CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — One year after white supremacists paraded through the streets, the face of downtown Charlottesville was transformed once again – this time with checkpoints, military-style camps for National Guard, and state police on every corner.
When residents woke up Saturday, all entrances to the downtown mall were blocked off, apart from two checkpoints, where police looked through people’s bags for lighters, knives or any other weapons. Up above, standing atop a building site, two national guard members photographed the individuals coming in and out.
“Police wanted to show that they’ve regained control, that what happened last year wasn’t going to happen again. This time, they did more than do nothing,” said Shawn Harris, 49, an employee of the University of Virginia. Charlottesville police department were heavily criticized for being ineffective during the violent Unite the Right rally, which left one dead and dozens injured.
Virginia’s Governor declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, and deployed hundreds of officers from Virginia State Police, Virginia’s National Guard, and Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management.
Harris said that what happened last year has forced the city of Charlottesville to address the issue of race, which never really went away, not since, she said gesturing towards the Paramount Movie Theatre, her parents had to sit in the “negro seats” in the back.
“Racism is still with us, hate is always bubbling back up,” Harris said. “Let’s hope the conversation is able to sustain itself this time.”
Away from the mall, more law enforcement lay in wait, ready to respond in the event of trouble.
A National Guard encampment was set up in McGuffey Park, between the children’s playground and the basketball court, where about 20 military police officers in camouflage were snoozing in the shade of some trees. A similar encampment was set up a few blocks away.
Sally, a Charlottesville native who declined to give her last name for fear of being targeted online, was out walking her beagle on Saturday morning. When she saw the National Guard encampment, she burst into tears.
“I’ve lived here all my life, born and raised, since I was a little girl,” Sally, who has been retired for some years, said. “To see this? In my beautiful town?”
When she thinks about what happened last year, and how it stemmed from the city’s proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, she said she feels ashamed.
“I thought, my god, I’m so embarrassed,” Sally said. “I never stopped to think about what that statue meant. What that statue meant to my black friends.”
Although the white supremacists who came to terrorize Charlottesville a year ago haven’t returned in the same numbers, fears have remained.
“White supremacists are like animals that live in burrows,” Sally said. "Except you don’t know when they’re going to come out again.”
“This city has been changed forever,” said John, 48, a linguist and 30-year resident of Charlottesville who also declined to give his last name. “People pay more attention to who’s around them now. Not to call it paranoia, but I guess that’s what it is.”
Charlottesville residents showed up with flowers and went to pay their respects to the memorial for Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old protester who was killed when a neo-Nazi intentionally plowed his car into a crowd.
Shortly after noon, a group of about 30 black-clad anti-fascist protesters showed up, and were quickly swarmed by reporters and police on motorcycles. They walked quietly to the checkpoint, formed two orderly queues, and consented to their bags being searched. As they proceeded onto the mall, some residents started clapping and throwing up their fists in the air in solidarity.
From there, they walked to Heyer’s memorial, had two minutes of silence, and then left.
Cover image: A small group of antifascist protesters received a warm welcome from residents. (Photo: Tess Owen/VICE News)