Robert E. Lee’s statue stands on 2nd Street NE in Charlottesville. I live two blocks away—in the same small redbrick Cape Cod where we have lived since 1999. For the last 18 years, this house and the rest of our idyllic downtown have been my retreat—the place to which I have escaped, after one world event or another.
This weekend my retreat became the frontline in America’s culture war. And yesterday’s event was different than any I’ve ever experienced.
Over the past two decades, as a government official or policy analyst, I’ve attended at least a dozen major protests—that is, protests that were so large or significant as to garner national or international media attention. At some, I was a White House official, including two G-7 summits and two climate change negotiations. At others, I was an observer—including the infamous riot-filled 1999 Seattle WTO meeting, several anti-globalization protests, and two major Greek-crisis protests.
I’ve seen the power of protest, and also the chaos that it can unleash. I’ve seen protests move public opinion. I’ve also had my eyes burned out by tear-gas more times than I’d like to count, and watched abuses by protesters and police alike.
Yesterday’s protest was different in two senses. First, the introduction of firearms into peaceful protests. Second, that hatred was the centerpiece of the protest. That toxic brew spilled over.
From the White House to Charlottesville…and back
When we moved here, I had just left a dream job working at the White House. My soon-to-be-wife moved here first in 1998, she herself leaving a federal government position. One year later, I did the same.
Thanks to a succession of think tank posts at the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton University, the German Marshall Fund, and finally (for a splendid decade) at Brookings, I was able to have the best of both worlds. I would commute to Washington where I would spend two or three nights a week, before escaping home to this idyllic university town.
In 2015, Charlottesville became my full-time home. I now direct the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which specializes in the American presidency, political history, and public policy. We are a nonpartisan organization that has worked with presidential libraries from both parties.
Yesterday felt more like a war zone than anything I’ve experienced. And not just because my two worlds collided violently. And not just because the president of the United States was unable to quiet the storm.
An eerie morning walk
When we woke up the morning of August 12, there were already pickup trucks and minivans filled with protesters wielding Nazi flags and other white supremacist symbols and signs. They also were wearing riot gear—helmets, shields, sticks, and body armor. At least two dozen, by my count, were carrying semi-automatic weapons openly in the street.
It is important to point out that these protesters were not locals. The cars’ license plates were largely out of state, or they were being ferried by rental vans. We were invaded by an army on Saturday. The word alt-right doesn’t capture the hate that these invaders brought to our town.
My wife and I took our daughters for a walk around the protests, four blocks south, to the farmer’s market on the other side of the historic, pedestrian-only Downtown Mall. Immediately, we felt the sense of danger as fully armed white supremacist protesters walked dangerously close to counter-protesters. Taunts were already being hurled in both directions.
When we arrived at the market, we were surprised to find it eerily quiet. The market is usually packed on a Saturday morning. Row after row of beautiful heirloom tomatoes sat undisturbed, in a rainbow array of colors. Bread stands and coffee stands and local artisans had plenty of product, and not enough customers.
Two blocks north, in Emancipation Park, about 500 white nationalists were assembling. We could hear the chants from across the Mall, and could faintly smell tear gas. As we made our way home, we could see street fights breaking out between white supremacist protesters and the counter-protesters. When we finally arrived home, we walked past a lone protester in an American-flag shirt, carrying a high-powered precision rifle.
High noon, state of emergency, and barbarism
Just before noon, we walked our daughter Annika to work at the Splendora’s gelato shop on Main Street—a bricked-in pedestrian shopping mall that is the shining jewel of Charlottesville. Annika insisted on working as a way of saying to the white supremacists that they would not shut down her life. I insisted on having lunch next-door, and then sitting with her until her shift was over.
Shortly after arriving downtown, we learned that Governor Terry McAuliffe was about to declare a state of emergency. I was preparing to give remarks at a counter-programming event organized by the University of Virginia, praising the conservatives who have stood up against the creeping authoritarian and racist tendencies on the right. That event was canceled by the state of emergency.
I went back over to Splendora’s, to see how Annika and her colleagues were doing. The gelateria is about three storefronts from the cross-street at 4th Street East—a street that allows cars to cross the pedestrian mall at slow speed.
And then the barbarity happened. As we stared out the window, we suddenly heard shouts and saw people running up the Mall, toward 4th Street. As we all now know, a Dodge Charger rammed a group of peaceful protesters. From inside, we could hear people screaming for ambulances.
Both before and after the incident, I saw the very group of protesters who were run down by the car, I think that they were genuinely peaceful protesters. They were not ministers, but they also were not anarchists.
Within about 20 minutes after the car attack, fights started breaking out on the Mall, right in front of Splendora’s.
Within another 20 minutes or so, the police began to shut down both 4th Street and the Downtown Mall. Dressed in full riot-gear, the police lined up across the Mall, and slowly started to walk down the street. I’ve seen this many times before—in Seattle, in Birmingham, UK, in the Hague, in Athens. I never expected to see it in Charlottesville.
Splendora’s closed, and—walking ahead of the police-line—we made our way home. Turning north off the Mall, we walked up 3rd Street, one block east of Emancipation Park and the Robert E. Lee statue, as they had been cordoned off by police. We could still see protesters walking the streets, but crowds had been significantly reduced at that point.
Conclusions and questions for my two communities
Assuming that we all still believe in the power of peaceful protest, yesterday’s events leave me with a few key conclusions and a few key questions. I direct them both to my friends and colleagues here in my hometown, and to the broader policy community that I’ve been lucky to call my professional home.
First, my own conclusions on some questions that have been raised.
At the local level, there are questions about whether the city and state police did enough. I feel that, by and large, they acted responsibly. There was a large presence of officers, and they shut down a great number of city streets. In retrospect, 4th Street should have been shut to auto traffic. But Mayor Mike Signer’s decision earlier in the week to move the white supremacist protest from Emancipation Park to the more spacious and less centrally located McIntire Park, two miles away, was a good one. The federal judge’s order to restore the downtown permit was unfortunate. It made it much more difficult to control the interaction of white nationalists and the counter-protestors.
Governor McAuliffe’s decision to declare a state of emergency was a very good one. If the downtown protests had gone on much longer, the chance of even greater violence was quite high.
At the national level, the question of whether the president quickly and clearly rejected the white supremacists has received considerable attention. As someone who has worked at a White House, and also who has studied presidential history, I have seen instances of presidents responding well in a crisis moment, and also responding badly. It is easy to second guess. At the Miller Center, we have been studying the first year in office of previous presidencies, and we have concluded that nothing prepares a president for his first first-year crisis. For this president, it was Charlottesville.
The fact that the vast majority of conservative voices have gone beyond the president’s statement is a sign that he did not get it right the first time. That is not unusual. Presidents often don’t. It’s usually a product of the president’s own instincts and priorities, the people around him, and establishing a clear process. In this instance, the president missed the mark—badly. Not only did he not find the right words for this moment; the way he handled this situation made things a good deal worse.
It’s a time to speak candidly. On tolerance for racism, this president has a troubled record. In the past, it has taken him several efforts to (grudgingly) denounce intolerance against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Several of the people around him have problematic views on these matters, having given the so-called alt-right a platform. Others (like his daughter) seem to have the right instincts. It also seems clear that this White House has not embraced a clear policy process for vetting presidential statements. Saturday’s statement should be another case study in the importance of vetting, and the problems that can happen if you don’t.
But what ultimately matters aren’t the views of his advisers and family but the views of the president himself, which is why what we heard yesterday was so disquieting. The president missed a major opportunity to demonstrate that he is the president of all Americans. By remaining vague about who was to blame, he is giving the impression that he endorses or approves or even tolerates white supremacists. If that is the case, it is a horrible reality. If it is not the case, he needs to say so in a forceful way, and immediately correct the impression he has created.
In a situation like this, the longer the president goes without correcting the situation, the worse it is for him and for the country.
It is worth remembering that earlier this year the president began his address to a joint session of Congress with a clear and compelling statement against bigotry, following the targeting of Jewish community centers and the murder of an Indian engineer in Kansas City. He should have done that during the bloody Saturday in Charlottesville. He needs to do that now.
Second, my own questions.
As I’ve said above, what was entirely different on Saturday was the presence of at least two dozen, by my count, white supremacist militia members carrying semi-automatic weapons. What are the legal and political dimensions of that? I am guessing that in the long march of American history, people protesting with guns is probably not new. Yet yesterday felt frighteningly different to me. Does that alone constitute grounds to call for a state of emergency? Did the state of emergency allow the state police to confiscate arms?
In my own observations, I also saw counter-protesters who were in the face of the white supremacists. I can’t help thinking that it could’ve gotten a lot worse if one of the hard-left protesters (bordering on anarchists) provoked the wrong Nazi, who was carrying a semi-automatic.
Those who see what happened in Charlottesville as an example of moral equivalence are committing a moral offense. The alt-right, white supremacists, Nazis, etc., started Saturday’s event. They were both original cause and proximate cause. They were pushing the boundaries most of the day.
UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan deserves credit for seeing this in advance. In an August 4 letter to our community, she warned that “the organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire.” She quoted an event advocate as hoping to “create a massive polarizing spectacle in order to draw as huge a contrast as possible.” The organizers got what they wished—not just in the deaths of Heather Heyer and state troopers Berke Bates and H. Jay Cullen, but also in the others injured.
But those who want to restore civic peace need to think about the challenges in all its dimensions, and that includes what to do about hard-left provocateurs in moments like this. In Seattle, I saw first-hand how anarchists disturbed otherwise peaceful anti-globalization protests. And I saw the potential for it yesterday.
The president is right: The entire nation has a role to play in standing against racial hatred—and in healing the breach. It also matters a great deal how the president responds to calls for him to clearly condemn racism.
William J. Antholis is Director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and Member of the Advisory Council of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
This essay was originally published at millercenter.org.