Early this month, two members of the white supremacist group called Rise Above Movement (RAM) pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from their actions after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. In an FBI statement, Special Agent David W. Archey said these men “trained to engage in violent confrontations and attended the Unite the Right rally with the expectation of provoking physical conflict with counter-protesters that would lead to riots.” While almost two years have passed since that horrific and tragic day, the memories remain fresh and painful for many who witnessed the events in person.
The Rev. Steven Martin, a Lakelands resident and director of Communications and Development for the National Council of Churches, found himself as an eyewitness to history as he represented his organization at the rally that there had been murmurs about for months. Martin recounted how the National Council of Churches received their first call about the scheduled right-wing rally in early June. A church in Charlottesville reached out with the news that the intelligence they were getting was indicating that Aug.12 would be “the big right-wing event of the year and that groups were coming armed.” Charlottesville had lived through smaller protests after the city voted to move Confederate statues, but by all indications, the plan was for this event to be significantly larger with an increased risk of violence. A call was issued for thousands of clergy from around the United States to attend.
Martin compares himself to Jonah, the reluctant prophet. As Jonah objected to witnessing Nineveh and famously fought his mission tooth and nail, Martin was not particularly eager to travel to Charlottesville and be in the middle of a hotbed of what would likely be a hateful and violent rally. However, everyone else in his organization who would normally participate in such events had long-standing commitments that couldn’t be changed. Martin considered what value communications director could be during this important assignment. An avid photographer, he decided the best way he could contribute would be by documenting the events of the day with his camera.
Martin’s recollections of the day are still vivid, and also painful. For the gathered clergy, the day began with prayer and song at Charlottesville’s First Baptist Church. Ready to face whatever the day brought and cameras in hand, Martin set out with his fellow clergy who had received training in non-violent civil disobedience. As he wrote in a blog post recalling the day, the organizers warned the group, “With the presence of armed militia, the potential for violence was extremely high.”
Martin recounted that it wasn’t long before the assembled clergy, walking arm in arm, found themselves surrounded. On one side was Antifa, the anti-fascist group, and on the other side were neo-Nazi and members of the KKK. Clergy leaders acted quickly and instructed the clergy to evacuate, directing them to a designated safe space away from the violence that had broken out. Later in the day, it was requested that Charlottesville clergy return to the rally, which had since quieted down. Shortly thereafter, civil rights activist Heather Heyer was murdered when a car plowed into a group of protesters.
One strong memory that Martin carries from that terrible day is his recollection of how pitiful the alt-right groups appeared to be. The images we carry in our minds of the terrifying hooded men marching in the dark and burning crosses were replaced by rallygoers wearing khaki pants and “carrying backyard tiki torches from Home Depot.” Martin specifically recalls one protester trying desperately to look intimidating, dressed head to toe in motocross apparel. Martin coined the term “fascist cosplay” to describe the almost comical element of the event, despite the fervor and hate-filled atmosphere of the day.
Martin was able to impart his experiences through his blog posts on the National Council of Churches website. He shared his photographs extensively, all over the world, free of charge to anyone who wanted to use them. As a pastor and professional communicator, he stresses the importance of sharing what he witnessed in an effort to shed light on the hatred and bigotry that is flourishing across the globe. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”