On August 11, 2017, University of Virginia student Natalie Romero returned to campus after a summer break in Houston. She remembers the drive into Charlottesville. “I was like a dog at the window, smelling the air,” she told a courtroom on Friday. The college sophomore spent the day reuniting with friends.
“I took my last selfie there without my face—well, what it looks like now,” Romero testified.
Hours after she arrived on campus, she and her friends would be staring down hundreds of white supremacists in the beginning of a two-day rally that left one woman dead and dozens, including Romero, seriously injured.
Romero was the first of nine plaintiffs to take the stand in Sines v. Kessler, a landmark lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly Unite The Right rally. During that two-day event, a coalition of far-right figures descended on Charlottesville for a torchlit march, followed by a daylight rally that ended when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Plaintiffs in Sines v. Kessler argue that the rally’s organizers deliberately set the stage for violence. On Friday, Romero faced off against those organizers in court.
While eating dinner with friends that night in August 2017, Romero learned of a white supremacist march taking place, and decided to counter-demonstrate. She did not anticipate a fight. She wore flip-flops. “I don’t think I even had my phone,” she told the court. In all, she estimated, approximately 15 students stood clustered around a Thomas Jefferson statue, waiting for the far-right agitators to appear. One of the students, Romero’s friend Devin Willis, is also a plaintiff in Sines v. Kessler
Romero recalled hearing the white supremacists chanting before she could see them.
“Almost like thunder. Like the earth was growling,” Romero said. “‘Blood and soil’ was one of them. ‘White power’ was another. There’s another I hate repeating. I hear it in my nightmares. I hear it when the phone buzzes. I hear the same cadence: the ‘you will not replace us’ was so terrifying. You could hear it the whole time.”
Willis, another UVA sophomore, also testified on Friday to the fear he felt that night. “This ocean of light and flames just starts washing over the steps,” Willis said.
“I was really scared,” he continued. “It looked like a lynch mob.”
Now-notorious footage from the night of Aug. 11 showed a crowd—all white, mostly men—marching through the University of Virginia campus with lit torches. They converged around the Jefferson statue, surrounding the small group of students.
Romero and Willis, who were Hispanic and Black, respectively, recalled being targeted with slurs and demands that they “go back” to where they “came from.” Romero emphasized that she and her friends were not doing anything besides holding hands, singing, and praying. But the group descended on the counter-demonstrators, spraying Romero and Willis with mace and throwing a lit match at her, she testified. Willis testified that he believed a marcher threw lighter fluid on him. Soon, the marchers began kicking and punching him. “I thought I made a terrible mistake and that I might die that night,” Willis said.
Romero “couldn’t really see an exit” in the wall of marchers, she said. Eventually, she and friends ran for it, with white supremacists swinging tiki torches at them as they left.
“The people with the torches started to chant and yell ‘victory,’” Romero recalled.
The night left Romero rattled, but she and friends hoped the following day’s activities would be less violent. Fellow students like Willis had organized peaceful counter-demonstrations, with teach-ins, poetry, and free water on the sweltering weekend. “I love Charlottesville,” she testified. “I wanted to be there for the community.”
But Romero testified that she and other counter-demonstrators were repeatedly assaulted by white supremacists. On one occasion, marchers shoved her onto the hood of a car, she said. Elsewhere on the day, white supremacists spat at her, called her slurs, and charged at a group of women, whom they targeted with sexist names. “Why would they be violent against a group of women who are literally doing nothing,” she remembered wondering.
Eventually, Romero thought the day’s chaos was winding down. She and friends joined a crowd marching on 4th Street. Suddenly, she heard shouts for the group to turn left. A Dodge Challenger, driven by neo-Nazi James Fields Jr., came speeding down the packed street, plowing into the crowd. “The next thing I know is darkness,” Romero testified.
Romero survived a fractured skull in the attack, leading to a litany of vision and mobility issues.
“I just wanted to lay down,” Romero said, “but I knew if I laid down, I would fall asleep and if I fell asleep I would die.” She recalled people talking to her, trying to keep her awake, and her realization that, if she was going to die, she should call her mother.
She later awoke in the hospital, where she realized she could not even remember the password to her phone. She regained the ability to walk, but still lives with intense headaches and struggles to read on screens, leading her to struggle upon her return to classes.
“This is completely knocking me off my path, you know?” Romero recounted. A first-generation college student, she had been a high-achiever in her first year at UVA, attending on a scholarship. “I had a path,” she said. “I always had a plan.”
Romero graduated in 2020, nearly three years after Unite The Right. The lawsuit over the rally has lasted even longer, finally going to trial approximately four years after the event, with backing from the group Integrity First For America.
Plaintiffs’ participation in the case means reliving painful memories from the event—and in some cases speaking with white supremacist leaders.
Some defendants, like white supremacists Richard Spencer and Christopher Cantwell, are representing themselves in the court case. Without lawyers to cross-examine the plaintiffs, Spencer and Cantwell questioned Romero themselves.
Cantwell, who has spent years attempting to promote conspiracy theories about Unite The Right in court, used some of his questioning time to press Romero on arcane elements of his theories, asking her at times about specific activists with whom he has feuded.
An attorney for James Fields Jr., the neo-Nazi who struck Romero with a car, declined to ask cross-examination questions. As the attorney, David Campbell, noted on Thursday, Fields’s portion of the case differs from that of other defendants. Whereas defendants like Spencer and Cantwell argue that, while they may have been involved in the event’s planning, they were uninvolved in violence, Fields has been convicted of murder at Unite The Right but claims to have been uninvolved in its planning.
“Mr. Fields is in federal prison for life and actually has 30 life sentences,” Campbell said on Thursday. “So to the extent that you’re asked to punish Mr. Fields, I simply will submit to you at the end of the case that he’s been punished.”