A UVA Student Organizer Recounts His 24 Hours Of Counter-Protest In Charlottesville
When Ian Ware and I spoke earlier this afternoon (August 12), he was in the process of checking in with other activists and organizers in his group after a driver mowed down a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring several others. Ware — a third-year student at the University of Virginia, and an active member of social justice groups on campus and in the area — was in downtown Charlottesville to counter the scores of white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and alt-right-identifying men and women who had gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the recently re-named Emancipation Park.
He knew that friends of his were hurt after the Dodge Challenger sped down that narrow alleyway at a lethal speed, but didn't know the extent of the damage at the time. When he followed up via text message to confirm later on, it was to deliver both good and bad news. The bad: there were four concussions and two broken legs counted among his particular group of counter-protesters. The good: Ware and his friends and colleagues were "holding strong!" in spite of the boiled-over tension that prompted the Governor of Virginia to declare a state of emergency and a nation on edge to turn their attention to the streets of Charlottesville.
The night before, Ware — along with other activist groups in Charlottesville and a number of students — gathered on UVA's campus at the foot of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder, in an attempt to prevent a tiki torch-wielding crowd of protestors from surrounding it as they spewed vitriol and epithets under the guise of "uniting the Right." Here's Ware's firsthand account of his experience in Charlottesville, from his hasty action to reclaim his campus to facing the semi-automatic weapons and disinterested police in the city that's become his home. (The following dialogue has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
I’m looking at these posts coming out of Charlottesville, and this is all terrifying. You’re a student organizer at UVA, correct?
Yeah, I’m going into my third year.
Is this the first time you’ve encountered a protest like this, one this intense?
I think this is the second time, the first being when the KKK came to town last month. It’s definitely fresh, at least for me, in terms of this level of open white supremacism and literal Nazism in a town that is not really used to that.
Can you walk me through what you witnessed at the gathering around the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus last night?
Those were all of my friends that were gathered around the statue. I was filming them. It was supposed to be a secret protest; the information was leaked to organizers yesterday morning. There was a pretty quick scramble to try to do something, to counter-protest. What it ended up being was a group of UVA students, groups from around the community, and anti-fascist leaders just literally trying to blockade the Jefferson statue in front of the rotunda, which is of course the most iconic image of Charlottesville and UVA. We were all standing there, waiting, and we heard them, and they just started pouring over the steps of the rotunda, just hundreds of literal Nazis. They were doing the Nazi salute. They were calling everyone slurs. They were pushing people off the stairs of the rotunda. They came down and surrounded our crew of people who were all just trying to keep their faces down and stay safe. A fight broke out, and I could see what was happening, but not who started it; at one point, Nazis were waving their torches at our people and swinging them at us. They threw torches on the ground. There was fire everywhere. Someone had either tear gas or some mace [substance] that a bunch of people got on their faces. Afterwards, they finally started dispersing, but it was really, really terrifying, especially seeing Nazis come over the crest of the most important place at our university, the place you go when you first get into UVA, the place you see every day when you go to class. The pictures of them walking around the grounds were just stunning in the worst way.
Thomas Jefferson is Founding Father, the founder of UVA, and a figure with a problematic history. I'm sure this is a complicated thing to unpack at UVA, especially when it intersects with your own experiences on campus and your activism.
I think it’s important to talk about that — that this university was built by slaves, by a slave owner, on the backs of marginalized people, and really has been the face of oppression for two hundred years. There’s no getting around that, which is why this narrative of “This is not the Charlottesville we know!” is not necessarily true. White supremacy has been a part of this institution forever. It’s been a part of this town forever. So it’s a hard thing to unpack, but I think for a lot of us, it’s very important to recognize that. Even if it hasn’t been Neo-Nazis on our campus, it’s been some form of white supremacy for the last two hundred years.
How did you prepare for last night?
We were organizing for today, and things kind of snowballed: We knew it was one of those flashpoints where you can’t step back and say, “This is not a moment to act.” For us, it was really a moment to reclaim the place where we live, the place where we go to school. It did come together really last-minute, which is part of the reason why people didn’t really expect the violence at that point. We weren’t even really expecting anything to happen. A lot of us kind of thought, “If we show up, they won’t even come.”
How did the crowd you faced today compare to the crowd you saw on campus last night?
Today was a lot different. Everyone has been preparing for this for months. There were thousands of people here. Every two seconds I saw a different white nationalist or Neo-Nazi group. It was very different in the sense that [today] they were expecting counter-protesters, they were expecting violence, they were expecting that to happen. It was a complete 180 from last night in that they were just everywhere. Every time you turned around you saw a different group coming from another side street towards Emancipation Park, which is where the action was when I got there.
Even just looking at what people are posting on social media and the photos that are coming through, one thing is terrifying and clear: This was not a peaceful protest. Some of these guys showed up with assault rifles.
That was the first group of people who got here this morning — Three Percenters and militia who were carrying semi-automatic rifles and full, literal arsenals on their person. I don’t know if you’ve seen the last updates in the last hour, but the reason we’re all regrouping right now is because someone drove a car through a crowd of protesters on a crowded street in downtown Charlottesville. It was probably the most terrifying moment of my life, seeing my friends get hit by a car as it just mowed through a crowded alleyway. People are in the ER or on their way to the hospital. The car did get away; it reversed down the alley, and I think the cops got it by now. [Authorities have apprehended a suspect, according to the Associated Press.] It’s just one of those moments where, when people talk about the banality of the right, it’s like, that’s not a real thing. These people want to kill us because they do not want a way of life that is any different from white supremacy or Nazism. They are literally willing to mow down protestors in daylight in Charlottesville, Virginia to get what they want. It’s just insane.
When we’re talking about regrouping, what does that mean for you, exactly? Is everyone in your group okay?
A couple of our friends were taken away in ambulances. Luckily, we have a few friends who are EMTs, so it’s easy to coordinate that and figure out what they were doing. We’re also not allowed inside the hospitals with them right now so we can’t make sure they’re okay emotionally. The biggest issues were concussions and there were some leg injuries, but mostly head trauma. Right now, regrouping is just making sure all our people are okay, getting everyone accounted for, and seeing what we need to do next. That doesn’t necessarily mean planning a counter-protest in twenty minutes; that means making sure we’re here for our people when they need us, whether that’s giving them a hug and some water or making sure they’re getting shock counseling. We’re all in a state of shock. [Editor’s note: After this conversation, Ware confirmed that members of his group suffered four concussions and two broken legs.]
For people that have never been to a peaceful protest but are interested in getting involved, or want to know how to prepare for one, is there any knowledge you can impart, specifically in regards to coming face-to-face with violence when you set out to peacefully protest?
Three tips: Walk, don’t run. If you’re in a situation that can get violent and you start running, that can trigger a mob; that can trigger people getting more violent; that can trigger police violence, especially against people of color. Walking away from the situation as fast as you can without breaking into a run is a very good move. At events like this, especially with Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, you want things to cover your face. In Virginia, it’s actually illegal to hide your identity, but we’re obviously going to try to keep ourselves safe. The Neo-Nazi movement is notorious for doxxing leftist and counter-protestors, so the less you can show your identity to these people, the better, because you will keep yourself safer. Then, be prepared for the worst. Never think that something isn’t going to go wrong, because the moment you think that — the moment something does go wrong — you aren’t emotionally prepared for it.
Something I keep seeing from those tweeting in Charlottesville is that the police presence wasn’t proportional to the escalating tension. Is that an accurate assessment, and does it line up with what you saw on campus at UVA last night, and in downtown Charlottesville today?
I think that’s totally accurate. There’s been a huge police presence in Charlottesville that’s been building all summer, just getting ready for the big event. There were National Guard everywhere; there were state police everywhere. There were riot cops. But I didn’t see them do anything. Last night, when our people were literally getting [threatened] with flaming torches in front of the rotunda at the University of Virginia, we could see the cops, and they were not moving. They did not care. They were not there to help the people who were protesting. They were just there to be the face. I haven’t seen a police officer intervene with anything this weekend. The only time I saw a police officer intervene with anything was when a university official asked them to get a paramedic for someone who was injured last night. That was the only moment I actually saw them do anything.
Is this a notable contrast when compared with other protests you’ve seen on campus and in Charlottesville?
Absolutely. When the Klan came, [the authorities] made a police line so we couldn’t get near them. They started arresting when we got too close to the Klansmen. They were there acting as personal security and actively doing things. Today, they were just kind of sitting there. It was really, really different, but I think their presence still heightened the situation, and made everyone feel like we were in a more violent situation, because we were when there were that many cops around.
Moving forward, you mentioned that regrouping doesn’t necessarily mean immediate action. Where do you go from here?
When it comes to Charlottesville, I know that I’m, at least, going to be following the lead of local groups who have been working quietly (and not necessarily in the media spotlight) for years to dismantle white supremacy in our town — like Black Lives Matter, the Charlottesville coalition of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC), the Anarchist People of Color collective that’s located near here, the Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America; UVA Students United, and the UVA Black Student Alliance; there are so many groups. Just because the Neo-Nazis leave does not mean that the tools of white supremacy have not left our town ... What we need to do is focus on the local level and make sure we’re dismantling it here. We need to reform the justice system here in Charlottesville; we need to not have drug task forces that target communities of color in low income neighborhoods. We need to be working from the ground up, and not only focus on these flashpoints of nazis in the streets with bats. At the end of the day, we’re all going to go home tonight, but it’s not going away just because the Neo-Nazis left.