Far-Right Groups Surge Into National View in Charlottesville

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Far-right marchers were met Saturday by counterprotesters at the Unite the Right rally.

Credit
Matt Eich for The New York Times

It was a deadly weekend of rage-fueled street battles. And after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., leaders of white nationalist groups claimed success.


“It was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force,” said Richard B. Spencer, the far-right figure who had come to Charlottesville to speak at Saturday morning’s “Unite the Right” rally.

The declaration from Mr. Spencer, in an interview late Saturday, was typical of the man who has rhetorically elbowed his way into the national conversation with his use of Nazi language and his unalloyed contention that America belongs to white people.

And indeed, the demonstrations in Charlottesville were perhaps the most visible manifestation to date of the evolution of the American far right, a coalition of old and new white supremacist groups connected by social media and emboldened by the election of Donald J. Trump.

Yet it is by no means clear what the demonstrations mean for the future of this movement and what, if any, lasting effect they will have. Will the overt displays of racism return the extreme right-wing to the margins of politics, or will they serve to normalize the movement, allowing it to weave itself deeper into the national conversation?

Many Americans watched transfixed as members of those groups marched down the street, barked out anti-Semitic chants and openly displayed the symbols of Nazi Germany and the secessionist South.

And many looked on in horror as a speeding car crashed into other vehicles on a crowded street Saturday afternoon, resulting in the death of a 32-year-old woman and injuries to at least 19 other people.

Though President Trump, in his comments, declined to single out the white supremacist movement, many mainstream conservatives were appalled. Senator John McCain called the white supremacists “traitors” on Twitter.

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, called them “repugnant.”

The Justice Department announced late Saturday that it was opening a civil rights investigation. “The violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.”

Some left-leaning Charlottesville organizers like Laura Goldblatt, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, said that the full airing of such ideas would eventually lead more Americans to reject them. “I think this is the beginning of the end for this spectacularized part of the movement,” Ms. Goldblatt said.

But some key far-right leaders say the outcome was exactly what they had hoped for.

“We achieved all of our objectives,” Matthew Heimbach, a founder of the Nationalist Front, a neo-Nazi group that bills itself as an umbrella organization for the white nationalist movement, said in an interview Saturday. “We showed that our movement is not just online, but growing physically. We asserted ourselves as the voice of white America. We had zero vehicles damaged, all our people accounted for, and moved a large amount of men and materials in and out of the area. I think we did an incredibly impressive job.”

Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville conservative and the main organizer of Saturday’s rally, has been fighting for months against the City Council’s plan to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park, which once bore Lee’s name.

Although he is a relative newcomer to the white nationalist movement, Mr. Kessler is well known in his hometown. He has attacked the city’s status as a sanctuary for immigrants and has waged a public battle against Wes Bellamy, the black vice-mayor of Charlottesville and one of its city councilmen.

For weeks, a flier for the Unite the Right meeting made its way around the internet. It featured Pepe the Frog-styled soldiers bearing Confederate battle flags, and promised featured speakers like Mr. Spencer and Michael Hill, president of the Southern pro-secession group League of the South.

In Charlottesville, established groups like the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, as well as liberal and anarchist groups, started planning their response in June when activists learned that the Ku Klux Klan would be marching in the city — and that Mr. Kessler’s rally would follow quickly after it, said Nathan Moore, who sits on the steering committee of Together Cville, a resistance group that formed shortly after the presidential election.

“It was all these different affinity groups that came together in the same place even if they didn’t know each other before,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s been a real summer of hate here.”

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A torch-lit parade of neo-Nazis and segregationists marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Friday night.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

Heidi Beirich, who runs the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors far-right groups, was among those who watched with alarm as the online excitement over the gathering grew. “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,” she said.

Over the weekend, far-right groups poured into town, representing long-established racist organizations and the newer alt-right movement. It was not the first time these two strains had met up for a rally in recent months — members of both had appeared at a pro-Confederacy rally in New Orleans in May — but it was the latest example of a new bridging of two generations of hard-right sensibilities.

George Hawley, a University of Alabama political science professor who studies white supremacists, said that many of the far-right members he had interviewed did not inherit their racism from their parents, but developed it online. Many of them had never heard of, say, David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

But this weekend, Mr. Duke arrived in Charlottesville, along with an array of old-school and new-school white supremacists. They included organizations like Vanguard America, whose Nazi-era motto “Blood and Soil” was chanted by the marchers on Friday night, and the Rise Above Movement, a loose collective of California neo-Nazis, formerly known as the DIY Division, who train to fight at political events. Members of the League of the South showed up, as did their more recently radicalized colleagues from Identity Evropa, a white separatist group that endorses racial segregation.

On Friday night, hundreds of far-right sympathizers bearing torches marched across the University of Virginia campus, chanting “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” There was a brawl with counterprotesters, and at least one arrest.

Mr. Kessler said that the movement’s torch-lit rally Friday night was especially successful. “It was a beautiful moment that no one will ever be able to take away from people who were involved.”

The next morning, the trouble started early. Mr. Spencer recalled driving to Emancipation Park with Mr. Kessler. They arrived around 10:15 a.m., and were almost instantly met with dissent.

“As we were going in, I was sprayed with Mace,” Mr. Spencer said. “Someone jumped out of the crowd and I got it in the face.”

Video

State of Emergency in Virginia as White Nationalists March

The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville Saturday as white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters over a plan to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park.


By AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER on Publish Date August 12, 2017.


Photo by Matt Eich for The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

The counterprotesters included members of the local Charlottesville clergy and mainstream figures like the Harvard professor Cornel West. As the rally erupted into violence Saturday morning, the First United Methodist Church on East Jefferson Street opened its doors to demonstrators, serving cold water and offering basic medical care.

Dr. Hawley said he believed the far-left activists, known as antifa, were welcomed by the white nationalists. “I think to an extent the alt-right loves the antifa because they see them as being the perfect foil,” he said.

But Ms. Goldblatt, while not addressing those leftists who resorted to violence, said that some kind of response in the street was necessary. History, she said, 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 scenes of violence were already dominating cable television news by 1:42 p.m., when a gray Dodge Challenger sped down a narrow street choked with counterprotesters. The driver, identified by the police as James Alex Fields Jr., had been seen at the protests alongside members of a right-wing group. He was charged with second-degree murder.

The organizers of the event distanced themselves from the crash and Mr. Kessler disavowed any knowledge of Mr. Fields. “I don’t know anyone who knew,” Mr. Kessler said. “Everyone in my circles was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Lawrence Rosenthal, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, said that Mr. Spencer appeared to welcome this level of violent, street-level politics. He noted an audio recording Mr. Spencer made after similar skirmishes in April in Berkeley. Mr. Spencer called them a “pitched battle” between two polarized, political “vanguards” that reminded him of political upheavals, presumably in Germany, that took place in the 1920s and 1930s.

“This is a very different dynamic than I’m used to,” Mr. Spencer said. “I thought that political violence had just become impossible, that we’d never see it again.”

Mr. Kessler was scheduled to address the news media Sunday. When he appeared, he was shouted down by protesters, and someone punched him.

After widespread criticism of Mr. Trump’s remarks, an anonymous White House spokesperson on Sunday said in a statement that the president “condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, K.K.K. neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”

Preston Wiginton, a white nationalist from Texas, announced this weekend that he would hold a White Lives Matter rally at Texas AM on Sept. 11 with Mr. Spencer as a guest speaker. And on the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, a post promised: “There will be more events. Soon. We are going to start doing this nonstop. Across the country.”


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