Charlottesville community prepares for second anniversary of deadly attack

Charlottesville community prepares for second anniversary of deadly attack
James Fields Jr. drove his Dodge Challenger into the crowd at Fourth and Water Street, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer, 32. (Source: WDBJ7)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WDBJ7) - This Monday will mark two years since a race-fueled, deadly car attack on Charlottesville’s Historic Downtown Mall.

Don Gathers, a social justice activist, stood blocks away from the site of the attack and said that he will never be able to wash the images of August 12, 2017 from his brain.

“It still does something to you just to be in this immediate area,” said Gathers.

Since the attack, James Alex Fields Jr. has been sentenced on the state and federal levels. The 22-year-old drove to Charlottesville from Ohio to attend a white nationalist rally. After the rally had been cancelled, Fields came across a group of counter protesters, cheering.

Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into the crowd at Fourth and Water Street, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer, 32.

“We are going to respond to what we perceived as a very dissonant narrative and we are going to try and introduce resonance,” said Gary Heaton, a member of the Unity Days 2019 committee in Charlottesville.

Heaton, Gathers and 17 other community members make up a committee tasked with planning events surrounding the second anniversary of Aug. 12.

The city is sponsoring Unity Days , but the events are planned by the community members.

“We invited our community to the table to come up with events that they want to participate in,” said Brain Wheeler, Director of Communications for the city. “If you want to get the community united and working together, the best thing you can do is ask them questions.”

During last year’s anniversary, the city focused on the phrase, “resilience.” The citizens on the committee decided to shift the focus this year to, “unity.”

“We still are very much traumatized and trying to figure out what normal looks like and how to deal with this,” said Gathers.

In the backdrop of preparations to help their community grieve, two other cities across the country fell under attack in Texas and Ohio.

The shooting that left 22 people dead in El Paso is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

"I wish I could say I am surprised, but I am not,” said Gathers. “Unless and until we take some real corrective steps and some real measures, these things will continue to happen.”

It is why organizers say their work will not be done after the Unity Days events.

Executive Director of the Heather Heyer Foundation, Alfred Wilson, said that the group is working with lawmakers to support legislation that would change the way hate crimes across the country are tracked and prevented.

According to current reporting in the FBI's database, Heyer's death is still not considered the result of a hate crime.

"The best thing we can do is to do our best to honor Heather,” said Wilson. “With out that kind of reporting, you don't know what you are dealing with. A lot of times localities don't get the funding they need to basically fight this."

The Charlottesville Police Department amended their reporting in April of 2019 to reflect that the attack in the city was a hate crime. A representative for CPD told WDBJ7 the department is just waiting for the FBI to change the information in their database.

If the legislation that the Heather Heyer foundation is supporting is passed it would be called the Khalid Jabara-Heather Heyer “No Hate” Act.

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