On August 11, myself, Seth Herald, and Megan Jelinger, traveled down to Charlottesville, VA from Columbus, Ohio to cover the Unite The Right Rally. This post is a collection of notes and photographs from that weekend and my experiences as the planned Rally turned into a free for all brawl which climaxed when White Nationalist James Alex Fields jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.
August 12, 12:10am
We arrived at our airbnb in Charlottesville late in the night, shortly after midnight. After dropping off our equipment we went to Applebees for beers and food. During our dinner Seth found the breaking news article about the torch march by the White Supremacists on the University of Virginia. Before leaving for Virginia we talked about whether or not the supposed numbers of White Nationalists would be accurate and whether or not the rally would break into a riot, after seeing the news of the torch march we all began to get the feeling that the next day violence would break out.
August 12, 11:30 A.M.
We woke up around 9:00 am and prepared to go downtown to where the rally was set to be held. After making a quick stop at Dicks to get Megan a helmet we ordered and uber and made our way down. The ride down is when I started getting nervous, there had been rumors that fights were already happening as the White Nationalists marched towards Emancipation Park. As we came into town, almost all the streets were closed off, not 100 feet from where we left our Uber, a National Guard unit was forming up. As I snapped pictures of them I noticed that they too were on edge. Down the street the sounds of air horns, chanting, and shouting could be heard. By this time, as I would later find out, White Nationalists and counter protesters were already clashing, both sides wielding wooden rods, flag poles, and pvc pipe.
The three of us discussed our plan of approaching the park. The day was warming up, but there was a cool breeze still floating that brought the acrid scent of sulfur to our noses. Megan and I made our way up the street as Seth hung back to get more photographs of the National Guard MPs. As we made our way up the street a procession of White Nationalists passed by carrying confederate flags and nazi flags, we noted that many of the members of the procession carried poles and shields. They were followed close behind by a long procession of cops clad in riot gear. Unbeknownst to us the clashes near Emancipation Park had escalated, the gathering at Emancipation Park had been declared an unlawful assembly as the permit for the Unite The Right Rally in Emancipation Park had been revoked and the Rally was supposed to take place in a different park outside of town.
We stopped first at a nearby park, Justice Park. Seth attempted to speak to members of a militia who declined to speak of the events, only that the permit had been revoked and clashes had been breaking out all morning. From there we made our way down to Emancipation Park.
August 12, 11:43 AM
As we made our way to the park we began to hear chants as well as sounds of violence. We rounded a corner and were stunned at the scene of violence before us. White Nationalists had charged through counter protesters and into the park and now counter protesters had circled back behind them. Skirmishes were breaking out, being fought tooth and nail with fists, poles, mace, and whatever the participants could get ahold of. White Nationalists had maced several counter protesters and were throwing smoke bombs at the growing crowd. Counter protesters hurled water bottles at the White Nationalists and fought with the few that remained on the street. A water bottle struck the ground in front of me followed by a wooden pole that bounced off of a discarded shield. After snapping a few shots I decided to put my helmet on. Newspaper dispensers laid on the ground where a scuffle had taken place before our arrival, the stairs nearby were stained black from the discharge of a smoke bomb. The White Nationalists hurled racial remarks at counter protesters and deflected the hail of debris being thrown with homemade shields as they retreated into the park. I snapped several photographs on the street before entering the park and the epicenter of the fighting.
I began choking on the overwhelming stench of smoke bombs and mace as I entered the park. Riot police stood in a long line with their shields up in the middle of the park. An officer on a megaphone repeated the message that the gathering had been declared an unlawful assembly and that everyone needed to clear the park or face arrest. Bottles, wood poles, smoke bombs, and other debris continued to be hurled back and forth as counter protesters entered the park. Several people were bleeding from injuries on both sides. One man behind a barrier for the White Nationalists continually shouted, "Fags and niggers leave the park." The White Nationalists had set up makeshift barricades and hid behind barricades that had been set up by police in the days earlier as they continued to hurl smoke bombs and spray mace at counter protesters. Counter protesters maintained distance but traded missiles with White Nationalists as they chanted back "Nazis go home."
Counter Protesters spilled into the park from multiple sides. I found myself with other members of the press in the mid ground of the battle. Several White Nationalists attempted to chase down a counter protester who had thrown a water bottle at them but were forced back. A stream of mace from a White Nationalist splashed across my lens and lips. I retreated momentarily as I began coughing and gagging then reentered the no man's land. A White Nationalist broke the line and charged a counter protester. He grabbed at his gas mask and elbowed him in the face. Another counter protester charged in and knocked the White Nationalist to the ground and kneed him in the face. Several other counter protesters charged in and one landed a blow across the head of the White Nationalist with a flag. Two other men had charged in with pvc pipes and mace and brawled with the counter protesters before being forced back to their own disintegrating line.
A water bottle struck me in the chest and another passed by my head and I became aware of the possibility that journalists might be being targeted. I looked to see if I could spot Seth or Megan in the fray. Two men from the White Nationalists charged out after a counter protester who gave them the finger, swinging a Confederate Flag. They were immediately overwhelmed by counter protesters, and after a flury of punches and kicks retreated back to their line having forfeited the Confederate Flag. A group quickly grew as the flag was torn apart and set on fire by counter protesters.
Seth and Megan were photographing the flag burning as well. We reconnected for a moment to make sure we were all ok. Seth had caught mace or pepper spray on his camera and his mouth, but was ok, and Megan hadn't sustained any injuries or caught any pepper spray or mace. I broke from the cluster where the flag burning was taking place. The White Nationalists had formed a line as barricades had been broken down by both sides. Brawls continued to erupt as the area that had been a no man's land shrank. Yet again a White Nationalist broke the line and charged after a retreating counter protester. He knocked me down in his pursuit but I scrambled up and followed his chase. He was quickly engaged in a fist fight by a counter protester who wrestled with him for a brief moment before knocking him down. As he rose he continued swinging but was caught by the punches of another counter protester. More White Nationalists broke the line and dispersed mace and pepper spray on the crowd and retrieved their comrade.
I left to join where Seth was, close to the police line which had started advancing on the crowd. White Nationalists, including one of the ring leaders and key speakers Richard Spencer, began to push against the police line. More smoke bombs were set off as the White Nationalist's line began to disintigrate. A White Nationalist swung a Kekistan flag at counter protesters and dared them to come near. He hurled insults and called for the White Nationalists to hold against counter protesters and police.
Police began advancing in on the chaos and I left the park to the street level, where several smoke bombs were smoldering out and several others just beginning. I took a moment to wipe sweat and mace off my face. Several counter protesters placed buckets over the active smoke bombs that had landed on the street near me but not before I inhaled the fumes. I leaned against a wall and coughed, the fumes were acrid and choking.
Megan and I proceeded up the street only to be stopped again by a thick cloud of what I believe was tear gas. After a moment or both of us retching, we regrouped and proceeded towards where a large crowd was gathering at a corner of the park. A small group of White Nationalists were shoving against a police line as they tried to get back into the park as counter protesters hurled insults and chants again of "Nazis go home." Police officers, who had gathered on the steps that spilled into the street, shoved the White Nationalists off the staircase and at the counter protesters after a brief struggle. With only shouts of "Shame." and traded insults, the White Nationalists were permitted exit down the street away from Emancipation Park. The park had been cleared of both White Nationalists and counter protesters by noon, the scheduled time for the rally to begin.
August 12, 12:00 PM
I made my way down the street after the White Nationalists had left. In a small alley off the road members of a militia armed with rifles held a police tape line while several injured members of the White Nationalist group were treated for pepper spray and head injuries. Two men, one wearing a 'League of the South' t-shirt and the other in a white suite with a 'Make America Great Again' cowboy hat and pepe the frog meme patch held each other. A person with makeshift medic symbols offered their services to the injured men but was turned away by militia members. Two men who had been involved in the brawls at the park stood near the militia members and taunted the counter protesters. Militia members told the two men to "Get the fuck out of here". Three men in the group that had struggled with police at the park exit walked away with their arms around each other's shoulders. One on the left had a bandage over his head but was helping support the one in the middle.
August 12, 12:30pm
A line of White Nationalists protected by militia members made their way through the mass of counter protesters. Both sides exchanged words but no brawls broke out around me. I could still taste the mace that had got into my mouth and took a drink of milk from a medic. People dressed in religious garb marched through the crowd and sang a song. I met up with Megan again, she said that for the most part it seemed the White Nationalists had left. I walked down a side street and was told that they were closing the street. I made it to the Downtown Mall and called Seth.
August 12, 12:45pm
A line of White Nationalists marched their way down Water Street and to the Market Street Parking Garage where police stood guard with an APC. Some of The White Nationalists hurled insults at the police as they passed by, mostly accusing them of not intervening.
August 12, 1pm
I regrouped with Seth and Megan in McGuffey Park. A crowd of counter protesters had gathered here and were drinking water. We rested for a moment. Seth was approached by two women who shouted at him and told him to leave the park because he was taking pictures, and lectured us as they attempted to make us leave the public park. We stayed in the park and rested for a moment. A large group formed and began to make its way towards the Downtown Mall. Megan and I followed the group while Seth stayed behind taking pictures. We arrived at the Mall and dispersed from the group. After a few moments we saw a large group of White Nationalists leaving and followed them to the Market Street Parking Garage. Various people including non-protesters shouted at them, several cars passed by and shouted at them as well. As the White Nationalists entered the parking garage a Silver Dodge charger with substantial damage to the front and back passed by. A large chunk of the fender was dragging on the ground and rattled loudly as it passed. Counter protesters cheered, and shouted as many thought that the car had been smashed. Several cries of a report of shots fired rang out, word spread that something bad had happened on Water Street and Fourth Street. Megan and I sprinted down the street and arrived at the scene of the assault. The smell of burning gas and rubber filled the air, people were shouting a car had driven into a crowd. Blood was splattered all over a portion of the sidewalk near where three people lay. Medics began giving chest compressions to one of the women on the ground while less injured people sat on the sidewalk bloodied and in shock. I began shooting pictures of the chaos. After a few moments I began to feel dizzy and sick and stopped taking pictures. Police arrived on the scene and forced the crowd back. I looked around to see if I could see Seth on the ground or crowd. I handed my water bottle I had been carrying to a woman tending to a severely injured woman. EMT workers arrived on the scene and began tending to the wounded. The woman who was receiving chest compressions still lay motionless as EMT's surrounded her and continued to give her chest compressions. As the wounded were moved out those who were near and who had been aiding them began to break down into tears. My eyes watered as I continued to photograph. As they moved the woman who had been given chest compressions I could see she was dead. I spotted Seth and Megan and we regrouped. I made my way across the street to where Seth was and continued to photograph the still fresh blood on the ground and a tuft of hair stuck to the back of a car where a woman had been pinned.
August 12, 1:35pm
Seth, Megan, and I departed the crowd and made our way down Water Street. More ambulances were pulling in and the crowds were being pushed away to make room. Seth asked if I was ok, and mentioned how upset he had been at not knowing if Megan and I were victims in the crash. A woman at a bus stop began to have a seizure and medics rushed in to treat her. We met with a group of other press members from National Geographic and Washington Post. I began to feel dizzy again and drank 2 bottles of Seth's water. What happened still wasn't processing in my brain. The group of us walked to a small restaurant called the Whiskey Jar where we sat down. Seth received a call from The Atlantic that they wanted to purchase his pictures. The Washington Post and National Geographic people started to transfer their images. For a few moments no one spoke. Seth left to meet up with another photographer, his friend Ruddy Roye. Megan and I departed the restaurant after we finished our water and drinks.
August 12, 2:00pm
I was still shaky from the events of the day as we walked through the Downtown Mall. National Guard soldiers had gathered in a line blocking an exit from the Mall, Police officers stood in a perpendicular line blocking off another section of the mall. I met up with Seth and several other photographers. After snapping a few photographs Seth, Megan and I departed from the mall and walked about half a mile up the street to where we called an Uber. A man gave us flowers and told us he didn't want to know yet what had happened but to be safe. Our driver arrived and we departed back to our AirBnB.
August 12, 3:00pm
Once back at the AirBnB we set to work transferring our images. I responded to text messages on my phone that had been sent by friends and family. I felt drained and emotionally spent on the days work. The fighting in the park played over and over in my head as well as the assault. We heard news that a police helicopter had crashed, but Seth was on a deadline to send in photographs and I was too exhausted and was trying to find an outlet for my photographs. I began feeling sick going through my pictures. I started feeling the weight of the day and what had happened and tried to bury the feeling as I sent emails out to editors.
My photos of the car passing by on Market Street were bought by Getty Images. We photographed a vigil the next day at the site of the assault and departed back to Ohio late in the evening after a dinner with Ruddy Roye. The ordeal was the most intense situation I have been in and a lot of emotions have come out of it. It was an incredibly exciting situation to be photographing history and the event, but it much more terrifying and upsetting than exciting.