A View from August 12th Legal Observers in Charlottesville

This piece first appeared in Virginia Law Weekly Sept. 6.

By: Adele Stichel (she/her/hers) ’19 / Amanda Lineberry (she/her/hers) ‘19 / Campbell Haynes (he/him/his) ‘19 /Courtney Koelbel (she/her/hers) ‘19 / Elizabeth Sines (she/her/hers) ‘19 / Leanne Chia (she/her/hers) ‘19

The following is a reflection by UVa law students who attended actions on August 11 and 12 as either counter-protesters or legal observers. We write to the UVa law community to share our perspectives with you directly and to explain why and how we were involved.
We did not consider our decision to take part in the counter-protests to be without consequence, but it was still an easy call for most of us. We knew of the potential for violence. For those of us who participated in OGI, we knew that our involvement could harm our career prospects.

Still, we believe that white supremacy and Nazism are so vile and threatening to our democracy that they should be confronted directly. For those of us involved in the protests, we drowned out the Nazis’ hateful chants and forcefully showed them they are not welcome here. For those of us who were legal observers, we monitored their violent behavior as well as the police treatment of counter-protesters. Specifically, we worked with the Central Virginia chapter of the National Lawyers Guild to support their clients: clergy and other counter-protesters, not the Alt-Right.

For some of us, one of the hardest parts of the whole experience has been figuring out how to deal with what we went through, how to process all of the violence and hate, how to talk to strangers about how horrible it was and what needs to be done now, and how to ask our friends for the support we so desperately need. We want to feel okay again every time someone brings up that weekend or when we walk downtown. We want to deal with everything we saw and the trauma associated with it on our own terms, but instead we are forced to relive it every time we attempt to convince others of the magnitude of what happened.

That weekend, we stared into the eyes of hate and the faces of contempt as white supremacists marched past us. For those of us who worked as legal observers, our neon green hats made us feel safer, but they also made us stick out from the crowd. Our fear and discomfort did not deter us from standing strong and staring back. We felt strongly that we needed to stand up to hate and be proactive allies.

Less than forty-eight hours after the rally, some of us traveled for callback interviews. After Heather Heyer’s murder made international news, we were sure that interviewers would bring up the weekend’s events. We wondered, if August 12 had turned out differently, would we still be in those interviews? If Heather had not died, and the conversation not changed, would firms still want to talk to us? Would they view our involvement as admirable and necessary, or as an irresponsible decision likely to do no more than feed into the Alt-Right’s desire for visibility? What if we had been arrested, as many counter-protesters were at the KKK rally in July? We recognized that our race and class privilege insulated us from some of the risks faced by many others. Still, those privileges did not insulate Heather.

Although we were not sure how law firms would react to our involvement, we also were not going to hide it. The strong dedication to justice that brought us to law school prevented that. We are proud to be part of a community that has fully supported our decision to take a stand. Career Services, the Public Service Center, faculty, staff, fellow students, and members of the administration have all had our backs, and we are immensely grateful for that. Attorneys at our firms reached out to check in, to support us, and to tell us to be ourselves. When asked, we told interviewers that we were there, and that the experience was still raw and difficult to discuss, but that we were thankful we could use our legal training for our communities.

We say all this to show that standing up against Nazis and white supremacists is not radical. It did not hurt our career prospects in any meaningful way. As legal observers and counter-protesters, we feel we made our neighbors safer standing up for what they believe in. It certainly scared us and shook us to our cores, but in ways that have positively and profoundly changed us.

In a time where white supremacists and Nazis feel most bold, we cannot afford to be apathetic or hesitant to speak out. As UVa law students, we are trained to be and supported in being top-notch advocates. We are in Charlottesville at a time when the vilest forms of discrimination and hatred are resurging. You, our fellow classmates, are some of the brightest and kindest people we have ever met. We know your skills can help this community defend itself against hatred and dismantle systemic forms of oppression. If you are not already involved and would like to be, please reach out. We need you. ■

Photo: NLG Legal Observers in Charlottesville, VA, August 12, 2017.