by Bob McAdams
PHOTO IS OF DONATED ARTWORK AT THE HEATHER HEYER MEMORIAL.
I remember the beginning of that day, August 12th, 2017. I arrived at McGuffey Park at the same time as marchers coming from the Jefferson School. A joyful crowd filled the park with songs, chants, prayers, and speeches. Clergy of many faiths, parents with children, activists, and officials, people of many sizes and shapes, ages and colors, men and women, all celebrating our Unity in Diversity. This is where the arc started.
When the speeches ended, cautious people, especially those with children, left the area. Brave people, including clergy, prepared for non-violent direct confrontation of the white supremacists, fascists, neo-Nazis who had descended on our city. I stayed at the park with people setting up support facilities for counter-demonstrators. Prof. Walt Heinecke had permits which reserved McGuffey Park and what was called Justice Park near Court Square for our exclusive use. With great forethought he also hired armed security guards to
keep unwelcome people out of the parks. We had tents for first aid, food and water, shade and rest, and one with a platform and sound system for speakers. We could hear voices shouting or chanting, but we could not see what was happening on Market St. at Emancipation Park. We could hear and see a state police helicopter circling the area.
Before 11:00 I left to go to Justice Park to lead some educational programs. Avoiding Market Street, I walked alone through the eerily empty Downtown Mall. Pairs of police officers stood at each intersection. I could hear sounds of confrontation, but had no clear view of what was happening. As I passed the Market Street parking garage, I heard shouts that sounded like soldiers drilling and saw two men in camouflage uniforms holding assault rifles. I thought the National Guard has not been called up, have they? The helicopter continued to circle the area adding to the surreal feeling of the day.
At Justice Park we had the same support tents set up and speakers scheduled to start at noon. But, people’s attention was all on information they were getting from news on their phones and in calls from friends. We heard that there was fighting on Market St. well before the Rally that was scheduled to start at noon. People then told us that the police had declared the event an unlawful assembly at 11:35 and that the police had started to clear the area in and around Emancipation Park. Bands of White Supremacists began spreading through the city, with some in khaki pants and white polo shirts passing by Justice Park. The few who tried to enter the park were kept out by the uniformed, armed security guards. No one knew what would happen next. The throbbing drone of the helicopter continued overhead.
All of our plans for educational programs collapsed in uncertainty. We did provide refuge and support. Early in the afternoon exhausted counter-demonstrators wearing bicycle helmets and carrying makeshift shields arrived and sprawled on a shady slope to rest and eat. Half an hour later they received word that white supremacists were heading to Friendship Court. They put their gear back on and left to protect the public housing residents. Another half hour passed, then someone shouted that the white supremacists were driving cars into counter-demonstrators. Soon some people from the crash scene came sobbing so deeply that they could not catch their breath. People rushed to comfort them. As the nurse practitioner and a doctor from our aid station were helping one woman, they discovered that she didn’t know she had broken her wrist. They improvised a splint from crushed water bottles.
At 4:00 we were told that a large group of white supremacists was heading to Justice Park. We packed all the portable equipment and left for McGuffey Park. There we learned that a woman had been killed by the car driven into the crowd of protestors. After a few people spoke, those of us remaining formed a silent circle and laid flowers on the ground in memory of a woman killed protesting racism. In the same park where a joyous celebration had started the day, we mourned the death of Heather Heyer. We left in small groups to escort each other back to our cars.
The arc of that day ended in a silent circle, but the arc of that event extends through years of racist violence, through January 6th, through the Sines trial, and into a future which we must guide toward unity in diversity and peace.
Bob McAdams is president of CCPJ.