by Kellen Squire
It’s been five years since I wrote about the aftermath of the Unite the Right attack on Charlottesville, Virginia, that left Heather Heyer dead and dozens more injured.
We keep careening from crisis to crisis, pandemic to pandemic, which makes time pass both agonizingly slowly and at incredible speed. But I can still see the first ambulance flying around the street corner near our ER, followed by four or five cars driven by bystanders and good Samaritans, all full of patients. I can still remember the helpless look in the eyes of a family member searching for their loved one, desperate for any information on someone who was unaccounted for. And when I shut my eyes, I can still watch our charge nurse – my wife – on our fifth wedding anniversary working tirelessly by my side in the ER together.
She’s stronger than I am. She held everything together; she is why we were able to handle that day. And then she picked herself back up and went back in for another twelve-hour shift immediately after.
That was five years ago.
One of the things that sticks with me is how loudly so many of us screamed warnings about what was coming. So many of us who’d worked on the ground organizing against the alt right and Nazis (although that Venn Diagram is almost a circle) that came to Charlottesville understood what was likely to happen. Causing mayhem and destruction was their stated goal. They weren’t hiding it. They wanted to maim. Kill. That was their purpose. That’s what they came to do.
We did what we could. We took a risk, leaking information from people we had quietly observing their planning forums. This group is coming from Texas and is staying at this campground in Louisa County. This group is coming from Georgia and has booked a “family reunion” in Nelson County. So forth and so on.
I should know – I personally got some of those permits and reservations canceled. This is something I haven’t admitted aloud at any point over the last five years, because, as anyone who keeps tabs on these groups know, they are more than willing to go after or kill anyone who they see as a threat. These people aren’t the “forgive and forget” kind of folks. Back in 2017, after I wrote the article linked above, we had someone leave a voicemail on our campaign phone, where someone said the name of one of my kids’ school and teacher, and then hung up. I can only imagine how much more fun we’ll have now, especially in the wake of the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, with the entire alt-right up and looking for blood.
No, literally – looking for people to maim and murder.
I was an incredibly minor part of our community’s response to the Nazis showing up, but I stymied whatever I could. I screamed to whomever I could. I warned everyone I could. I showed people chat transcripts and forwarded emails. The weeks before Unite the Right felt like watching a runaway train barrel towards you in slow motion, unable to get out of the way or do anything but watch it loom closer and closer.
But it wasn’t enough. Politicians patted me on the head, including some who most of you know and regard very well. Bureaucrats rolled their eyes.
I don’t know if they didn’t believe me, didn’t want to believe me, or both.
And, just as we warned, they came. They made our community a target.
Maybe it never would have been enough. I don’t know. More people than I was screaming about the danger; more people did a lot more work than I did to keep our community safe.
All I know is that when I watched the events of January 6th, 2021, it became clear that not enough had been done to try and make people learn from what happened in our community. It was an obvious dress rehearsal for something much more serious and presented a lesson that we almost all learned – that even bumbling, Keystone Cop Nazis can take an entire country down if people don’t take them seriously.
It’s why I refuse to hide. To stop fighting for our community. Because I’ve seen how close we’ve come to the edge. I’ve seen the consequences first-hand of what the inability of politicians, of our government, to act to protect our own people looks like, be it from Nazis, pandemics, or policy failure. And once the safety net goes – whether it’s in regard to healthcare, gun violence, housing, mental health, climate change, or even just having a functioning democracy- it’s a long, long drop to rock bottom.
This is it. We hold the line here, or we don’t. We fight now, or we don’t fight at all. It’s as simple as that.
And I’ve made my choice.