This article was updated at 11:50 a.m. Jan. 11, 2021, to fix an error. Jalane Schmidt said Charlottesville activists saw the plans for the Unite the Right rally and warned officials, but those officials did not take the threats seriously. We regret the error.
While the nation expressed shock and disbelief that rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Charlottesville residents were less surprised.
The images of armed supporters of President Donald Trump breaching the government building Wednesday were eerily reminiscent of those from the day white supremacist rallied in the city nearly four years ago.
“I don’t know how anyone could have seen what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017 and not known it was a precursor to what we saw in Washington, D.C., yesterday,” Del. Sally Hudson said Thursday. “This is a natural outgrowth of the violence we saw here.”
The similarities between the two events, she said, were striking.
In 2017, white supremacists announced their intention to march in Charlottesville before the rally, said Jalane Schmidt, a race and religion professor at the University of Virginia. They threatened the lives of certain Charlottesville residents and even planned a car attack — which later happened, she said.
Charlottesville activists saw the plans and warned officials, who did not take the threats seriously, she said.
In the end, thousands of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, clashing with counter-protesters in Market Street Park and on the Downtown Mall. One counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man rammed his car into the crowd just south of the Fourth Street mall crossing. More than a dozen others were injured.
Nearly four years later, Trump supporters were making similar plans to come to the capital.
“It wasn’t a secret,” Schmidt said. “The alt-right, they’ve been talking about it on social media for weeks.”
And yet, security at the Capitol was sparse and unable to stop several hundred people from entering the building and occupying the Senate floor and other offices. They forced elected officials there to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory to flee while Capitol Police waited for backup to remove the attackers.
“It was very confusing when it happened,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat. “All of a sudden, the vice president was escorted out of the room, and that told all of us something was up. [Police officers] started to barricade all the doors.”
Outside, Trump supporters had marched from a rally in which the president falsely claimed to have won the election. Trump told them to “walk down to the Capitol” and “demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated.”
“We sat in the chamber for about 20 minutes and then were escorted to a spot on the Senate campus in the Hart Building, where we were for about five hours,” Kaine said. “This was a very humbling day for the United States.”
Kaine is among several Democratic lawmakers calling for the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.
Officials across the county, including Biden, called the attack “unprecedented.” But those who lived through the Charlottesville rally don’t see it that way.
Many took to social media Thursday to remind the country of what happened here.
“We have seen this before,” former Charlottesville City Councilor Wes Bellamy said in a tweet. “It is not something new. Similar to what the world witnessed yesterday at the Capitol, White Supremacists came to our city with one goal: ‘Fulfill the promise of our President and take back what is ours.’”
Local activist Zyahna Bryant, had a similar message, adding that she hid in her house that day after receiving death threats from the white supremacists at the rally. She was a minor at the time.
“This is not without precedent,” Hudson concurred. “The attacks on Charlottesville were precedent. The attacks on the Michigan State Capital last year were precedent. There have been pilot runs throughout the last four years and this was just the biggest so far.”