At violent Charlottesville protests ‘I felt like I wasn’t in America’: Reporter’s Notebook

I covered the Charlottesville protests a year ago, and it is a day I doubt I’ll ever forget.

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I knew our country was divided, had seen it with my own eyes. But this day was shocking for me. I felt like I wasn’t in America.

I was told a few days before that I’d be going to Charlottesville, Virginia, to cover a rally. Our “20/20” team had been embedded with several white nationalist groups for almost six months. We were expecting a large number of them to show up in the college town for a Unite the Right rally.

The center of the controversy was a Robert E. Lee statue and whether it should come down. Confederate statues across the country have been removed in recent years. The white nationalist groups were protesting to keep the statue in place. This was supposed to be a first-of-its-kind event with far-right groups from across the country coming to make a big show of support.

Violent conflict at Charlottesville rally, a one year look back in photos
SLIDESHOW: Violent conflict at Charlottesville rally, a one year look back in photos

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You may remember the images from the night before the rally. Hundreds of men marched on the University of Virginia campus carrying tiki torches and chanting anti-Semitic slurs on the night of Aug. 11. I’d never seen anything like it. It made us all stop in shock. This set the stage for the next day, and the producer I was working with, Matt Claiborne, and I went over our plans again knowing it was going to be a tense day.

Claiborne and I barely knew each other at the time. He had spent more than a year on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton and now was based again in New York and on general assignment, like me. We studied the maps of the closed-off streets in Charlottesville. We examined the rally site, researched the speakers, figured out our exit strategy and planned a safe spot to meet just in case. We’ve been taught to do this for protests. I’ve covered a lot of protests. Some have gotten out of hand, others were peaceful. It was just part of our normal.

PHOTO: The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd during the Unite the Right rally Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE
The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands behind a crowd during the “Unite the Right” rally Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
PHOTO: White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017.Stephanie Keith/Reuters, FILE
White nationalists participate in a torch-lit march on the grounds of the University of Virginia ahead of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017.

It didn’t turn out normal.

Saturday morning was chaos. Matt got caught in a lot of the scuffle between the white nationalist rallygoers and the counterprotesters because there was only one way in and out of the rally site. The two sides wasted no time going at each other, and often we saw random people who appeared to be bystanders or observers caught in the middle.

People were literally beating each other in the streets. They were throwing things and firing pepper spray. Some protesters were even carrying milk to ease the burn when pepper spray got in their eyes. There were people with bats. Some had guns strapped across their bodies. We saw a man beaten with the pole of an American flag. Another group jumped a man in a garage and dragged him across the street. There were people carrying water bottles full of urine and others with bottles filled with concrete. All this with police standing by. It didn’t feel real.

PHOTO: A counter demonstrator uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist demonstrator at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017.Steve Helber/AP, FILE
A counter demonstrator uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist demonstrator at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017.
PHOTO: ABCs Eva Pilgrim reporting from Charlottesville, Va, during Unite the Right rally and protests in 2017.ABC News
ABC’s Eva Pilgrim reporting from Charlottesville, Va, during Unite the Right rally and protests in 2017.

Eventually the police got the crowds to disperse and a group of mostly Charlottesville locals began walking the streets in an apparent attempt to reclaim their town. And that’s when it happened.

I was two blocks away in our SUV fixing my makeup so I could go shoot something on camera when Claiborne called me screaming. A car just hit a bunch of people, he said. He couldn’t find our crew. He didn’t know where our photographer and audio man had gone.

I panicked. I ran down the street to get to Claiborne. We ran around the block to one side of the scene looking for our crew. Then we ran around the other way to get to the other side still searching for them. I remember seeing people lying on the street. People were bleeding and screaming. Other people were panicking like me. I couldn’t find my crew. I swear it felt like an eternity. It was probably more like 20 minutes.

Eventually we found them. They were shooting video, documenting what was happening. They were fine.

But others were injured, and we quickly found out one person was dead. Heather Heyer was 32. She was from the Charlottesville area. She was walking with her friends that day.

Later I discovered the road I ran down to find Matt and my crew was the same road James Alex Fields allegedly barreled down, hitting all those people. That road was supposed to be closed off. It was one of the streets marked on our map.

PHOTO: A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 1, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 1, 2018.
PHOTO: lowers are left in the street creating a make-shift memorial for Heather Heyer, who was killed during the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Va.ABC News, FILE
lowers are left in the street creating a make-shift memorial for Heather Heyer, who was killed during the 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Va.

A lot has changed in the city of Charlottesville since last year. There is a new mayor and a new police chief but what happened right downtown a year ago still weighs on people there.

Matt and I are heading back to Charlottesville this weekend. Now we’re pretty well accustomed to working together. We both volunteered to go. We wanted to see how everyone in the town is doing now, a year later. There are protests planned again. Another Unite The Right Rally is planned, this time for Washington, D.C. I’m hoping it’s a quiet weekend.

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