A planned “Unite the Right” rally by White nationalists in Charlottesville exploded in chaos: violent brawling in the streets, racist chants, smoke bombs, and finally, a car speeding into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens more.
Afterward, President Donald Trump enflamed racial tensions when he said “both sides” were to blame, a comment some saw as a refusal to condemn racism.
Fifteen months later, as the man accused of driving the car heads to trial on murder charges, the wounds are still raw. Few in Charlottesville believe the trial will do much to heal the community or the country’s racial divide.
“Hopefully, this will signal a chance for healing, although I am not entirely optimistic about that because the entire culture in which we live is so steeped these days in white supremacy and white nationalism that violence is becoming less an exception to the practice of American democracy and more like a brutal showing of it,” said Lisa Woolfork, a University of Virginia professor who was in a crowd of counterprotesters when the car seemed to come out of nowhere on Aug. 12, 2017.
Heather Heyer, 32, a paralegal and civil rights activist marching about 100 feet away from Woolfork, was killed. The death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter monitoring the event crashed, killing two troopers.
The rally was organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists _ emboldened by Trump’s election _ streamed into the college town for one of the largest gatherings of White supremacists in a decade. The group’s show of strength included dressing in battle gear, shouting racial slurs and attacking counterprotesters.
James Alex Fields Jr., a 21-year-old Ohio man, known in high school for being fascinated with Nazism and idolizing Adolf Hitler, heads to trial Monday in Charlottesville Circuit Court. His attorneys declined to comment and have provided no hint of what his defense will be.
Fields was photographed hours before the attack with a shield bearing the emblem of Vanguard America, one of the hate groups that participated in the rally, although the group denied any association with him.
Pretrial hearings have offered few insights into Fields or his motivation. A Charlottesville police detective testified that as he was being detained after the car crash, Fields said he was sorry and sobbed when he was told a woman had been killed. Fields later told a judge he is being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Prosecutors played surveillance video that showed Fields’ Dodge Challenger head slowly in the direction of the counterprotesters, then move in reverse before speeding forward toward the counterprotesters.
Star Peterson, whose right leg was virtually crushed by Fields’ car, has had five surgeries and still uses a wheelchair and cane. She has been unable to return to work and has received help paying her rent and other bills from Heal Charlottesville, a fund set up to help the injured.
Peterson said she’s been told by prosecutors that she’ll be called as a witness at Fields’ trial.
“I feel like it’s something I can do for Heather,” she said. “I’ll be testifying on her behalf.”
White nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” said he has never had any contact with Fields and does not plan to attend his trial. He said he hopes the trial does not paint all members of the movement as violent.
“It’s a deeply disturbing incident, and that this one incident could symbolize things that I believe in and things that millions of people believe in, that would be very unfortunate, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he said.
“I’m not making a judgment on the guilt or innocence of James Fields. I’m only demanding that he be given a fair trial.”
Instead of strengthening the alt-right movement, the rally proved to be a disaster. The movement’s leaders are fighting lawsuits and have been kicked off mainstream internet platforms. A one-year anniversary rally held near the White House drew only about 30 White nationalists.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, created the Heather Heyer Foundation to honor her daughter and provide scholarships to students in law, paralegal studies, social work, social justice and education.
Bro said she is doubtful the trial will bring her any sense of closure. Fields also faces a separate trial on federal hate crime charges.
“I’m not obsessed with him,” she says of Fields. “I feel like I’ve turned him over to the justice system. He’s their problem, not mine.”