Safe, but Not Okay: When White Supremacists Came to Our Town

What if the white supremacists shot down that helicopter? They looked like they were on something. I wasn’t technically breaking my promise to my father. Different religious denominations offered prayers, and individuals stepped forward to make speeches. Your elderly parents. Isaac wanted to go but was adamant I stay behind. Some of it was true. The area looked like a cross between a block party and a war zone. “The one lookin’ over the protesters. Isaac had been in all of those. At that point, we were a nuisance to law enforcement and medics — two more spectators who served no purpose but could get hurt if something else happened, preventing those on duty from going home. “Everyone knew they were porn.”
I heard stories from other locals of how Kessler was kicked out of Occupy Charlottesville (you read that right) for making too many women uncomfortable. In the hours leading up to Friday, August 11, the gravity of the situation became clear. Charlottesville is a confused town of disparate, awkwardly competing ideologies. I felt like such a fool. I checked the Twitter feeds of the local news. A man flung himself against the wall of the Union Bank, screaming. Your business. There was the death of UVA student Yeardley Love, savagely beaten by her preppy, wealthy, lacrosse-playing boyfriend. So, the white supremacists had been near our house, maybe on our lawn. The protest was over. I’ve lived in Charlottesville for the past 10 years. That may surprise and upset some outsiders. Bellamy’s actions caught the attention of Jason Kessler, who retaliated by posting old tweets of Bellamy’s that were racist, sexist, and homophobic and calling Bellamy a “black supremacist.” Kessler also started a petition to have Bellamy removed from office. These protesters didn’t just seem pumped up for battle. We joined my sister and brother-in-law at a small gathering across town. Are you safe? But we’re not okay.”
Jabeen Akhtar is the author of the novel Welcome to Americastan. No more news for the day. I was not the only person to notice this. This crowd has had frequent run-ins with Kessler. A few of my friends were convinced they were all on meth. Then a pounding against the dining room windows. Kessler was charged with assault for punching a man back in January and stirred up trouble again in June with a prominent attorney at a downtown mall bar. In that span of approximately one minute, we knew something had happened but we couldn’t piece together what we had seen. Your children are here. But what were we to do about it? Everything was on lockdown. I met a friend later for coffee. A national manhunt led to the arrest of a local predator who kidnapped and killed two young women and left their bodies to decompose in the rural outskirts of town. It is a college campus of millennial microaggression safe-space political correctness that has an unhealthy obsession with its slave-owner founder. Your property. “How’s your family?” he asked her. North Carolina. Besides, Isaac asked, have I ever been in a fistfight, bar brawl, or mosh pit? It was difficult being back on 4th Street again, the very next day, but there was an aura of softness, almost of femininity, with all the candles and flowers. ¤
In October 2016, Douglas Muir, owner of the pricy Bella’s Restaurant on Main Street and an adjunct UVA faculty member, posted on Facebook that Black Lives Matter was the biggest racist organization since the KKK. I forbid it!”
My father had watched skinheads march through our East End London neighborhood in the 1970s. ¤
Isaac and I arrived downtown around 12:30 p.m. Frightened shoppers had called the cops. And when they do, they will stay here again. Around 11:00 a.m., we finally turned on the news. What if they try to get in through the basement? Much more. Their prominence grew as common British citizens became increasingly agitated by the presence of South Asian immigrants like us. People actually died. No joggers, kids on bikes, dogs barking, or hedge trimmers puttering into life. The people who live here. Bystanders tried to explain to a group of us that a car had just rammed into people on the sidewalk, but the information came fast and breathless and in shifting bits and pieces. And your first instinct if your town is invaded is not to fight but to protect. I kept repeating that in my mind. I listened in with Gary for a while longer, told him goodnight, and went back inside the house. The article has since been debunked, but the story’s proliferation spoke volumes about how Charlottesville is not the idyllic enclave depicted in the travel brochures. The state trooper at the top pointed his rifle at everyone as it rolled by. But in Charlottesville, we had witnessed the domestic dispute between a local blogger, a city rep, and the owner of an Italian restaurant. A few seconds later, we were at the top of 4th Street, where I saw a congestion of cars with a colorful collection of signs littered around them. People were calling Unite the Right the biggest white supremacist gathering in contemporary American history, perhaps ever. I’ve never officially met Kessler, but before Isaac and I married and moved to a suburban area, we were part of the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd that lives, works, and parties at the strip of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars that comprise the pedestrian downtown mall. What if they were still in Charlottesville, spread about town, hiding in bunkers, waiting until nightfall to crawl out and wreak havoc again? Gary, a retired firefighter, operates a ham-radio station out of the shed, which is more like a small barn with a separate room in the back for radio equipment, antennae jutting from the sides and roof. The helicopter that was hovering over us all day. Why are you still in Charlottesville?”
Texts from friends and family who were glued to their television sets in shock and disbelief inundated our phones. You probably never heard of this town until recently, unless you went to the University of Virginia (UVA) or are a die-hard fan of the Dave Matthews Band, which got its start at a local bar. We started back to our car, which meant having to pass ambulances. I saw a stretcher with someone’s bare feet sticking out. Activists endured hardships to travel here and put their lives on the line to confront the protesters. Isaac and I continued to explore the aftermath of the protests, stopping to chat with a few counter-protesters cooling under a tree. Someone screamed again. On Friday, we went to work. Snipers would be patrolling rooftops on the downtown mall. A man and woman, old friends, greeted each other and tightly embraced. “The helicopter crashed!” he told me, as voices coming along the frequencies muttered law enforcement lingo and codes. Roads will close, businesses will shutter, events will be canceled. My phone chimed. We were going. And it was certainly the symbolism behind the rally and an easy media talking point. For a few hours of denial, the 10 of us drank rum and cokes and watched bad Queensrÿche videos. What if they had weapons of that caliber? Saturday morning around 8:00 a.m., I picked up my phone to check the news. As I tried to fix them, I noticed a light on in my neighbor’s shed. ¤
On Sunday night, I attended a vigil for the victims at the crash site. They died? Around 1:40 pm, as we walked down 3rd Street toward the mall, we heard a sickening roar. Isaac is white, but I’m from Pakistan, a brown immigrant. Isaac checked his phone. We didn’t think they’d venture into the residential areas, infiltrate our very own neighborhood under cover of darkness. For years, I heard Isaac and his former roommates telling stories of Kessler obsessively showing up at their house trying to get them to appear in videos characterized by Kessler as artsy. An affront to all that white supremacists hold dear. When the white supremacists walked past us, always in groups, I noticed their high energy, their wild eyes and manic smiles. With their clutter of flags and weapons, rallygoers were congregating in parking lots all across town. Somewhere in all of this looms the statue of Robert E. But as projections of rally attendance swelled, the city tried to move it to the out-of-the-way McIntire Park, which is mostly used for softball and skateboarding. The president of our neighborhood association told me that a group of white supremacists stayed Saturday night at a rental house up the street from ours. Go home, Paki,” they screamed. Kessler wrote an article for The Daily Caller on the May rally, which was led by fellow UVA alum and more famous extremist Richard Spencer, and he clearly wanted in on the action. Less immediate is the psychological toll. Armored vehicles, barricades, and rows of National Guards sectioned off Emancipation Park and most of the streets encircling it. Why, in all of the United States, was this small town the site white supremacists chose to spew their language of hatred and flaunt symbols of a painful past? Soon after my family left England for the United States. Row after endless row of white men holding torches, their mouths agape, screaming something I didn’t want to know. Now, of course, after the Unite the Right rally wreaked its havoc here on August 11 and 12, the world has heard of Charlottesville. What if we’re asleep and we don’t hear them come upstairs because we keep the fans on because it gets so hot and …
What if, what if, what if, what if …
I had been through this kind of spiraling before and I needed to stop. But it’s different when it’s your hometown. With the Unite the Right rally gaining traction in the news, the Town Creep was quickly becoming the most well-known person from Charlottesville after Thomas Jefferson. First a white nationalist torch rally on May 13 and then the KKK just a few days prior. It gave contact info, a 336 area code. God, what was up with their weird, exaggerated smiles? Then we put water bottles in the fridge to chill. After August 12, 2017, you’ll find swastikas, torches, confederate flags, fist fights, Nazi salutes, blood-streaked faces, “#ANARCHY!” spray-painted on walls, a weeping Statue of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, the Pope, the Berlin Wall, the L.A. No one at the party did. You don’t want to associate your morning commute with violence and tragedy. We cleaned the house. Matt was one of the town residents who had vowed not to participate in the day’s events. I guarded their door on high alert, ready and waiting for whoever might have gotten in and was now lurking downstairs. It was a young man holding a clipboard and pen. It is at once antiquated Southern genteel and cosmopolitan liberal. Isaac grabbed my arm. When James Alex Fields fled the scene, he pulled his wrecked car in front of Isaac’s co-worker’s house on a quiet street in the Belmont neighborhood. Here we go again, I thought. I could incite a riot just by crossing the street. The non-telegenic backwoods bigots of yesteryear would stand side-by-side with today’s meme-loving, podcast-producing internet trolls. I saw a few friends and we hugged. riots, KKK hoods, mugshots, handcuffs, candles, crosses, flowers, peace symbols, and a man holding a sign that says, “fuck yo statue.”
The reality of Charlottesville, the non-curated, unfiltered reality, lies somewhere between those two sets of images. when we left, and Isaac took the quickest route home. Luckily for Kessler, they failed. The owners were hard up for money and would take whatever renters they could find. Your cats and dogs. We picked up our kids at daycare or ran errands, went home and cooked dinner. You’ll find groups of women in floral-print dresses sharing glasses of wine on the expansive lawn of King Family Vineyards. I barricaded my parents in their bedroom as I tried to explain what was happening. Faces contorted in anger. Still, some of what we heard about the protesters was not imagined. “You can’t go! The National Guard would be called in. For most locals, there was no debate. Kessler would organize a rally of his own, only this time it would be more than just those old bearded KKK types. I jumped out of bed and called the cops. The rally was supposed to last until 5:00 p.m., so there was no rush getting downtown. I crossed my arms and said, “Fine, then, let’s just sit at home and rot.” Another hour passed. To the world, the statue was the impetus for Unite the Right. I imagined a coterie of right-wing extremists gathering at someone’s kitchen table to assemble them. Our water bottles empty, we thought we’d see if anything was open on the downtown mall so we could get a couple of fountain sodas. I was not about to make the same mistake I’d made that time. THIS IS THEIR CALLS FOR WHITE GENOCIDE!” At the bottom was the circular symbol for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Katie Couric was here. Someone started singing “Lean On Me” and the crowd joined in. This was his big moment and nothing was going to ruin his debutant ball. It was in mid-July when many of us learned that a variety of alt-right groups planned to hold an August 12 rally in town. I saw a beautiful photo of candlelight all across the UVA lawn. It was clear he had been in there all day. We had it easy. Unite the Right would welcome all the disparate groups that fall under the racist umbrella — neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, white nationalists, southern nationalists, neo-Confederates, fascists, as well as the KKK — together in one space, united at last, hence the name. “But seriously,” Isaac’s friend recalled. “Jabeen, I forbid you from going to those protests. We saw forensic analysts in rubber gloves combing through the park, placing numbers on the ground and taking photos. “Beware the backlash!” community members said. An armored vehicle approached from behind. They were already here. But at least it was just us again. Our first response wasn’t necessarily one of fear but of planning: I better get to the hardware store for lawn seeds before everything shuts down. Did you hear that right-wing extremists are coming by the hundreds this time? “The backlash is coming!”
Sometime during the night, I awakened to the sound of footsteps outside. No one we knew saw congestion on the roads to indicate a mass exit. Too silently? I was at work in downtown DC when the planes hit, and I spent a harrowing day trying to get out of town and to my parents’ house in the suburbs. My father helped my mother bandage my brother’s head after a skinhead threw a rock at him on his walk home from school. We said nothing in the car. This bag had little teeth marks on it. Here it was — the town bedraggled and beaten, filthy and grief-stricken. Brides in $10,000 wedding dresses posing on the stately balconies at Keswick Hall. Kessler wrangled with the City of Charlottesville to get permits to hold the rally at Emancipation Park. He was on the downtown mall trying to get signatures for his petition when a man he approached didn’t agree with it and Kessler punched him, leading to that assault charge. The cops had enough on their plate that day and I had wasted their time. Everyone around the world was seeing it with us. None of the guys know why. Everyone on 3rd Street, including me and Isaac, ran toward the sound. We had heard rumors that the protesters had stashed weapons around town and planned drive-by shootings. A heavy knock at the door startled me. State troopers would be armed in riot gear. It was unusual for Gary to be out there that late, so I checked on him. “Aww, look,” I told Isaac. That caught the attention of Wes Bellamy, an African-American Charlottesville City Councilman who called for protests and boycotts of Bella’s that led to Muir taking a leave of absence from UVA. His mettle had been tested. I thought. Gary sat on a recliner, wiping his damp forehead with a napkin in the muggy back room. I was asked by the editors of LARB to write something about what happened here that August weekend, to help answer the question: “Why Charlottesville?” Much documenting and analysis of the events has already been done, and done well, such as this chilling Vice video. Where are you?”
Before we could even comprehend the violence taking place in front of buildings we knew intimately, on streets we walked every day, law enforcement kicked the white supremacists out of the park and it ended before it was supposed to begin. “Promise me you won’t go.”
Isaac’s grandmother called. “We’re safe. “What is happening over there? But like everyone else in Charlottesville, the day found him. All around, people were crouched alone, sobbing. Even though Isaac and I only live a mile from UVA and two miles from the downtown mall and Emancipation Park, we thought that the racists, like good boys and girls, would contain themselves at their rally site under the full view of law enforcement. UVA was embroiled in controversy after Rolling Stone printed a gripping, horrific story of a student’s rape at a fraternity house. Of greater purpose to terrorists than the immediate number of deaths is the radiating effect their acts have on everyone else. It was because of that damn Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville local who bills himself as an activist and blogger and who founded a right-wing, anti-immigrant nonprofit. An animal had tried to eat it. Most of us did nothing. Vanished. All morning the streets had been empty. Could I defend myself? White supremacists were spotted at Wegmans and Walmart. I wasn’t ready to look at the spot where the flowers piled the highest, where I knew Heather Heyer must have died, so I kept my head down. Counter-protesters too — Black Lives Matter, churches, ACLU, Antifa. Stacks of warm, ripe tomatoes and eggplants at the Saturday farmer’s market. The Charlottesville City Council’s April 2017 decision to remove the statue was just the gunshot that awakened the neighbors. The cops wouldn’t let us walk down 2nd Street, which was adjacent to Emancipation Park, so we went a block further on East Market. What if something happened to him and he couldn’t defend me? The white supremacists will come back, he said. Clear, ziplocked sandwich bags with folded flyers inside, weighted down with either pebbles or cat litter. These protests were not a local scuffle, but an invasion. AUGUST 24, 2017

IF YOU LOOK at the Charlottesville hashtag on Instagram, there is a distinct set of “before” and “after” pictures. Did anyone see them leave, actually witness it? They told me they circled the house and found no evidence of a break-in. Many of us could walk to Emancipation Park. In the “before” set, you’ll find close-ups of brunch plates at the Bluegrass Grill or South Street Brewery, always with a chilled Bloody Mary carefully angled in the shot. There is a darkness to this town, a price to be paid for appearing so pristine. When I saw the flashing lights of the cop car, I opened the window and called out to them. When I say flyers, I don’t mean the laser-printed, high-resolution-image flyers of today. They knew from the outset they would not be going to the protests. Sometime during the night, white supremacists had entered our neighborhood and tossed hate literature at our homes like a Sunday paper delivery. The knives would be out for someone like me. We will now avoid parts of downtown where blood was spilled and crime scene tape, in its obscene sunshine yellow, crisscrossed streets that before August 12 we barely looked up from our iPhones to notice. “The Nazis crafted.”
We opened the bags and pulled out the flyers. As a light rain sprinkled the windshield, we scanned parks and roads for any sign of the white supremacists. Jonny, who gave a speech at our wedding, was at the bottom of 4th Street, having arrived seconds after the crash. His battle against Bellamy put him on the alt-right national stage, where he gained a following big enough to organize the largest hate gathering in decades. The town was braced for more violence. Isaac and I grabbed our water bottles and headed downtown. We later learned that they did stash weapons around town. But as the day progressed, a different fear spread throughout the Pakistani community: white people turning on us, blaming us for the attack. One flyer listed quotes from liberal activists they claimed were racist. Check your curb, it said. Lee. How do residents prepare for something like this? I understood his view. For a town billed as a progressive utopia, celebrated for its physical beauty, diversity, and history, Charlottesville remains segregated. The fear, the paranoia. We needed to leave the mall. White supremacists had already been here twice this summer to protest the removal of that statue. They had grown so tall that they’d toppled over one another and needed re-staking. “Unite the Right” would protest the removal of the statue of General Robert E. In Charlottesville, shoppers were intimidated, businesses closed, people stayed locked in their homes, routines changed. What I hope to offer is a more personal view — to tell you what it was like to be a Charlottesville resident during those two humid summer days, and to provide some background on the events you may not have heard before. Make no mistake, though — Kessler came out victorious. At its lowest moment. “Mera laal, please,” my father said, his tone softened. Businesses up Route 29 north, nowhere near UVA or Emancipation Park, shut down because they were on a main artery in and out of Charlottesville and that was good enough for them. Then I did something I’d never done before — I closed the blinds. My neighbors, Jason and Emily, were injured by flying bodies. Coming by the busload. I was going to stay with them for the next few days in case the terrorists struck again. Tourists at the Rotunda. It was now about 9:00 a.m., and the protest was to start in three hours. “You’re not going to those protests, are you? We knew the local resources in case we got hurt. Flames reflecting on black, cadaverous eyes. The devil’s bounty in exchange for being named the happiest town in America. Now they were coming back a third time? The flyer in another bag said, “SHOCKING CRIME FACTS YOU WERE NEVER TAUGHT” and gave crime data sourced from “FBI Statistics” that blamed blacks and Hispanics for all rapes, murders, assaults, and muggings in the United States. What if they come back to target us? ¤
As warnings of the rally spread through town during the weeks preceding August 12, it was difficult to distinguish rumor from fact. We heard about Muslims being shot at, beaten up, harassed, their property vandalized. Once home, we showered, ate, and kept the television off. Or if they do, no one’s sayin’.”
Oh my god, I thought. Bellamy resigned from the state Board of Education, but Kessler didn’t get enough signatures to remove him from office. Everyone else could exploit this town for the day and leave, but we would be left to endure the impact of whatever happened here for the rest of our lives. And a spate of high-profile crimes over the last few years has made the presence of news vans along the narrow, tree-lined roads a common sight. Maybe they were offered pizza. “Are you okay?”
Everyone in Charlottesville was now used to answering this question, having been contacted by friends and family around the world wondering if we were okay, if we were safe. It is a downtown of elite-educated hipsters choosing low-wage service-industry jobs until their trust funds run low and living like a poor person is no longer “beautiful.” It goes on hunger strikes to promote the concept of “living wages” while the predominantly black Section 8 neighborhoods go unnoticed and unacknowledged on the drive out to the wineries or the Blue Ridge Mountains. I clicked on the next photo and saw what can only be described as a Renaissance portrait of hell. “Our company is going around the neighborhood today to see if you had any window, power washing, or roofing needs.”
I wanted to yell, “Wrong day, dude!” but we told him we didn’t have such needs and thanked him for asking. We were the news. He said that meant neither of us were going. Her death, the death of the state troopers in the helicopter, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates — I wasn’t ready to take it all in. He showed me the house. People were on the ground and some were running back and forth along the street. Many people here know him, including my husband Isaac. A helicopter circling overhead made it difficult to hear. This is terrorism. Law enforcement in their yellow vests and black riot gear poured into 4th Street, so we quickly stepped back onto the mall. That people had actually died. I braced for what I knew he would say. By the thousands? Empty bags from McDonald’s and Hardee’s and Diet Cokes and gum wrappers were tossed on the floor. I told him that if he goes, I go. From the living room windows, I peered out at the neighborhood, at our parked cars illuminated under the streetlights. “Why Charlottesville?” the media kept asking. What if that young man with the clipboard who appeared earlier was one of them, going around scoping out houses, seeing who’s inside, and he noticed we were an interracial couple? A vigil of peace, I thought, in preparation for Saturday’s events. But they were gone. This was shaping up to be nothing like the previous rallies. I don’t need to tell you what we saw. Isaac and I answered the door together. At the top, in all caps, it shouted: “EXTREME LEFTIST RACISM IN THEIR OWN PUBLIC STATEMENTS. Who the heck was out there? Most of the white supremacists were gone, but on almost every corner, a shouting match ensued between those who lingered and counter-protesters. Jazz bands on stage at the Jefferson Theater. Lee and the renaming of Lee Park, where the statue is located, to Emancipation Park. My father called. When we got home, I went into the backyard to fix the tomato plants. Almost silently. Many of them didn’t leave after the rally. My parents seemed more frightened of me at that moment than any outside threat. Blood flowed down a woman’s leg and into her sneaker. These were white pieces of paper printed in faded black ink with bad spelling, random capitalization, and uneven edges. Isaac and I went to the gym. That was September 11, 2001. Are you crazy?” he said. “Hello,” the young man said. Friday night and into Saturday morning, Isaac and I debated going downtown to join a counter-protest and, admittedly, to see the spectacle. There was litter everywhere — broken shields, crushed water bottles, mace bottles, balloons, spray paint, flyers, posters, and a cooler we saw overturned while watching CNN that was now on a sidewalk, upright. “Oi! Kessler’s acne-pocked face is familiar in this town. It was a mass email from a neighbor. What if the white supremacists didn’t leave? She answered with the most common refrain of the day. Standing at the top of the street, the carnage a few yards in front of us, we huddled with another bystander and read an AP news alert confirming an ISIS-style attack had just occurred. They were here. It was risky venturing out that night, and we probably shouldn’t have. It was about 10:00 p.m. Now, two hours away in Washington, DC, my father watched as a new generation of skinheads marched through his daughter’s American town. “But we did see a deer eating the bushes in front of that window,” an officer said, pointing to the dining room. We learned that protesters were encouraged to bring weapons.