Ross Mittiga is a PhD student at the University of Virginia who researches the politics and ethics of climate change.
On Saturday, he watched as a car slammed into and killed a protester a few yards away from him in what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism.
Mittiga’s wife was trying to take a photo of him when it happened.
“What happened this afternoon was an incredible tragedy that happened right in front of my eyes. I still can’t believe what I saw,” said Mittiga, who joined the protests against white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a member of Charlottesville’s Democratic Socialists of America. “It was an act of domestic terrorism.”
On Friday night, hundreds of neo-Nazis amassed outside a church in Charlottesville carrying torches and, later, threatened and threw tear gas at student protesters protecting a campus monument of Thomas Jefferson. By Saturday, the neo-Nazis clashed and brawled with counter-protesters in feuds throughout Charlottesville’s typically quaint and quiet streets. (Vox’s Dara Lind and Libby Nelson have a broad overview of events here.)
Mittiga witnessed much of the action firsthand — from the neo-Nazis assembled outside the church, to scores of “Nazis dressed like Italian fascists” fighting with protesters, to the fatal crash itself. Below is a lightly edited transcript of his account of those 24 hours.
A dramatic confrontation the night before
Since the KKK rally in June, a lot of people here have been busy organizing. Everybody knew August 12 was coming and that the white supremacists were going to have a rally much bigger than the July one. Our town racist, [white supremacist organizer] Jason Kessler, has been organizing this, and then he got help from Richard Spencer; it's been obvious that it was going to be huge. They're both UVA grads, by the way.
So we knew this was happening. Yesterday, there was a big sermon at St. Paul's Church in preparation. I got there 20 minutes early and it was already standing room only, and there were a number of speakers from different faith groups, and the keynote speakers were Rev. Traci Blackmon and Cornel West. Her sermon focused on the David versus Goliath story, and she stressed that David takes the head off of Goliath — making the point we can't settle for piecemeal success; we have to realize white supremacy isn't isolated but is embedded in a larger ideology of imperialism and oppression. The overwhelming thrust of everything was that it was time for solidarity among the left.
Around 9:15 pm, the church gathering started to break up. But then hundreds of white supremacists marched right outside the church. Everybody in the church was asked to remain inside. The Nazis came and made people essentially hostages in the church until they eventually marched away.
What they then did was go down UVA's main lawn toward the Thomas Jefferson statue; student protesters headed them off, and they surrounded Thomas Jefferson's statue to prevent the neo-Nazis from reaching it. The students wanted to say, "This is our space." There are very moving pictures of these students being surrounded by neo-Nazis, and deeply unsettling video of them being physically attacked.
Teenagers standing up to a sea of white supremacists carrying torches.— Downtown Josh Brown (@ReformedBroker) August 12, 2017
Snowflakes my ass. pic.twitter.com/HbQXOlkjrt
It sickens me they were attacked on their campus.
White supremacists, turned away from park, attack protesters in waves
This morning, at 5:30 am, I went to join everyone at the First Baptist Church — a historically black church that has been around for more than 150 years — and I went to the sunrise sermon. Cornell West's speech was about courage and solidarity, and the need to confront the problem of white supremacy honestly. He even said at one point something like, "We'll go out of here and risk our bodies, risk arrest, and risk getting shot." We knew that armed militias were coming today. And that these risks might be borne out.
After the sermon, faith leaders, including Dr. West, led a march to Emancipation Park about one mile away from the church. Emancipation Park — which was named Robert E. Lee Park until about a month and a half ago — has a gigantic 20- to 30-foot statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse. That’s what kicked this whole thing off — the city council voting to remove that statue.
The clergy marched down there and set up a human link to try to keep racists out. But that’s where the white supremacists planned on going. They had planned to go to Emancipation Park, and when they arrived they found the human link. The clergy sang “Let it Shine” over the neo-Nazi shouts of “blood and soil.”
Eventually, hundreds and hundreds of white supremacists came walking or running or jumping down the streets, in successive waves. Sometimes they were dressed like Italian fascists; sometimes dressed like Donald Trump at a golf course, with white polo shirts and khaki pants and red “Make America Great Again” hats; some Nazis were saying, “Sieg heil!;” and some were saying, “Heil Trump!” It was Nazis of all stripes — proud boys Nazis, and Nazis in camouflage fatigues, and then your normal KKK Nazis. You’d see one group of Nazis, then another group of Nazis, and then another and another, and another.
There was the street and the sidewalk and the white supremacists basically had the street and the counter-protesters had the sidewalks. So the white supremacists would walk by, and as they did so they’d jeer or throw smoke bombs or take swings at people. Their numbers were unfathomable. You know how in Scooby Doo they’re chasing the perpetrator but they’re going in and out of different doors and reappearing? It had that surreal effect, because they’d face the street, go by and head right — and then there’d be different waves of them — and then an earlier wave would come back. It was completely bewildering.
There were couple times when there were real scares — when they’d throw a bunch of smoke-bombs and people would start choking, or when reports emerged that the Nazis were throwing bottles full of urine at people. Eventually, we fell back to McGuffy Park and tried to figure out what to do.
The car crash
Then we heard that the white supremacists had decided to go to public housing to antagonize black residents in Friendship Court, a housing project here. We gathered together all the people in Justice Park, 300-plus people, and began marching down to Friendship Court.
Arriving at Friendship Court, there was a real feeling the Nazis had gone. We felt triumphant. But as we walked back toward the park we started thinking, “Where the hell are the police?” We kept saying that, “Isn’t it weird we’re walking down live streets and there are no cops — no cops whatsoever.”
This is where shit got really surreal. We saw another procession of Black Lives Matters protesters coming from the other direction and we joined it coming down Waters Street. We were in that march for a block and a half.
I had just taken a picture — I took a picture of my wife and the crowd. She took one of me. And then the other one she took just had everyone looking up because of what had happened.
And it sickens me to even say, but it was just a “Whoosh!” and then sirens and bodies flying and people screaming. There was chaos and then a woman vomited right in front of us.
A friend, fellow DSA-er in town and progressive organizer, Michael Payne, was right next to me the whole time. All of the sudden he wasn’t. The DSA marshals were screaming, “DSA get off the road! Get off the road! Get off the road!” There was this moment of fear — of “What did I just see? Is this going to happen again? Is there someone coming from behind us? Is someone coming from another car?”
What happened this afternoon was an incredible tragedy that happened right in front of my eyes; it was a horrible tragedy and I still can't believe what I saw. It was an act of domestic terrorism. Dr. West cautioned everyone last night of the risks we faced going out to make a radical act of love and compassion, but we have to realize we’re dealing with people who are deeply sick and deeply disturbed. Everyone knew they were risking themselves in a risk of solidarity.
The real heroes of the past 24 hours were the students last night on the lawn, the clergy who linked themselves together against the fascists at Emancipation Park, and the citizens of Charlottesville and from around the country who gave aid to those harmed in the terrorist attack before emergency services professionals arrived. I’m proud of our city, and all those who stood with us in solidarity.