Aubtin Heydari, a counterprotester at last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, doesn’t remember when the car hit him. He doesn’t remember the blow to his legs that would keep him in a wheelchair for months. He doesn’t remember sitting on the street bleeding while a paramedic worked to save his life, just feet away from Heather Heyer — the woman who was killed in the same car attack, carried out by neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr.
What he does remember is waking up in a hospital bed, disoriented and concussed — and seeing footage of himself being hit by Fields’s car on a television.
“The TV’s on to CNN, and it’s just replaying video of us being hit,” Heydari tells me. “And I’m like yes, wait, that’s what happened.”
Heydari was one of 19 people injured by the white nationalists’ attack on counterprotesters at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. At the time, he was a student at the University of Southern California, back in his family home near Charlottesville for the summer break. He had been to a number of political protests since Donald Trump’s election in 2016 but had no idea how profoundly this one would change his life.
With another Unite the Right rally scheduled this Sunday for the Charlottesville anniversary — in my own hometown of Washington, DC — I reached out to Heydari and asked him to tell his story. (He had previously discussed his experience with his college paper, the Daily Trojan.)
I wanted to understand exactly what happened in Charlottesville, and what it was like to be targeted in one of the most significant domestic terrorist attacks in recent years. I also wanted to know how he felt, one year on, about the trauma of the day’s events — both his personal pain and the nation’s reaction, and whether we’ve learned the right lessons in anticipation of Sunday’s sequel.
Heydari’s message, above all else, was that the American public can’t afford to ignore what happens in Washington this weekend. The Nazis organized with little public attention but have quailed under the scrutiny applied to them in the wake of Charlottesville. Americans who were appalled at last year’s events, he suggests, can’t stay on the sidelines this year.
“When other people had moved on from Charlottesville, I couldn’t walk,” he says.
Heydari grew up about an hour away from Charlottesville and has fond memories of time spent in the nearby city on weekends. Home on break that summer, he felt an obligation to stand up for his community. That’s in more ways than one: Heydari is Iranian Muslim by background, not exactly the kind of person beloved by neo-Nazis.
The night before the car attack, the Unite the Right attendees marched on a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia — the now-infamous tiki torch march. Heydari was there, standing around the statue with counterprotesters before the neo-Nazis approached and encircled them.
“I’m sort of hanging around there, trying to engage people in conversations, when we start to hear the chanting,” he recalls. “Within a matter of minutes, we were just completely swarmed by white nationalists ... they were hurling slurs at us, they were throwing lighter fluid and torches at us. I saw fights break out right next to me, white nationalists beating up somebody.”
Heydari remembers trying to protect a fellow counterprotester from an attack when he felt a “burning sensation” on his face. He had been hit with a powerful dose of pepper spray.
“I realized I had only a few moments of sight left,” he says. “I needed to get to some kind of safety, or else I would be struck blind surrounded by a hundred neo-Nazis.”
Despite the ministrations of on-site medics, Heydari was blinded for an hour. He waited it out in a makeshift medical area, holding hands with another person who had been blinded by pepper spray, until he was ready to head back to a friend’s house.
He made it back without incident. But he was not done with counterprotesting.
He got back out there early on the morning of Saturday, August 12 — this time with a plan to meet some friends. Even just walking around the streets of Charlottesville that day, the white supremacists felt omnipresent, he says. It was then that the true gravity of the situation set in.
“Seeing the ages of them! Not just these old white guys from the South who were in the Klan and still loved the Confederacy, but I mean young kids,” he says. “Marching to the rally, I saw fathers and sons, mothers and daughters — whole family units of what most people would consider normal-looking white people marching in this really insidious and dark way.”
When Heydari and his friends got to Emancipation Park, a leafy little green area with a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the center, they were met with a grim scene: a much larger contingent of protesters than the night before, guarded by white nationalist militiamen wearing Kevlar vests and carrying assault rifles. Virginia is an open carry state; the police just stood on the sidelines.
The counterprotesters were, in theory, supposed to be outside the park’s gate. But in reality, the groups mixed far too freely. Curses were flying back and forth; water bottles were being lobbed between the two crowds. Heydari saw white nationalist militiamen, armed with clubs and shields, bashing counterprotesters without provocation — and doing so with relative impunity.
“I saw a man point a rifle at a family — at a family!” he recalls. “The police observed this and just did nothing.”
During the chaos, Heydari was trying to get people to medics like the ones who had helped him the night before. His goal was to protect people from violence rather than escalate it.
By the time the police realized the situation had gotten way out of hand and tried to send everybody home, Heydari got wind of a new threat. A splinter group of neo-Nazis was refusing to obey the police orders to go home, and in fact had begun marching toward a low-income housing unit largely populated by people of color.
Heydari and his allies had decided to follow them, to try to protect the people at the housing community. Their path took them into a tiny, crowded street.
“That’s the last thing I remember,” he says. “That’s when the car rammed into the crowd.”
What Heydari wants you to know
Heydari saw, in later videos, his body being flipped over Fields’s car. He learned at the hospital that he had a badly broken leg, a severe concussion, and “wounds and gashes all over my body” — including a giant one in his head from where he hit the pavement after impact.
In the days following, as he convalesced, Heydari remembered watching President Trump’s jaw-dropping press conference in which he said that there “very fine people on both sides” of the Saturday rally. His brother and a close friend were keeping him company, and none of them could believe what they were hearing.
“When he said it, I just remember a state of shock in the room. Like, ‘Wow, he really did just say it like that. ... He really did try to defend these people,’” Heydari recalls. “I wasn’t surprised because I knew this is really how Trump felt. At the rally, I saw people in MAGA hats, holding swastika flags ... all these people in pro-Trump clothing, walking alongside the neo-Nazis, intermixed with them. These are his [Trump’s] people.”
This was indicative of Heydari’s larger takeaway from that day: that events as terrible as Charlottesville could only happen when American institutions are failing.
If Charlottesville police had done a better job securing the area, the violence may have been contained. If the media had paid more attention to the rally beforehand, maybe the police would have felt more pressure to respond.
And maybe if the president hadn’t played footsie with white supremacists during his campaign and presidency, describing Mexicans as rapists and vowing a ban on Muslim immigration, the white nationalists never would have felt emboldened to do what they did last August.
To counteract this failure, Heydari believes, Americans need to step up.
“You can give me all of the lip service you want — which a lot of people did,” he says. “What it really takes is a real investment into knowing what happens, to following these protests and situations. They happen a lot, and are not as covered.”
This isn’t just for abstract, moral support reasons. Heydari points out that in the year since the Charlottesville rally, the scrutiny given to America’s white nationalist movement has done serious harm to the movement. When people started to pay attention and were appalled by what was happening, they came up with specific and effective ways to fight back. My colleague Jane Coaston has compiled a handy list of some examples:
Organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right have been embroiled in lawsuits filed by victims of the violence that took place. Many of the alt-right’s biggest personalities, like Richard Spencer, lost funding platforms because, understandably, platforms like Patreon and PayPal didn’t want to be associated with advocates for the return of the Third Reich. Other alt-right figures are involved in legal proceedings related to, for instance, harassing a Jewish woman online, or participation in a trailer park brawl.
One white nationalist attendee (best known for sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of his imminent arrest) was even recently banned from entering the state of Virginia. [Rally organizer Jason] Kessler himself tweeted insults about the young woman killed during the rally, then blamed his tweets on a combination of Ambien and Xanax when even his fellow rallygoers disavowed him. And politically, the rally only served to, in the words of the New York Times, “empower a leftist political coalition that vows to confront generations of racial and economic injustice” in Charlottesville.
So you don’t have to go the rally in DC this weekend, in Heydari’s view, to make a difference. If you keep paying attention, look for things you can do from your home, or even just talk to your friends — in this way, you can stand with him and others like him.
As for Heydari, he finished his senior year of college. He’s currently teaching at a prestigious summer camp for high school debaters looking to elevate their argumentative game. (Heydari was a competitive debater at USC.) He’s in debt, as a mountain of red tape has made it hard for him to access the donations that had flowed his way to cover his recovery expenses.
But given the choice, he’d do it all over again.
“I don’t regret going to Charlottesville,” he says. “Obviously, I would have preferred to be able to walk for the first half of my senior year, and not put all of my friends and family in a constant state of terror. But I don’t regret going, I don’t regret the fact that I made that choice — because for me, it was important.”
Indeed, just weeks after Charlottesville, he was back out protesting. “When Trump announced the repeal of DACA [on September 5], I was part of a campus protest and march while I was in my wheelchair,” he said.
Talking to Heydari, it was hard to miss the passion in his voice and a sense of moral righteousness. I asked him whether we should all be as angry as he is about what’s happening in the United States. He said yes — but that his motivation for activism would always be a touch more personal.
“I’m angry,” Heydari says, “because these bastards tried to kill me.”