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Two Years Later, Charlottesville Mourns Loss and Focuses on Healing

Protestors clash in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017, during a rally over plans to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park. (Photo: CNS/Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

August 12 marks two years since white supremacist James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virgina, killing 32-year old activist Heather Heyer. 

On the evening of August 11, 2017 a rally attended by hundreds of far right and neo nazi protesters dubbed “Unite the Right” was held on the University of Virginia’s campus. During the rally, men and women carrying torches through the campus chanted anti-Semitic slogans, while pushing back against the city’s plans to tear down Confederate monuments. 

Counter-protestors were present that evening as the rally spread beyond the campus, spilling into the streets of downtown Charlottesville.  Protestors advocating against the removal of the monuments clashed with clergy and other community members. 

The conflict between the two protest groups ended in violence the next day when Fields, who had traveled to Charlottesville for “Unite the Right” rally, plowed his car into a group of anti-nationalism protesters that had gathered in the city in response to the night before, killing Heyer and injuring others.

Fields pleaded guilty to 29 federal charges. He has received two life sentences for Heyer’s death that took place in Charlottesville. Convicted of murder and hate crimes, he was first sentenced to life in prison by a federal court in 2018, and later given a second life sentence in the state of Virginia in July of 2019. 

In an NPR interview, Mike Signer, mayor of Charlottesville at the time of the white supremacist rallies, described the environment following the attacks as “a chill, an iciness, from townsfolk who’d lost faith in their leadership.” 

“Sometimes people cried, sometimes they screamed. You had a whole city that basically needed therapy,” he said.

That day, two police officers also died in a helicopter crash while trying to save victims of the hate crime, according to CNN. 

Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, now runs a foundation in her daughter’s honor which focuses on spreading awareness of and best practices for countering violent extremism. 

Since the time of her daughter’s passing, she and Singer have worked closely on creating a national platform that addresses issues of racism, prejudice, anti-semitism and violence. 

“Life is complicated. People are complicated. And Mike and I together can present a more powerful and unified and effective voice for change than if I were to be in combat with him and say, ‘You made mistakes,'” Bro told NPR

“Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing is going to bring Heather back,” she said. “What we can do is look at mistakes, admit the mistakes, and move forward making sure those mistakes don’t happen again.”

Monday’s anniversary marks the third day of memorial services being held in the city of Charlottesville. An interfaith service is scheduled at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville for 7 p.m. Monday evening. 

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