What I Saw in Charlottesville and What We All Lost

August 17, 2017

As the nation reels from the events in Charlottesville over the past weekend, Americans will have to wrestle with a variety of issues raised by the demonstrations, the response, and, sadly, the deaths. Ideally these discussions should occur calmly and dispassionately, but this will be difficult in the emotionally charged environment in which the country finds itself. Among those discussions is what Charlottesville means for our understanding of domestic security, terrorism and the defense of civil liberties. There has always been a tension between the need to protect public safety and to secure the people’s rights. But now, as more fringe groups exercise their right to bear arms in public, that freedom is conflicting with others. We need to find a new balance that allows civil authorities to protect all rights equally.

I am a retired military officer who spent much of his career in Latin America, often in countries where street clashes are a common occurrence. During my time with U.S. Southern Command we worked to professionalize militaries that played too prominent a role in domestic strife. I never expected to see what I saw overseas play out on the avenues of an idyllic southern college town in the state I call home, making me question whether our military was involved enough. The events in Charlottesville left me a bit shaken, but determined to try to contribute to a sober discussion of what this might mean. What follows is an account, as best as my wife and I can recollect, of what we saw on Saturday, Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, followed by some perspective on the issues I think events demand we confront.

What I Saw

My wife and I woke up Saturday morning and read about the skirmishes (a word I never thought I would use in reference to the United States) in Charlottesville, Virginia. On the spur of the moment, we decided to head down there, two hours from our Northern Virginia home.

We didn’t have a plan and we aren’t experienced demonstration-goers. I was taking things a bit personally. Among the chants the white nationalists were using on Friday night was, “The Jews will not replace us.” Mike Singer, the mayor of Charlottesville, is a fellow Jew and a friend.

My daughter described what we did as “praying with our feet” — a phrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to describe his march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. H. David Teitelbaum, the rabbi who performed my bar mitzvah and married my wife and me, also marched at Selma and would share his experiences from the pulpit every January around the time of King’s birthday.

With this in mind, upon reaching Charlottesville we headed for the local synagogue. On our way into town, we saw several small groups with Confederate flags on various corners. We couldn’t reach the synagogue, as many streets were blocked, so we parked and walked to the First Methodist Church, intending to join the prayer vigil and other peaceful activities we had read about online.

On the way to the church we saw several groups with military-style weapons, clubs, shields, helmets, goggles, whips, and even a compound bow. I had been to a few demonstrations over the years, but never had I seen weapons at them. I was there to exercise my First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, but others seemed more focused on pushing the boundaries of their Second Amendment rights. My wife noticed a few dirty looks. I was wearing an American flag t-shirt and my Air Force Academy baseball cap. My wife attributed the looks to the fact that we are an interracial couple, me with my once-blond-now-gray hair and blue eyes and her a beautiful dark-skinned, dark-haired Latina, but who knows?

After being questioned by volunteers, asked to turn over any weapons, and scanned with a metal detector, we had our hands stamped and went into the church. We found the rabbi wearing a yarmulke and his prayer shawl known as a tallit. Other clergy were also wearing clerical garb, so as to be clearly identified. We told the rabbi we had come from Northern Virginia to show our support. My wife clarified our objective, saying that our numbers had to be much bigger than their numbers. She wanted the country to know that they did not represent our Virginia. The rabbi told us the demonstration had been broken up, and that we couldn’t go to the synagogue now because there was a “credible threat.” He had told his congregants to leave. It was an eerie reminder that those peaceful marches of the 1960s I idealized were often accompanied by church bombings and assassinations.

We stayed with the interfaith group at the church for a while, and then decided to get closer to where more was happening. We saw a confrontation between what appeared to be counter-protesters and about four police officers in front of a bank. The surrounding crowd started yelling at the cops and edging a bit closer. Suddenly, the crowd rapidly dispersed and many of them came running over to where my wife and I were, coughing and complaining that their eyes were burning. My wife and I were at a loss how to help them, and then we started coughing ourselves. Whatever was sprayed, perhaps tear gas or pepper spray, had gotten to us. Having trouble catching my breath and gagging a bit, I heard somebody say to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. That did the trick and I got ahold of my breath again. My wife seemed less affected. We then left the area.

While walking away, we saw a reporter from New York being interviewed on camera, visibly shaken, as he had witnessed the terrorist attack with the car driving into a crowd. He was sure that someone had been severely injured and was concerned the perpetrator might get away despite the police presence.

We came upon another small group of people who appeared to be from the white nationalist crowd. A young woman in the group received the information about the car attack on her phone and yelled out an expletive, seemingly upset that she was missing some of the real action. She handed her backpack to one of her compatriots, pulled a whip from her back pocket and said, “I have a gun.” She then ran off, presumably in the direction of where she thought the attack was. Her intentions were unclear, but I sensed she wanted to be “in the fight.” My wife and I headed in the opposite direction.

On our way, we found ourselves back near the bank where the earlier confrontation occurred. A line of police was deployed across the pedestrian-only street that runs through downtown. One woman, apparently a counter-protester, seemed to focus her ire on the police, calling their behavior “not normal.” It seemed the rage against the racists was transforming into a more generic anger at “the man.” The woman got perhaps 20 to 30 people to start chanting with her and seemed to want to spark a larger confrontation. It was hard to tell whether she was mad at the police for not going after the white nationalists or mad that she was being stopped from doing so. We left before any altercation occurred.

The counter-protesters seemed to run the gamut from faith-based groups led by clergy, to Black Lives Matter, to one group calling itself communist and another revolutionary, to anti-Trump enthusiasts and some just generally angry people.

We then read on Facebook that Mayor Singer was asking people to go home, and we decided to listen. We walked back to our car. On our way home we stopped to eat on the outskirts of the city and watched some of the footage of what happened on CNN. Watching some of the more violent images I think my wife and I both had the same reaction: “What the hell is going on in this country?”

What We All Lost

We all lost a lot in Charlottesville. Of course, some people lost things that cannot be regained. Heather Heyer, the young local paralegal, died in the service of the America she believed in, no less than an American soldier on a foreign battlefield. Her weapons were love and compassion and they were overcome by hate and violence. None of us has lost as much as her family. No less so we mourn for Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates of the Virginia State Police, who fell in the line of duty in service to their state and nation, doing their job protecting their community. Our hearts go out to all of their families and our prayers are with those of the wounded.

But beyond those immediate and painful losses, I fear we are all in danger of losing something very precious as well. The First Amendment to the Constitution says we cannot infringe upon “the right of the people to peaceably assemble.” I think that’s what my wife and I were hoping for when we made the drive. Perhaps naively, we imagined joining an interfaith and diverse group marching, perhaps singing and chanting, maybe even shouting, while showing our opposition to hatred peacefully and non-violently.

Those who come armed, carrying Confederate and Nazi flags, and screaming racist and anti-Semitic epithets are looking for something else. On the other side, a much smaller number of counter-protesters I saw had weapons and were seeking violent confrontation (though they did not bring with them the hateful ideology that their counterparts espoused). The actions of people who arrived in Charlottesville intending to inflict violence undermined our First Amendment right. The Second Amendment grants us the right to bear arms and that must be protected. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the Second Amendment can’t trump the First.

It should be possible to say, “You have the right to bear arms and the right to peaceably assemble. You just can’t do both at the same time and place.” When you arrive to demonstrate, you check your arms in and upon leaving they will be returned to you. There are some who, in the name of whatever cause, seek not to demonstrate and petition their government for the redress of grievances, but rather to use the streets for confrontation, violence, fear, and intimidation. This is un-American, full stop. When my wife and I told friends we were heading to Charlottesville, their first admonition was, “Be safe.” I appreciate their concern, but my safety while peaceably demonstrating shouldn’t be at risk. It is the state’s job to protect me and secure my rights. It must maintain its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

I must be clear that I draw no moral equivalency between the two sides in Charlottesville. One stands for hatred and the other against. My wife and I know what side we will always be on.

The promise of democracy is not that it will always select good and honest leaders or that it will always make just and fair laws, but rather that people can seek change free of fear and violence by the state or their fellow citizens. This must be preserved. If incidents like this are allowed to continue and escalate, as I often saw in the Southern Hemisphere, people will look to the military to relieve the overwhelmed police. When the praetorians seize power, restoration of public order is almost always a proximate cause. We can’t let that happen here.

Dr. King taught us all that violence and hate are most effectively countered with non-violence and love. Sadly, we may need to re-learn that lesson.


Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the U.S. Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer. His wife was decorated for her combat service to the United States during Operation Just Cause as a civilian.

Image: Susan Melkisethian, Flickr