I stepped out of my car near Hasbrouck Park in New Paltz for the vigil 29 hours after James Alex Fields Jr. mowed down dozens of people counter-protesting an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The murder of Heather Heyer and the injuring of at least 19 others was the acme of a day of mass civil disorder, as white supremacist and Antifa — “antifacist” — groups bludgeoned and beat each other through the streets. I obsessively watched live-streams of the chaos all day. Everyone seemed to be aiming for the head.
As a group of teens hitting balls against the chain-link backstop looked on in confusion, streams of people strode towards the wide park from the cars and streets, adding to an inward-facing disk of mourners.
More than 200 people attended the vigil, impressive since SUNY New Paltz, just up the road, was out for the summer and the event had been created via Facebook just that morning. A few carried signs, including one saying, “I stand with Charlottesville;” one man wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, another an Anonymous mask strapped to the back of his head; an American flag and an Antifa flag were hefted. The gathered stepped into the middle of the disk one after the other, pouring out their grief and outrage, some nearly in tears.
Though as of Monday morning no one but Fields was arrested in Heyer’s murder, most of the vigil attendees said in interviews it was only the most extreme action of a wider problem in 2017’s America, one reaching all the way to the White House.
Aidan Koehler said at the vigil she thought the attack was part of a larger national problem, and even if Trump didn’t have “racist, bigoted views,” (she believed he did), he was guilty because he had not denounced the rally or white supremacists.
Trump addressed the attack before signing Veteran’s health-care legislation in New Jersey Saturday. He did not call out white supremacists specifically or condemn the rally before the attack, instead condemning “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides — on many sides.”
He went on to say such problems existed before his presidency and bragged about the employment rate.
Koehler said she needed to take part in a solution to the national malaise.
“I have to look at how, in my life, with my family, and my sphere of influence, I can do better,” she said.
Glenn Geher, a psychology professor at SUNY New Paltz who also organized a free speech task force at the school said the White Nationalist rally as a whole was morally responsible for the attack.
“It’s an extraordinary signal of how wrong things are right now and how backwards things are going,” he said of both the rally and the attack.
“That guy’s presence in the White House somehow underlying all this, a lot of us think so,” he said.
Susan Mattson said at the rally she wanted to take responsibility for racism in the country as a white person.
“I think, just being white, we have a responsibility to love our people of color and say this shit’s got to stop, and we’re all people, and we need equality and this hatred that’s been directed at people of color and oppressed people, it’s just — enough, it’s done,” she said.
Adrian*, who said he has been organizing since Occupy Wall Street and is currently an antifa activist in the southern Hudson Valley, called the attack “an atrocity” and said Fields was “empowered through the ideology [of] the current political atmosphere.”
“I think white supremacists, ever since Trump started campaigning, have become more vocal and they feel more safe spewing hatred purely because of the fact that some of the people that Trump pushed into power have pretty radical, not-so-agreeable stances that push along lines such as white supremacy,” he said.
“[White Supremacists] before might still have these views, but it would be behind closed [doors],” he added. “Now they’re organizing and actively trying to do something — that means that we need to organize and do something to oppose them.”
Adrian, who said he recently attended a counter-protest at a neo-Nazi rally in Pennsylvania, said non-violence at counter-protests should be stressed but “I think self-defense is also important, if someone’s being met with violence I think they should have the right to have some sort of self-preservation.”
Many White Supremacists “kind of hide behind the fact they’re not doing any physical violence, but they’re provoking it, they’re trying to start stuff,” Adrian said, adding “the spreading of genocidal hate speech is also a violent action.”
Steve Greenfield, a white-haired man with a tough voice wearing a tucked-in tank top, was one of the last to speak at the rally.
“We’re here because a Nazi killed somebody,” he said.
He asked the crowd how many Republicans were in attendance. When no one responded, he said certain groups were underrepresented at the rally because they hadn’t been reached out to.
He pointed to the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall just down the road, saying it was filled with veterans who had fought the Nazis, and rallies like this needed a bigger tent to resist extremism.
*Not his real name