I Was Injured by a White Supremacist in Charlottesville. Strangers Lifted Me Up.
In July 2017 a friend told me that white supremacists planned to go to Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park that August. I immediately knew I would go to counterprotest and provide support for others.
On Aug. 11, I piled into a car with some friends after work, and we drove from Washington, D.C. Close to halfway there, a thunderstorm rolled through, bringing traffic to a grinding halt. We pulled off the interstate and found a place to get a bite while we waited for the rain to subside. We talked about our fears and how we would be there for one another, no matter what happened that weekend.
The next day a large group of us walked to the park to counterprotest. It was a typical August day — hot and muggy. The day’s events began with an interfaith prayer. I wasn’t mentally prepared for what followed. For hours, people yelled racial and antisemitic slurs at us. I remember seeing what I later learned were plainclothes policemen on top of buildings with their guns trained on the crowd.
A little after 11 a.m., the police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and ordered all the demonstrators to disperse. We marched toward downtown, and I remember feeling surprised that I had made it through the day without getting physically hurt.
What came next is still a bit of a blur. I recall a car speeding toward us, and then everything went black. When I came to, I heard people screaming, urging me to get up quickly as the car prepared to reverse. The next thing I remember is letting out a bloodcurdling scream. I felt a searing pain in my knee. I used my cellphone to call a street medic who could help me get to safety.
I later learned that James Fields had rammed his gray Dodge Challenger into the crowd of counterprotesters in a murderous rage. Heather Heyer was killed, and I was among the more than 30 other people injured.
My knee has since healed, but I still have flashbacks of the sound of human bodies being hit by that car. My hands and feet start to tingle, and my heart rate speeds up whenever I hear car tires squeal.
As a Black woman from the Deep South, I know racism is inescapable. My father, a physician, was consistently racially profiled and harassed by the police for the “crime” of walking in our predominantly white neighborhood. The K.K.K. had a regularly scheduled program on public access television. The stop sign in our yard was once spray-painted with the N-word. The stress of merely existing is visceral, psychological and cumulative.
Since the attack in Charlottesville, I’ve relied heavily on my community in my journey toward healing. I’ve come to realize that growing up, I watched my family do this for their neighbors and friends, too. It has always been an ingredient that has nourished resistance.
Community care focuses on the needs and betterment of the community through meaningful and purposeful action. It’s grounded in the idea that we should think about resistance in a holistic way. It’s not just showing up to protest. In fact, that’s only a small part of it. It’s also about taking care of yourself and one another so that together we can achieve meaningful and lasting change.
On the streets in Charlottesville, I met people who were handing out food and water to fellow counterprotesters. A Methodist church nearby provided a safe space. There were therapists and health care providers on hand to support. Volunteer street medics tended to the wounds of strangers.
On the night of Aug. 11, just after the infamous tiki torch march, a few of us gathered in a hotel room to ready backpacks filled with first-aid supplies such as bandages, eye wash and water, in addition to protein bars, earplugs, sugary treats and even legal-aid and know-your-rights information. The backpack I carried was red. One of the straps broke during the attack. I keep it because, to me, it symbolizes the strength of community during challenging times.
After I was injured, strangers surrounded me and helped me get to the Methodist church’s safe space. I was in such a state of panic, all I could do was repeat, “We’re not safe” and “How many people died?” while I sat in a bathroom with a therapist crouched on the floor in front of me. She tapped me on my kneecaps to help me refocus my attention and used eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy to help me calm down.
Sometimes we find community in places and among people we least expect it. I first met Bill Burke, who was also there that day as a counterprotester, outside a Virginia state courthouse during Mr. Fields’s first trial. Bill was a Republican who grew up in the Midwest flying the Confederate flag. He told me that once he learned its history, he rejected the ideas represented by that symbol and fought against them. He suffered serious injuries from the car attack, including a traumatic brain injury and nerve damage in his left arm. He is living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
We both experienced cognitive impairment in the months immediately after the attack. I had recurring nightmares, and I struggled at work. I would quietly sob in the bathroom at work because I felt I couldn’t relate to anyone anymore. I felt so humiliated. I resigned from my position six months after the car attack.
Bill has also struggled to get back on his feet. His marriage dissolved. He had trouble speaking and experienced memory loss. He resorted to carrying a small notebook around to write things down, since he could no longer trust his memory.
Admittedly, if I had known about his upbringing before meeting him, it would have given me pause. But I can’t fault people for the culture that they came up in if they’ve made a sincere effort to grow, learn and change. Bill’s support for me has been invaluable and reminds me how we are all interconnected and why we need one another to heal.
Resilience is the ingredient that makes resistance possible. But to be resilient, we must take good care of one another. Anniversaries provide unique opportunities to celebrate, grieve and perhaps inspire. On this anniversary, I want us all to practice community care by identifying ways that we can show up for ourselves and one another emotionally and spiritually and in all practical matters so that we can work together toward the future we deserve.
I have been to hell and back since that car attack. But despite experiencing evil, I can still find beauty. We can be one another’s refuge.
I haven’t lost hope. I hope you haven’t, either.
Constance Paige Young is a racial justice activist and an advocate for survivors of sexual violence.
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