Looking back at Charlottesville

11 08 18

Exactly one year ago today, I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounded by swastika-emblazoned flags and young white men in homemade battle outfits. A few days earlier Joe, senior researcher at HOPE not hate, had asked if I thought it was a good idea to go. We’d seen the discussions about the “Unite the Right” rally online and we knew it would be big. Wellknown activists were promoting it and the sheer amount of discussion was noteworthy in and of itself.

I was also coming to the end of a year long infiltration of British and US groups, a strange year that will soon come out in the form of an hourlong documentary. The premise of this rally, to “unite the right”, fit menacingly well with the purpose of the the infiltration. Which had, in part, been motivated by a worry of a more united British and international far right. A more united movement would, among other things, allow for a pooling of resources that are otherwise spent on competition between groups.  So, we knew that if they manage to do what they claim, it would be significant.

For a little while it did. The rally showed that there was enough unity, motivation and financial resources within the movement to bring a range of groups and sizeable crowd of their adherents out in the open. This is significant but having been there myself, it wasn’t the most striking aspect of the day.

photo of neo-nazis marching in Charlottesville

As I entered the rally area and started talking to participants, their brief moment of unity stopped being my main concern. I started talking to a man from Vanguard America. He was in his early 20s and carried a shield and wore a baseball helmet on his head. Clearly expecting violence. Next to us stood another guy holding a pole with a large swastika-emblazoned banner in black and red.

The man I was talking to had just finished university and told me he never been to a rally before. He had only been active in his local group and online. Now he stood here, with his face in the open, right next to a swastika flag at one of the most media-covered white nationalist rallies in years. Having a whole career in front of him, he should have felt he had something to lose. But he didn’t worry very much about any backlash from friends, family or future employers. Several others I spoke to had similar stories. It told me that at that time, the alt-right was emboldened to the degree that the loose movement’s followers didn’t worry about these things. It represents a frightening shift towards a situation where white nationalist ideas are just another political opinion.

Fortunately, the authorities seemed to be of the same opinion and the rally’s protest permit was retracted a short time thereafter. Most of the participants marched out of the town center. But during the two or three mile walk out of the town to another park, the anger in the crowd was palpable. I didn’t think they could chant worse things than they already had but at this point it became directly murderous. “We will bathe in the blood of n***ers”, the people around me chanted and soon thereafter I had to leave, with tears running from the Mace I had been sprayed with as we left the park.

Still, as I walked with them, it felt like a win. Their opinions had not been unchallenged. The counter-protesters had mobilized far greater numbers than the far right.

arial photo of car driving into crowd in Charlottesville

After the attacker drove his car straight into the anti-racist protest, all of that changed. The attack made waves internationally and the reactions from the alt-right itself clarified what can only be described as a disrespect for life. In podcasts and forums afterwards, key characters of the Alternative Right justified the murder of Heather Heyer and voiced support for the attacker.

The anger in this movement cannot be overestimated. Little will satisfy it except for complete compliance. Access in the forms of protest permits, social media and other platforms will not calm down the far right, it will not enable its adherents and organizations to take part in the public discourse in a fair way. We’ve seen this at rallies like “Unite the Right” as well as in countless online hate campaigns against people who oppose them, weather it be journalists, feminists or anti-racist activists. Opposition is consistently met with hate, self-victimization and, in some cases, violence. Because this is not a democratic movement, and it should not be mistaken for one. Richard Spencer who took part in the rally now claims he and others are the victim of “legal warfare” for having been challenged in the courtroom, if anything a symbol of fairness and democracy. They talk about free speech but what they want is free rein and we can never give them that.

They talk about free speech but what they want is free reign and we can never give them that.


This piece was originally published on August 12, 2018 in the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter. To read the full August 12 Ctrl Alt-Right Delete in which it appeared, click here.


Stay informed

Sign up for emails from HOPE not hate to make sure you stay up to date with the latest news, and to receive simple actions you can take to help spread HOPE.


We couldn't do it without our supporters

Fund research, counter hate and support and grow inclusive communities by donating to HOPE not hate today

I am looking for...


Useful links

Close Search X
Donate to HOPE not hate