'Heil Trump? I learned the power of intimidation' - Irish teacher in Charlottesville on confronting neo Nazis
An Irish teacher living and working in Charlottesville has described how Neo nazi protesters overran the city leaving three dead and many others wounded. The Virginia college town was plunged into chaos this weekend when a white nationalist rally clashed with opposing protesters. John Heffernan, from Crossmolina Co Mayo works for Albemarle County Public Schools and here he describes his first hand experience of the scenes he witnessed:
The reason why Charlottesville has become the centre of alt-right/nazi focus has been to the decision of the city council to remove a statue and rename a park. Charlottesville is a college town, with a young liberal population and a sanctuary city for refugees and illegal emigrants. The city voted 80% for Clinton in the Presidential election.
The alt-right/nazi protests are a reminder to this city that they have not gone away. The first alt-right/nazi protest was last month, when a Klu Klux Klan (KKK) group from North Carolina protested in full KKK regalia with crowds arrived from both sides.
That day it was theatre, but unfortunately, on Saturday, it was more of a tragedy. Crowds arrived early to the park buoyed up with the reaction from the torch lit protest in the University of Virginia, which caught most people off guard as it was expected to occur in the city centre.
I was in the Downtown Mall (the main pedestrianised street) early in the morning where there was a significant police presence.
Alt-right/nazi groups arrived early to locations where counter protest groups had established themselves close to the park. The police kept them separate. Something similar to an Old Firm derby would be the best way to describe it. There is a strong peace movement in Charlottesville, who were also very visible at the park early on.
The local clergy had come together and organised a joint march to the park. The police in fairness, did a good job to try and keep things calm but the area around Lee Park is dotted with laneways and is very close to the main shopping thoroughfare, which meant the crowds could move quickly in response to police attempts to keep groups separate.
I moved my car away from the city centre and when I went back towards the park, the state police had started corralling people into side streets close to park. At this stage a state of emergency was declared and they were moving the alt-right/nazi groups to another park in the suburbs.They moved them down close to where I was located.
Most had flags attached to poles, which could easily be brought to bear as a club. Many people on both sides were using selfie sticks or Go Pros to record what happened. Media had an impact on the alt-right/nazi groups as I observed groups hanging around but once they spotted a camera crew, they would start up with shouts of Heil Trump or anti-gay or black chants.
Virginia is an open carry state, which means that many of the alt-right/Nazis were carrying semi-automatic rifles (AR-16) and pistols and the police could do nothing about it.
Those men and women pretending that their authority to swagger around in the face of generally peaceful protesters, emanated from a gun is alien to anyone from Ireland. The counter protesters that I saw were generally unarmed apart from the odd baseball bat or pepper spray. These armed “militas”- at least two groups of about 20 in each group moved to where cameras or groups like Black Lives Matter had congregated.
What I learned this weekend was the power of intimidation. These Alt-right/nazis declared by their actions, that we can came to a city that expresses openness and care to those less fortunate and with weapons on show, attempt to dictate their twisted ideology on the people of Charlottesville.