Three years later, the wounds from Charlottesville still feel raw. After long, hot days of marching in the streets, my right leg will hurt more than usual. The flashbacks are still intense, particularly this time of year. After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, uprisings against racism and police violence have once again forced America to confront its demons. Yet it still feels unclear what has changed in America since August 12, 2017. Though Confederate statues are finally coming down in Virginia and around the country, the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park—the site and pretext of the deadly rally in which I was nearly killed—still stands, with no plans for removal.
I grew up and spent most of my life in Virginia, and Charlottesville was the setting of my most cherished childhood and teenage memories. Now, to non-Virginians, the name “Charlottesville” refers specifically to the events of one day, the way the names of foreign countries are used as shorthand for American wars. That year, I was a college student home for the summer. After Ku Klux Klan rallies passed through town in the months prior, I knew that the Unite the Right rally was something I needed to demonstrate against.
The night of August 11, I remember distinctly the sounds of chants coming over the rotunda as the fascists marched through the UVA campus, followed by the mob of tiki torches. I had locked arms with other counterprotesters to form a human shield around the Thomas Jefferson statue, before we were swarmed by the fascists from all sides. One of them pepper-sprayed me to the point of temporary blindness, but I distinctly remember from before I lost my vision the sight of police and state troopers across the street, idly standing by as Nazis beat students and used their torches as weapons. They only declared an unlawful assembly long after the violence had begun.
On the day of the Unite the Right rally, while elderly spiritual leaders and Charlottesville residents were assaulted by fascists, I witnessed law enforcement fail in every capacity to prevent or intervene in violence. It felt abundantly clear that the police were more wary of us, the counterprotesters, than of the armed alt-right brownshirts who had come from all over the United States and Canada to unleash racist terror.
This is where my memory gets hazy. I remember tear gas being deployed against counterprotesters, when police declared an unlawful assembly. As the fascists left the park, we marched through the downtown mall. I remember a triumphant feeling in the crowd. Despite the violence, we had endured throughout the day, successfully pushing the Nazis and Klansmen out. But uncoordinated police barricades trapped the crowd in the mall area, leaving us circling between closures. My last coherent memory is a “Black Lives Matter” chant.
It was around 1:45 pm that Ohio native James Alex Fields Jr., after idly waiting across the street, backed up his Dodge Challenger more than a block before accelerating into the crowd. The attack killed Heather Heyer and wounded dozens of others. I was one of them.
Because of a severe concussion and shock, I can remember only brief flashes of confusion after the attack: bleeding out on the ground, being cared for by street medics and antifascist protesters, being questioned inside an ambulance. It wasn’t until I was lying in a hospital bed watching the video of the car attack repeat endlessly on CNN, seeing my body flying in the air over the hood of Fields’s car, that I understood what had happened.
This experience unearthed a wellspring of memories from my formative years in Virginia as a Muslim-American growing up after 9/11. For years, I had been surrounded by conservative white men who fantasized about fighting terrorists. But when real terror came to our hometown, suddenly all those men were absent. All the institutions I had been told to believe in—the police; the military; the city, state, and federal governments—stood by in silence as the fascists marched through Charlottesville.
That’s why, in the wake of the attack, activists and community members focused on the police’s failure to protect us. But the reality is worse than negligence. Through my experience protesting, I’ve seen clearly that police are not neutral arbiters of peace; they selectively choose whom to see as threats. Police target, harass, assault, and arrest Black Lives Matter protesters and members of the press indiscriminately, but have showed immense restraint when armed anti-lockdown protesters took over federal buildings in Michigan and threatened state officials. Unarmed black people are brutalized and murdered by police over minor transgressions or under false pretenses, while far-right murderers—including Charlottesville perpetrator James Alex Fields Jr.—have been taken alive with no force.
It’s hard to avoid a comparison: Had Fields been a Middle Eastern person, like me, I would have been considered a victim of terrorism. But because I was a protester against white supremacy, I was treated with suspicion. Right-wing trolls have accused me of being a “crisis actor” or a “troublemaker.” These tactics are not new; in fact, they are analogues of the anti-Black rhetoric used to rationalize police brutality. Today, unfounded claims about George Floyd’s cause of death and defamation of his character continue to spread online, in a disgraceful attempt to exonerate the Minneapolis police’s behavior and minimize outrage at his murder.
The most traumatizing aspect of the past few months for me has been the car attacks. According to terrorism researcher Ari Weil, there have been at least 72 vehicular assaults throughout the George Floyd uprisings. Once described as “ISIS-style,” car attacks have become a frighteningly common occurrence in America, perpetrated both by civilians and by law enforcement.
A Los Angeles police car smashed into protesters at Pershing Square. A Detroit police SUV sped through protesters after driving into them. An NYPD police car accelerated into a crowd, pushing down dozens of protesters. In Bloomington, Ind., a woman drove into protesters, injuring two. In Seattle, Wash., protester Summer Taylor was killed by a man driving in the wrong direction down an interstate ramp and bypassing barricades. While the driver’s motive remains unclear, Taylor’s death was gleefully mocked in online right-wing circles, including by Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s cousin Mike Brown. A police officer of 40 years, Brown was suspended after sharing an “All Lives Splatter” meme on Facebook celebrating car attacks.
The normalization of car attacks through memes has gone from extremist chat rooms to the mainstream. Dehumanizing rhetoric calling protesters “thugs” and “animals” fuels these violent fantasies and has fatal consequences. Fields himself reportedly shared two such memes prior to his lethal attack against us in Charlottesville. I relive the trauma of the attack every time I see a Fox News or Daily Caller story about the protests, where right-wing accounts call for more violence in the comments section.
From my hospital bed, I remember watching Trump make his infamous “both sides” comments in real time, drawing an equivalence between violent hatred and those opposing it. I practically laughed, out of shock, disgust, and pain medication. What I didn’t realize then is that statement would form the conservative PR playbook, downplaying white supremacist violence by constantly deflecting onto the so-called “radical left.”
Since Charlottesville, conservative institutions have invoked “antifa” as a fear tactic to legitimize violent force, expand surveillance powers, and exercise extralegal authority against protesters. When dozens of militant far-right groups plotted to enact violence in Charlottesville, Trump made no attempt to label them terrorist organizations, as he has “antifa.” Groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys softened the image of far-right politics by eschewing neo-Nazi symbolism for anti-Communist rhetoric and using euphemisms like “Western chauvinism” rather than expressing overt support for white nationalism. But at the same time, extremists drifted further from political institutions and turned to planning, committing, and valorizing lone-wolf attacks. Far-right terrorism has only become more frequent across America, like the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue or in El Paso, and around the globe, like the Mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and shootings in Hanau, Germany.
The average American doesn’t even know the names of the far-right groups responsible, while “antifa” has become a household term. As police beat, blind, and maim peaceful protesters on a near-daily basis, the Trump administration fixates on graffiti and dismantled Confederate monuments. Conservative institutions conflate property damage with physical violence, while treating violent suppression of our right to protest as a matter of safety. Like the car attack memes, this neo-McCarthyite rhetoric dehumanizes protesters by painting them as enemies of the state, actively encouraging violence against them. Those of us still out on the streets now have three serious threats to our safety, all of whom have been given the green light from the Trump administration to use force without consequence: local law enforcement, unmarked federal agents, and violent civilian agitators.
After the 2017 attack, there was nationwide outrage and disbelief at the persistence of an open white supremacist movement. But the conditions that led to Charlottesville had been festering for years, and those conditions have not changed.
It took me months to regain the ability to walk. To this day, my leg aches, even after light exertion. But even when I was consigned to a wheelchair, and while the nation mourned Heather Heyer, the injustice that brought me to the streets continued unabated. I never knew Heyer when she was alive, but I must have been standing near her during the attack. Now, three years later, I’m still marching. During the first days of the uprisings here in Los Angeles, I stood on the front lines and felt the tear gas and the pepper spray burn my eyes all over again.