Bills is a resident of Charlottesville, Va.
On Friday, Charlottesville achieved a small but meaningful measure of justice when Dennis Mothersbaugh — a neo-Nazi with a decades-long history of racially motivated violence — pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and was sentenced to 360 days in prison, with 120 of them suspended. I am the person he attacked on Aug. 12. And I, a white woman, remain the only survivor to see any modicum of justice after the violence inflicted upon our city that day. Charlottesville is teaching a dangerous lesson to its citizens and to the many other cities and towns under threat from violent white nationalists.
I was called by God and my church to stand in the streets of my hometown to reject racism that day. Instead, I was sucker-punched by a grown man. The video is disturbing:
Particularly alarming is the line of police officers, clearly visible, standing just feet from where I was attacked. I will never forget running to the barricade where they stood and begging for assistance as blood ran down my face. Not one of them moved or responded to my cries for help, except to shift their gaze to the ground. I looked back and forth between the police and my attacker as he walked away.
The inaction of the police was appalling — they arrested just four white supremacists that day. While a handful of additional arrests have been made in the months since, Charlottesville Police have by and large not publicly identified the many white supremacists who attacked us. Instead, the heroic efforts of investigative journalist Shaun King, coupled with immense public pressure, led to what little justice we have seen. The city and the state have spent months stonewalling and bickering about ongoing investigations. The Charlottesville City Council has not promised that they will publicly release the findings of the independent report it commissioned on the events of Aug. 12 — a critical step in allowing us to develop solutions and begin to heal.
Instead, the focus seems to be on prosecuting community members who officials failed to protect. On Aug. 12, city leadership failed to uphold the rules of civilized society. In that terrifying vacuum, my friends and neighbors were forced to defend themselves and our beloved community with their bodies, rather than protest signs, words or prayers. I personally witnessed dozens of assaults at the hands of white supremacists that day. My partner intervened to stop racists who had surrounded and mobbed a female protestor; only moments afterward, he caught and deflected a flagpole aimed for his head. Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members screaming racial epithets repeatedly pepper-sprayed us and the journalists we stood beside. At one point, I was the only person standing between an assault rifle–wielding racist and the group of young black men he was threatening. My friends and loved ones were injured in and traumatized by the car attack that claimed Heather Heyer’s life.
And yet community members like Deandre Harris, Corey Long and Veronica Fitzhugh are facing immoral prosecution for acts of self-defense and nonviolent resistance. It seems notable, and heartbreakingly unsurprising, that they are people of color, the very targets of racist violence.
The citizens of Charlottesville are learning a dangerous lesson: that our leaders stand not on the side of the attacked, but on the side of the attacker. That self-defense will be treated as criminal. That public resistance to racism will be met with middle-of-the-night arrests, while Richard Spencer will be chauffeured in and out of town and assured protection by our police.
The ongoing negligence demonstrated by our leaders is astounding and a threat to the hundreds of towns that will face public neo-Nazi activism in the months to come. Without the full accountability of our city council, city manager, police department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Charlottesville and cities like ours continue to be at grave risk. We hope that our city will cooperate fully in ongoing investigations, release the results publicly, establish mechanisms for police accountability — including a civilian review board — and drop all charges against citizens who bravely served and protected our community when city government refused.