It started Friday night and took over all of Twitter and the rest of the Internet throughout the day on Saturday. It ended in at least one related death and fueled a debate that is old as our country itself and which has been rejuvenated since the nomination and election of Donald J. Trump as United States President.
In Charlottesville, Virginia there stands a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. As a part of the trend of removing such memorials to the war that divided our country and brought to a head the fight over the institution of slavery, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue on April of 2017. On May 2 a judge issued a temporary injunction to stop the removal, delaying such action for at least 6 months.
The statue was erected in 1924
Beginning Friday, alt-right, far right, neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, White Nationalist, White Supremacists, and KKK types planned to gather to protest the statue’s removal and to rally for “white rights.” Led at least in part by famed KKK leader Richard Spencer, the official rally was planned for August 12th, Saturday. University of Virginia students and faculty, along with civil rights groups, local businesses and faith-based organizations, planned a counter-protest and peaceful vigil ahead of the Saturday rally. Leading up to the demonstration, UVA President Teresa Sullivan sent a campus-wide email urging students and faculty to avoid the demonstration because of the increasing risk of physical violence. “The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote that the extremist rally was ‘shaping up to be the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.’”
The rally, officially named “Unite the Right,” promised to bring together a wide array of far-right groups and supporters. Airbnb reportedly cancelled many bookings for the weekend, as well as user accounts, once it learned that they had been booked for those attending the rally. The company stated that those users failed to adhere to Airbnb’s official contract which requires users to “accept people regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age.”
The “Unite the Right” had its permit revoked at one point in July by Emancipation Park, but it was reinstated in order to not infringe on the groups’ First Amendment Right of free speech, according to the court decision.
Friday night, groups began gathering and cat UVA and chanting “White Lives Matter,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other such slogans. They carried tiki torches and were predominantly white men.
The group was met by counter-protesters in a conflict that would continue into the next day. There was reportedly physical clashing from both sides, with both rally-attendees and counterprotesters reportedly being hit by pepper spray. There were also reports that the White Nationalists utilized their tiki torches as weapons.
The gathering was then declared an unlawful assembly and officials attempted to break it up. White Nationalists reportedly “hurled anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic slurs at several reporters and community members” who were nearby and attempting to ask them questions.
The official rally was set to begin Saturday at 11 am, with Nationalists and counterprotesters gathering ahead of time. The City of Charlottesville declared an official state of emergency, claiming an “imminent threat of civil disturbance, unrest, potential injury to persons, and destruction of public and personal property.” An hour later, Governor Terry McAuliffe declared his own state of emergency stating that “the mostly-out-of-state protesters have come to Virginia to endanger our citizens and property;” he added that he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry and violence these protesters have brought to” Virginia.
People still gathered, with White Nationalists waving Confederate flags, anti-Semitic posters, and wearing various Nazi and overtly racist clothing.
Estimates put the number of White Nationalists at approximately 500 and the number of counterprotesters at 1000. Despite the declared states of emergency and the official cancellation of the rally by government officials, the two sides faced off and violence erupted almost immediately Saturday morning. Riot police reportedly cleared the scene just before noon but a chunk of the far-right protesters moved to another nearby park to listen to their scheduled speakers.
Sometime around 12:30 pm a car sped into a crowd of mostly counterprotesters, with eyewitness videos showing bodies flying, a panicked scramble to get out of the way, and then people racing to chase the alleged attacker in his car. A gray Dodge Challenger was identified as the car that crashed into those gathered on a pedestrian mall and then reversing at a similarly high speed to crash into more people. Witnesses were adamant that it was an intentional attack.
— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) August 12, 2017
19 people were injured and rushed to a local hospital. Latest reports stated that five were still in critical condition.
32-year-old Heather Heyer was identified Sunday as the sole fatality of that crash. She was a paralegal who worked with people going through financial crises; her boss said that “Heyer had a gift for helping people facing financial disaster” and described her as “compassionate” with “a big heart for people.”
Friends and supporters across the country were quick to note that Heather’s last Facebook cover photo had a tremendously appropriate quote: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” It was posted on November 19th, just over a week after Donald Trump’s election.
Based on her Facebook, Heyer was also a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016.
Soon after the crash, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old from Ohio, was arrested on charges of second-degree murder, malicious wounding, and failure to stop after an accident resulting in death. He was quickly identified by Internet users as an attendee of the Unite the Right rally via public photos of the various gatherings from the weekend.
“Two hours before the car attack, Fields had been photographed by a New York Daily News photographer brandishing a wooden shield emblazoned with the logo for neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, standing alongside the group’s members.” That group later denied that Fields was a member of their group and stating that their shields were handed out freely to those attending the rally.
Fields mother, Samantha Bloom, told reporters she only knew he was going to some kind of rally and that she tried to “stay out of his political views.” She also stated that she told him to “protest peacefully.” Bloom believed that the rally her son would attend had something to do with Trump and stated “Trump’s not a supremacist.” She also attempted to defend her son’s bigotry by stating that “He had an African-American friend so…” According to NPR, her voice trailed off and she didn’t finish her thought. This is a typical defense against racism even when, or particularly when, the person’s beliefs, language and actions clearly contradict the idea that having “an African-American friend” constitutes a lack of racism.
One former teacher described Fields as fascinated with the Third Reich in high school. According to The New York Times, Fields did a brief stint in the Army in 2015. Others described him as reclusive and not “afraid to make you feel unsafe.”
The lone wolf identification is a common one when crimes like this are perpetrated by white men: lone wolf, mentally ill, and other phrases are used to distance the criminal from the group(s) he represents and others of his race. The opposite is often true, however, when a person of color commits a crime; someone with a presumably Middle Eastern background or appearance is automatically labeled a terrorist with almost near consensus even before any hard facts are learned about the person.
Internet commenters were quick to label Fields’ actions as domestic terrorist because of his connections to far-right groups and the setting at a far right rally where White Nationalists arrived with automatic weapons and violence was present at the start. Google defines “terrorism” as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Fields was not a lone wolf, because in photographs he is surrounded by those who share his beliefs, those who grew up believing that the Third Reich had things correct, that Robert E. Lee is a hero instead of a representation of the most reprehensible parts of our history, and that Jewish people, people of color, non-white immigrants, queer people, women, disabled people, transgender people and more should have less rights than white, straight cisgender men.
Later Saturday it was also reported that two Virginia State Patrol troopers had died when the helicopter they had been using to monitor the clash in Charlottesville went down in a wooded area. Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates were killed; the cause of the crash is as yet unknown.
Stoking the outrage to the far-right gathering and the violence was President Trump’s lack of definitive response to the events. Many at the ‘Unite the Right” rally claimed to be marching in Trump’s name, with Richard Spencer a previously vocal supporter of the “Muslim-ban,” “grab-em-by-the-p***y,” “Mexicans are rapists,” president.
In various statements at a press conference and on Twitter, Trump alluded to “our history” and condemned “violence on many sides,” without overtly condemning the racist, bigoted ideologies of the “Unite the Right” attendees who marched in his name, instigated the worst of the violence, and directly caused Saturday’s fatality and worst injuries.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called Trump out directly, stating that “the violence, chaos, and apparent loss of life in Charlottesville is not the fault of ‘many sides. It is racists and white supremacists.”
Senator from Oregon Ron Wyden had a stronger condemnation, stating that President Trump’s remarks “only serve to offer cover for heinous acts.”
Senator Orrin Hatch Tweeted: “Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society.” He added: “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.”
Marco Rubio urged people not to give the far right protesters “the relevance they crave.”
Former president Bill Clinton Tweeted: “Even as we protect free speech and assembly, we must condemn hatred, violence and white supremacy.”
Former president Barack Obama shared several quotes from South African president Nelson Mandela, including: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”
Senator and former presidential-nominee Bernie Sanders drew a parallel between Friday and Saturday’s violence and the recent uptick in reported hate crimes, which has been linked to President Trump’s campaign rhetoric as well as his actions and rhetoric since taking office. “White this incident is alarming, it is not surprising,” Sanders Tweeted. “Hate crimes and shows of hostility toward minorities have recently been surging. Now more than ever we must stand together against those who threaten our brothers and sisters.”
Hillary Clinton Tweeted a long thread indirectly calling out Trump’s diluted condemnation and espousing her support for the counterprotesters and The Resistance movement which began when Donald Trump won more electoral votes than she did in November of 2016; Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 3 million votes. Clinton Tweeted: “My heart is in Charottesville today, and with everyone made to feel unsafe in their country. But the incitement of hatred that got us here is as real and condemnable as the white supremacists in our streets. Every minute we allow this to persist through tacit encouragement or inaction is a disgrace, & corrosive to our values. Now is the time for leaders to be strong in their words & deliberate in their actions. We will not step backward. If this is not who we are as Americans, let’s prove it.”
Even the leaders of Donald Trump’s Republic party spoke out directly against the hate and bigotry in Charlottesville. Paul Ryan Tweeted: “Let it only serve to unite Americans against this kind of vile bigotry.” Mitch McConnell Tweeted that “the hate and bigotry witnessed in #charlottesville does not reflect American values. I wholeheartedly oppose their actions.”
Finally, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, in a speech made late Saturday addressed White Supremacists directly: “There’s no place for you here. There’s no place for you in America.”
Some online were quick to remind that this country was built on slavery and the oppression of people of color and that this phenomenon is not new. For some, it had become easy to self-convince that our country was becoming, or had become, somehow “post-racial,” but the election of Donald Trump and the events in Charlottesville show that not only has the racism, hatred and bigotry that fueled our nation’s birth gone away, it is also still trying to strengthen its resurgence.
There is optimism in the bipartisan denouncement of the White Supremacists and the fact that counterprotesters outnumbered “Unite the Right” protesters; but, the President’s lack of definitiveness is worrisome to say the least.
It was announced, however, that the Department of Justice is opening an investigation into the events in Charlottesville. Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ past, which is smeared with racism, stated: “The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice. When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”
Groups throughout the country are holding sympathetic protests, rallies, gatherings and vigils to honor Heather Heyer and stand in solidarity with those who countered the White Nationalists who took over Charlottesville this weekend. In New York City, people are gathering at 59th Street and Columbus Circle, near Trump Tower, at 5 pm.