White supremacists, emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, took to the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia and Seattle, Washington this weekend for one of the most visible displays of hatred from the new so-called “alt-right” movement.
The Virginia rally was originally launched in opposition to the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the newly renamed Emancipation Park. Plans to hold a massive rally in the city began building in June. “It was astounding to see it go from 100 people saying they were going to go, to 300, to 500, to 700, to raising money on online platforms to facilitate that,” said Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project.
On Friday, the white supremacists marched onto the campus of University of Virginia holding torches and chanting slogans like, “You will not replace us,” while circling peaceful counter-protesters.
Tensions were high going into Saturday’s rally in Charlottesville, as white supremacists gathered at Emancipation Park chanting “White lives matter.” Thousands of armed white supremacists began violently clashing with counter-protesters hours before the rally was scheduled to begin. By the middle of the day, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe was forced to declare a state of emergency and call in the national guard, saying “Please go home and never come back. Take your hatred, and take your bigotry.”
The rally turned deadly when a 20 year old member of the so-called alt-right, James Alex Fields Jr, intentionally drove his car into a group of peaceful counter protesters, injuring 19 people and murdering 32-year-old Heather Heyer. He was denied bail on Monday morning and has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of failing to stop at an accident resulting in a death.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Department of Justice believes the violent car attack on Saturday constitutes an act of domestic terrorism and that the DOJ will pursue all relevant charges against the perpetrator.
Dozens of others were injured in brutal clashes between the white nationalists and the counter-protesters, who turned out to show solidarity with targets of the rally’s hatred and declare that racist and neo-Nazi sentiments are not welcome in Virginia.
Laura Goldblatt, a progressive organizer and postdoctoral fellow at University of Virginia, said turning a blind eye to the white supremacist gathering was not an option, describing how history has shown that “ignoring white supremacy, in terms of shutting your doors and not coming out to confront them, has been a really dangerous strategy.”
The President, however, responded to Saturday’s violence by condemning hatred and violence “on many sides,” and arguing that he was not responsible for the rise in racist hate groups. He quickly left the room as reporters shouted questions about the endorsements he’s received from white supremacists and whether or not he would classify Saturday’s attack as an act of terrorism. Many pointed to Trump’s eagerness to call out Islamic terror as a stark contrast to his statements about the white nationalists.
The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer wrote, “Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us….No condemnation at all.” Meanwhile several Republican Senators referred to the president’s remarks as insufficient. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) tweeted Saturday, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
The Mayor of Charlottesville, disgusted by the events unfolding in his town, stated “I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in America today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president.” The President’s chief strategist Steve Bannon proudly considers himself to be a leader of the so-called alt-right movement.
According to George Hawley, a University of Alabama professor who studies white supremacists, many of the young people he’s met with in the movement were radicalized online, not by their parents, and have never heard of Klu Klux Klan leaders like David Duke, but rather follow the young heads of the alt-right, like Richard Spencer.
Spencer is the head of the National Policy Institute, an organization and think-tank classified as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. After the election, the group held a controversial conference of alt-right white nationalists, during which Spencer notoriously chanted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” as the cheering crowd made Nazi Salutes.
Spencer celebrated Saturday’s protests as “a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force.” Spencer and other white supremacists will be holding a White Lives Matter rally at Texas A&M on September 11.
Media Resources: New York Times 8/13/17; Talking Points Memo 8/14/17; The Hill 8/12/17; Chicago Tribune 8/13/17; Huffington Post 8/12/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 11/22/16