Beyond a President’s Worst Fears, a Mob With Torches Arrived

August 13, 2017

Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images
White supremacists unexpectedly pushed through UVa’s campus on Friday night, clashing with students and others.

Two nights before a throng of white nationalists descended upon the University of Virginia, carrying lit torches toward what would become a violent melee, Teresa A. Sullivan described her ominous misgivings to a colleague over dinner.

“Violence was no longer hypothetical. It had happened.”

The prospect of a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville had loomed over Ms. Sullivan, the university’s president, for weeks. The event had all the makings of a powder keg: neo-Nazis in Emancipation Park, where the city has been seeking to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, clashing with progressive-minded locals and students, who were just beginning to arrive for the fall semester.

Over a meal of vegetable pasta in Carr’s Hill, the president’s residence, Ms. Sullivan told Larry J. Sabato, a friend and professor of politics, that she had a gut-level concern that the historic university, founded by Thomas Jefferson, might prove too potent a symbol for the white nationalists to resist, Mr. Sabato says.

"I’m just really worried that they might surprise us," he recalls her saying, "and show up at the Rotunda or on the Lawn."

Days later, all of that would happen and worse. A violent protest on Friday night would be the preamble to a raucous demonstration in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday that left a young woman dead and exposed the fractures of a nation that is still grappling with racial divisions that have plagued it for hundreds of years.


Around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, Ms. Sullivan was walking the university grounds, making small talk with the "Lawnies," a few dozen fourth-year students who are selected for choice rooms at the center of campus that they can move into early. She was stopped by a resident assistant, who showed her a social-media post about a demonstration of white nationalists that was slated for 9 p.m. at the Rotunda.

The post was Ms. Sullivan’s first confirmation that her instincts had been correct. The president would later learn that, sometime Friday afternoon, one of the organizers of the demonstration had contacted the university about coming to campus with a group. But Ms. Sullivan says that the organizer did not convey the scale of the proposed demonstration, and as a result the information was not even shared with her.

"Frankly it was considered minor enough I didn’t even know about it," Ms. Sullivan said in an interview Sunday. "It was just that a small group of them wanted to meet and walk up in front of the Rotunda. The Rotunda is public space. What happened instead was that there were, by some estimates, 300 people with torches."

Now confident that the campus would see some sort of demonstration, Ms. Sullivan directed the resident assistant to contact Mr. Sabato, who lives in a faculty pavilion on the university Lawn. At dinner two nights before, Mr. Sabato had agreed to shelter the Lawnies in Pavilion IV, where he lived, should white nationalists come to the campus.

That contingency plan, vague as it was, was set into motion about an hour before the demonstrators arrived at the Rotunda. Mr. Sabato took about 15 students into the basement of the pavilion, a comfortable spot with a bathroom, a kitchen and a television. Unlike the students’ dorm rooms, Pavilion IV has a back door, which the professor thought could be used as a means of escape if necessary.

He locked all the doors.

Mr. Sabato, who studies politics, recognized the optics of locking students in a basement amid a demonstration. But these were not frightened children hiding from ideas they didn’t like, he says; this was a security threat.

"I can hear people say ‘Oh, the snowflakes, the snowflakes,’" he said. "If you had seen these jackbooted thugs, you would understand why I took them down to the basement."

As the demonstrators approached the Rotunda, Ms. Sullivan was back at Carr’s Hill with Marge Sidebottom, the university’s director of emergency preparedness. The president was perplexed that she could not see the demonstrators walking along University Avenue, which was the route she had expected them to take. Instead, they were marching through the heart of the campus, out of view of the president’s residence, stomping the ground and chanting, "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us."

"We would have prepared very differently if we had had any idea what this event was really going to be," Ms. Sullivan said. "For starters, 20 people is not the same as 250 to 300 people. Having torches is not the same as not having torches. There’s just a lot of things that ended up being different about this. Walking up the street to the Rotunda is not the same as winding through our university and coming through the Academical Village to the Rotunda."

Eventually, the protesters numbered so many that Ms. Sullivan could see the torches flickering from her residence.

"What had been a march," she says, "suddenly turned into a mob."

Allen W. Groves, the dean of students, was on hand when the group arrived. As the situation quickly escalated, he reported to the president that a melee had broken out and that he had been struck by a torch that was hurled like a spear.

"I’m hurt," the president recalls him telling her. "My arm is bleeding."

"He tried to get the students out of there," Ms. Sullivan continues, "but by this time there was pepper spray and so on. Our students and community members, all they had was a sign. They weren’t armed at all.

"That was a somewhat unexpected event, and therefore we were not perhaps prepared in the way I guess I would like to have been prepared. But I also don’t think we were truthfully told what the event was."

By 1 a.m., Ms. Sullivan was on the phone with the attorney general’s office, discussing whether it would be appropriate to ask a federal judge, who had granted the demonstrators access to Emancipation Park, to reconsider his decision.

"It did seem to me that it changed the situation," she says. "Violence was no longer hypothetical. It had happened."

Ultimately, however, the president knew that hundreds of demonstrators had descended on the city. They were going to rally no matter what.

"People thought the worst was over," she said of those predawn Saturday hours. "We thought that more than once, and we were wrong."

3 Dead

Operating on little sleep, Ms. Sullivan spent Saturday morning in an awkward dialogue with prospective students and their parents, who were on campus for tours. She told them that Charlottesville was a "charming city," a place where young people could learn and grow through civil discourse. Today, however, there was a strong possibility of violence, she said, and it was best that they be on their way.

"Then we asked them if they could please leave," Ms. Sullivan recalls. "And we gave them directions on how to get out of town without getting stuck in the middle of the rally."

“People weren't out there arguing with each other. They were clobbering each other. ... That's violence. Violence is not free speech.”

By late morning, the governor had declared a state of emergency. Ms. Sullivan and her team holed up in Zehmer Hall, a building at the edge of the campus that served as the Emergency Operations Center. They had drilled mock disasters twice a year in this room, and now it was happening for real.

Within the next few hours, violence would erupt again, culminating in the death of Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was run over by a vehicle while counter protesting the white nationalists in Charlottesville.

Ross A. Mittiga, a doctoral candidate in Virginia’s politics department, was within eyeshot when he says a driver deliberately mowed down Ms. Heyer and others.

"It was disgusting," he says. "It was terrifying. It was an act of domestic terrorism. There can be no doubt about that. I suppose it succeeded. It really did scare the hell out of people.

"It’s one of those things that’s very difficult to register what it is you just saw," he continued. "You see signs. You see bodies in the air. You get that insane fear as people try to stampede away. We thought there could be other cars. A woman stumbled away in shock and vomited in front of us."

The tragedy did not end there. Back in Zehmer Hall, Ms. Sullivan was going over the number of injuries reported by the university’s hospital when she learned that a police helicopter surveilling the rally had crashed.

"It was almost impossible to fathom," she says.

The state police would later identify the victims as Lt. H. Jay Cullen, the 48-year-old pilot, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, who was 40. Both men died at the scene.

Anticipating that some of the law-enforcement personnel in Zehmer would know the victims, the university called for a chaplain to stand on-call in the hallway.

Free Speech

As of Sunday afternoon, Ms. Sullivan said she was not sure what she would have done differently if faced with the same circumstances. She echoed the comments of other public officials, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who described the events that unfolded as difficult to anticipate or to thwart.

Ms. Sullivan also pushed back against criticism that, through various public statements, she had failed to call out white supremacists by name. The language of "torch-bearing protesters" stopped short of decrying a neo-Nazi ideology espoused by at least some of the demonstrators.

"It seems to me that there were underlying themes that are more important than the labels given to those groups," she said. "If you listen to the chants, these were chants about killing people because of what groups those people were born into, or killing people because of their beliefs."

"The country is badly polarized, and people want to look at what’s happening at the universities and put it into that narrative: It’s red or its blue," she said. "But that is not what’s going on here; that’s not what happened here. What happened here is infra­red and ultraviolet; it’s beyond the spectrum of normal political discourse. Both Republican and Democratic elected leaders denounced what happened here. Seeking to normalize this as ordinary politics is the mistake."

"What happened here yesterday wasn’t about ideas," she continued. "People weren’t out there arguing with each other. They were clobbering each other. That’s a very different situation. That’s violence. Violence is not free speech."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at