. But these Nazis couldn’t wait until Saturday to ignite their day of terror; they organized a surprise torch-lit rally on the night of Friday, August 11.
Friday, August 11, 2017, 9 p.m. EST
I was there that night. I live near campus and was hanging out with my roommates when I saw that local activist organizations like SURJ Charlottesville and Solidarity Cville were tweeting reports that Nazis were planning to converge at the Jefferson statute at 9 p.m. At about 8:30 p.m., I drove around campus and, sure enough, saw about 30 white men carrying torches, running toward a field. I picked up a friend and headed toward the lawn on UVA’s main quad where the Nazi group had congregated. About 700 mostly young, white men, wearing dress clothes, were chanting, “You will not replace us! You will not replace us!”
Of course, undercurrents of racism have long been present on this campus. Racist incidents have occurred here long before these protests. After the 2016 presidential election, and especially after the city voted to remove Confederate statues from our parks earlier this year, discussions about racism became inescapable in the Charlottesville community. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the alt-right would have some kind of demonstration in the city. But I could have never anticipated the level of hostility and violence they would unleash when they got here.
Because school was not yet in session, there were comparatively very few counter-protesters present on the night of the 11th: I only saw about 10 to 20 during the march. At first, the Nazis paid counter-protestors very little mind. I figured they ignored my friend and I because we’re women and didn’t appear confrontational. So we stood about 10 feet away from the marchers and filmed them as they walked up and around the rotunda steps, and down to the Jefferson statue on the other side. When they realized we were taping them, they weren’t mad — in fact, they seemed proud. Some even waved. Many were jumping up and down screaming, and slapping one another on their backs.
It was a nightmare. As the tail end of the torch-wielders joined the circle around the Jefferson statue, violence broke out. The supremacists began to attack a few counter-protesters who stood at the statue’s base holding a sign that read “UVA Students Act Against White Supremacy.”
They beat them with their torches, punched and dragged them to the ground. Police, who seemed to have been passively standing by before, moved in. They used pepper spray in an apparent attempt to get the crowd to disperse, and began arresting some of the Nazi protestors.
Flashback: November 8, 2016
Before last year’s election, I never considered myself “an activist.” While I’ve always been politically active — I volunteered for political campaigns, wrote letters to my representatives, and canvassed — I’d never been part of direct action. But after Donald Trump was elected, I felt like my efforts to fight racial and economic inequality were just not enough. Even more importantly, as a white person, I knew that I had to begin “showing up” to protests and marches, to stand beside people of color who had long been fighting as I comfortably sat on the sidelines.
I asked people of color how I could be a better ally and I listened. I asked them about their experiences. I asked them to correct me when I said something offensive or biased, and have grown more comfortable speaking about race and allyship. Most importantly, I read pieces by Deray McKesson and Feminista Jones; I didn’t want to put the burden on my black or gay friends to teach me or police what I said, because they shouldn’t have to. The truth is, white people need to take more responsibility for combatting racism in this country.
To be clear, no one walked me through how to protest. I had always been scared to attend protests addressing racism because I wasn’t sure I would be welcome as a white person and was generally inexperienced with direct action. But I now know that organizers want more white people to show up to their protests. You don’t have to be part of any activist organizations (although I suggest joining one, or many!). It’s pretty easy to figure out what to do and where to go once you’re there: Showing up is the most important part.
Saturday, August 12, 2017, 11:30 a.m. EST
Charlottesville was already in chaos when my friend and I arrived downtown the next morning. I’ll never forget the inescapable smell of chemicals in the air. The ground was splattered with white liquid, which we realized was probably the remnants of tear gas and pepper spray. People were carrying assault rifles in the street, and were draped in Confederate flags.
We headed to McGuffey Park, where a diverse group of counter-protesters, clergy, and volunteers passing out food and water had congregated. Soon after we got to the park, one activist leader told the group that people of color were being attacked and harassed by Nazis downtown, and another group had requested our assistance. Our group of a few hundred packed our things and began to chant as we marched downtown — “No racists, no KKK, no fascist USA!” We merged with another huge group of chanting counter-protesters and it brought tears to my eyes; we were all so in sync, so unified.
Then our peace came to an abrupt end. What followed is now a blur, but I remember leaping to the right side of the street and taking shelter in the doorway of a business as a car plowed into people beside us. In that split second, I remember thinking that it must have been an accident — that the driver had not meant to do it. Then the driver put his car in reverse. It was obvious he was trying to kill as many people as he could.
Everyone was screaming, but amidst the chaos a group of us managed to find shelter. We were holding, hugging, and comforting each other when a military tank pulled up and a man popped out of the top with a gun. People yelled that it was tear gas, so we ran away. We saw people sobbing in the streets, while others lay still, seemingly unconscious. Activists held huge banners around some who were receiving medical treatment, shielding them for privacy. A friend who lived in the area eventually took us in, and we remained with him for about two hours, until it was clear that the imminent threat was over.
These may just be the things that happened to me on this day. But all Americans experienced terror on Saturday. Nazis decided my home was their target, but ultimately I’m no different from you. This could happen in your town, on your campus. None of us are safe while white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis are emboldened in this political climate.
I don’t want this story to scare you. The truth is, marching with that group of activists up Water Street was the first time since November 8 that I felt powerful, like I could make a difference. I want you to feel that power, too. I want to inspire you to turn off your televisions, leave your homes, and join the resistance. Donate. Volunteer with your local Black Lives Matter organization. Go to protests. Don’t allow casual racism to persist in your daily life. Write. Talk. Get uncomfortable. Fight every day, until you feel powerful, too. And then keep going.