“A CELEBRATORY MOOD”
Two hours after Emancipation Park was cleared, Unite the Right ralliers had largely moved to McIntire Park or back to their cars, so downtown Charlottesville now belonged to the counterprotesters. And by all accounts, there were two crowds of counterprotesters that converged by happenstance. One had been south of the train tracks watching a group of militia hounded by rock-throwing kids near a subsidized-housing project called Friendship Court. The other was walking east on Water Street with “Industrial Workers of the World” and “Antifascist Action” flags and “Black Lives Matter” signs aloft. There were people in rainbow-colored clown wigs, and someone was beating a drum.
“They were marching east on Water Street in a celebratory mood,” said Charlottesville detective Steven Young. “They were celebrating victory.”
Photographer Ryan Kelly, who had long planned to make this his last day as a photojournalist for Charlottesville’s newspaper, the Daily Progress, later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “It was calm and as peaceful as I had felt all day.”
There were chants: “We shut it down,” “Nazi scum, your time has come,” and “Black lives matter.” As the first line of the combined crowd began walking up Fourth Street toward the downtown pedestrian mall, they could be heard chanting, “We’re here, we’re gay, we fight the KKK,” and “Whose streets? Our streets.”
And then it all came to a crashing halt.
THE DOWNTOWN MALL
To understand the part of Charlottesville where the impact took place, it’s helpful to know that the Downtown Mall was built in 1976, extended in the ’80s and again in the ’90s. The original plan was not to allow any traffic to cross the bricked-over pedestrian blocks. That changed in 1996, when a developer demanded a northbound crossing at Second Street West to ease access to an adjacent movie theater and ice skating rink he was building. Ten years later, Fourth Street East became a second, this time southbound, crossing. While the first crossing was being debated, protesters carried placards, one of which read, “Honey, I struck the kid,” representing fears that pedestrians, especially children, might be hit by cars on Second Street next to the theater, but until August 12, 2017, there had never been a report of vehicle-pedestrian contact. Besides stop signs, city traffic officials insisted on speed bumps, which were so pronounced that drivers often complained that their vehicle’s undercarriage was damaged in the traverse.
RYAN KELLY’S PHOTO
Kelly, shooting for the Progress, says he had run ahead of the converged crowd, saw the gray Dodge Challenger near the Downtown Mall, and thought little of it. After all, this was a one-way street now blocked by pedestrians. So when he saw the Challenger, later revealed to have been driven by James Fields Jr., backing away from where Fourth Street crosses the Mall, he figured the driver had realized he needed to find another path. But Fields didn’t find another path. Kelly just happened to move to the sidewalk when the Challenger suddenly rushed passed him.
“Out of instinct, I began taking photos,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review. “I just brought the camera to my eye and just mashed the shutter down. I was barely even aware of what I was watching until he was speeding into the crowd.”
The resulting image is not for the faint of heart. It shows one man tumbling upside down in midair. It shows another man in red shoes—later identified as Marcus Martin—tossed mercilessly with one leg twisted at a terrible angle. Legs, sunglasses, signs, shoes, and water droplets join in a portrayal of chaos and doom.
A half hour after the impact, a man named Brennan Gilmore published a video on Twitter that helped make sense of what had happened. Gilmore’s video shows the moments before the impact as well as the Challenger’s retreat back up Fourth Street. And due to the noise the car made hitting the speed bump guarding the Mall and the screams of the crowd before anyone was hit, the video gives a sense of the vehicle’s high-speed approach and the belief voiced by photographer Kelly and many other witnesses that this was an intentional act.
Another video, this one shot by Charlottesville filmmaker Evan Henderson, is shockingly filled with human carnage. It shows the Challenger scattering pedestrians like bowling pins. But it also shows antifa groups approaching after the crash and using the three seconds the vehicle was stopped to smash two holes in the rear window. A third person delivers three blows with a pole to the passenger side window, but the glass never breaks. This video also shows Marcus Martin, now atop the hood of a parked black Toyota Tundra pickup truck, woefully calling out, “Marissa . . .”
Drone footage from a Charlottesville company called Skyclad Aerial shows another perspective on the moment: A maroon minivan, struck from behind by the impact of the Challenger, pushed into the intersection of Fourth Street and Water, one block south of the Mall, as pedestrians roll off its hood.
One of the most poignant videos came from Marissa Blair, a paralegal who worked and also socialized with fellow paralegal Heather Heyer. As Blair told reporters, she, Heyer, and Blair’s fiancé, Marcus Martin, had driven up together from neighboring Nelson County that day. Her video shows Heyer walking up Fourth Street as the screams and thuds of impact suddenly jar the frame.
“Marcus . . . Marcus . . .” Blair can be heard calling plaintively as she searches for Martin in the aftermath. Her fiancé had pushed her out of the way and taken the impact himself.
Almost immediately after the incident, multiple interpretations of the impact and the actions of the driver began to proliferate. Reporter Taylor Lorenz of the Hill tweeted that local law enforcement officers surmised that the driver of the Challenger, Fields, had acted on fear—not malice—when driving through the crowd of counterprotesters. Lorenz later deleted the tweet and then walked it back by revealing that the two officers she was paraphrasing weren’t actually at the scene and hadn’t seen the videos. Despite that retreat, some bloggers remained so buoyed by her original tweet that they began to spread the theory that Fields had been attacked—or at least threatened by—antifa mobs.
Bolstering that view were the video and still photographs showing significant damage to the glass of both the front windshield and the rear window of the Challenger when it reversed up Fourth Street and later stopped upon Fields’s arrest.
Testifying at the preliminary hearing for Fields, detective Steven Young said, however, that the holes smashed into the back window came after the impact and that he found no evidence of any pre-impact damage.
Additionally, many publicly available images show the Challenger’s rear window intact until the moments when several bat-wielding people converge to smash it—after the impact with pedestrians. (Some have tried to claim that a whitish image on the right rear of the back window was damage, but higher-resolution versions of Ryan Kelly’s photographs indicate that it’s a reflection of a cloud in the sky.)
As for the front window, the publicly available evidence is less conclusive. What several images do show, however, are human bodies being tossed onto the windshield. That could explain the smashed glass.
HITTING THE BRAKES
Videos and photography do show the Challenger’s brake lights illuminating two times on Fourth Street. While this could bolster an exculpatory view, the evidence is less generous to Fields.
The first illumination comes as the vehicle goes over the speed bump on the southern edge of the Mall. As Brennan Gilmore’s video shows, the Challenger strikes the speed bump so hard and makes so much noise that that the car may have bottomed out, and deep striations on the speed bump indicate that many cars have done so in the past. In this event, the video and a still photo show the red glow of brake lights as the Challenger comes off the speed bump and nearly into the path of Steve Trumbull.
Like Kelly, Trumbull is a photographer who had his back to the Challenger before its acceleration. (He is clearly captured in one of Kelly’s photos, a fair-haired, backpack-wearing man jumping out of the car’s path to the left of the frame.)
Trumbull tells an interviewer that he was walking backward up the street capturing images of the crowd. He says he heard a noise that he guessed was an emergency vehicle and so instinctively jumped out of the way.
“I heard a squeal or something,” says Trumbull. “When I turned, he was already halfway down the block, and I was close enough to touch the hood of his car.”
While Trumbull concedes that the brake lights were visible in the picture of him, he says he disagrees with those who claim the photo indicates a vehicle pausing for him—or anyone else.
“There was no indication here on the street that he slowed down,” says Trumbull, who snapped two pictures just before hearing the squeal.
The first image shows people at the front of the march peering intently in the direction of the car—including one woman at right bearing a banner reading, “The Confederacy lost, and so will you.”
In the second shot, that woman has dropped the banner, and her mouth hangs open.
“It all happened pretty much simultaneously,” says Trumbull.
Bolstering Trumbull’s view of a consistently speeding vehicle is the audio from Brennan Gilmore’s video. It captured the sound of crowd screams before the sickening thud of the Challenger’s first human impact, and those screams suggest that the crowd was reacting to an impending danger unhindered by slowing.
The imagery shows the brake lights off for most of Fields’s run down the block of Fourth Street from the Mall to Water Street, which—according to a tax map—is about 225 feet long. Those lights would remain off during most of that run and would not come on again until the car ran into human beings, halted only by the two vehicles stopped at the intersection with Water.
One action that could potentially give the driver some legal cover is that there is at least one move to attack the Challenger before it hits people. After Trumbull leaps out of the way, a young man wearing a light-blue shirt touting the Trey Anastasio Band and wielding a flagpole can be seen stepping off the eastern curb. As the car speeds by, the man swats the pole toward the Challenger’s left rear bumper.
“If Fields was hit, you must acquit,” rally organizer Jason Kessler tweeted three weeks later.
However, it’s not clear what impact, if any, the flagpole made. Moreover, the blemish on the bumper that some commentators have attributed to this attempted strike was plainly visible in an earlier photograph.
There are questions about the vehicle’s speed too. One widely linked blog claimed that until the car was swatted, Fields was “behaving,” that is, driving, normally.
“But it isn’t clear from that video or others shared by the media that the driver had slowed, or that he was ‘behaving normally,’” according to FactCheck.com.
Trumbull, the photographer, agrees with that.
“Still shots can be really deceiving.”
Additional evidence would come out in court.
THE ACCELERATION VIDEO
At Fields’s preliminary hearing in mid-December some of the victims bowed their heads and dabbed their eyes—and that was before the gallery was transfixed by a pair of never-before-seen videos.
One was from a commercial surveillance camera whose moving images provided the first publicly seen view of the moments just before the Challenger’s drive down Fourth Street. Although the images were grainy, they provoked gasps and an anguished outburst.
Shot from a nearby restaurant called Red Pump Kitchen and beginning several minutes before impact, this video shows a succession of vehicles heading south on Fourth: a maroon Honda Odyssey minivan, a black Toyota Tundra pickup truck, and a cloth-topped, light-gray Toyota Camry, each of which was shown moving out of the upper edge of the frame to cross the Downtown Mall. (Each vehicle would eventually stop when it encountered the counterprotesters at the corner of Water Street turning north onto Fourth.)
The video corroborated what Detective Young testified to: that witnesses saw the Challenger hesitating at the Downtown Mall—even though it had initially arrived, he said, just six seconds behind the Camry.
“At one point it was just idling,” Young testified.
Then, in the video, the Challenger can be seen backing up as if to leave the area. But, suddenly, it heads south, and it did so, Young said, “at a very high rate of speed.”
As the courtroom gallery watched the image of the Challenger roaring out of the restaurant surveillance video, the young man whose red shoes and broken leg were flipped into the air by the impact—Marcus Martin—leaped up from his seat in court.
“Take me out. Fuck this shit, man,” Martin shouted as he exited the courtroom with his girlfriend, Marissa Blair, and another woman.
“That really shook me up; my heart really dropped,” said Rosia Parker, who was present at the hearing. Parker says she was standing a few feet from Heather Heyer at the time of the impact.
Two Vehicles Hidden by Humanity
While some people are calling Fields’s actions less deplorable than their portrayal in official accounts, others call them worse.
One of the people who shot crucial impact video on August 12, Evan Henderson, returned to the site a few days later with a friend to make another video positing a theory. On the new video, Henderson’s friend presents the claim that the driver did not realize that there were two cars stopped by the crowd that had begun to flood the street.
“His intention was to hit the people, drive through, and make a clean getaway,” says the friend. “It was hundreds of people coming around the corner, and he didn’t see the two cars.”
“That’s very plausible,” says Trumbull, the photographer. “The street was full of people.”
In fact, Trumbull’s pre-crash photographs, taken from a standing position—that is, a higher vantage point than that of an automobile driver—show many people, but the vehicles stopped near the Water Street intersection cannot be seen.
More details about Fields and his Challenger during and after the impact were also revealed at the preliminary hearing on December 14. In court that day, the prosecutor played some aerial footage shot from a Virginia State Police helicopter that graphically showed the vehicle hurtling down Fourth Street and into pedestrians.
“Oh, my god. Oh shit. Holy crap,” yells one of the helicopter officers after the car hits the people on Fourth Street. “Did you see that?”
Then, in Los Angeles chase mode, the copter follows the vehicle’s attempted escape route: back up Fourth Street, east on Market, a right turn onto Avon Street, and over the Belmont Bridge. All the while a voice on the video is expressing shock and disbelief.
“I lost it, I lost it,” a voice exclaims as the Challenger disappears behind trees. And then: “I got it. He’s at about two o’clock.”
The car feints to its right toward a subsidized housing complex but then continues south on Avon Street as the voice from the copter says: “Christ, I can’t believe he did that.”
About four minutes after the impact, the Challenger is seen pulled over on Monticello Avenue with the driver’s two hands sticking outside the window. Detective Young, the arresting officer, was the sole witness during the two-hour hearing. Young said that he approached the 2010 Dodge Challenger at the intersection of Blenheim Avenue, about a mile from the incident. In addition to spotting a plastic water bottle amid the car’s wipers, Young testified, he found “blood and flesh” on the front of the vehicle, whose bumper was lying on the ground. The officer also agreed with Fields’s lawyer that there was a yellow stain that “smelled like urine” on the defendant’s shirt when he was arrested.
The Zapruder Film?
Brennan Gilmore is a well-known central Virginia musician and former Foreign Service officer and Democratic campaign aide who captured what might be the Charlottesville equivalent of the Zapruder film, the home movie that documented the JFK assassination. Gilmore’s video shows most of the vehicle’s trajectory from speed bump to humans and back past the speed bump, where the damaged front bumper coughs up one of Marcus Martin’s distinctive red shoes. Brennan wrote about his video on Politico:
“Although I immediately shared the footage with police on the scene, it took me a half hour to decide to post it publicly. I was concerned about how the footage might be used by the ‘alt-right’ and felt uncomfortable knowing that I had probably filmed someone’s death. I did not want the attention posting the video was likely to bring. I consulted with friends and family, some of whom were also at the counter-protest and some of whom were watching the coverage from outside Charlottesville. They all urged me to share the video, and when I heard from friends that some media outlets were suggesting that it might have been an accident or that the driver might have been attempting to escape an angry mob, I knew I had to post it. The video I took—and the scene I witnessed with my own two eyes—clearly showed the attack was intentional. Fields drove down two empty blocks and plowed straight into the crowd before fleeing in reverse.”
Murder Charge Upgraded
One result of the December 14 hearing was that the charge against Fields was upgraded from second- to first-degree murder, an indicator that the Commonwealth believes it can prove premeditation. In all, Fields faces five counts of malicious wounding plus three counts of aggravated malicious wounding. These aggravated counts are for the three victims who have mobility issues to this day, Detective Steven Young testified. At the hearing, several of the victims were wearing purple shirts emblazoned with Heyer’s photograph and her activist catchphrase: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Fields’s lawyer did get Young to concede that upon apprehension Fields first asked whether the people were okay and then sobbed in response to learning about Heyer’s death. Fields was present in the courtroom wearing a beard and prison stripes and seated beside his attorney, Denise Lunsford, a former Albemarle prosecutor.
In all, Detective Young testified, the vehicle injured thirty-five and killed one. (The initial press reports put the number of injured at nineteen, but that didn’t count those treated at the other local hospital, Sentara Martha Jefferson.)
The man who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, was also present and called Charlottesville a communist city and blasted this “kangaroo court” for its certification earlier that day of charges against two men accused of beating an African American man named DeAndre Harris several blocks from Market and Fourth. While cross-examination of the investigating officer, Detective Young, revealed no evidence that James Fields had any formal affiliation with any of the nationalist groups that assembled that day in Charlottesville, the testimony and video showing how he operated his car convinced the judge to move the case forward.
“Mr. Fields, I’m going to certify each and every one of those charges,” said General District judge Robert Downer. The grand jury got the case four days later and certified all of the charges.
Chased from a Park?
On January 7, a member of Redneck Revolt, a left-wing militia, posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a semiautomatic rifle and seeming to gloat about chasing James Fields away from Justice Park shortly before Fields allegedly killed Heather Heyer with his car.
“I used this rifle to chase off James Fields from our block of 4th St before he attacked the marchers to the south,” wrote Dwayne E. Dixon, a lecturer in Asian studies at the University of North Carolina. Providing a more detailed account two and half months earlier at a talk at Harvard University, Dixon said Fields “slow-rolled our western perimeter—so that was Fourth Street— several times. One time he paused right in front of me, and I waved him off with my rifle. At his last pass, he accelerated; and a block away he killed Heather.”
Such statements were seized upon by Fields’s defenders. Cassandra Fairbanks, writing in the conservative news site Gateway Pundit, noted that Dixon has previously justified the use of violence by the Left as “resistance.”
“Based on [Dixon’s] new admission,” concluded Fairbanks, “his ‘resistance’ may have been a factor in the tragic events that unfolded that day.”
However, left-wing activist Emily Gorcenski derides this as a “nonsense theory” and “the latest attempt by the right to desperately absolve themselves of wrongdoing.”
Writing on Twitter, Gorcenski points out that parts of Justice Park, where Dixon was stationed, might be as many as four blocks away from the point where Heyer was struck.
“There were several paths available that didn’t include driving through protesters, as evidenced by all the cars that didn’t drive through protesters,” she tweeted.
The People in the Camry
Five days after the crash, the first lawsuit was filed by Tadrint and Micah Washington, two sisters in their twenties who were in the 2005 Toyota Camry pictured in the Red Pump Kitchen video. The vehicle’s trunk was crushed and the sisters injured by the impact. They sued not only Fields for assault but also rally organizer Jason Kessler, alt-right leader Richard Spencer, and more than a dozen others for civil conspiracy, negligence, and incitement. They seek $3.35 million.
In an interview with The New York Times, the plaintiffs indicated that strands of what may be Heather Heyer’s red hair clung to the trunk of the Camry.
The People in the Maroon Minivan
The two adults in the maroon Honda Odyssey minivan did not reply to interview requests, but a GoFundMe page posted by one of them identifies the driver as Lizete Short. In several images of the incident, the driver is seen standing in front of the van holding a camera and then—as the GoFundMe description indicates—“she was thrown into the hood of the van then smashing into the windshield ultimately falling to the ground unconscious.” Short has not given any published interviews.
In the months following the rally and Heather Heyer’s death, the city commissioned a report by the law firm Hunton & Williams and led by former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy on the city’s preparation for and response to what happened on August 11 and 12. Until Heaphy’s report, speculation abounded on why the Fourth Street Mall crossing was open. According to the report, the city’s director of public works had originally urged that police use water-filled “jersey barriers” to block Fourth Street. However, the final traffic plan—which the public works director allegedly did not receive until the morning of Friday, August 11—did not mention such barriers, so the official arranged for sawhorses to be used.
After the incident, an investigating reporter measured a city sawhorse at just shy of six feet wide. But since Fourth Street at its Market Street opening is twenty-three feet wide, a Dodge Challenger—no more than seventy-nine inches wide—can drive through without bumping the sawhorse—no matter where the sawhorses were located.
On August 11, according to the Heaphy report, a city police captain, Wendy Lewis, replaced the officer originally assigned to the intersection with a school resource officer named Tammy Shiflett. Shiflett did not receive any instruction.
The Heaphy report shows a picture of Shiflett’s police car blocking the west-bound lane of Market Street around 10:30 a.m., but it’s not blocking Fourth Street. The only thing blocking Fourth Street is a polycarbonate plastic—incorrectly described as wooden—sawhorse. The report notes that Shiflett—alone and wearing no protective gear—was watching columns of people approaching, smelling pepper spray, and finding herself the target of “profane and aggressive” statements. She radioed a sergeant and was instructed to leave the site. That left just the plastic sawhorse at the intersection.
“We’re Kinda It”
When he was part of the U.S. Army surgeon general’s office, Tom Berry was inside the Pentagon on 9/11, the day a hijacked jetliner slammed into the building. Berry later handled mass casualty events for the army in Iraq. So, in some ways, this director of the UVA Hospital’s emergency management division was ready for August 12.
Berry helped convert a conference room into a command center outfitted with a pair of large-screen televisions to monitor social media and videos streamed by people attending the rallies. Meanwhile, the staffers were monitoring their own computers as well. Shortly after 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, word came of a car plowing into pedestrians.
“We instantaneously knew,” Berry tells an interviewer, “and then it was instantly confirmed with radio traffic from EMS, fire/rescue, and E–911.”
Surgeon Michael Williams was on duty at UVA also. As the chief medical officer for clinics, Williams is in charge of the only trauma center between Roanoke and Richmond.
“We’re kinda it,” he says.
And he’d realized a month earlier that the hospital, typically running with 94 percent of its beds occupied, was too full to handle a large number of casualties. So he began slowing down the operating room schedule and asking doctors to postpone most elective surgery cases that had been scheduled past Wednesday of the rally week.
“You can imagine there was some consternation from surgeons who had scheduled cases weeks or months in advance,” Williams tells an interviewer. “But people understood the magnitude of the problem.”
Williams says his bedtime is early Friday night, but then he saw reports of the Friday-night torch rally.
“I thought, hmm, my day may start sooner than I thought.”
Williams, who is African American and who supervises a racially and ethnically diverse group of physicians, nurses, and support staff, said he felt a lot of emotions.
“It wasn’t lost on us that some of the people we were taking care of would have otherwise spit in our eyes.”
As part of the planning for a mass casualty event, a row of stretchers was already set up at the hospital’s entrance, so triage could occur before patients even entered the building.
Williams says they treated twelve trauma victims. Hospital spokesperson Eric Swenson said UVA treated twenty-eight people related to that weekend’s strife—twenty of them, including Heather Heyer, were from the crash.
Ten of the car-strike victims went to Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, which had done preplanning as well, according to spokesperson Jennifer Downs. That weekend, Martha Jefferson received a total of fifteen rally patients, two of whom were transferred to UVA.
The Scourge of Car Strikes
Sadly, Charlottesville was not America’s only site of a multi-pedestrian vehicle impact in 2017. In May, a Bronx man with unknown motives steered a car along New York City sidewalks, killing a young woman and injuring at least twenty-two others. On Halloween, an Uzbekistan native was charged with murder and terror after killing eight and injuring twelve people in a Manhattan bike lane. In the aftermath of the two New York City incidents, the city announced that it would install more than 1,500 new barrier posts, or bollards, on sidewalks and plazas.
Europe has seen worse. Five months before Charlottesville, an Islamic extremist killed five and injured forty-nine by the Palace of Westminster in London. Another jihadist attack three months later took eight lives and injured forty-eight on London Bridge. But the most devastating attack of this growing scourge was the year-earlier truck attack in Nice, France, that killed eighty-six people celebrating Bastille Day.
Seven months before the Charlottesville rally, Fox News had posted a ninety-second compilation of video clips of vehicular impacts with protesters set to a song by Ludacris called “Move Bitch.” The video’s caption urged viewers to “study the technique.” In the wake of Heather Heyer’s death, Fox, as well as the video’s originator—the conservative news site Daily Caller— quickly took it down.
A Modern-Day 'Guernica'?
Columbia University professor Jennifer Wenzel has called Ryan Kelly’s photograph a modern-day "Guernica." In an online essay, she notes both the compositional and the historic parallels between the photograph and the 1937 mural painting by Pablo Picasso depicting the destruction of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.
Both the painting and the photograph employ an array of disjointed images to convey their respective terrors. In "Guernica," there’s a dying horse, a broken sword, and several contorted people crying out in pain. In Kelly’s photo, Wenzel notes, there are shoes and a cell phone in midair and contorted bodies frozen in time.
“There are uncanny echoes of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in Kelly’s photograph,” Wenzel writes. “Picasso used the Cubist techniques of fragmentation and collage to create a visual cry of anguish at the destruction wrought by men at the controls of war machines.”
Wenzel notes one crucial forensic aspect of Kelly’s photograph.
“Clear as day, there’s the incriminating license plate. No one can deny, as the colluding European fascists did when they claimed that Guernica had been bombed by Spanish Republican forces, that this car drove into this crowd.”
Reprinted by permission from the University of Virginia Press from SUMMER OF HATE: Charlottesville, USA by Hawes Spencer.