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Five years later: student journalists discuss covering August 11 and 12, 2017

Student journalists discuss their approach to covering the “Unite the Right” rally and lack of preparedness for violence

This is the second article in a two-part series examining the experiences of student journalists covering the events of summer 2017. You can view the first part of the series here.

Anyone on The Cavalier Daily’s junior or managing board knows — trying to get stories covered during summer break is downright near impossible. Such was the case during the summer of 2017, when then-managing editor Tim Dodson, then-senior news associate Alexis Gravely and the rest of the paper’s news team needed journalists to help with the near-constant updates surrounding whether or not “Unite the Right” would take place. 

Thanks to the lack of staff, Tim said The Cavalier Daily wasn’t really able to create a coverage plan. Personally, he was interning for Charlottesville Tomorrow, a local news organization.

When I asked Tim to walk me through the events of that summer, the first major event he drew my attention to was a Ku Klux Klan rally held in Emancipation Park in July to protest City Council’s vote to remove the Robert E. Lee statue. Ahead of the rally, which brought an estimated 50 Klan members to Charlottesville, local activists groups and faith leaders planned counter-programming events that drew more than 1,000 attendees. 

“They had their robes on and everything,” Tim said. “It was awful.”

Today, Tim said he still struggles with how it would have been best to go about covering the KKK rally. 

“Did we inadvertently amplify this group? I don’t know,” Tim said. “It was a newsworthy event that we needed to cover. But that’s a question that I don’t think we really grappled with at the time, so maybe we would have covered it differently today.”

Tim said The Cavalier Daily was incorrectly planning coverage of “Unite the Right” in the same way that it had planned coverage of the KKK rally — as if these were separate, isolated events. 

“We were thinking okay, this is just going to happen on that Saturday — these groups are going to come into town, there’s going to be this demonstration, there’s going to be counter-protestors and a big police presence, and that’s it,” Tim said. 

In the weeks leading up to Aug. 11 and 12, the City was engulfed in debates surrounding whether or not the event would be able to happen. During a City Council meeting following the KKK rally in July, many community members demanded that the City revoke the protestors’ permit to hold the “Unite the Right” rally.

A series of legal battles later ensued, which Alexis was at the center of covering, as none of her staffers would respond to her emails asking them to take on an assignment. 

“I was really angry about it,” Alexis said. “By Monday, I was like ‘Well this story isn’t going away — we have to cover this, so I guess I’ll do it myself.’”

This meant Alexis was tasked with covering a series of court proceedings and injunctions in the days leading up to the rally involving the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Virginia, the Rutherford Institute, white supremacist and rally organizer Jason Kessler and the City of Charlottesville. These groups battled it out in court to decide where the City would permit organizers to hold the “Unite the Right'' rally. While the ACLU filed a lawsuit asking the City to move the rally to McIntire Park, Kessler pushed for officials to allow the rally to take place in Emancipation Park, an injunction that was ultimately granted

This meant that the evening of Aug. 11, Gravely was sitting at the federal courthouse in Charlottesville recording the proceedings and taking notes. Tim left his internship at Charlottesville Tomorrow early to join Gravely at the Federal District Courthouse. Around 7:00 p.m., he grabbed dinner and stopped by The Cavalier Daily’s office in the basement of Newcomb Hall to work and wait for the court’s decision, while Alexis ordered a pizza and drove back to her apartment on 14th St. to wait for the court’s decision on where the rally would be held.

Tim said he first realized that white supremacists were on Grounds because of social media posts by Gorcenski. In the photos, Tim noticed the background was Nameless Field — steps away from The Cavalier Daily’s office. At that point, he texted the other staffers in town that weekend, including Alexis, and walked over.

The first thing Tim noted upon arriving on the scene was that the men had a number of unlit tiki torches.

“I remember thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’” Tim said. 

Tim immediately recognized Kessler, who was standing in the parking lot. The rest of the men were dressed similarly in khaki pants and white shirts, Tim said, and a few media personnel were also present.

When the group began lighting the torches, Tim said the scene became “haunting.” Open flames were technically banned from Grounds, but as reporting and conversations with administration would later reveal, police officers were not aware of their authority to enforce the policy at the time.

The group of white supremacists then began their march through Grounds. Tim and Alexis remained at different parts of the line, taking photos and using Facebook Live to update followers as the march progressed. Many of these photos would later be used to identify the faces of individuals in attendance. 

“I was watching it kind of at a distance from these people,” Tim said, noting that there were several media members, community members and students watching the procession. “It didn’t look like there were any clashes as the line was moving towards the Lawn, so in that moment I didn’t really feel that scared.” 

Alexis, meanwhile, said that after getting a little too close to protestors at one point, she became acutely aware of her identity as a Black woman and decided to back some distance away.

“I think I was a little insane in retrospect,” Alexis told me. “That definitely was a little crazy, because I did not really feel any fear.” 

After making their way to the North terrace of the Rotunda, Tim followed the group onto the marble stairs facing the statue of Thomas Jefferson. The group circled the statue, and Tim remained on the deck area looking down on the scene with a Daily Progress reporter while Alexis remained closer to the statue, which counter-protestors had encircled.

While Alexis was close enough to tell what was going on, Tim didn’t know that anti-racist organizers — including students — were present at first. It became apparent to him that there was some kind of altercation going on when Tim noticed movement in the crowd. Police officers arrived on the scene, but both Tim and Alexis said they didn't notice any intervention. 

In the heat of the moment, Tim said the journalists didn't fully understand what had occurred between the counter-protestors at the statue and the torch-wielding white supremacists — much of that would come out later, when students began to share their experiences.

“Maybe we were naive,” Tim said. “Obviously some of the ideology is violent, but I think that we just hadn’t anticipated the threat of physical violence, and so we just planned to cover this like any other protest.”

As the crowd dispersed, Tim and Alexis decided that Alexis would go try to talk to counter-protestors, while Tim and another staffer would go try and talk to the white supremacists. 

The pair walked over to the parking lot near Nameless Field, where the group was chatting and placing extinguished tiki torches into the back of a U-Haul pick-up truck. While interviewing one of the men who had marched, an individual told Tim to put his camera away or he would “f—k you up.” 

“I remember thinking ‘Oh God, this is kind of scary,’” Tim said. “If these were people who were willing to attack students and people who were at the statue, [then] they were probably more than willing to attack members of the media. That’s when I first felt a direct personal threat.”

Tim also remembered one of the individuals complaining to a police officer that his tires had been slashed at some point while he had been marching.

The group stayed up until 1 a.m. that morning writing and publishing the story, as well as calling then-editor in chief Mike Reingold to brief him on what had happened. Alexis also finished her story on the court’s decision to permit the “Unite the Right” rally to take place the following day. The group went to bed and planned to regroup the following morning. 

“I don’t think the gravity had really set in,” Tim said. “It was really unclear what was going to happen the next day.” 

The morning of Aug. 12, the reporters regrouped. Tim, Alexis, Anna Higgins and Daniel Hoerauf conceived what felt like a solid game plan — stay together and stay away from anything that seems unsafe. 

When I asked Alexis if the group brought protective gear or wore anything identifying themselves as members of the media, she laughed. 

“You don’t understand — we were so unprepared and so naive, it blows my mind,” Alexis said.

In retrospect, both said they wished they had planned more. 

“We were just student journalists doing our thing,” Tim said. 

Tim drove to the Water Street Parking Garage in his mom’s minivan that morning, which would later become blocked off. Alexis took her own car so she could leave later and meet up with her family, who was visiting from Southwest Virginia — at the time, the rally seemed like "just one thing I had to do that day.” 

By the time the group of student journalists arrived mid-morning, clashes between protestors and counter-protestors had already begun. The issue was, it was impossible to tell who was who.

“We remember seeing what looked like a really large police presence,” Tim recalled. “But then we realized that some of these groups were not police — there were members of far-right groups that were dressed almost like they were members of a SWAT team. It was insane — you couldn’t tell who the legitimate authorities were from the dress-up GI Joe authorities.”

Tim remembered noticing several individuals brandishing firearms openly, noting many individuals dressed in camouflage. 

“That was really shocking,” Tim said. “But it shouldn’t have been — we know today that these right-wing groups are often militarized.”

The group of student journalists met outside the CVS on the Downtown Mall, where it was eerily quiet. They decided to venture towards Market Street Park, where social media indicated counter protestors and protestors might be gathering. 

Very quickly, Alexis said she realized that bringing some kind of mask might have been helpful, as she started choking from some kind of chemical irritant in the air. As they walked, she also recalled seeing a police car smattered with pink paint — her first indication that something was unsettling about the day.

“I remember thinking that this feels like something out of an apocalyptic movie,”

As the group’s resident photographer, she snapped a photo.

Eventually, the group made their way to the park, where they saw anti-racist organizers burn a Confederate flag. Shortly after their arrival, however, police officers declared the “Unite the Right” rally an unlawful assembly and cleared the park — a choice that drove both protests and counter-protestors alike towards the mall in a mob-like stampede. At some point, another chemical was released that sent the students into another coughing fit.

“I remember thinking ‘Oh my god, this is how I’m going to die — I’m going to be trampled by this mob of people escaping whatever this chemical is,’” Alexis said. 

The students went to McGuffey Park, where community members were conducting mutual aid and passing out water bottles, granola bars and other items. 

Throughout the afternoon, the student journalists checked social media to try to ascertain the locations of various groups. As they ran into one another, they also exchanged information with other local reporters covering the day. Through one of these exchanges, the students found out that the far-right groups were congregating at McIntire Park — aptly named for the same individual who funded the creation of the Lee and Jackson statues. 

The students piled into a car and drove to the park, where a group of mostly men had gathered to hear organizers David Duke and Richard Spencer speak. Tim recognized both men from photos, having previously interviewed Spencer for a feature

It was here that Alexis said her anxiety began to escalate, as there were zero law enforcement officials at the scene, despite the fact that there had been clear evidence that these individuals had planned to gather for these speeches.

“I was shocked by the lack of a police presence at McIntire Park — and by that I mean that there were zero police officers at McIntire Park, which I thought was just insane,” Alexis told me.

While Tim and Daniel chose to approach the group and hear the speeches, Alexis said she opted to stay back with Anna Higgins for safety reasons.

“I remember Anna just sort of grabbed my arm because it just felt uneasy and dangerous,” Alexis said.

During the speeches, Tim received a text from a local reporter saying that a car had rammed into a group of people downtown. Likewise, Alexis noted that Mike had texted from his home in Northern Virginia about the crash. 

Immediately, what had exactly happened was unclear.

“I don’t think we had fully understood what had happened,” Tim said. “Was this a car that had just gone the wrong way because there were a lot of road closures and ended up bumping into a couple of people or was it an attack? It was hard to tell from the initial report.”

The group decided that Alexis and Anna would drive to the scene of the car crash, while Tim and Daniel would stay at the park. 

When Alexis and Anna arrived, paramedics were loading the last of the injured individuals into an emergency medical vehicle. It was unclear what the extent of the injuries were or whether anyone had died.

The driver of the car was later identified as white supremacist James Fields and would be charged with life in prison, plus 419 years and $480,000 in fines for his violent role in the rally following criminal proceedings. The car crash murdered Charlottesville activist Heather Heyer, who had attended that day as a counter-protestor. Hundreds gathered at a vigil days later to memorialize Heyer, and the City later dedicated a portion of Fourth Street as Heather Heyer Way.

Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Tim and Daniel met up with Anna and Alexis to identify several stories from the day that they needed to write about. For Alexis, the day had taken its toll — and she was ready to go home. She uploaded the photos she had taken to Google Drive, hopped in her car and drove to meet her family — whom she had told to stay as far away from the Downtown Mall as possible.

Looking back, Alexis said she would have approached both days completely differently with the knowledge she has now.

“I think it's important that I was only 20 years old when I was out here doing this,” Alexis said. “I couldn't even drink yet — I couldn’t even crack open a beer after being terrorized by white supremacists. So I think that the mindset I had then is also very different from what I have now that I'm 25.”

Meanwhile, Tim walked to a coffee shop to write and checked in with Reingold, who had stayed busy trying to promote the journalists’ social media updates throughout the day.

Tim said the day’s events truly hit him when he returned to his car at the Water Street Garage, which was no longer accepting visitors. From his perch on the third floor, Tim had a perfect view of the area where Fields’ car had crashed into the crowd, as well as the two other cars that had been struck in the encounter.

“You could see the stuff people dropped when they ran,” Tim said, adding that he noticed posters, banners, water bottles and trash. “It was almost like the moment had been frozen in time … I just think about the things people had dropped in what was probably one of the scariest moments of their lives.”

In the days and weeks that followed, students, community members, faculty, staff and the nation would struggle to grapple with what exactly happened in the lead-up and events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. In the moment, however, Tim said he did the only thing he knew how.

“In the moment, the way I made sense of events and the aftermath was by being involved and trying to ask questions and figure out what had actually happened,” Tim said. “Why did things go so horribly wrong?”

In the immediate aftermath of what national media outlets began referring to as simply “Charlottesville,” former president Donald Trump addressed the nation and made an infamous comment — that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the rally.

When Tim watched this speech, he said his jaw dropped. 

“We knew Trump was a bad dude and could say some really inflammatory things, but you would think neo-Nazis are the bare minimum of decency to say ‘this behavior is unacceptable’ — that’s what a president would do,” Tim said. “It’s a low bar for him to clear, and he fumbled it.”

Given these comments, Tim said he wasn’t surprised when Trump later  told the Proud Boys — a group of far-right extremists known to be violent — to “stand back and stand by” after the Capitol insurrection in January 2021.

“There’s a direct line to be drawn between the events in Charlottesville and what happened at the Capitol in terms of these white supremacist [and] far-right groups being able to get away with pretty egrigious misconduct and behavior in a pretty public setting and for there to be little police intervention and for the response to be really lackluster,” Tim said. 

In the immediate aftermath of Aug. 11 and 12, Tim said it was hard to feel anything but unsupported and disappointed in the people that should have protected Charlottesville residents.

“At the local, state and national levels, our leadership totally failed us in the aftermath of August 11 and 12,” Tim said. “It’s really hard to grapple with that … None of those things should have ever happened, and yet it did,” Tim said. 

The fall semester and students’ return to Grounds were predictably dominated by conversations surrounding Aug. 11 and 12, as student groups were infuriated that the University had failed to respond or prevent the events. 

The Cavalier Daily decided to interview then-University president Teresa Sullivan and Risa Goluboff, dean of the School of Law. At the time, Goluboff was charged with chairing the committee tasked with assessing how the University handled — or failed to handle – the events.

“A lot of our work was trying to figure out what did the University know, when did they know it and who’s responsible,” Tim said. 

At the same time, student groups and organizers responded the best they knew how — with action. 

Thousands gathered in Nameless Field the Wednesday following the rally for a candlelight vigil and peaceful march in response to the events, information about which was spread largely through word-of-mouth so as to prevent white supremacists from attending and disrupting.

Hundreds also attended the “March to Reclaim our Grounds” in protest of the University and City’s responses to the “Unite the Right” rally and torch-lit march through Grounds. 

During the event, members of the Black Student Alliance read aloud demands concerning the historical landscape of the University and its response to Aug. 11 and 12. The march itself was organized by BSA, U.Va. Students United, the Minority Rights Coalition and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at U.Va. 

Student Council’s representative body signed onto the BSA demands following a heated meeting in late August during which audience members repeatedly interrupted one another throughout public comment. Ultimately, the representative body voted to unanimously pass a resolution endorsing the demands, which had already garnered the support of Student Council’s Executive Board.

In the month following, The Cavalier Daily conducted a poll to gauge students’ opinions on the events and responses. The poll demonstrated that while an overwhelming majority of students thought that Sullivan should have used stronger language to denounce the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville, differing opinions existed regarding whether the University should implement mandatory education and whether the administration’s response was satisfactory. 

“It provoked a reckoning at the University,” Tim said. “The events of August 11 and 12 raised broader questions about why is it that the University of Virginia is a place where white supremacists felt pretty safe being able to say what they wanted to say.”

Tim Dodson served as editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily during its 130th term. He is a current Law and Architecture student, as well as a Class of 2019 alumnus.

Alexis Gravely is the current president of The Cavalier Daily Alumni Association and former assistant managing editor. She is a Class of 2019 alumna.

Eva Surovell is the Editor-in-Chief of The Cavalier Daily and a rising fourth-year College student.