On Tuesday, after a weekend that included a white supremacist mowing down and killing a peaceful counter-protester in Charlottesville and Nazis marching on the University of Virginia with torches, the president of the United States stood in front of the American people and said, “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Let me ask you this: What about the fact they came charging—that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
There were, as it turns out, a great number of Charlottesville locals present to witness the violence and lawlessness on display in this town—my town—last weekend. I asked local witnesses, many in the faith community, every one of whom was on the streets of Charlottesville on Saturday, whether there was a violent, club-wielding mob threatening the good people on team Nazi. Here’s what I heard back:
Postdoctoral fellow at the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at UVA
It was basically impossible to miss the antifa for the group of us who were on the steps of Emancipation Park in an effort to block the Nazis and alt-righters from entering. Soon after we got to the steps and linked arms, a group of white supremacists—I’m guessing somewhere between 20-45 of them—came up with their shields and batons and bats and shoved through us. We tried not to break the line, but they got through some of us—it was terrifying, to say the least—shoving forcefully with their shields and knocking a few folks over. We strengthened our resolve and committed to not break the line again. Some of the anarchists and anti-fascist folks came up to us and asked why we let them through and asked what they could do to help. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou talked with them for a bit, explaining what we were doing and our stance and asking them to not provoke the Nazis. They agreed quickly and stood right in front of us, offering their help and protection.
Less than 10 minutes later, a much larger group of the Nazi alt-righters come barreling up. My memory is again murky on the details. (I was frankly focused on not bolting from the scene and/or not soiling myself—I know hyperbole is common in recounting stories like these, but I was legitimately very worried for my well-being and safety, so I was trying to remember the training I had acquired as well as, for resolve, to remember why I was standing there.) But it had to have been at least 100 of them this go around. I recall feeling like I was going to pass out and was thankful that I was locked arms with folks so that I wouldn’t fall to the ground before getting beaten. I knew that the five anarchists and antifa in front of us and the 20 or so of us were no match for the 100-plus of them, but at this point I wasn’t letting go.
At that point, more of the anarchists and antifa milling nearby saw the huge mob of the Nazis approach and stepped in. They were about 200-300 feet away from us and stepped between us (the clergy and faith leaders) and the Nazis. This enraged the Nazis, who indeed quickly responded violently. At this point, Sekou made a call that it was unsafe—it had gotten very violent very fast—and told us to disperse quickly.
While one obviously can’t objectively say what a kind of alternate reality or “sliding doors”–type situation would have been, one can hypothesize or theorize. Based on what was happening all around, the looks on their faces, the sheer number of them, and the weapons they were wielding, my hypothesis or theory is that had the antifa not stepped in, those of us standing on the steps would definitely have been injured, very likely gravely so. On Democracy Now, Cornel West, who was also in the line with us, said that he felt that the antifa saved his life. I didn’t roll my eyes at that statement or see it as an exaggeration—I saw it as a very reasonable hypothesis based on the facts we had.
Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin
Congregation Beth Israel
There was a group of antifa defending First United Methodist Church right outside in their parking lot, and at one point the white supremacists came by and antifa chased them off with sticks.
I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn’t enough. No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn’t have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The antifa were like angels to me in that moment.
My 13-year-old son and I stood by ourselves on the corner down the street from the synagogue, in front of the Catholic Church, trying to walk back home but interrupted by a stream of white extremist marchers, with their signs and firearms and crazy regalia. I felt like an idiot but tried to look each in the eye and said, “Peace,” and “Peace be with you,” with as much sincerity as I had in me, trying to reach some humanity in them, and they jeered and mocked me, called me what you might imagine, told my son, Luke, that his mom was a this and a that. And now I learn that my son and labradoodle and I, and our little “peace be with you”s are apparently “alt-left.”
Our path home was blocked by them, and we had no choice but to face them. Just us alone on that street corner, and all of them menacing, streaming past us on their way to the rally. Later, when we were a block away from where everyone was clashing and considering going to the front steps of the public library, there was a big line of white supremacists, the leader wearing some kind of yellow spiked helmet, and as they tromped toward the rally, these lovely older women standing beside us wearing sky blue T-shirts that said “Quaker” kind of trotted alongside them gently, holding signs that said “Love.” Alt-left for sure. I was armed with my iPhone and my dog’s leash. Luke was armed with his acne and hormones.
Rev. Seth Wispelwey
Directing minister of Restoration Village Arts and consulting organizer for Congregate C'ville
I am a pastor in Charlottesville, and antifa saved my life twice on Saturday. Indeed, they saved many lives from psychological and physical violence—I believe the body count could have been much worse, as hard as that is to believe. Thankfully, we had robust community defense standing up to white supremacist violence this past weekend. Incredibly brave students held space at the University of Virginia and stared down a torch-lit mob that vastly outnumbered them on Friday night. On Saturday, battalions of anti-fascist protesters came together on my city’s streets to thwart the tide of men carrying weapons, shields, and Trump flags and sporting MAGA hats and Hitler salutes and waving Nazi flags and the pro-slavery “stars and bars.”
Out of my faith calling, I feel led to pursue disciplined, nonviolent direct action and witness. I helped lead a group of clergy who were trained and committed to the same work: to hold space on the frontline of the park where the rally was to be held. And then some of us tried to take the steps to one of the entrances. God is not OK with white supremacy, and God is on the side of all those it tries to dehumanize. We feel a responsibility to visibly, bodily show our solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.
A phalanx of neo-Nazis shoved right through our human wall with 3-foot-wide wooden shields, screaming and spitting homophobic slurs and obscenities at us. It was then that antifa stepped in to thwart them. They have their tools to achieve their purposes, and they are not ones I will personally use, but let me stress that our purposes were the same: block this violent tide and do not let it take the pedestal.
The white supremacists did not blink at violently plowing right through clergy, all of us dressed in full clerical garb. White supremacy is violence. I didn’t see any racial justice protesters with weapons; as for antifa, anything they brought I would only categorize as community defense tools and nothing more. Pretty much everyone I talk to agrees—including most clergy. My strong stance is that the weapon is and was white supremacy, and the white supremacists intentionally brought weapons to instigate violence.