Several thousand people gathered in Nameless Field Wednesday evening for a peaceful rally and march through Grounds in response to the violent events which unfolded this past weekend after white nationalists march through Grounds Friday evening.
The vigil was quietly advertised in recent days through word of mouth and text messages, and it was advised not to share information about the event on social media ahead of time — likely in an effort to prevent white nationalist activists from learning about the event.
“Events like this showed me how many people are on the same side, standing up to this,” fourth-year Medical student Anne Knisely said. “However, in terms of fear, events like this can also be targets. When I heard about the event, I was told by a friend not to post on social media because of the danger of it being a target for hate groups.”
In the end, no white nationalist or Neo-Nazi groups disrupted the event.
Attendees ranged in age and background, and included University students, faculty, alumni and Charlottesville locals.
The goal of the vigil was “to send a powerful message of love and inclusion and to really send a message to all students, faculty and staff of color and of diverse backgrounds that this is a community that has their back and will fully support and protect them,” said Assoc. History Prof. Jeffrey Rossman.
The vigil officially began at 9 p.m., but hundreds of attendees were gathering on Nameless half an hour beforehand. University students and faculty members who were working together to welcome attendees and pass out candles and flowers declined to comment on how the event was organized.
“You can’t forget that this event is a reaction to what happened this weekend,” Dean of Students Allen Groves said. “We have to figure out how to move forward from here, and this is a first step.”
As they marched through Grounds to the steps of the Rotunda, attendees discussed and shared reactions to the violence that occurred last weekend.
“The scariest moment on Saturday was when you heard shouts of ‘Nazis, go home, we don’t want you here’, and they yelled back, ‘We are home’,” Charlottesville resident Will Amacker said.
Multiple attendees voiced hopes that the vigil would both serve as a reminder of Charlottesville’s and the University’s values, and make a statement accurately reflecting the thoughts and opinions of the community.
“Hopefully events like this will show people who are hateful and bigoted that this is the real Charlottesville,” graduate Curry student Sherry Brown said.
Incoming students also came out to support the vigil. Rising first-year College student Mason Goodman said he felt support from the community on his first night staying at the University.
“I think it was a beautiful thing that happened here, and it built a strong sense of community. I showed up and someone offered me a candle right away,” Goodman said. “People were laughing and singing, and witnessing this strong sense of community was an incredible way to spend my first night at U.Va.”
Multiple attendees said they were shocked at the large number of people in attendance, despite the event only being promoted through word of mouth. Third-year Architecture student Nathanael, who asked his last name not be shared, said he was impressed by the turn-out given the lack of official communication.
“The thing that struck me most about this event was that it started with a whisper campaign, and that there was no particular U.Va. email or group attached to it,” Nathanael said. “With even more communication, we could completely fill the Lawn and show people what this University really stands for.”
Despite potential dangers surrounding the vigil, some attendees highlighted the importance of standing up for diversity and inclusion after this weekend’s events.
“Normally I wouldn’t openly talk about my race, but this weekend was obviously a time I felt like the University was a place I didn’t totally belong to,” graduate Physics student Akin Morrison said. “But after this weekend, I’ve seen so many people fighting the ‘alt-right,’ and they truly made me feel like this community cares about diversity and inclusion. After tonight, I feel in a sense more welcome here than I did before.”
University alumna Julie Roa said the vigil drew a stark contrast to the white nationalist torchlit march last Friday night. The march drew criticism due to the lack of police presence — University President Teresa Sullivan, however, issued a response Wednesday saying the white nationalists did not follow the route they laid out to the University Police Department.
“It’s all about being out in numbers in a peaceful way,” Roa said. “The way the other side wanted to show their point of view was so much less passive. Here, you’re walking alongside people who are smiling and holding candles, while a lot of what happened Saturday was meant to confront and belittle people.”
As the crowds gathered on the south side of the Rotunda, the attendees joined together to sing the national anthem, the Good Ol’ Song, “Lean on Me” and “Amazing Grace.” The vigil also included a reading of “Still I Rise,” a poem by Maya Angelou.
Following the vigil, attendees left candles and flowers at the base of the Jefferson statue on the north side of the Rotunda.
The “Unite the Right” rally and protests in downtown Charlottesville last Saturday turned deadly as Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured when a car drove into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Police later arrested James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old from Ohio, and charged him with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit-and-run. Two people injured Saturday filed a lawsuit against Fields, rally organizer Jason Kessler and various white nationalists Tuesday.
Photos taken by Kate Bellows and Tim Dodson