Aubtin Heydari does not remember much about Aug. 12.
But, the one distinct memory that constantly resurfaces in his mind was his trip in the ambulance the afternoon of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“What is your name? How old are you? What are you doing here?” the medics asked, gauging the severity of his injuries.
Heydari, a senior majoring in screenwriting, was one of people hit when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Charlottesville mall, which left 19 people injured and one person dead.
THE NIGHT BEFORE
Heydari’s hometown, Harrisonburg, Va., is just 45 minutes from Charlottesville.
“For me, Charlottesville feels like another part of my town,” Heydari said. “It’s a place that’s very intimate and close to me.”
So when Heydari heard word of the Unite the Right rally to protest the removal of Confederate monuments on Aug. 12, he knew he had to be present to counterprotest. Heydari had always been politically active — he previously attended various political protests and rallies in California.
“It wasn’t a question [to go to the rally or not],” Heydari said. “It was pretty straightforward for me.”
On his way to Charlottesville the night before, a friend told Heydari about the torch-light rally that white nationalist groups had planned before the main protest on Saturday. He went to the University of Virginia campus to scope out the scene and met fellow student activists who had formulated a plan for the night: Create a human shield around the Thomas Jefferson statue at UVA to protest the right-wing ralliers.
“That’s when we heard the chanting,” Heydari said. “We saw the torches start marching towards us, and somebody yelled, ‘Get around the statue. Link up!’”
Instinctively, Heydari followed the crowd, linking arms and surrounding the statue as the Unite the Right supporters approached, chanting phrases like, “You will not replace us!” Eventually, he and his group were surrounded with no place to go.
“When you actually have to be locked in in a circle surrounded by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, it’s a very different physical feeling than knowing you’re going to do it,” Heydari said. “It’s the most adrenaline I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Suddenly to his left, Heydari saw a person being punched, and the shield of counterprotesters faltered as a full-on brawl broke out. The violence only escalated from there. Torches were thrown, and Heydari was sprayed with mace, a chemical irritant, that caused him to lose his vision for several minutes.
“I felt a stinging sensation around my face,” Heydari said. “I felt it on my mouth and on my eyes.”
He had a few minutes to leave the circle before completely losing his sight, so after seeing a brief opening, Heydari broke out, stumbled across a volunteer medic who treated his eyes and allowed him leave the scene safely.
A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE
The following day, Heydari woke up at 7:30 a.m. and gathered with counterprotest groups in Freedom Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stood, before the Unite the Right rally began.
The groups consisted of faith leaders, local activist groups and unions who circled the entrance of the park to prevent additional white nationalist groups from entering.
As the day progressed, different groups flowed into the scene, from Black Lives Matter Richmond to the Ku Klux Klan, Heydari said. It was not long before the groups clashed, ideologically and physically, and the violence escalated. After several minutes, the police declared the gathering an unlawful demonstration as groups began to splinter off, according to Heydari.
It was then that many of the Unite the Right groups began heading toward a low-income housing project across the Charlottesville mall, which was primarily occupied by people of color, Heydari said.
“My last memory — this is where things get hazy — we collectively agreed we were going to march there and stop them,” Heydari said.
It was on this march from one side of the outdoor mall to the other that the car rammed into his group, killing one person, Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer.
“My next real memory is waking up in the hospital with the realization that I can’t remember,” Heydari said.
Heydari woke up in a hospital gown and asked his friend beside him in the room if the doctors cut off his favorite pair of black pants.
“[My friend] gets up and she goes to the board, and she draws the eighth tally under black pants, which is how many times I’ve asked about [it] without realizing,” Heydari said. “We laughed about it, because you know, you have to laugh about some things.”
Although Heydari suffered through a period of shock and a concussion, which left his memory hazy, he only had a fractured leg and was able to return to USC on the second day of classes.
BACK AT ’SC
“I appreciate how parts of the school have reached out to me and the services I’ve been provided and the help I’ve been given and the leniency on parts of my professors,” Heydari said. “And I appreciate the email that [Provost Michael Quick] sent [nine days after the rally] to the entire school. It humbled me.”
Heydari received an email from Lynette Merriman, associate vice provost of campus crisis support and intervention, the day after the attacks, but he wondered what prevented USC from doing more.
“I do think maybe that there were some more public actions [the University] could have taken,” Heydari said.
USC was hesitant to make a public response and tried to issue an apolitical statement, instead of explicitly denouncing the event like other universities had, he explained.
A statement of solidarity petition, generated by Heydari’s friends in the School of Cinematic Arts, gathered 750 signatures showing support for Heydari.
“It was very impactful to me and very touching and heartwarming especially to look at it and actively see the names going on when I was sitting in the hospital,” Heydari said. “It gave me a sense of solidarity.”
Although physically weaker than he was before the attack, Heydari is now stronger than ever and ready to continue fighting for what is right. He wants to ensure that a campus like USC does not let racism go over its head.
“I think that’s important we understand that this is an American problem,” Heydari said. “These people showed up from all over the [United States] and when we understand that, when we understand it’s not this stereotype of what we assume racists are … that’s the only time when we’ll actually be able to do anything to stop this.”
He also urges the USC community to understand that there is no image of racism.
“The people who showed up at the Unite the Right rally … a lot of them came in khakis and polos,” Heydari said. “Dressed nice, in clean-cut haircuts, looking upper-middle class.”
Heydari also expressed frustration with the way President Donald Trump responded to the attacks, particularly not condemning the driver as a terrorist.
“What disappointed me among many things about Trump’s response to Charlottesville … was his inability to categorically say James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car, was a terrorist,” Heydari said. “Because I understand … as someone of Muslim, Middle Eastern heritage, that if it was someone like me in the car, it would have never been a question.”