A disquiet anxiety has surrounded the residents of Charlottesville, many of whom are Indian Americans, after a rally of white supremacists ended in violent clashes with counter-protesters and claimed the life a 32-year-old woman. While normalcy seemed to have returned to the city by afternoon yesterday, residents grappled with shock and fear following a day of violence when a car rammed into a crowd peacefully protesting against the rally by white supremacists.
The city in the US state of Virginia has a significant Indian and Indian-American population, but there was no report of anyone from the community being injured in the violence on Saturday. Two police officers monitoring the demonstration died following a helicopter crash near the protest site and 19 others were injured, though, unofficial figures could be high.
“It’s still difficult for us to understand and grapple with the reality that such a thing has happened. This is not what the city is about,” Sankaran Venkataraman, said Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research, MasterCard, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Venkataraman has lived in Charlottesville, which is about 120 miles southwest of Washington DC, for nearly 20 years.
His daughters’ friend had gone to the downtown to take part in the counter protest to the white supremacist rally on Saturday. She has returned with a broken leg. “(The violence) doesn’t represent any of the views or characters of the people here. We are progressive people who believe in diversity and inclusiveness. “For something like this to happen is a shock to us. The notions of racism, hatred, bigotry are completely antithetical to the views of most citizens of Charlottesville,” Venkataraman, who recently returned from Tamil Nadu, said.
The Virginia university, closed for summer, is set to open in two weeks and students, a sizable number from outside the US, including India, would start arriving next week. “I am sure there’s a sense of anxiety among students here,” Venkataraman added. Vilas Annavarapu, an Indian-American and student of political science at the university, was among the few who stayed back at the campus to attend to their training classes.
Annavarapu is also an office-bearer of the Indian Student Association at the varsity. It has about 300 active members. While he did not leave the campus on Saturday, he had a scary encounter with white supremacists on Friday night when hundreds of them had a surprise rally inside the campus. “They came like right there,” Annavarapu said, pointing to the place inside the campus where the gathering happened. “It was frightening,” he said.
“Frustration I think, would be an accurate word to describe the general sentiment,” Annavarapu said. “From an intellectual standpoint, I’ve always understood that being a person of colour, I will have to be more careful when I walk down the streets. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt as threatened as I have over these past two days.” The protesters were openly carrying guns, including AK-47, reports said.
Annavarapu feels the election of Donald Trump, who has a following among the white supremacists, as the US president has encourage the far-right groups. “It’s not like these views are anything new, it’s just that now people feel as if they have the authority to come into public and wave them around, as if they’re not doing anything wrong. I understand that they have free speech, but that doesn’t give them the right to incite violence,” he said.
For Larry Goedde Jr, a guitar technician by profession, it was a harrowing experience. His faced was banged on the concrete street by one of the white supremacists on Saturday, causing several bruises to his face. “I was just crossing the street and this pickup truck rolled up on me. And they just slammed me down face first, stomped me and then just drove,” he said.
Goedde, who recently returned to his home town after 11 years in Montreal, said many others faced similar situation. “I wasn’t the only one that described this scene. When I went to the ER (emergency room at the hospital) last night, it was full of people. Like with injuries. All of the staff were just, they were tired. They were covered in blood,” he said.
Goedde, however, said the city residents have maintained their cool. “It’s unbelievable. The only people that they (police) were willing to protect was the white supremacist. They had no intention of ever protecting any other… If you weren’t holding an assault rifle, and if you didn’t have a swastika on you, they were not interested in protecting you. And that’s not hyperbole. I just saw it over and over again”.
For eminent Indologist and resident of Charlottesville Daniel J Ehnbom, it was terrible experience. “The principle blame is with the neo-Nazis, because they deliberately set up to make trouble and they did. It’s a very sad thing for Charlottesville. People are still shocked,” Ehnbom said.
“The town and the university have a long way to go to heal this. There is a lot to be done about race relations, racism,” the author of the Indian Miniatures asserted. “The fact that this manifest itself in (Thomas) Jefferson’s hometown is horrifying,” Ehnbom said, referring to the third president of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.