Over the next several hours, this same pattern continued to play out: Another fight broke out every few minutes as a new faction of the right marched toward the park.
The park was filled with every variety of racist you can imagine, from the neo-Nazi biker to the fascist computer programmer. They were almost exclusively white and male. The anti-fascist activists who packed the streets were predominantly white but there were far more women and people of color opposing the neo-Nazis. Otherwise the two opposing armies seemed to be of roughly equal size. The fights were swift, chaotic and brutal.
The two sides launched bottles and tear gas canisters back and forth as state troopers stood and watched, slack-jawed. At one point, as a few bottles whizzed by him in quick succession, a trooper perked up enough to pull out his phone and record some of the mayhem.
When the police declared the assembly illegal before it even began and told everyone to leave, it forced these groups together. Right-wing militia types wielding assault rifles and wearing MAGA patches on paramilitary uniforms roamed through the crowd. Guys with pistols seemed to keep their hands on them, ready to draw at any moment. It felt like something horrible would happen.
Then, as the various groups became separated, it seemed like the rumble had largely ended.
“I’m glad no serious gunshots rang out. I was threatened with a gun, though. Police wasn’t around when a guy pulled up his gun up on me, though,” Steppe said, around 12:30 p.m.
Steppe and Knight both seemed to think that it was the end of the day.
The racists, who had not been able to hold their rally, were trying to regroup at another park a little further from downtown. Eventually, as a state of emergency was declared, they decided to leave—some of them even suggested hiding in the woods.
Anti-fascists burned right-wing flags in a park and then marched through the city; two groups converged on Water Street at around 1:35 p.m. It felt triumphant. They had driven the racists out of town—or at least those from out of town.
About five minutes later, as they marched through the streets, it sounded like a bomb exploded as a muscle car, which police say was driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr., sped down the street and plowed through the march and into other cars. Fields then threw the weaponized car into reverse, fleeing from the scene of terror.
Bodies were strewn through the road. Street medics, marked by red tape, delivered first aid while waiting on ambulances to arrive. Activists held Antifa banners to block camera views of the injured.
The racists and fascists were nowhere to be found. Trump meandered through a speech in New Jersey in which he condemned violence on “many sides.”
He did not use the words “white supremacy” or “terrorism.” He did not offer support to those who were hospitalized or prayers for those who were still in critical condition. [It was later revealed that one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed in the attack and at least 19 people were injured.]
Fields, who was photographed earlier in the day with the same Vanguard America shield I saw when I first arrived in town, was arrested and charged with murder.
I am writing this later the same night as the attack and I won’t pretend to know what it means for our country. The racism is not new. The argument Steppe and Knight were having in their hometown could have happened any time in the last 50 years. But the way the battle over white supremacy was being waged around them was new, and Charlottesville was not ready for it. None of us are.
When that gray car slammed into those people, it shattered a part of America, or at least the illusion of it. I don’t know what that means yet, because it shattered something in me, too.
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg