CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — Natalie Romero grew up in Houston, graduating from high school with honors and earning scholarships that allowed her to be the first one in her family to attend college. She chose the University of Virginia over Virginia Military Institute, and was returning to campus in August 2017 when white nationalists converged on the city for Unite the Right.
Testifying in a federal courtroom in Charlottesville across from disgraced alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer and jailed neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell on Friday, Romero recalled that Aug. 11, 2017 was the last time she took a selfie "of my face without it looking like what it looks like now."
Back in Houston as a high school student, she had wanted to get her teeth straightened, but a dentist told her that her insurance would not cover the procedure because it was "aesthetics." So, her godfather and an art teacher chipped in the funds to pay for her to get braces her senior year of high school.
"I had just gotten my braces removed in August 2016," Romero recalled. "I walked around freshman year with a new set of teeth. All that money — for what?"
Romero was assaulted by neo-Nazis three times during the weekend of Unite the Right, culminating with James Fields' car attack, which left her with a skull fracture, a cleft lip, persistent headaches and trouble maintaining balance. Romero is among the nine plaintiffs in the civil suit that seeks to prove that Unite the Right organizers conspired to commit racially motivated violence, and she was the first witness called by plaintiffs' counsel in the case.
Romero testified that she learned white nationalists would be marching on the University of Virginia campus from a tweet about an "altercation" that had taken place earlier in the day in a Walmart parking lot. Cantwell, who is representing himself, said yesterday during his opening statement that he organized the Walmart parking-lot event as a "listeners meetup" for his podcast.
Romero and fellow plaintiff Devin Willis, who also took the stand to testify on Friday, said they joined a small group, initially about 15 students, and linked arms and held hands surrounding the Thomas Jefferson statue.
As torch-wielding neo-Nazis approached, Romero testified: "I heard loudness, almost like thunder, like the earth was growling. I couldn't make it out at first."
Eventually, she heard the words they were chanting: "Blood and soil" and "white power."
"There's another one that I hate repeating," Romero said. "I like, hear it in my nightmares. If my phone buzzes, I hear the same cadence, the 'You will not replace us.' That one is just so terrifying to hear the whole time. The cadence."
Romero testified that the neo-Nazis yelled at her and Willis, who is Black: "Go back to where you came from," and "What are you doing here, bitch?" She said they made monkey noises.
"I tried to keep my head down," Romero testified. "I felt like a mouse trapped. Like a Salem witch trial, like I'm about to be burned at the stake. Devin and I were the only people of color on that side. It was obvious they were screaming at us."
She also testified that the neo-Nazis threw lit tiki torches at their feet.
Cantwell has made it clear during court proceedings that he will employ a strategy of trying to shift blame for the violence by discrediting the plaintiffs as "Antifa," either directly or by association. Cantwell peppered Romero with questions about her political beliefs, associations and knowledge of various antifascist activists.
But his strategy largely ran aground when Romero testified she didn't know anyone in the counter-protester group except Willis and another student, and that she was only vaguely aware of one antifascist counter-protester by reputation. After she was injured in the car attack, she testified that she "didn't keep up" with any of the counter-protesters she met during the Aug. 11 torch march.
Asked by Cantwell how she feels about fascism, Romero responded, "Something that literally hates my existence?"
When Cantwell probed to learn whether she felt targeted because of her ethnicity, Romero volunteered, "I'm also a queer woman. Historically, fascism genocides people like me."
Despite being maced and trapped at the Thomas Jefferson statue, Romero went to join the counterprotest the following day at Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park). She said she did not expect a repeat of the violence considering that it would be in broad daylight.
"I wanted to be there to be with friends and students and people I care about," Romero testified. "I love Charlottesville. I want to be there for the community."
As white supremacists thronged inside Emancipation Park, Romero, who is 4-feet-10, testified that she joined a group of white women standing in a line next to a police car on an adjacent street, thinking that she would be safe with them. She said Unite the Right rally-goers who appeared to be from two different groups judging by their uniforms started calling them "bitches" and encouraging each other to "run through them."
"They came directly at me and spit in my face," Romero recounted. "They said, 'Go back to where you came from.' I'm from this country. I was born here. They pushed me and threw me against the cop car. They had no reason to interact with a group of women. There was plenty of space for them to get by. To be spit on by people that hate me and think I shouldn't be alive, that think I threaten their existence — I'm just trying to go to school, man. I'm trying to get out of poverty."
The worst was yet to come.
Romero told the court that soon after she was thrown against the police car, a state of emergency was declared and the police ordered everybody to leave. She made her way east on Market Street and wound up at a small park where antiracists were gathering. She ate an orange and drank some water.
"People are just happy to see each other," Romero recalled. "Everything's fine. 'How are you?' 'It's great to see you.'"
Two groups of antiracists converged, and Romero testified that she could tell they were counter-protesters because of their colorful clothing. She heard cowbells and cheering. There was also talk that the neo-Nazis were harassing people at Friendship Court, a predominantly Black public housing community, and that counter-protesters should walk in that direction.
It happened quickly. Romero had just rounded the corner from Water Street and turned onto Fourth Street, a narrow one-way street that cuts across the pedestrian Charlottesville Downtown Mall. A couple vehicles eased through the crowd, the drivers smiling and waving. Romero said she walked alongside a friend, Chelsea Alvarado — also a plaintiff in the case — and they passed a black pickup parked against the curb.
"And then I get hit — all I know is it's darkness," she said. "It's like beep-beep. I could hear my heart beating like those war scenes in movies. I couldn't see too much. I felt dripping on my face. I'm like, 'I need to call my mom.' What else could I do? What just happened to me?"
Romero testified that, based on what she would later reconstruct, she probably flipped over Fields' Dodge Challenger, went through the air, and then bounced off twice before falling to the side of the vehicle. If other counter-protesters hadn't pulled her out of the street, she believes the car would have run over her legs as Fields put put it in reverse.
"I was holding the pole," Romero recounted. "I just wanted to lay down, but I knew if I laid down, I would fall asleep and I might not wake up."
With the exception of Cantwell, who attempted to pick apart Romero's testimony about her experience during the Aug. 11 torch march, counsel for the other defendants, along with Richard Spencer, representing himself, sought to insulate their clients from liability by getting Romero to testify that she didn't see them on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12.
Romero testified that she has had to get years of therapy and counseling to deal with her injuries. She had to take medical leave from the University of Virginia, although she eventually graduated in May 2020, and forego study abroad.
She no longer has the straight teeth of which she was so proud for her freshman year at the University of Virginia.
"I worked really hard — it's something I had already done — I had to fight for my appearance," Romero testified. "If I could get them realigned, I will — one day in the future."
The injuries have hurt her self-confidence.
"It's not just about the appearance," Romero said. "The confidence issues are inside — speaking, being myself. When I came here, I was one of the few Latinas at UVA. I worked hard to not hate myself. I worked hard to fit in in Charlottesville. My confidence was destroyed. I'm a brown woman; I know it. I can live with my scars; I have to. I hate it. People ask me what's wrong with my cleft lips."
Karen Dunn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, asked Romero why she chose to come back to Charlottesville to testify.
"I spent four years locked in my home," Romero said. "I spent a lot of time hiding and isolating myself from the world. I just wanted to tell the truth. I want closure. I want to move on. I want to be normal."