Burned into Memory: My Experience as a Bystander at the Alt-Right, White Nationalist Torch Rally at UVA

Alt-Right/White Nationalist Torch Rally, Charlottesville, VA (August 11, 2017). Photo by Claire-Marie Brisson

“You will not replace us,” they shouted, stomping their feet across the university campus I love, mocking the very academic institution and city I have chosen to help me achieve my goals. As the alt-right were seething underneath cheap tiki torch lights, attempting to blaze fear into the community, I was in full awareness of their own intimidation standing before an intellectual community. In fact, it was through writings by the likes of Jefferson that gave them the right to the free speech and right to assembly that they were exercising. No one was stopping them from that. No one would want to take their place.

 

I had moved to Charlottesville on August 11, 2016 – precisely one year to the day before this provocation of fear. We have had other attempts, and they are always frustrating. The alt-right claims it is peacefully protesting and assembling, but when I unexpectedly run into a torch-bearing mob on my nightly walk, I experience another reality. There were chants of hate as a precursor to an event called “Unite the Right,” being held today in Charlottesville. Counter protesters who were equally emotional were waiting to clash with them under the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the historic Rotunda.

“You all work for the Jews!” yelled one of the white supremacists. Who was he yelling at? All of the bystanders? The university students who were just finishing moving some of their personal items into their dorm rooms on the historic Lawn? The local press taking photos? “We have our rights!” We were in full acknowledgement of that. Again, no one was stopping them, despite the danger hundreds of open flames posed to the UNESCO-World Heritage campus.

As I stood in awe and fear, one of the alt-right tiki torch bearers smiled at me and said “beautiful isn’t it?” I looked him right in the eyes and said “are those torches Made in China?” I managed to laugh. Suddenly, the air of superiority disappeared. His eyes dropped. He lost his intimidation game. He ran back to his group and chanted louder. Faced with the stark reality of his own ridiculousness, he knew that he would only feel validated surrounded by his group.

Protesters and counter protesters rally around the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of UVA. August 11, 2017. Photo by Claire-Marie Brisson

The protesters walked around the Rotunda and walked down the front steps towards a group of peaceful counter protesters who had been singing anti-fascist and anti-Nazi chants. The alt-right is upset whenever they are labelled in this way, so for them it was seen as provocation, not peace. During the clash, tiki torches flew and public safety was compromised. Zero dialogue, all emotion from both sides facing each other off. Alt-right torchbearers began to chant “White Lives Matter,” instigating the counter protesters to chant “Black Lives Matter.”

 

As I stood and watched the scene with another bystander who had been walking his dog across the campus, he rolled his eyes. “Their parents must be so proud of them,” he huffed. His dog seemed to be the only one amused by the spectacle, but much less so when a police officer next to us told us to evacuate and got on his radio calling for “all available units.”

Adrenaline is a scary thing. I’ve never run so fast before in my life. Within seconds, I was across the street. Everything else around me was a blur as I raced to safety. I heard a woman shouting “HE’S ON FIRE!” as I fled, too frozen to look back, too concentrated to escape. Then I heard a yell and looked back to see a man being arrested just behind me. I stopped across the street and watched in horror. I wasn’t out of breath, but I felt paralyzed. What was I seeing? Blue lights lit up around my shadow, and I heard cars driving at maximum speed down Rugby Road – the street I take to walk back home. I will never forget how it felt to turn my eyes behind me to the sea of blue flashing lights racing towards me. I was shaking. As the tiki torches were being blown out one by one, a thick smoke caused me to choke. I had to sit down and get my bearings before I walked home. I was disgusted. It was also my first full day back in the US after having visited the my family in Québec, Canada.

After posting a photo of what I witnessed last night to my Instagram account, I was messaged directly by a supporter of the alt-right who decided it would be their mission to make me feel like the intolerant one. “So you’re scared of peaceful protest?” the user asked. “There are a wide variety of us, and a wide variety of people at these protests. Not all of us are ‘racist, sexist, homophobic xenophobes’ out to rape and kill you.” That comment showed me above all else that they are very conscious of what they are doing. Heated language, assumptions, and a direct attack to the presentation of unbiased reporting of facts. They know that they are racist. They are very conscious that they are xenophobic. So I replied: “I understand and respect your right to assemble and express yourselves,” however when “violence and hatred are on display, one has very good reason to fear.” The alt-right user’s reply? “I just read an article about how there was violence, so you were right to worry.” Just a little bit of rationality, and their arguments are completely debased, as always.

Dialogue was possible with that user because I fit the demographic they would want to lure into their movement. That interaction would have been impossible had I appeared to be anything other than white. I seem to keep running into the alt-right wherever I go nowadays. Jason Kessler, a local alt-right activist I encountered on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall a few months back, was gleaming with joy on Twitter that  “white people who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it anymore” were assembled. These users, whose sole mission is to “shitpost” (in their own words, not mine) draw support through racist memes and ridiculing anyone not in agreement with them.

Today, Richard Spencer and other members of the alt-right were maced at the Unite the Right Rally. The mayor of Charlottesville has just declared the situation a local emergency, and here I sit in my apartment, defiant of their hate and hopeful for the voice of reason and democracy to prevail. I am the alt-write. I write against their alternative reality, against their hatred, against their abuse of freedom. Rationality will never go away. You will not replace that.

Claire-Marie Brisson

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