When the White Supremacists Come to Campus

By Heinecke, Walt | Academe, November/December 2017 | Go to article overview

When the White Supremacists Come to Campus


Heinecke, Walt, Academe


I WAS NEAR the University of Virginia's Rotunda on the night of August 11, when torch-bearing white supremacists marched on campus. It was the eve of the Unite the Right rally, and I had obtained permits for, and organized with community members and students, two counterprotests the following day. Around ten o'clock, a local activist ran by me and yelled, "Walt, your students are surrounded by Nazis up at the Rotunda!" I rushed to the scene and found, to my horror, 150 white supremacists pressing in on a group of students, alums, and community members who had locked arms in a tight circle around the statue of Jefferson. The police made little effort to intervene as the neo-Nazis approached, yelling, "Blood and soil," "Jews will not replace us," and other offensive slogans. I was scared by the hatred I saw that night. But I was more frightened for the students, and I made my way into the mob in an attempt to assist them.

White supremacists attacked and maced students and community members that Friday night. More students were severely injured on Saturday, in assaults in the street and in the act of terrorism that killed Heather Heyer, a peaceful counterprotester. I spent Saturday with a group of incredible community volunteers at nearby parks, running security and trying to provide refuge for the counterdemonstrators.

Institutions failed that weekend. University administrators, ignoring intelligence reports, were unprepared for the torch-lit rally. They failed to enforce a Virginia law that prohibits the use of open flame to intimidate or incite violence. They missed a key exception to protection of speech that "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."

The police failed to stop the attacks on Friday night. After leaving the Rotunda, I emailed the Charlottesville chief of police, describing the violence as an example of what was to come on Saturday in downtown Charlottesville. The police could have canceled the permits for the rally. They did not. Then, on Saturday, police failed to intervene as brawls erupted right in front of them.

The bravery and leadership of the students and community activists is what I remember from those days. …

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