Witnesses to the violence in Charlottesville

August 23, 2017

The neo-Nazi car terror attack on anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured several dozen other people who mobilized to stand up against far-right hate and violence. This was the most horrific of the assaults by white supremacists and other far-right forces that took place throughout the city as police looked on.

A number of branches of the International Socialist Organization mobilized to participate in the anti-Nazi march in Charlottesville. Bill Burke, an ISO member from Athens, Ohio, was badly injured in the car attack and needed hospital care. Here, Bill joins Michael Shallal of Washington, D.C., and Katie Feyh of Syracuse, New York, in a roundtable discussion with Eric Ruder about what they saw in Charlottesville and the lessons they drew from that day.

CAN YOU describe the car attack and what was happening leading up to it?

Michael: We had gotten a report as we stood in Justice Park [the main gathering point for anti-racist demonstrators] that the fascists were headed to Friendship Court, a low-income housing complex, to harass and intimidate residents there. So a fairly well-organized group marched out of Justice Park to defend the housing complex. But when we arrived there, the fascists weren't there.

So we circled around to head back to the park. That's when we ran into the other counterdemonstration headed to the complex we had just left. That was a celebratory moment. The fascists had been kicked out of town, they weren't around in force, and it appeared that we controlled the streets.

We stopped for a minute or two as the people leading each of the marches shared information and decided what to do. As the march started up on Fourth Street to return to Justice Park, the car came plowing into us.

Bill: Like Michael said, when we joined up with the other march, it was like a party scene. We were all jubilant, and spirits were up.

A shrine at the site of the far-right terror attack in Charlottesville
A shrine at the site of the far-right terror attack in Charlottesville (Bob Mical | flickr)

We made a left turn toward Justice Park, and while I was talking to people beside me, all of a sudden, I heard screaming that wasn't part of our chants. I turned and could hear the engine of the car--it sounded like he was on the gas. I turned toward the center of the street where the screams were coming from.

I saw people up in the air, and people flying toward me. I'm not sure if I was hit by the car or by people in the air who were already hit by the car.

Apparently, I was knocked out, because the first thing I remember after that was a young lady telling me that I needed to hold my head shut. I remember looking up at her and thinking, "That doesn't make any sense. Hold my head shut?"

She kept saying it, and I was just lying there, staring at her. So she grabbed my arm and put my hand up to where my head was bleeding. I could feel the blood, and I could feel how mushy my head was.

That's when it really hit me that something was going on. I was going in and out of consciousness, with people above me telling me that I need to stay awake and to keep talking to them.

The whole time, there was screaming and chaos around me. I was trying to block that out and find one thing to focus on. There was someone named Katy right beside me. I gave her my cell phone and its passcode, and asked her to call my wife.

I was going in and out of consciousness, and when I opened up my eyes again, they were doing CPR on Heather Heyer, who was beside me. They were doing chest compressions, and I could feel each of those chest compressions because we were right to next to each other--I was touching her.

I just remember feeling helpless. I was an EMT for a while, and just laying there with people doing CPR on someone right next to me was the most helpless feeling in the world.

It seemed like it took forever for the ambulances and medics to get there.

I don't remember walking to the ambulance. I just remember a firefighter pulling me up by the backpack I had on because I was wobbly. He dragged me into the ambulance. I had blood all over my eyes, and I couldn't see what was going on around me. I was in a fog.

I don't remember the ambulance ride, but I do remember waiting for X-rays. One of the techs let me use her cell phone to call my wife. I just remember how nice everyone was at the hospital and the support I got from everyone I talked to there.

In the end, I had two lacerations on my head--one on the very top of my head where they had to go deep and put in dissolvable sutures, according to my doctor. To keep those in place, he had to staple my head. My wife says there are six or eight staples. It's a real big mess up there.

The laceration on my eyebrow has two sets of stiches. One set deep, and then another one on top of that. I have pretty bad road rash on my left arm, so I'm keeping antibiotic stuff on top of it to stop it from getting infected. My left knee is swollen. I can't bend it more than a 30-degree angle, but I can put weight on it and walk around with a cane.

My wife is a nurse, and they told her to keep an eye out for concussive symptoms. I've been showing some of those. But other than that, I think I'll be fine eventually.

THAT'S A terrifying story. I know I speak for everyone when I say that we were horrified by the attack on you and relieved to know that you will recover. We're here for you, so please reach out if there's any way we can help. Michael, you were just steps away from Bill when the attack happened. Is there anything you want to add?

Michael: The force of the car sent people flying into me. I have bruises on my side and both of my hips. The force of the car pushing people caused a lot of the damage. The first thing I remember thinking was seeing bodies on the ground everywhere and wondering what's next?

I turned the corner to get a better sense of the situation, and when I did, there were more injured people there. I gave myself the task of accounting for our comrades. Once I found a few comrades, I'd send them to our safe location in the park, though I didn't really know how safe it was at that point.

The last comrade I found was a nurse, and she was on the scene helping people. So I waited until she was done, and then we headed back to the park together.

You don't really put things together until it's over. I don't even remember that the car reversed. On the way home, people told me that the car reversed, but I didn't even remember that. It was all so fast.

Katie: I was coming back from scouting out McIntire Park where the fascists had headed after being driven out of Emancipation Park. I wanted to get a head count and come back.

I didn't know folks were going to march downtown because I thought they were going to march on the park. My impression from the day was that a lot of the initial action happened earlier, before the fascists were driven out of Emancipation Park.

What we saw was a lot of them driving around in pick-up trucks with armor and shields. We got footage of the beating of Deandre Harris.

Our side didn't have the numbers that we expected. We came prepared for a rally of a thousand or so, like with the demonstration against the Klan on July 8 in Charlottesville.

Instead, what we found were lots of different groups not coordinated together, with no centralized information and lots of skirmishing. We didn't have overwhelming numbers on our side, and I think that's what made the situation much more dangerous. I imagine we didn't have numbers in no small part because of the way organizing was carried out in the lead up.

I just remember as soon as we arrived seeing bands of Nazis roaming around and thinking that this was going to be dangerous if we couldn't get more numbers out there.

Michael: I think that we did outnumber them, but most definitely not by enough, and I think that contributed to the emboldened feeling that they had.

Even though they got kicked out of the park by the police, they still had the numbers and confidence to roam the city looking for people to beat up, looking for people of color or any anti-racist activists they could have brawls with.

I think that's the result of not sufficiently outnumbering them and disempowering them. In their view, they were able to move "troops" in and out of the city and organize tight formations to contend with Antifa. And no one on their side died.

The lack of numbers also contributed to the terrorist attack, because for them they could see us as basically their main enemy--the communists, the anarchists, the socialists--and to them, this isn't the broader society that they want to organize or that they want support from.

Katie: I left Charlottesville more convinced than ever that we need not only confrontation, but overwhelming numbers, and for that, we need to build with solidarity in mind as we organize for these kinds of demonstrations.

We need to appeal to the layers of folks who are either too afraid to show up or haven't yet fully absorbed the threat posed by the far right, and hence make the case why it's important to mobilize.

Because our only safety is going to be in the kinds of numbers that overwhelm the other side so that they can't pick us off, so that they can't just keep us buried in skirmishes, and so they can't even have cars near us, much less assault us with them.

We're going to need those kinds of numbers as these emboldened fascists continue to march. So I left convinced more than ever that skirmishing alone is not going to be able to do it. It's not going to be able to keep people safe, much less drive the fascists out, especially if the numbers are equal.

We actually need folks who are not street fighters out in force. We need entire towns marching when the fascists come to town.

Bill: Katie said a lot of the stuff I've been thinking about. It's going to take mass numbers. I gave an interview earlier today, and I said that I think that we're going to need numbers maybe bigger than Selma, because now they have a president who's pretty much pushing them with his rhetoric and not calling them out.

WHAT WAS the character of the organizing in the lead-up to the Charlottesville counterprotest?

Michael: The main organizing for Charlottesville coming out of D.C. was spearheaded by a couple anti-racist organizations in the city. There was no information at all about a specific location or gathering point or time to be at. In order to be involved in the organizing, you basically had to be okay with not knowing anything until you got to Charlottesville.

I was on an organizing list so I could get as much information as possible for our contingent, and every time I asked, "Where are we meeting? What's the plan?" I just got silence. I was on an impromptu call a couple nights before at 11:30 p.m. I was on it for about an hour--no information was given out.

And then there was a very complicated process for finding out where you would be staying and how to meet up with other people. It made it very difficult for people to get involved in the organizing.

I've never seen anything like it before, and it most definitely contributed to the battlefield mentality. If you weren't part of an organization or you weren't a local, you weren't at this protest. Or if you were, you just had to follow the crowd. I don't see how anyone on their own initiative could come to that protest and participate given the organizing for it. It was horrible.

Bill: I was planning to travel with another activist, but he wasn't able to get anyone to cover his work shift, so I just showed up by myself. I was checking out ISO pages to see if there was anywhere where people were going to be organizing, but there wasn't much.

Basically, I parked my car and walked a couple blocks until I saw some red flags. I walked that way and was lucky to run into Michael and the D.C. contingent there.

Michael: Having some personal activist contacts in the city, it seemed that Justice Park was the gathering place for the left, so we walked there. The first thing we saw was Redneck Revolt, which is an armed pro-worker, anti-racist group, defending the park.

I talked to them later, and they said that they had been charged with holding the park for the day, and I'm glad that they were there.

Bill: Me too.

USING SECRETIVE methods to organize a counterdemonstration might make sense if you think the biggest threat is posed by infiltrators. But the biggest threat was not being massive enough to overwhelm the fascists, and there's no way to overwhelm them if you're constantly worried about infiltration. Infiltration is irrelevant if you are able to mobilize massive numbers.

Katie: Exactly.

Michael: Right. At the very least, you need some kind of coordination of the groups involved, but that didn't happen.

I knew a lot of the activists, because many of the organizations there were from D.C., and so I was familiar with the people leading the Democratic Socialists of America and Industrial Workers of the World contingents. We were able to work together on the fly.

We also need to coordinate with groups that are self-defense oriented. We shouldn't counterpose mass action with self-defense. Self-defense and movement-building need to work together symbiotically.

Katie: Right, mass action isn't counterposed to self-defense. Mass action is a part of self-defense. It's going to take all of us. It's going to take working with folks we're not used to working with, as well as folks working with us who are not used to that.

But the thing about mass action is that it is actually the best protection for the most vulnerable folks who show up.

People who feel more comfortable facing the threat of physical violence from the Nazis definitely need to march at the front. But to make mass action a reality, a prerequisite for success is that it's got to be organized much more democratically, and with a hell of a lot more solidarity and a hell of a lot less suspicion.

What's definitely not going to get the job done is ignoring them or having separate speak-out events far away. If the Nazis are going to be violent, skirmishing is going to occur. But we're in significantly less danger if we are so numerous that they can't even move, much less swing.

The skirmishers aren't going to protect a mass march all on their own. The mass-ness of a march is actually going to be its own best self-defense.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein and Christopher Zimmerly-Beck

Further Reading

From the archives