With only the noise of cicadas chirping in the air, more than 300 people stood together, heads down, in silence.
Holding signs and flickering candles, the crowd gathered on the steps of Gainesville City Hall on Sunday to honor the three lives lost in Charlottesville, Virginia, after white supremacist rallies turned violent Saturday. Police identified the first victim as Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer.
Virginia State Police arrested three men at the rally, one of whom is a Gainesville resident. The man, James M. O’Brien, appears to have a blog “Bacon Books and Bullets,” of which a recent post is about killing “Leftists.”
“It really didn’t surprise me,” said Evelyn Foxx, the president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP. “Because we know that we have them here in Alachua County.”
When Foxx saw the news about Charlottesville, she wept. But by coming out to the vigil, she said Gainesville would show it didn’t support hatred.
Plans for the vigil began with an earnest Facebook post. Margaret Hamer, a Gainesville resident and employee of UF Clinical Trials, said she was sickened by what happened in Charlottesville. At about 7 p.m. Saturday, she created a public event and invited about 40 people. By the next morning, about 100 people said they were going, and about 300 were “interested.”
“I thought the events that happened in Charlottesville would really resonate here, and that people here would want to show their solidarity,” Hamer said.
Members of the Gainesville Indivisible chapter, a movement designed to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda, such as anti-immigrant and anti-environment sentiments, helped organize.
Mayor Lauren Poe said what happened in Charlottesville could happen in Gainesville. He encouraged people to spread love to people who need it most.
“We know that one of the foremost purveyors of hatred and racism and white supremacy is going to be in our town,” Poe said.
Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist, is potentially speaking at UF on Sept. 12. UF President Kent Fuchs sent out an email denouncing Spencer but stating UF’s hands were tied due to the First Amendment.
He and other city officials encouraged the community to stay engaged.
“This is your public place, and I’m glad you’re here to occupy it,” said Harvey Ward Jr., a newly elected city commissioner.
For Seth Smith, a 35-year-old Gainesville resident, he saw the vigil as an opportunity to spread love and encourage support. He saw Hamer’s post early on and offered to help organize.
As a veteran of the Army, Smith called the incidents in Charlottesville domestic terrorism and said he’s sworn to defend against domestic threats.
“I held up my hand and said, ‘I am going to serve this country,’” he said. “I feel like I’ve served this country more now as a civilian than when I was in the military.”
Jess Martini, the event and outreach co-lead for Indivisible Gainesville and a UF senior in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said despite many being protest-weary and vigil-weary from the constant events, she expected the large turnout.
“Heather, the young woman who died, was standing up for the same things that we stand up for, the same things that we protest for, and to see a life taken just standing up for others was just devastating for us,” she said.
During the moment of silence, couples rubbed each other’s backs, free hands tilted to let the candle wax drip. Children stood at their parent’s legs, as silent as the adults. Some looked down. Others looked to the sky.
Poe broke the silence, speaking into the microphone to encourage love.
“Do not respond to hatred with hatred,” he said. “Only light defeats the dark.”
More than 300 people gather outside Gainesville City Hall to listen to Commissioner Harvey Ward Jr. speak about the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacy rally and encourage people to get involved with their community.