Charlottesville one year on: FRANCE 24 talks to a survivor
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One year after a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville turned violent, the group is set to rally yet again this Sunday in Washington DC. FRANCE 24 talks a survivor of the Charlottesville tragedy.
One year ago to the day Constance Young narrowly escaped death.
On August 12th 2017 a suspected member of a white supremacist group drove his vehicle into a crowd taking part in a counter-protest of a far right march in Charlottesville, Virginia. 32 year old Heather D Heyer was killed when she was struck by the car. Constance Young was lucky to escape with just a knee injury.
However, that is not the only damage inflicted upon this young African American woman. Since that fateful day she has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her treatment is ongoing, but these past few days have been especially hard. Dark memories have been brought back to the fore by the far right’s call to meet and promote “white civil rights” in front of the White House this Sunday.
The 35-year-old Washington D.C. native told FRANCE 24 about her fears: “I am feeling very overwhelmed. I'm having more nightmares about the crash site than I normally do. I wish I could say that I'm hopeful or optimistic, but I'm not. Klansmen are America's oldest terrorist organization and they've been granted permission to convene and commemorate Heather Heyer's murder and the maiming of dozens of other people.”
Around 400 members of various far-right groups are expected to gather in Washington DC this Sunday under the “unite the right 2” banner. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, several anti-racist organizations are also holding events over the weekend. Constance Young will be speaking at one of them: “It's important for me to be there because the threat of white nationalism isn't going away. These degenerates have recently become emboldened by the current administration and it's important to send a strong message that their dangerous rhetoric and criminal ways are not welcome.”
"The police did not protect us"
Constance Young says she expects “nothing reasonable or decent” from US President Donald Trump who, a year ago, drew public outrage by stating that there were “very fine people on both sides”, in reference to the white supremacists and the counter protesters: “My hope is that he does not exacerbate the situation as he did last year.”
Civilians will be forbidden to carry any kind of weapon in Washington DC this Sunday. Organisers of the “unite the right 2” rally have officially called on participants to refrain from bringing any weapons or from fighting with counter protesters. They have also told their members to not talk to the media. Local authorities have announced that they will deploy a heavy police presence in this city, where nearly half the population is black.
This does not bring Constance Young any comfort: “The police that day did not protect us. They made it very clear that they were not intervening and would allow actual Nazis to terrorise an entire city. There were police officers on rooftops with automatic weapons pointed down at us working as snipers. They were dressed in plain clothes with no identifiable means to discern that they were police officers. We thought they were Nazis. Days passed before I learned that the snipers were actually cops. Even after I got struck, the police wouldn't help me. A group of folks made a circle around me and I hobbled to the nearest safe house. Even though I was obviously wounded no police officer asked me if I needed any assistance - ever. They even made me take a detour after as we weren't allowed to take the most direct route to the safe house where I could receive medical attention.
"A man told me he wanted to lynch me"
On that horrifying day, physical violence was coupled with extreme verbal violence: "They marched around the park and chanted things like, "Blood and Soil", "white privilege is a myth, but Jewish privilege exists", they called us monkeys, and one man even looked me right in my eyes from about two feet away from me and told me that he wanted to lynch me before he blew me a kiss.”
It brought to mind scenes reminiscent of a not so distant past when Constance Young’s ancestors experienced slavery and segregation : “I am part of the first generation of my family to be born with all of my rights guaranteed under the US Constitution, however, systemic and personal acts of racism have not escaped me."
Constance recalls how her family’s home was vandalized by people who painted the letters "KKK" on its walls or how, when she was a child, one classmate refused to invite her to her birthday party because her father did not want “blacks” in his house.
Still, in no way did these events prepare her for what she witnessed in Charlottesville: “I'd never witnessed nor believed that in the USA a militia of white nationalists would be allowed to terrorize an entire city for hours.”
Over the past twelve months she has been entirely re-evaluating the concept of free speech and the risks, according to her, that come with putting restrictions on it: “Since last year I have thought a lot about free speech and its limitations. I have learned about the European Convention of Human Rights. I understand that it recognizes the value of free speech, but it is not an absolute and should be considered along with other values such as basic humanity. While I appreciate how the right to speak freely is coupled along with a value set, I fear that in the United States, the most marginalized of our communities would be the most vulnerable to forbidden speech policing.”