Witnessing the Terror in Charlottesville
At the scene of Saturday’s car attack on anti-racist protesters, Michael Payne of the Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America walks us through what he witnessed
Aaron Maté: I’m here with Michael Payne. He’s the Vice Chair of the Charlottesville Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA. We’re in the narrow street where Heather Heyer was killed yesterday, and dozens more injured. Michael, you were here yesterday when this happened. Can you walk us through what you saw?
Michael Payne: By this point, the white supremacists and white nationalists and fascists groups had been pushed to McIntire Park which is about a 40 minute walk from here. It had been that for several hours, so it was just local residents and community members peacefully marching through this area really in celebration of having the city back. For several hours, there had been no confrontations, no alt-right agitators or anything like that, and so people were marching down Water Street on the other end of this road, and started to turn here to march back to Justice Park where there was a community event.
People had started to turn down this road, filled it up, about a third of the way through. A car started coming down from here and right about here, sped up, about 40-50 miles an hour, and drove straight into the crowd. This entire street was filled with people. They drove into the crowd. There were two cars there waiting to turn. It hit those two cars, ran them into the crowd, and then they reversed back out of this street, again, about 40-50 miles an hour, and before they reversed, after they hit, they backed up a little, and then while people were still on the ground and falling, they ran over the crowd again. Then, they reversed out of here about 40-50 miles an hour, tried to get out of here, and tried to leave the town, and were apprehended.
Aaron Maté: What did you do when you saw this happen?
Michael Payne: I was right around the corner and I initially thought a bomb had gone off. I just heard huge noise, saw debris fly out, bodies fly, and it was just immediate reaction to flee. There were two people on … I don’t know who they were, but two people on small motorcycles right behind me and I didn’t know if another car was going to come, or if this was more of a coordinated attack. The people around just, in this alley, were jumping to the corner. I mean, just pressed up against the wall. There were people who had been trained as medics who just rushed to the area, and it was several minutes before any police or ambulance was in the area.
Aaron Maté: Let’s walk down the alley and go to the memorial at the end of it. What was everyone saying as all this was happening?
Michael Payne: Just total shock, terror. No one was really sure exactly what was happening. There were people who were trying to keep any kind of mass stampede or anything like that from happening, and then there were medics who were rushing to the area to take care of people who had been pinned against the cars, just you know.
Aaron Maté: That nighttime rally of white supremacists the night before, were you around for that?
Michael Payne: I was in the area earlier that night. I wasn’t directly there, but from what I heard, I attended briefly, there was a service at a church right across from the rotunda, and that had filled up. Wasn’t able to make it in because they were at capacity and after that service ended, about 300-400 people from Neo-Nazi groups with lit torches walked to where that service was, and tried to intimidate people from leaving. The people in there were told not to leave and then they marched to the rotunda which is right across the street where there’s a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and there were UVA students who had surrounded themselves, locking arms around the status, to protest their presence and chanting “Black Lives Matter” and other things.
The Neo-Nazis completely surrounded them. It was 20-30 students, locked arms, around the statue, in a circle, and all around them, hundreds of Neo-Nazis with torches. They just started beating them with the torches and macing them and assaulting them. When that began, there were no police at all in the area. There were not police around when the torch rally began. There were not police who prevented it from happening, and the people who were there, some of the people who were in that circle really thought they were going to die. They thought, “This is it.” Some of those same students who locked their arms were literally some of the same people who were right here and got hit by the car, and yeah.
Aaron Maté: That police response has been heavily criticized, their conduct throughout these several days of protest. Can you talk more about that? About how they’ve conducted themselves as these white supremacists have descended upon Charlottesville.
Michael Payne: Yeah. Well, on Friday night, as I said, the police just weren’t there at all when it began. They didn’t prevent the march of 300-400 Nazis with lit torches. They didn’t prevent them from trying to get people out of the church service. They weren’t there when they started assaulting students, and then they showed up and they dispersed the crowd. In Emancipation Park, which was there the Lee statue is which is where earlier on Saturday, most of the violence had been at the beginning of the day.
Police just stood back, and it was really an open brawl initiated by these white supremacist groups. There were clergy and community members who had trained and engaged in peaceful, nonviolent direct action, and they had linked arms in a line to prevent some of these white supremacist groups from coming into the park and to just bear moral witness to that event. The police were around just watching them be assaulted, and Cornell West I think said just today that if it weren’t for counter protestors against the white supremacists in that park at the area, I think his direct words were, “We would have been crushed like cockroaches.”
There were a lot of militia members in full camo, with assault rifles, who some people initially thought were police, but they were not. They were part of the white supremacist rally, and they were allowed to come in. The police allowed them to come in to Emancipation Park several hours before their permit began, which was also led to I think a lot of instability. When this happened, when the terrorist attack occurred where they drove their car into the crowd, there were no police in this area at all. At all. People were marching down and it was sort of eerie.
People were commenting. It was a very celebratory mood, but people were commenting, “There’s no police here at all. Isn’t that weird?” Then, they drove their car down here, ran into the crowd, and it was a little, at least a few minutes before police or ambulance came. I saw pictures [inaudible]. I don’t know if it’s accurate, but I saw there were police on the mall at a gelato store about five minutes, getting ice cream before this happened. I think what’s maybe most irresponsible about it is the way the attack occurred, the terrorist attack occurred, I think it’s very possible that this was not any kind of lone wolf attack. It was something that coordinated.
The person who was in the car and carried out the terrorist attack was with one of the alt-right groups earlier in the day at the demonstration. There are pictures of him in their uniform and a shield. He was a member of that group, and I think it’s a big question whether there were other people who were waiting for an opportunity to do this and coordinated the attack because as you can see, this is an area where they were able to, as they intended to do, kill people.
Aaron Maté: It’s a narrow little street, and especially if it’s jammed with people. I can only imagine the chaos and the carnage that it caused.
Michael Payne: Yeah. As I said, it was … Just ran into, I mean literally, bodies flying backwards. People over the car, and then while people were still on the ground, reversed, ran over them again, and reversed out of here at 50 miles an hour and tried to flee town. They got a decent distance before … I mean, when they were driving down here, there was no one near their car at all. They just sped up and the force of hitting the people, their bumper was on the ground. I mean, the car was damaged. I mean, it was clear they came in with the intent to commit a terrorist attack that would kill people, and I think they wanted to send a message that for residents of this city, it’s not safe.
I mean, of course this was the biggest one, but throughout the day, at that Water Street parking garage right down there earlier in the day, there was a black resident here, about 20 years old. One of the alt-right groups just surrounded him and starting beating him with flagpoles and sticks, at the entrance of that parking garage, and there were no police there. Someone who was filming it kicked one of the alt-right people in the back just so he could get away, and he ran away, but his head was busted in. There were no police there. If he hadn’t have kicked them, he might have died there.
Aaron Maté: Has anybody been arrested for that?
Michael Payne: No. The person driving this car was arrested, but I think the Charlottesville Police announced that only three people were apprehended that day. No one was arrested for beating students at the Jefferson Statue. No one was arrested for according this terrorist attack. No one was arrested at Emancipation Park when they were macing people. They threw bottles of pee at clergy. They were attacking them with rocks. The person who organized that, this Unite the Right rally, Jason Kessler, was allowed to hold a press conference in front of City Hall today, and the police escorted him out because he felt scared that people would show up to yell “shame” at him, when people were murdered in a terrorist attack here.
Aaron Maté: All right. Michael, thank you.
Michael Payne: Thank you.
Aaron Maté: Thank you.