Devin Willis stood at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue on the north side of the Rotunda. His arms were locked with the activists next to him as an angry mob carrying flaming tiki torches poured over the Rotunda steps last August at the University of Virginia. He covered his face to avoid being doxxed. They were surrounded. Trapped.
“At the end of the day, nothing could have prepared me for the real fear of dying. We were the first people to have an altercation with this group,” said Willis, a 19-year-old black student majoring in political and social thought at UVA. “No one really knew how violent they intended to be.”
Despite the trauma of that Friday night, Willis still participated in the counterdemonstrations in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, where a white supremacist intentionally drove his car through a crowd, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.
For much of the nation, the “Unite the Right” demonstrations that gripped Charlottesville in August were examples of racial extremism. They were ugly but distant. A hashtag. For black students at the University of Virginia, these events were personal—an explosion of racism on their campus—just weeks before they returned for fall classes.
For Devin Willis, it began the deterioration of his mental health. “I just went through August 12 as if nothing had happened the night before,” Willis said.
Even as the academic year draws to a close, black students at UVA are still grappling with the trauma of witnessing a massive demonstration of racism so close to home, and many question if the university is doing enough to help them cope.
All UVA students have access to the Department of Student Health Counseling and Psychological Services, known as CAPS. Nicole Ruzek, the director of CAPS, said it held a number of outreach efforts to support the UVA community after the white-supremacist rally on campus. Eight support groups were offered to students, including one specifically created as a response to August 11 and 12. Students who were present at the Rotunda on the night of August 11 were also given the opportunity to participate in a group crisis intervention—a discussion between a group of people affected by similar traumas with the goal of providing resources for the future—facilitated by a crisis-response team trained by the National Organization for Victim Assistance.