The Nazis tried to kill us in Charlottesville

August 7, 2018

Bill Burke, one of several anti-racist protesters seriously injured last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, by the car attack by a white supremacist that killed Heather Heyer, reflects on what happened that day and the lessons to be learned for the future.

WHEN THE alt-right mobilized in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, counter-protesters mobilized an impressive show of strength in opposition to their hate.

One of the fascist demonstrators, James Alex Fields Jr., responded to our message of unity by driving his car into the crowd, killing one protester, Heather Heyer, and injuring many more, including myself.

Now, the alt-right is attempting to regroup, with an anniversary rally planned in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their record of fascist violence. As we prepare to mobilize to drown them out with our solidarity in the face of racist scapegoating, it’s important to remember what happened last time and distill the lessons of that experience.

I grew up in a mixed-race household and often had to help my brother defend himself from racist attacks, which instilled a sense of justice in me from an early age as well as a desire to fight for what’s right.

Anti-racist demonstrators take a stand in Charlottesville
Anti-racist demonstrators take a stand in Charlottesville (Susan Melkisethian | flickr)

At the Socialism 2017 conference, held just weeks before the Charlottesville mobilization, there was a session about confronting the KKK in the 1980s and 1990s.

During the discussion, a comrade from Charlottesville rose to speak about the climate of hostility in the city and describe recent mobilizations by the KKK and others on the far right. She expressed fear for her community, her family and herself, and asked people to join the upcoming counterprotest of the alt-right’s rally.

Her words and emotions really stuck with me, reminding me of my family’s struggle against racism and compelling me into action. I went to Charlottesville in an effort to show solidarity with the community there, which hoped to demonstrate that the far right wasn’t the only voice in Charlottesville on that weekend.

WHEN I got there, I joined a large group of other counterprotesters at Justice Park. We chanted and walked together, and the solidarity was invigorating. It’s difficult to put into words the feeling of so many people coming together with one unified goal. There were people of all colors and genders.

Throughout the morning, although I had specifically avoided going where the far right was supposed to be, I did see white supremacists riding around the city in trucks, holding guns, shouting threats and throwing bottles.

What you can do

Anti-racists are mobilizing against the far right in Washington, D.C., on August 12, at 12 noon at Freedom Plaza, corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Sponsored by the Shut It Down D.C. Coalition, with participation from numerous organizations.

Two different sets of tactics were being used to confront the fascists that day.

“Antifa” activists organized roaming patrols and confronted the alt-right in small groups, initiating street skirmishes. The patrols gathered information and passed it along to the marchers, which helped the latter group better confront the fascists.

The street skirmishes weren’t as helpful, however. The fascists stuck together in large numbers, but the Antifa groupings of five or six activists failed to adequately counter their force. At best, the skirmishes perhaps helped to distract the fascists from initiating attacks on community residents.

Yet the violent tactics employed by Antifa have serious shortcomings, in particular because they allow fascists to play the victim.

Purveyors of far-right hate label themselves constitutionalists, portraying supposed attacks on their First or Second Amendment rights as a nationalist rallying cry. Street fighting helps to embolden that tendency. Meanwhile, mainstream media and politicians use violence between the far left and far right to equate the two sides.

There is a way to confront the fascists without playing into those narratives. The other set of tactics on display that day was that of mass mobilization, employed by groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, Redneck Revolt, Industrial Workers of the World and International Socialist Organization.

At first, the counterprotesters held Justice Park, preventing the fascists from defending the Confederate monument there, which was the original intent of the alt-right protests.

However, after an Antifa scout informed the demonstrators that large numbers of fascists were moving toward a public-housing development to intimidate and initiate violence against residents, the crowd, after discussion, joined the Antifa activists in taking to the streets.

This mass march was effective. We outnumbered the fascists, and our chants were loud — so loud that they heard us coming, at which point they were scared off and dispersed. The march then turned around.

At about that time, the police declared the alt-right rally an “unsafe event.” So after a day and a half of relatively free rein of Charlottesville, the fascists — at least those intent on unifying the far right in a show of force — were finally handed a setback.

At this point, the sense of solidarity was overpowering. It was like the biggest street party I had ever seen. Everybody was happy and cheering. We’d pushed the fascists back and halted their ability to intimidate the people of Charlottesville.

I think that’s precisely what pissed off James Alex Fields Jr., because his fragile white male ego was shattered and crushed. That’s when he plowed his car straight into me, Heather Heyer and other activists.

IN ALL the interviews I did about what happened that day, all that was ever broadcast about Heather Heyer was her name and the fact that she died. They never included why she was there or gave her any agency. They would simply pivot to Trump’s racist response — with no mention of Heyer’s effort to fight racism and engage in mass mobilization to defeat the alt-right.

I spent my 40th birthday in the hospital, accompanied by two comrades who drove down to be with me. I suffered head lacerations and a traumatic brain injury, and was having difficulty walking. I was unable to work for months.

Yet I’m one of the lucky ones. They may have slowed me down a little, but they didn’t finish the job, and that’s where they messed up. As long as I stand and breathe, I will walk beside all who are fighting to send the alt-right back to their caves — in order to honor Heyer’s memory and to fight for a better world for my daughter.

Over the past year, I have been even more active in trying to shut down the right. I was part of a coalition to respond to Richard Spencer’s planned speech at the University of Cincinnati, which, partly due to fears of conflict with protesters, has been repeatedly postponed.

I also worked with others in my local area to protest a racist police officer in Nelsonville, Ohio — a demonstration which helped to ensure that the officer was fired.

Beyond my community, mass mobilizations later in August helped to defeat the far right in Boston and Berkeley, California.

These small victories, and the support and solidarity on the left, have kept me focused on building mass organization and mass mobilization whenever and wherever the far right tries to establish a presence.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, I’ve learned that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, we have not actually moved forward as a country since 25 years ago, when I had to repeatedly defend my family members.

And we won’t move forward unless we unite together and build solidarity in the face of the racists and the bigots. As was demonstrated by the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., mass mobilization is really the only way to win the world we want to see and compel those in power to listen to us.

With an alt-right sympathizer in the White House, this lesson is being relearned. Such mass mobilizations — in Boston and elsewhere — proved vital in forcing the alt-right into a period of infighting and organizational retreat. But the white supremacists are regrouping and hoping to stage a comeback this August.

The people of Charlottesville successfully pressured their city council to deny the alt-right’s application for an anniversary rally in their community, so instead the fascists are planning to mobilize in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., — to be close to their leader.

If they go unopposed there, or if there aren’t large enough crowds to fully drown them out, they will not only begin to regroup, but they will send a message to millions of people that the alt-right — both in the White House and immediately outside of it — is a legitimate part of national politics and on the rise.

It will be vital to employ mass mobilization in order to prevent the fascists from growing their organizations and harming or murdering anyone else.

I carry the memory of Heather Heyer with me. As a result, whenever I see the alt-right beginning to mobilize, I’m going to do something about it.

Further Reading

From the archives