Remember, Reckon & Recommit: Charlottesville, Three Years Later

By Eric K. Ward

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White nationalists gather in Charlottesville, Va., armed Oath Keepers member in Ferguson, Mo., and federal agents in Portland, Ore.

Charlottesville. A place now synonymous with America’s rising white nationalist threat, and community resistance to it. As we observe the third anniversary of that pivotal night and day, we look closely at the legacy of the event that added Heather Heyer, a white antiracist demonstrator killed by a weaponized vehicle, to the litany of names we say.

There are many ways to take stock of the legacy of Charlottesville. I’ll explore two from each side of the ledger. Shifts in public opinion and the removal of Confederate statues are good news for inclusive democracy. But at the same time, attacks on pro-democracy protesters are increasing, as is systemic collusion by public officials with the paramilitaries of the far-right. Charlottesville set the stage for both.

I’m up too late every night following reports of violence against protesters from all fronts — whether by militarized local police forces and politically-placed, constitutionally-questionable federal agents, or by armed paramilitary formations and lone actors poisoned by internet conspiracy theories. We are in the midst of a new era of state violence and repression of constitutionally-protected protest.

If elected officials and responsible law enforcement don’t step up in defense of civil protest and democratic practice, we are going to see more pro-democracy protesters killed — their blood not just on the hands of white nationalists but on the hands of irresponsible law enforcement and armed mobs.

As we observe these anniversary days of August — days of remembrance, reckoning, and recommitment — we say their names. We say the names of the lives taken from us by hate violence: sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, neighbors and friends. We say the names of the places: El Paso (August 3, 2019). Oak Creek (August 5, 2012). Ferguson (August 9, 2014). Charlottesville, August 11–12, 2017.

We must also say: No more. No more Ahmaud Arberys, killed by white supremacists. No more George Floyds, Breonna Taylors, Sandra Blands, Michael Browns, killed by racist police. And no more Heather Heyers, killed for standing up against white nationalist violence.

Remembrance: How Far We’ve Come

As we look to what must be done, it’s important to note how far we’ve come. Let’s start with the shifts in public opinion. Just as George Floyd’s murder reflected back to America the brutal persistence of anti-Black racism, the Unite the Right mayhem in Charlottesville three years ago forced the polo-shirted mainstreaming of white nationalism and antisemitism into national consciousness.

In the weeks following the white supremacist and neo-Nazi invasion of Charlottesville — dismissed by the President as “very fine people on both sides” — researchers found that 39% of those polled agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this county”; 31% agreed that America should “protect and preserve its White European heritage.”

While these beliefs may continue to express the anxieties of a significant portion of our populace, today different polling numbers are grabbing the headlines. “The Floyd protests have changed public opinion about race and policing,” wrote The Washington Post. In the first two weeks of the racial justice uprising ignited by Floyd’s televised murder, “American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much as it had in the preceding two years, reported The New York Times which noted, “Never before in the history of modern polling has the country expressed such widespread agreement on racism’s pervasiveness in policing, and in society at large.”

We know that how white folks respond to pollsters on questions of race often doesn’t translate to their choices at the ballot box or the policymaking of the leaders they elect. It’s too early to say if this time will be different. But we do know something very tangible is already different three years after Charlottesville: the American landscape is no longer quite so littered with Confederate statues and flags.

Defense of a statue of Robert E. Lee was the purported purpose of the Unite the Right. Two weeks after that deadly rally, a New York Times infographic depicted about two dozen communities that had removed similar statues.

Charlottesville and George Floyd’s murder both escalated the debate over symbols that glorify white supremacy. But the current reconsideration of these racist remnants began on another landmark day: June 17, 2015, at the historic and beloved Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The white gunman who accepted its parishioners’ invitation to worship with them before committing his massacre had an affinity for the Confederate flag; national outrage sparked calls for its removal.

Looking now at the full five years since Charleston, 114 Confederate symbols have been removed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s updated report Whose Heritage?, 1,747 still stand.

Reckoning: How Much We Still Must Do

We now know a lot more about the identities and intentions of the mob that descended on Charlottesville three years ago. “They did not come to protest peacefully. They came with a plan to provoke violence,” according to Integrity First for America which has filed suit against the leaders of the event.

Defendants are two dozen prominent white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and hate groups that planned, promoted, and executed the violent acts in Charlottesville. They came with clubs and shields, pistols and assault rifles, helmets and pepper spray. Defendants killed one woman and injured dozens more. Defendants include Jason Kessler, a white nationalist who led the organizing efforts; Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who believes in “ethnic cleansing”; Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist who said, “Of course we look up to men like Adolf Hitler”; and James Alex Fields Jr., who drove the car that killed Heather Heyer; as well as hate groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party, Identity Evropa, and the League of the South. Source: Integrity First for America

Charlottesville was more than the debut on the national stage of the white nationalist and white supremacist forces that felt emboldened by Trump’s election. It was the launch of a dangerous new trend: attacks on peaceful, constitutionally-protected protesters, as documented in the new SPLC report When the ‘Alt-Right’ Hit the Streets: Far-Right Political Rallies in the Trump Era. Charlottesville launched the narrative that depicts armed vigilantes and organized paramilitaries as righteous defenders of communities and “heritage”. What has come to be called “antifa hunting”.

When the murder of George Floyd proved to be the straw that broke the back of mainstream silence in the face of anti-Black police brutality, President Trump revived the racist rallying call, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Non-violent civil protests for racial justice were met not only with militarized police violence, but with armed vigilantes wearing full body armor and camo who’ve harassed and menaced protesters with taunts and weaponized vehicles. Trump’s labeling as “terrorist” those who oppose fascism ignited a wave of armed vigilante mobilization in suburban towns and rural outposts, incited by false rumors of an “antifa invasion”.

President Trump tweeted “…the shooting starts” on May 28 and pointed the finger of blame for protests on anti-fascists, pledging to designate “antifa” a “terrorist organization” on May 31. In the 12 days after Trump’s provocation, Western States Center’s internal tracking logged 150 assaults on protesters by people who were not on-duty law enforcement. At least two dozen of these involved the use of a vehicle to menace or cause injury, in at least 15 states from Maine to California — including the death of an African American protestor in Bakersfield struck by a white man sporting what appear to be white supremacist tattoos.

USA Today, The Guardian, Slate, and Just Security have all documented the alarming rise in the weaponization of vehicles against protesters with headlines reading, respectively: “‘I would be very careful in the middle of the street’: Drivers have hit protesters 66 times since May 27.” “Drivers target Black Lives Matter protesters in ‘horrifying’ spate of attacks.” “Why So Many Drivers Are Ramming Into Protesters.” And “Vehicle Ramming: The Evolution of a Terrorist Tactic Inside the U.S.” Far-right corners of the internet have a horrifying way to sum up this tactic: “Black Lives Splatter”.

The presence of armed militias in the middle of non-violent civil protest is rightfully shocking to those who haven’t seen it before. But for some of us, sadly, this isn’t new. Oath Keepers descended on Ferguson, Missouri during protests in response to the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. Describing themselves to reporters as “current and former U.S. soldiers, police and first responders who aim to protect the U.S. Constitution,” these self-appointed Rambos strode through Black neighborhoods brandishing military-style assault rifles.

In the West, armed paramilitaries are well-established. There have been the big, headline-making moments, like the armed 2014 standoff in Nevada between the Bundy family and law enforcement that led to the 2016 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in violation of Burns-Paiute Tribal sovereignty and state and federal law.

In New Mexico, heavily armed paramilitary groups are a frequent presence at protests calling for racial justice, with one vigilante shooting and critically injuring a protestor on June 15. In Ohio, a peaceful small-town Black Lives Matters protest was hijacked, according to news reports, by “a group of armed motorcyclists and others showed up wearing Confederate flag, Punisher and Trump-themed hats and clothing, some of them apparently drawn by online warnings that the demonstration was organized by Antifa activists.” The tiny Olympic Peninsula community of Forks, Washington found its claim to fame as the “Twilight movie vampire town” eclipsed by news coverage of carloads of armed men hyped up on “antifa” rumors tailing a multi-racial family (including a teenager and elderly grandma) to their campsite from the grocery store and cutting down trees to block their escape.

In California, an active-duty Air Force sergeant linked to the boogaloo movement has been charged with killing a federal security officer during a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland on May 29 and a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s sergeant on June 6. His Facebook post read, “Go to the riots and support our own cause. Show them the real targets. Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box. We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.”

Targeting of protesters reached a dangerous new crescendo in Portland last weekend with pipe bombs thrown by a man who on video “appears to be a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and former Central Intelligence Agency contractor who has worked in Afghanistan — and spoken out on social media against the nightly Portland demonstrations,” according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “No one was injured in the small explosions, but the attack suggests a new, dangerous dynamic. For the past 73 days of protests against systemic racism and police violence, there has been a continuous fear that right-wing demonstrators would become involved, leading to violence. Now, it appears that may have happened.”

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, we are forced in this moment to realize that law enforcement is not just riven by the white supremacy evident in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and so many others. Too many of our public servants are actively colluding with the armed far-right.

“Antifa”-baiting by the President and Attorney General has become so routine it’s seen as political theater. But when it comes to local elected officials and law enforcement, it spells real danger for democratic practice at the community level. A document circulated by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in June warned of “Antifa groups coming to your jurisdiction for an unknown purpose.”

The idea that anti-fascists pose any kind of threat has been widely discredited. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland found that federal prosecutors have produced no evidence linking dozens of people arrested in anti-racism protests in Portland, Oregon, to the anti-fascist or anarchist movements, despite President Donald Trump’s assertions they are fueling the unrest. A database of nearly 900 politically motivated attacks and plots in the United States since 1994 includes just one attack staged by an anti-fascist that led to fatalities. In that case, the single person killed was the perpetrator. (It’s worth noting that blaming “antifa” is the same conspiracy thinking that’s central to contemporary antisemitism — as though racial justice wasn’t worthy of protest of itself, or Black civil rights movements were not capable of leading on their own without external assistance.)

In Snohomish County, Washington (the state’s third most-populous county, just north of Seattle), State Rep. Robert Sutherland, an anti-government movement sympathizer, posted a photo on Facebook of himself with three other men armed with assault rifles bragging of “defending my little town of Snohomish from rioting and looting by antifa thugs” alongside “a thousand concerned citizens [who] showed up, heavily armed” and “the Snohomish City police who were there with us, shoulder to shoulder, helping to defend our little town.”

A news account of this same night described “a hundred armed vigilantes gathering in Snohomish” including “a man waving a Confederate flag and people flaunting patches of a hate group’s coded insignia on tactical gear,” a scene the later-reassigned police chief described as “festive”.

Armed vigilantes came out again in Snohomish when peaceful protesters marched near a residence owned by Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. They found the road blocked by armed men again claiming that “Antifa invaded” the area. One video shows a man with a long gun intimidating peaceful protesters. Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney seemed to justify the vigilante response when he described protesters as “bullying” and “targeting one individual’s house” despite no evidence that harm was intended towards the Chief. The Chief, in a letter, characterized the incident as occurring “late at night,” when videos and pictures clearly showed that it was still light outside. Some have claimed that Sheriff Fortney worked in tandem with the armed residents to block racial justice protesters from exercising their freedom of speech.

In Portland, where local Police used a militarized response against racial justice protesters for weeks before Trump made the situation even worse with federal agents, the human rights watchdog Physicians for Human Rights found “numerous instances where law enforcement deliberately targeted volunteer medics and their supplies. PHR’s medical director reported “they didn’t see any official EMTs or paramedics at the protests and that medical care was left to volunteers and civil society.”

In Eugene, Oregon the Lane County District Attorney’s office announced last week that a driver who hit a Black demonstrator with his car during a Black Unity children’s march in June will not be charged with a crime. Isaiah Wagoner intervened with his body when he saw a car speeding towards children in the intersection. “What was going through my mind was seeing babies laying on the ground,” Wagoner told reporters. “I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing because I have my family out there and there were so many other families out there.” A Grand Jury considered charges ranging from attempted murder in the second degree to reckless driving — and decided they did not find enough evidence to charge the driver with a crime. This country’s history of racially biased juries shows the limitation of over-reliance on criminalization as our only form of accountability.

And just this weekend, the chief of police in Fort Collins, Colorado harkened back to Trump’s “both sides” dismissal after “pro-police” demonstrators attacked Black Lives Matter counter-protestors. “Back the Blue” bullies, who outnumbered the Black Lives Matter presence, were captured on video instructing, “Everybody keep their hands off their weapons. Keep punching each other in the face. Don’t shoot anybody.” The Denver Post coverage of video taken recounts: “a person in a red shirt uses an American flag mounted on a pole as a spear and stabs it into a person dressed all in black. One man swings what looks to be a baton, striking at another man on the ground.” Despite his officers having arrived only after most of the violence had abated, Chief Jeff Swoboda said, “It’s important to note there were active aggressors on both sides.”

These are just four examples of system failures when it comes to the exercise of constitutional rights and democratic freedoms. It doesn’t take active collusion; our system fails when those sworn to protect the community clearly favor one type of protester over another, certain forms of protest over others. Elected officials and public employees, sworn to uphold the constitution and protect the members of their communities, using violence to quash dissent, promulgating misinformation to incite violence, collaborating with or choosing to ignore armed vigilantes, and denying medical aid to those injured in the resulting mayhem. This is NOT what democracy looks like.

Of all the vehicle assaults documented in the media reports I cited above, why is news coverage of follow-up investigations and prosecutions of those responsible so scarce? Where is the political outcry against the normalization of a known terrorist tactic being used to intimidate and injure peaceful protesters? Why is the outrage amongst law enforcement and elected officials greater when it comes to property damage than when violence is directed against human beings?

Human beings like Heather Heyer.

Recommitment: A Call to Action

They came to Charlottesville thinking they could wake the sleeping giant of grievance and blame. On this third anniversary, it’s too soon to tell if they were right. At the ten year mark, let’s look back and celebrate that instead, the sleeping giant was an America ready to embrace its highest self, an America where everyone is included, and no one is left out, or kicked out by armed vigilantes. The symbols of our white supremacist past are falling. Public opinion is shifting fast. Now let’s remember, reckon, and recommit to doing the rest of the work.

I know that many of you reading this are already doing a lot to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter. Thank you. Keep at it.

And — we have to remember, at the end of the day, inclusive democracy is facing twin threats: the legacy of white supremacy and emergence of white nationalism.

We must hold those who act on white supremacist beliefs accountable; this means changes in policing and every other system that maintains and enforces white supremacy. For Southern Poverty Law Center, this includes defending the rights and dignity of immigrants, challenging discrimination and segregation, and providing essential equity tools to educators.

At Western States Center, dismantling white supremacy also includes work like centering racial justice in the “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” field, advancing gender justice, and support for strengthening tribal sovereignty.

Limiting the influence of white nationalism means pushing back against xenophobia and the targeting of immigrants, and resisting at every turn the systemic collusion of taxpayer-funded public servants with far-right paramilitary groups and those committed to a second civil war.

If you, like me, would like never to see another Charlottesville, here are three things you can do:

  1. Hold law enforcement and elected officials accountable for stopping the violence against protesters. If these institutions won’t do their jobs to protect democratic practice, use the courts. Sign on to support #SueANazi. Integrity First for America has filed suit against the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and hate groups that violently attacked Charlottesville. Reminding us that “Once in a generation, there is a trial that fundamentally changes our nation,” Sines v Kessler sends a clear message that violent hate has no place in our country. Learn more.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.

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