How Charlottesville became the symbolic prize of the far right

Far-right activists hail clashes as ‘a stunning success’ and ‘the start of something big’

The governor of Virginia has declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville and local police have declared an unlawful assembly alert amid clashes ahead of a planned white nationalist rally on Saturday, August 12. Video: Reuters

Eight years ago, as the nation’s first black president took office, pundits debated whether Barack Obama’s election marked the rise of a “post-racial America”.

On Saturday, hundreds of American neo-Nazis and white nationalists clashed with anti-fascist demonstrators in the streets of a liberal university town, sending the city into chaos as the governor declared a state of emergency.

The white nationalists had planned to rally around a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, which Charlottesville, Virginia, had decided to remove from a public park.

The far-right activists who converged on Charlottesville say diversity is just another word for white genocide. Many are Holocaust deniers and blatant antisemites.

White nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville on Friday. Photograph: Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP

They argue that white Americans are under attack, and they have been attempting to recruit new members on college campuses across America.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders, though not president Trump, decried the protesters’ explicit racism, calling it a betrayal of American ideals.

A neo-Nazi leader called Saturday’s rally, which was widely identified as the largest in decades, “an absolutely stunning success”.

By the end of the day three people were dead - two in a police helicopter crash and a woman killed when a car drove into a group of counterprotesters - and dozens injured.

Police have charged a 20-year-old man with murder, the justice department has announced an investigation, and some politicians have condemned what initially appeared to be an act of “domestic terrorism”.

Trump supporters

Speaking from his golf resort in New Jersey on Saturday, Trump, whose election was greeted enthusiastically by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, condemned the "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" in Charlottesville, emphasising "on many sides" twice.

He was widely criticised for not explicitly condemning the racism of the white nationalist protesters.

"It's the first president I've ever seen that wouldn't just outright condemn. [HE]said that there were many sides in the equation," said Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party, which he said had brought more than 100 people to Charlottesville to join the rally.

Like other neo-Nazi and white nationalist leaders, Heimbach was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump during his campaign but has since said he feels betrayed and disappointed by how the president has actually governed.

"He's not on our side," Heimbach said of the president. However, he added: "It's interesting that Mr Trump had identified that the left is violent. Maybe he has a more nuanced position that most presidents previous to him."

In their quest to maximise outrage and publicity, white nationalists have often chosen to target liberal university campuses and liberal towns.

The happiest place in America

Charlottesville, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and often described as the northernmost tip of the south, is a geographically and symbolically ideal place for the far right to assert itself.

Thomas Jefferson lived just seven miles away, while the current president owns a large estate nearby.

According to John F Kennedy: "The natural beauty of the surrounding countryside and the manmade beauty of Charlottesvillle combine to weave a tapestry of American history few other towns or cities can boast."

Voted the happiest place in America in 2014 by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, Charlottesville became a flashpoint for the far right after a campaign by a high school student, Zyahna Bryant, convinced the city council to vote to remove the statue of Lee and to rename the park in which it stands.

Kristin Szakos, a city councilwoman, said the council voted to remove the statue because it no longer wanted "to give pride of place to tributes to the Confederate lost cause erected in the early part of the 20th century".

In May, the "alt-right" figurehead Richard Spencer led a parade around the park to protest plans to remove the monument.

“What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” Spencer said at the protest.

Then in early July, about 30 members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan assembled there. The KKK were heavily outnumbered by protesters.

Since the vote to remove the statue, legal objections have delayed the final act. Members of the KKK say the decision amounts to an effort to erase white history.

Measured by numbers alone, neo-Nazi and white nationalist organisations are still a tiny fringe.

Their extreme positions - from shouting "Hail Trump!" and giving the Nazi salute, to advocating for a white ethno-state in North America - have prompted widespread derision as well as fear.

Critics say the intense media coverage of their provocations has made these racist hate groups appear more powerful and influential than they actually are. The groups have been successful in leveraging the outrage and counterprotests against them into a larger national profile.

Charlottesville is just the latest example of this: for months, fascists and anti-fascists have clashed in highly publicised demonstrations across the country, including in Berkeley, California, Portland, Oregon, New Orleans, Pikeville, Kentucky, and last month in Charlottesville, where more than a thousand people demonstrated against about 50 members of the KKK, many of them in elaborate satin hoods and robes.

Turning point

But Saturday’s rally marked a new level of intensity, both in the size of the protest and the level of the violence.

David Duke, the notorious former "imperial wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan, who attended the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, said it represented a "turning point" for the movement.

Former Louisiana State Representative David Duke arrives at a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville. Photograph: Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

"We are determined to take our country back and to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump, " Duke said. "That's what we believe in and that's what we're going to do."

In his remarks on Saturday, Trump attempted to distance himself from the chaos in Charlottesville, saying: "It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

America has been home to neo-Nazi provocateurs and other racist hate groups for decades. Not long before he was murdered by one of his own supporters, George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party, told a journalist that he expected he would be elected president by 1972 on a national socialist ticket.

Far right groups in the United States are also drawing inspiration from their counterparts in Europe. Some members of America's racist fringe have attempted to forge direct bonds with European nationalists, including Greece's violent neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn.

But there’s also no question that Trump’s rise to power has energised and emboldened hate groups.

At the same time, constant media coverage of hate leaders’ support for Trump has also given racist provocateurs a much larger and more prominent platform.

Trump has repeatedly been criticised for his slowness to condemn or disavow his extremist supporters, or to comment on hate crimes.

“Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?”

Trump responded in March 2016 after CNN's Jake Tapper asked the Republican candidate to disavow Duke and other white supremacist groups supporting his campaign.

It took the future president four days to condemn Duke unequivocally.

“David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years,” Trump told MSNBC.

“I disavowed him. I disavowed the KKK,” Trump added.

“Do you want me to do it again for the 12th time? I disavowed him in the past, I disavow him now.”

The Trump campaign made several further attempts to distance itself from Duke, with Eric Trump saying Duke "deserves a bullet".

After white supremacists in Washington, DC, were captured on video shouting "Hail Trump! Hail victory!" after Trump won the White House, the president-elect told The New York Times that he disavowed and condemned them.

“It’s not a group I want to energise, and if they are energised, I want to look into it and find out why,” he said.

‘The start of something big’

In a statement on Saturday night, Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, made a more forceful statement than the president about the events in Charlottesville. "The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice," Sessions said.

“When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville. Photograph: Edu Bayer/The New York Times

The justice department is opening a federal investigation into Charlottesville.

Heimbach and the National Socialist Movement leader, Jeff Schoep, both said they did not know James Fields, the man charged with killing a counterprotester with a car.

Schoep called the incident “unfortunate” and said it detracted from other positive events of the day.

Schoep said he has been attending rallies since the early 1990s and Charlottesville was the largest he had ever seen.

He estimated at least 1,000 white nationalists from many different groups where there.

“Usually our rallies are peaking between 100, 200 at the most. Seeing this many people was - it’s the start of something big, I think.”

Far-right monitoring groups estimated that between 500 and 1,000 people attended the rally.

"This is a national gathering that the far right have been planning for months," noted Spencer Sunshine, who wrote a report for Political Research Associates assessing Saturday's rally.