by Shane Burley
White polos, pressed khakis, tiki torches, and chants of “you will not replace us” serve as shorthand for a trauma now seared into our memories. The largest openly neo-Nazi gathering in years, the Unite the Right rally that marred Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, 2017, is now a defining symbol of the escalating threat posed by newly emboldened white nationalists. In the three years since Unite the Right culminated in the murder of antiracist demonstrator Heather Heyer, large swaths of the country, formerly insulated from this reality, have finally awakened to the profound threat represented by the fascist resurgence.
The neofascist movement known as the alt-right has a significant body count. Violent clashes in Berkeley, Portland, New York, and elsewhere have become high-profile news stories, but nothing has compared to the viciousness of “lone-wolf” style white supremacist terror attacks from groups like Atomwaffen and The Base. In incidents at synagogues, churches, mosques, and other venues, gunmen have murdered dozens, inspired by antisemitic conspiracy theories and claims of “white genocide”. Public acts of cruel violence have become a defining spectacle of the Trump presidency. At the same time, many of the ideas that the alt-right was pushing, such as the scapegoating of Muslim refugees or reactionary contractions on immigration policy, have been institutionally validated and mainstreamed into the GOP.
But in the wake of that August day in Charlottesville, the alt-right, which had been growing at a seemingly unstoppable rate, began to take hit after hit. Their events were shut down by antiracist activists, they were “deplatformed” across social media and web publishing, and many of their primary organizations collapsed. However, though they have seen some degree of decline, the actions of the alt-right and associated movements continue to be marked by drastic performances of violence.
Though the Trump presidency is marked by an assiduous march of horrors, Charlottesville still stands out as a key moment in which the stakes and severity of the situation came into focus. We may wonder why this one event was so pivotal, and why we are still talking about it, despite the tragic events that have followed. There have been dozens of racist attacks since Unite the Right. Episodes of murderous racial hatred have taken a central place in the new American discourse, and, in many ways, such ideologies and the acts they inspire have always been alive and well this country. But we will always remember Charlottesville.
“Violence escalates, so the initial things that set off the cycle can sometimes be minor in comparison to what happens later,” points out far-right researcher Spencer Sunshine. We can give context to Charlottesville by considering the spikes in violence that followed.
Unite the Right was billed, accurately, as the largest gathering of the far-right in years: a full-force showing of a thousand white nationalists. The fascist right had been building for years, making white nationalist ideas palatable to an entirely new generation of college-aged recruits, but it had effectively used more moderate counterpoints to sell its political program. Assisting in this strategy was the “alt-light,” the reactionary commentators who remained just shy of open white nationalism and included people like Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
The alt-light helped to mainstream the message of more radical racists, often sharing the stage with them. They rode this relationship all the way to Trump’s inauguration. But shortly thereafter, fractures began to form. Leading alt-light ideologues, for all their bluster, still had their media careers to think about, and they were conscious of the risk of fraternizing with neo-Nazis. At the same time, the more radical wing of white supremacists was increasingly frustrated by the fact that the alt-light was distracting their much larger audiences with issues they felt were inessential.
So the Unite the Right gathering represented a chance for the white nationalists to stand on their own, and they were eager to do so on a national stage. They believed that their moment was nigh to launch a mass movement, but they needed to build a larger coalition and increase their numbers. Accordingly, older, established groups of racists like the KKK and the National Socialist Movement were included as well.
“Normal people were not clued in… They weren’t getting it that there were actual Nazis,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina. In 2016, she wrote code that could collect data from social media websites to shed light on the people and relationships that made up this new white nationalist movement. This movement was largely decentralized, with most organizing done anonymously on the Internet. This made it impossible to gain an understanding of their momentum by looking at the membership rolls of formal organizations. When Unite the Right was announced, Squire decided to write some code to scrape data off Facebook in order to further understand its scope.
“It looked really bad. The data points I was seeing were not good. They were showing a lot of crossover between groups that were very different ideologies… so when I saw people from these widely different ideologies that frankly don’t get along that well, and hundreds of them were saying that they were going to come to this thing, I was pretty freaked out by that,” says Squire.
The events recalled the past trauma of the Greensboro Massacre, which is far from forgotten in the region. In 1979, a coalition of Klansman and neo-Nazis murdered five antiracist union activists and members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina in a coordinated massacre. The plotters, which included high profile neo-Nazis like “Northwest Territorial Imperative” founder Harold Covington, ended up getting away scot-free. It was in the context of this past violence that Squire chose to go to Charlottesville with a number of other activists and join the counter-protest.
“I can’t judge what’s fair and what’s not, it’s not about redemption. We can start a reconciliation process now. The city can now start to heal,” says Don Gathers, a pastor from Charlottesville. He described sitting in a packed courtroom watching the sentencing of James Alex Fields, the white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer on August 12th, 2017. Back in 2016, Gathers was serving on the Blue Ribbon Commission, trying to figure out what to do about the Confederate monuments that still littered Charlottesville, fighting an uphill battle against those who refused to give up their celebrations of slavery.
“Then the lawsuits started, and it gave birth to the Unite the Right rally… They couldn’t understand how we would do something with their precious statues,” said Gathers. Jason Kessler, a far-right activist in town, was going to use this issue to energize his coterie of white nationalists, so Gathers and other activists came together to organize de-escalation trainings. They put out calls that led to a cascade of donations and supporters, including high-profile figures like Cornel West. The local communities of color knew something that the rest of the country seemed to have missed: that this was not new, and these movements have lethal potential.
“We expected there to be more deaths… We thought there were going to be gun fights. We thought they were going to shoot people. No, we knew it was going to be big. And what was difficult was trying to get the townspeople and the so-called leaders to believe it,” says Jalane Schmidt, an organizer and professor who was working on the ground. The far-right had been creeping in for months around the issue of the monuments, and it was obvious they were starting to build up steam.
In June, less than two months before Unite the Right, the Klan had staged a similar rally. A local Black Lives Matter chapter was thus formed in a somewhat unique circumstance: instead of only responding to discrete incidents of police violence, many activists saw the need to prepare for more serious threats than the progressive leadership was considering. In advance of the Klan rally, trainings began on how to handle these types of opponents. This dynamic—black fears and white ignorance—was not new, and spoke to a disparate experience of white nationalist violence. While the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city, refused to see the potential threat represented by the alt-right coming to town, organizers of color already knew that something was on the horizon.
The night before Unite the Right, religious activists held an interfaith service that coincided with the alt-right’s “torchlight march.” This event produced haunting images of activists in the park standing their ground against attacks, and of churchgoers fearing for their lives.
“We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it wasn’t for the anarchists and the antifascists,” said Cornel West.
The next day, after morning services, Gathers, “being the radical that I am,” came with the rest of the activists to Emancipation Park to meet the far-right protests and “look the devil in the eye.”
“It was every manner of evil and viciousness you can imagine. Fights were literally breaking out every five feet. Just in the park itself, the Nazis were in there, and they actually brought bottles filled with bleach. They brought bottles filled with urine. They brought soda cans filled with concrete. Knives, machetes, AK-47s… but they insisted they came for a peaceful protest,” said Gathers. “I don’t know if I allowed myself a moment to be scared. What’s sad is that through the training we had gone through prior to this we were very much aware and alert someone very well… could easily die that day. And, sadly, that came to fruition.”
There were rumors around town that the white nationalists had stored a cache of weapons and were heading to a housing project to attack residents. Yet as they were pushed out of Emancipation Park and stopped along their route to the residential areas, people were hopeful.
“There was a sense of jubilation, that we had won, that it was over before it started,” says Schmidt. She was watching a livestream when the Dodge Challenger came barreling through the crowd.
“I think that Heather saw the amount of hatred and thought that this was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing,” Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, told me. Heather was a vocal antiracist, but didn’t often find time for activism, since she was busy working two or three jobs to make ends meet. But the recent national upheavals and the threat to her town had pulled her out into the heat of Virginia’s summer that day to march alongside her best friend, Justin.
“I knew Justin only calls me if there’s bad news… I had no idea why he called, but I knew it was bad news,” said Bro.
The car attack was captured in videos taken from multiple angles: James Alex Fields, who had just marched with Vanguard America, accelerates and slams his car into the crowd, knocking down marchers and injuring two dozen. Heather was struck. People gathered around in a desperate attempt to save her life.
In the days that followed, Susan, grieving, waded through a flurry of grim duties familiar to those who have lost a loved one: phone calls, bills, funeral arrangements. With Heather’s final paycheck from her job as a paralegal, Susan was able to afford formal clothes for the family to wear at her funeral. During the service, she received three panicky voicemails from the White House, but after Donald Trump made his comments about “good people on both sides,” she decided that she had little reason to meet with him.
“Okay, so I see your alignment, I see your thought process, I don’t think I need to meet with you,” said Bro. “It’s become sort of a meme for activists to point out his biases. I knew it was definitely a dog whistle, and not a very silent one at that, for neo-Nazis and others to say ‘Yes, absolutely he likes us.’ Gosh, it’s been so long, and it’s only been three years, but so much has happened now that it seems like just a minor thing. But it still resonates with a lot of people.”’
Bro was so inundated with media inquiries and reporters showing up unannounced that she had to hire a pro bono public relations firm just to organize it all. Almost immediately, Heather’s murder became a touchstone, with calls for justice echoing through the country. Dozens of thinkpieces about the ostensibly “new” threat of white nationalism came out. The videos of the attack played across the Internet, allowing all to witness the trauma of that moment.
“How many black and brown people have been murdered? How many car attacks have there been this summer alone? And yet we still look at Charlottesville as sort of a turning point in American history,” says Bro. “Honestly, I tell people part of that is because we still as a society, even if we decry everything else that they say and do, we still hold this myth of the sanctity of white womanhood… It’s not that I don’t value what Heather did, but I don’t value what Heather above what everyone else did. There were a lot of people who were injured that day who are still coping with their injuries and a lot more who are still coping with PTSD from that day.”
Unite the Right came just days after the August 5th anniversary of the mass murder at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh Temple by Wade Michael Page, a neo-Nazi who had been active on the white nationalist forum Stormfront. On August 12th, 2016, Vernon Majors killed Lebanese-American man Khalid Jabara in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a racist attack, calling him and his family “dirty Arabs.” Only a year ago, on August 3rd, in 2019, a man entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and opened fire in an attempt to murder immigrants. August has been a month of sequential traumas, yet it is Charlottesville that has most come to symbolize these modern incarnations of the United States’ centuries-old legacy of racist murder.
“I think if it had been a black protester or if it had been a brown protester people would have been like ‘Oh, well, so it goes,’ because that’s what people are sort of doing over these other deaths,” says Bro. “I realize we can’t all live in outrage, nobody needs to live in outrage, but you can at least live in some level of activism. Some sense of justice for others.”
Echoes Around the World
The story of Charlottesville, then, became a warning: a story about how significant this rising fascism actually was, and what the cost of ignoring it for so long could be.
“A lot of white people had this narrow idea in their head of what a white supremacist is—you know, some swastika-tattooed skinhead or some KKK redneck, and those kind of people are very real—but Charlottesville showed those kind of caricatures represent only a small fraction of fascists in this country. The people carrying torches in Charlottesville were people’s next-door neighbors, their teachers, their co-workers, their local soldiers, their local medical professionals, and so on,” said Christopher Matthias, who was in Charlottesville at the time reporting for The Huffington Post. “I think Charlottesville’s also been this major moment in our memory because of what was caught on camera. Two of the most emblematic attacks of that day in Charlottesville—the deadly car attack and the assault of [DeAndre] Harris—were caught on camera. Footage of those attacks went everywhere. The torch march, which was staged for dramatic effect, was also broadcast everywhere.”
The proliferation of cameras on the ground and the highly visible violence of that day ensured that those scenes were burned into the public memory. And yet violence has always been both an implicit and explicit part of white nationalist organizing and ideology. Their propensity for murderous acts had garnered recognition due to high-profile cases like the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by affiliates of White Aryan Resistance or the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, but they rarely happened in real-time, in view of the masses. Charlottesville was different. A hundred live streams at once captured the far-right’s true nature, never obscuring their motives or political allegiances.
What followed in the days after Unite the Right only made the gravity and extent of the situation more evident, as Donald Trump refused to condemn the alt-right, instead legitimizing the far-right by equating them with the antifascists who were there to stop them.
“Trump saying the both sides thing is what really made it a story,” said Spencer Sunshine. “That did become a very specific turning point for the white nationalists.”
Trump’s comments helped to normalize this kind of “both sides” argument, later echoed by Steve Bannon. “The problem with the mainstream media, you give Antifa a complete, free pass,” said Bannon to MSNBC. “They are just as violent as the Neo-Confederates. They’re just as violent as these KKK guys, and they have to be condemned.”
This moment also provided cover to ‘alt-light’ figures who were not in Charlottesville. Organizations like the Proud Boys gained a certain plausible deniability, since they had (mostly) not participated. This moment helped them appear more moderate by comparison, elevating them to the status of the most central right-wing ground organization in the country. The Proud Boys subsequently rose to prominence, traveling into public view alongside pro-Trump groups like Patriot Prayer in Portland. It wasn’t until their own acts of violence were similarly captured from multiple angles that public opinion finally turned.
“I think the specter of what happened in Charlottesville lingers because, for many people, it was the first time they really saw what white supremacist terror looks like; obviously these people already had a staggering body count before [August 12th], but the image of Heather’s face, and her broken body, were shocking in a way that I think resonated with people who otherwise would have brushed aside the threat as a bunch of Nazi LARPers,” said journalist Kim Kelly, who had joined the protests that day.
The crowd was excessively brazen and refused to try and hide who they were and what they were doing—in part, because they didn’t think they had to. They beat DeAndre Harris directly in view of a massive crowd, in front of countless cameras. A right-wing protestor fired a shot at a black man in front of the news media. The reactionaries were there to do battle, and they were proud of that fact.
“I think that there were a lot of ways… that the media was able to see that as a very sympathetic counter-protest… There were a bunch of people in plain clothes confronting a bunch of Nazis dressed as Nazis. So I think that resonated quite a lot,” said Jason Wilson, who was reporting for The Guardian.
The violence had also clearly shifted in tenor and severity, moving from the sporadic terror cells of “lone wolf” violence to a mass movement. The final act of cruelty that day—Heather’s death—was the doing of a single Nazi, but it came in the context of a tidal wave of violent acts occurring in concert. The closing vehicular attack that killed Heather Heyer was an act of revenge, not revolution. It was not perpetrated to achieve any distinct political end; it was no more than an ugly expression of unmediated hatred. It caused a shocking rift in a public conversation that had previously refused to recognize the significance that the fascist right had taken on in American political life.
“I think the reason Charlottesville stood out is that people didn’t know, and now they did know,” said Megan Squire. “That was their wake-up moment. So now when things happen, like the synagogue shooting, they already know.”
Is This Progress?
Part of the living legacy of the attacks was their aftermath: the days and weeks that followed as the city and the country tried to come to terms with the events of that day. Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler infamously attempted to hold a press conference directly afterward, only to have police whisk him away from a volatile crowd. The anger was palpable, but it was not new.
But by now, it was unmistakable. The white nationalist movement had reached a scale that the wider country had not acknowledged, despite the fact that communities of color had been warning for years that this was happening. The same disconnected media and discourse that refused to entertain the possibility of a Trump victory had again missed all the signposts, until the spectacle of a thousand Nazis marching in the streets and terrorizing a community made it undeniable. The bell was rung: white nationalism could no longer be treated as a difference of opinion or a relic of the past.
“Just as its name suggested, it was an attempt to get together these disparate right-wing elements. So this was supposed to be their victory party, “ says Schmidt, who points out that this was the alt-right’s high water mark, as they were soon dealt losses by both antifascists and their own incompetence. “Organizationally they really took a hit, so that’s why Charlottesville stands out as their nadir. The worst-case scenario.”
The echo resounded through the country, touching people by invoking hidden traumas, disinterring a terror hidden by liberal myths about the nature of the United States.
“It undid in a day all the messaging I’d had as a Jew since I was a kid. That antisemitism was a thing in the past, and my grandparents had come here after the Holocaust to give us a piece of a land without pogroms,” says Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords. “The horror of it was palpable. [L]ike a monster you thought was vanquished was only ever asleep.”
This awakening had its positives. It led to an avalanche of efforts to deplatform the alt-right that is still ongoing today. The alt-right’s growth came, in part, as a result of their ability to mobilize online and manipulate the media to put themselves on the same footing as politicians and journalists. In the three years that have followed, they have been booted from everything from Facebook to YouTube to Tinder. Charlottesville also underscored the validity and necessity of antifascist organizing. Activist groups swelled with membership and turned people out to mass events. An opposition hardened, which helped to stop the mobilization that Richard Spencer had been hoping for.
“It is a sore that won’t heal. Every time we think that we started to heal, something else pops up and the Band-Aid is ripped off,” says Gathers. “I don’t want any community to think it can’t happen to you. So if there is any takeaway from that, please be always aware, be vigilant, be watchful and mindful and be ready to organize at any moment.”
The city of Charlottesville itself has changed. Since the rally, a patchwork of lawsuits have been filed against both the far-right and against counter-demonstrators, and reactionaries have continued to attempt to halt the removal of Confederate statues from the park. Activists on the ground channeled some of this energy into electoral fights for independent candidates and for initiatives like affordable housing and police accountability. There was anger to deal with, questions about how officials could let this happen, and all manner of accusations, calls for accountability, and resignations.
Flooded with donations after Heather’s death, Susan Bro used the funds to create the Heather Heyer Foundation, which provides financial support to people who are focused on social change. She still speaks out when asked, but is always conscious of opportunities to contextualize the events of that day within the scope of larger issues of racial justice.
“I wish I could say it’s a time to step forward out of their complacency and stay there… Are we still staying there? If so, why are so many black and brown bodies still in prison? Why are so many people struggling to make ends meet?” says Bro, drawing direct connections between the forces behind her daughter’s murder and the larger issues that have motivated the current uprisings protesting police murders of people of color.
“I can tell you the day that Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s death coalesced… I was sitting at my computer shaking with anger and frustration. Saying, ‘Why do we even have to get to this point before people wake up again?’ We tried to do all this three years ago, but nobody would pay attention longer than five minutes, so we are here again.”
The violence perpetrated by James Alex Fields has now been replicated, in various fashions, dozens of times. The reports of such hateful attacks are so persistent that they represent a distinct beat for news reporters. Perhaps it is because of the sheer horrifying ubiquity and increased visibility of racist violence since Charlottesville—both at the hands of everyday fascists and those who wield state power—that no single other story has eclipsed it in the public mind.
And it could be the arbitrariness of it all—in any period of repeating events, it is often a single knock at the door that comes to stand out in the cacophony of the others. Charlottesville was pivotal: a true historical inflection point, when, for many, illusions shattered, and it became clear that the fascist threat was viscerally, horrifically real. Yet the events of that day did not represent a final culmination. Their true significance will play out over decades, and whether or not Charlottesville stands as a symbol of trauma or the beginning of a rebellion against white supremacy will be determined by what comes next. ♦
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in places such as The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Commune.