CHARLOTTESVILLE —Mike Murphy walked along the Downtown Mall just before midnight that day.
Nothing was amiss as Charlottesville’s then-assistant city manager surveyed his surroundings only a few feet from that spot. You couldn’t tell it was a mere 10 hours after a traumatic moment for Charlottesville and a turning point for the country.
“It was one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life,” Murphy said. “In some ways, nothing was different, and yet everything was and always would be after that.”
Earlier on Aug. 12, 2017, everyone was spread out in this small city before being drawn to the downward slope of the road at the intersection of Fourth and Water streets, a point little different than other urban streets in small cities throughout the nation.
Murphy had been nearby in the Wells Fargo building. The fire chief was at the University of Virginia’s Zehmer Hall. A nonprofit leader enjoyed a vacation with his family in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.
A community activist treated wounded in McGuffey Park. A clergyman was at a cafe on Water Street. A Daily Progress reporter walked along Water Street while a photographer prepared to take pictures in front of the crowd of counter-protesters. In that crowd was a future City Council candidate.
Their eyes, and those of millions across the nation, all went to that point at 1:41 p.m. when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.
In the two years since, that moment and the anti-racist activism that followed have defined this city. Calls for change leading up to the rally only intensified.
Looking back, those who were here have seen positive movement but say there’s still much left to do.
Murphy added: “There’s only a certain number of people in the whole world who will ever really understand it.”
Walt Heinecke’s day stretches back to the night before, when the UVa professor went to Grounds to protect a group of students surrounded by white supremacists yielding Tiki torches. As the situation devolved, he was hit with pepper spray.
Heinecke had acquired a permit for rallies at McGuffey and Justice parks on Aug. 12, 2017, for what he billed as safe places for counterprotesters to gather or return from the main events.
Heinecke was working with a group of about 10 organizers who were communicating with walkie talkies. As he oversaw the situation in McGuffey Park, a call came over the radio about the attack.
“It was a pretty emotional moment, people were crying and pretty distraught,” he said. “It was a pretty impactful moment in my life and [for] a lot of other community members.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin spent the morning speaking to residents of public housing before heading back to her home.
She was passing Congregation Beth Israel when she saw a surreal scene with Virginia State Police lining one side of the street and neo-Nazis high-step marching on the other.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I said, ‘This is like a nightmare.’ ”
Fire Chief Andrew Baxter was at the Emergency Communications Center at UVa. However, well-documented management breakdowns meant his people were stuck monitoring radios and social media.
Baxter heard about the attack over the radio and social media, and crews sprung into action.
“Once the casualties have occurred, the response is reasonably standard,” he said. “The response to that [mass casualty incident] is what we do, and it’s an extension of what we do every day.”
Murphy was in the Wells Fargo building downtown with the city manager and director of communications discussing the city’s messaging as unrest died down.
Then someone came in the room to inform them of the attack.
“In the moment, it’s safe to say although there’s a lot of professionals in the room, it was a pretty shocking experience,” he said.
Don Gathers went to “look the devil in the eye” on that day. By the early afternoon, he was at a cafe on Water Street with other clergy when he heard of the attack. Those gathered ran to the scene.
“We certainly didn’t expect what we saw when we got there,” he said. “It was complete carnage. There literally were bodies on every corner of that intersection. Blood and bones just literally everywhere. It was every scene you’ve ever seen from a war movie. There were just casualties littered all over the place.”
Baxter emphasized that the emergency response was unique with the possible threat to firefighters, but it pales in comparison to the dangers faced by police.
“As horrific as what our folks faced at that MCI, as horrific as that was, it’s not a one-to-one comparison,” he said.
The response was immediate. At McGuffey and Justice parks, organizers began gathering lists of community organizations and recommendations for how to get involved starting the following day.
In the first six months, the focus was on healing.
“What I saw was a community that came together to address the trauma of individuals and groups of people in Charlottesville,” Heinecke said.
Murphy is approaching 30 years with the city. On that day, it changed the context of his service.
“Something that maybe was the worst-case scenario did happen. The name of the place that I invested my whole life in and love a lot would always be associated with whatever happened,” he said. “And that’s true at this time two years later, there is not a day that goes by that somewhere in some type of media, print social broadcast, somebody doesn’t use Charlottesville as that example.”
In the time since that day, the city’s leadership has changed dramatically and will continue to do so by the end of the year.
Murphy remains one of the few high-ranking officials who was in the command center on Aug. 12, 2017, and is still serving.
While not all of their departures were tied directly or indirectly to the rally, City Manager Maurice Jones, Police Chief Al Thomas, Human Resources Director Galloway Beck, Spokeswoman Miriam Dickler, Clerk of Council/Chief of Staff Paige Rice, City Attorney Craig Brown, Registrar Rosanna Bencoach, Charlottesville Area Transit Director John Jones, Information Technology Director Karen Parker and Charlottesville-Albemarle Emergency Communications Center Director Tom Hanson have resigned or retired since 2017.
By Jan. 1, 2020, none of five members of the 2017 City Council will be in office.
As of today, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee sits atop his horse, Traveller, overlooking Market Street Park. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson towers in Court Square Park. While Lee is occasionally vandalized, the only noticeable and consistent change is the orange security fence surrounding him.
Baxter hopes that as 2017 becomes a more distant memory, the lessons learned don’t go away.
“There’s a gravity the further away you get from a critical incident that people want to go back to their normal,” he said.
The city’s response to white supremacy has become a model for the nation, Heinecke said.
“Charlottesville showing up on Aug. 11 and 12 and July 8[, 2017] has really taken a lead in showing the rest of the country that you have to show up or racism and fascism metastasizes,” Heinecke said, also referring to the rally by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “My thinking is that what we did on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 and what we’ve done since has really been a shining beacon of hope and direction for the rest of the country.”
Gathers commended the city’s commitment to Unity Days as a way to reclaim the time around Aug. 12.
“We all have got to figure out how to coexist here,” Gathers said. “This thing is much broader than just Charlottesville. We’ve come to realize that and embrace that.”