CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Just over her mask, Patra Okelo's eyes brimmed with tears when she recalled the instant that a truth about America dawned and her innocence burned away.
One moment on Aug. 11, 2017, she thought the tiki torches blazing in the distance at the University of Virginia were “the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, lighting up the darkness.” Later, on television, she could see the fire more clearly. Hundreds of white supremacists carried those torches, sparking 24 hours of fury and death that transformed Charlottesville into an enduring battle cry of the 2020 presidential election.
“My heart broke that night,” Okelo, now 29, said on Saturday, as President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden blitzed across the country to make the closing arguments of their bitter contest to lead the divided nation.
Presidential elections are traditionally moments when Americans get a high-definition look in the mirror. But by the final, frenetic sprint of the 2020 race, the world had long peered into the country's darkest corners and seen a battered and haunted image staring back.
The presidency and control of the Senate are in the balance, but for many, there was something even more urgent. Survival was the immediate goal, both as human beings and as a country whose very name seems aspirational at a time of such division and angst.
The list of threats is long and personal: Coronavirus has killed more than 230,000 people in the U.S., and infections are surging in almost every state. The economy and with it families are suffering from uncertainty. The legacy of slavery ripped through society yet again this year after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests and crackdowns by law enforcement.
Okelo can draw a line from the August night in 2017 when she first saw the torches to the last hours of the 2020 election. She voted for Biden.
On Aug. 12, 2017, in the hours after the torchlight parade, James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a group of protesters on 4th Street and killed activist Heather Heyer. That intersection is now decorated with purple flowers and messages in chalk. Okelo says she has avoided the area ever since.
Trump blamed “both sides" for that conflagration. Earlier this year, he boarded up the White House and used federal forces to protect it from the protests over Floyd's death. And when asked, he has most often refused to condemn white supremacy.
Okelo, who is Black, heard when Biden launched his campaign for president with the words, “Charlottesville, Va.”
“My younger brother is in danger,” Okelo said she has come to realize. “So I waited in line today, and I voted as I did.”
But the connection between 2017 and now also is marked by contrasts.
A year ago, Americans were riveted by the House impeachment proceedings against Trump for his appeals for political help from Ukraine. The Senate acquitted him at the beginning of 2020, followed by Trump's victory lap and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's show-topping rip of his State of the Union speech.
A campaign that started with more than two dozen Democrats competing for the right to challenge Trump ended with Biden the party's nominee, and one of his rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris, as his running mate, the first Black or Indian woman to seek the vice presidency.
It seems like a distant, more innocent time. When Harris announced her own presidential bid nearly two years ago, she did it before nearly 20,000 people attending an outdoor event in her home city of Oakland, California. Campaigning in the West in the race’s final week, Harris spoke in Las Vegas to a socially distanced crowd of people sitting on blankets spaced 6 feet apart.
White circles around chairs denote appropriate social distancing.
As for the sound of the 2020 race, car horns have replaced the roar of Democratic crowds.
“Honk if you're fired up! Honk if you're ready to go!" former President Barack Obama has said in the final swing.
On the Republican side, Trump remained energized by large, mostly unmasked crowds in defiance of the advice from his administration's top public health officials.
The president was making a final blur of 10 rallies across battleground states, arguing falsely that the coronavirus was on the wane and falling back on familiar anthems about Hillary Clinton, his vanquished 2016 rival, and building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“Tuesday is our big deal as a country!” Trump said on Sunday, as he braved flurries and a stiff wind chill in Michigan. The president is aiming to run up support in the whiter, more rural parts of the state with warnings that a Biden win could be disastrous for the economy.
Down in the polls and at a cash disadvantage, Trump expressed confidence and said of Biden at one point, “I don’t think he knows he’s losing.”
In contrast, Biden’s campaign rallies through Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania were strictly distanced and often drive-in affairs where mask-wearing is required.
At an Atlanta-area event on Sunday, a Biden staffer stepped to the podium and enforced the rules just before Harris spoke.
“Y’all need to go back to your cars,” the aide said. “We are not a Trump rally.”
Also defining this campaign at its ragged end is a hovering uncertainty and anxiety. Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to Biden, and his exhortation to supporters to “stand back and stand by” the polls to make sure the vote is legit sounded to some like a call to intimidate voters and elections officials.
Images and reports, such as a get-out-the-vote rally in North Carolina on Saturday that ended with law enforcement pepper spraying the crowd, kept the country on edge. State police said participants were blocking the roadway and had no authorization to be there. In Texas, Trump supporters in cars and trucks swarmed around a Biden campaign bus at high speed on a highway.
The collective anxiety was taking a toll.
Mary Williams, a Democrat from Port Huron, Michigan, said she was “so nervous” because she remembered feeling confident about Hillary Clinton’s chances before her stunning loss to Trump in 2016.
“I jump up in the middle of my sleep,” Williams said.
Associated Press writers Alex Jaffe traveling with Biden, Zeke Miller with Trump, and Kathleen Ronayne with Harris contributed to this report.
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