You are here

The Battle of Charlottesville: Fighting Back against the Alt-Right

A logo for the 1997 University of Virginia Football Program
Image Credit: 

This weekend, a group of white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, a charming college town nestled between the beautiful mountain ranges that characterize Virginia’s western landscape.  In what was one of the largest gatherings of hate groups this century,[1] the “Unite the Right” rally painted the spread of its hateful message as a march in support of their First Amendment rights.  This could not have been further from the truth. They marched on the eve of the rally with hateful chants and lit tiki torches, reminiscent of days a century past.  Their intent in marching by a statue of Thomas Jefferson and onto the grounds of the University of Virginia that evening was not to express their right to free speech, but rather to attempt to intimidate the faith leaders who had gathered with civil rights activist Dr. Cornel West to pray in preparation for a counter-protest the following morning.[2]  Those who gathered in prayer were wise to do so; the events to which they bore witness shook the stability of our society.  Like many others, I am incredibly appalled by what took place, as well as disappointed in the public response.  But as a Virginian, I feel it is necessary to respond and give some semblance of historical context to illuminate the path that led to to Saturday afternoon.

Terrorists

The true nature of the Alt-Right came bubbling to the surface this weekend.  They are a group that has, at its core, ignorant and hateful racists, bigots, bullies, and domestic terrorists. Unfortunately, they are also misunderstood.  The many Facebook comments that suggested that both sides were  equally wrong fail to understand the intent of those two sides.  Even the President of the United States suggested that the hate and violence came from “many sides.”[3]  Well, sir, you are wrong.

Let me lay it out for you, Mr. President.  On the one side is a group of neo-Nazis, modern Ku Klux Klan members, and other racists.  On the other was a diverse body unified in its opposition to any expression that attempts to stifle or reverse the progress our society has made.  Your inability or unwillingness to grasp the importance of explicitly condemning only the “Unite the Right” movement and the violence they brought along with them failed to address the issue.  With your statement, you validated the acts and ideology of those racists.  By insisting that many sides were at fault, you implied that the counter-protesters who gathered to demonstrate against hate were also at fault.  Respectfully, sir, they were not. 

Prior to your ascendancy, you decried then-President Obama for failing to use the words “Islamic Terrorists” on several occasions.  This weekend, you, the leader of the free world, were unwilling to call the rally-goers what they are, domestic terrorists.  You feared doing it because you know that you bear some of the responsibility for their rise.  Your rhetoric as campaigner and president alike fan the flames of discord in our society.  In your reluctance to condemn white nationalists like David Duke and the KKK, you assured them that they no longer need to hide.  By refusing to loudly distance yourself from these supporters, you helped build their confidence, directly contributing to their willingness to invade Charlottesville.  Your “many sides” comment dismisses the fact that many who came out to counter-protest were just angry Virginians.  You failed to immediately and confidently reject the hatred and fear-based beliefs of the white supremacists.  And you failed to come out hard against neo-Nazis.  A President’s every word carries weight; his word choice matters greatly.  A woman lost her life to a white nationalist terrorist who rammed his car into a crowd not once, but twice.  Your inability to address that fact alone belittles the sacrifice she made.  Her name was Heather Heyer,[4] and she was on the right side, sir.  The side opposed to hate and intolerance.  Regrettably, your statement framed the way many now understand the situation. 

Unfortunately, many of the public comments I’ve seen on the response to this tragedy by Senator Tim Kaine and his congressional colleagues seem to blame everyone but the Nazis and racists.  They suggest that somehow, liberals and counter-protesters are the culpable party.  I’ve seen comments saying that the Alt-Right was there peacefully.  There is no truth to this, as many groups came with shields and batons deliberately chosen to beat the counter-protesters.  They came with torches and anti-Semitic and racial slurs to disrupt a group in prayer.  And still, many conservatives still want to cast ire towards people they claim are “AntiFa,” or anti-fascists, who admittedly were there, but only in opposition to the right-wing group.  Still others want to cast the Black Lives Matter social movement as a violent organization, despite the evidence to the contrary.  They are woefully wrong.

These Facebook and social media trolls seem unwilling to accept the fact that there were people there with Nazi and Confederate flags.  In my opinion, that makes it blatantly clear which “side” was in the right.  I’m not sure how else to put it, but it should be an axiom to say that, “if you get a chance to punch a Nazi, you punch the Nazi!”  Patriotic Americans fought the Civil War and World War II to rid our country and the world of such toxic ideologies.  The counter-protesters this weekend were following in their footsteps.

And if the word “Terrorist” seems too harsh a term for the group that brought terror to Charlottesville, let me explain.  The definition of terrorism is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.”[5]  Both the action and the intent in that definition were clearly present this weekend.  The nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, claimed that what happened can be legally classified as domestic terrorism.[6]  If that doesn’t convince you, consider the facts.  Thousands of white nationalists marched into a mostly liberal city with lit torches.  They brought shields and batons, rifles and handguns, and hate in their hearts bent on preventing the duly elected city council from removing its own statue of Robert E. Lee.  Their motives were political, even if they rest on politics of fear, hate, and ignorance.  Most tragically, one man, who had traveled from Ohio to join the rally, rammed his vehicle into a crowd of people he did not consider equal because of the color of their skin.  He killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others, not because they were on the “wrong side,” but because he hated what they stood for and wanted to murder them to further his ideology. [7]  James Fields is a terrorist.  Jason Kessler, the event’s organizer, is a terrorist.  Richard Spencer is a terrorist.  Calling them anything else is disingenuous.  They don’t represent the Right, they don’t represent conservatives, and they are most certainly not patriots.

History Repeats Itself

I was raised on a cattle farm in rural New Kent County in eastern Virginia.  Growing up only a 30-minute drive from Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, and near deadly battlefields like Cold Harbor gave me an intense appreciation of the Civil War.  Within miles of my childhood home is Lee-Davis High School, named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his leader, President Jefferson Davis.  At this school, like my school in New Kent, there was a noticeable tendency to mythologize these and other Confederate leaders as heroes with virtues like loyalty and honor.  The instruction there suggested that the “Lost Cause” was a noble struggle for states’ rights instead of an abhorrent fight to sustain the system of slavery that underpinned the American South in that era.  In Virginia and throughout the South, students are still taught this way.  I am ashamed to say that, throughout high school and until I attended college in New York, I tended to think this way as well.

Given my upbringing in Virginia, I am not as surprised by this weekend’s events as some others may be.  When children are misled to believe that Southern generals were somehow good and brave men, they tend to respect the myth they have been taught.  This concerted effort to rewrite history in favor of the South has made the Confederate Battle Flag a ubiquitous sight.  When I went to school, it adorned everything from shirts to trucks.  The desire to identify with a twisted movement painted as a virtuous struggle compels them to imbue such a hateful artifact with values it never represented.  If these men were indeed men of honor, their cause must have been likewise honorable, but the facts suggest otherwise.  The deification of Lee ignores the historical records of him being a spiteful slave owner who re-enslaved African Americans as he drove north to Gettysburg.[8]  While I intellectually understand why Southerners would attempt to replace shame with pride, the Confederacy is not something we can be proud of.  It’s time for monuments of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and their kind to come down. 

As a Virginian, I worry that history will repeat itself.  White supremacist and Southern revisionists plan on a similar rally, this time in Richmond.  Along Monument Avenue, there are painful reminders of our Confederate past.  Statues of Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury make up the monuments erected between 1890 to 1929.[9]  These shrines to a defeated movement have become a source of “pride,” to Confederate apologists, but to others are reminders of Richmond’s dark past.  Despite calls to follow other Southern cities in the outright removal of these statues, Richmond’s Mayor Levar Stoney suggested that the city add placards at their bases describing the role that these men played in upholding the institution of slavery.  But even that was unacceptable to some historical revisionists who attended a meeting last Wednesday, days before what happened in Charlottesville.[10]  Now, a group calling themselves the Virginia Flaggers is planning a rally at Lee’s statue on September 15.[11]  Hopefully a month from now, those promoting hate will choose not to resort to violence.  Otherwise, Virginia will once again become a battleground.

Virginia is for Lovers

While much of Virginia’s history is shameful, the Commonwealth is also full of shining examples of hope for the future.  Sometimes, it progresses in spite of those who refuse to accept change.  Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman, boldly fought against and overcame Virginia’s miscegenation laws, paving the way for national marriage reform.  The ability of Southern states to delay school integration based on the vague wording of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was finally rescinded courtesy of Green v. County Schoolboard of New Kent County in 1967.[12]  And in 1990, Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, welcomed Douglas Wilder as the first African American to be elected Governor anywhere in the United States.

Virginia is known for two famous phrases.  One, the commonwealth motto, boasts “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus Always to Tyrants.”  We must remember that tyrants are not always individuals or governments, but sometimes mobs bent on denying rights to people they deem inferior.  In Charlottesville, the counter-protestors lived my commonwealth’s motto, despite the danger in doing so that day.  Heather Heyer gave her life to face down tyranny.

 The other phrase is, “Virginia is for Lovers,” a tourism advertisement that promotes Virginia as a gorgeous place to visit.[13]  It now takes on a new meaning.  Virginia is not for those with hate in their hearts.  Virginians are lovers of liberty and their fellow humankind, and we refuse to stand by when hate groups march in our cities.  State Troopers Lt. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates died monitoring the events from a helicopter.  They loved keeping Virginians safe, and were living their beliefs when tragedy struck. There is no room for hate in Virginia. 

I hope, as a Virginian and as an American, that the lessons of Charlottesville will not be forgotten.  It is a lesson to everyone who watched the events unfold that there are white people in this country with so much anger in their hearts that they seek to intimidate, beat, and even kill those they disagree with.  It’s a lesson to those that stood up for the virtuous side that fighting for what’s right is dangerous, but that it is necessary to stem the tide of growing nationalism in America.  It’s a lesson to the administration that words matter, that the wrong spoken words can be interpreted as an endorsement of the radicals to whom you gave a voice.  Finally, Charlottesville is a lesson to the Alt-Right (or more appropriately the “Alt-Wrong”), hate groups and domestic terrorists attempting to masquerade as patriots that your tyrannical ideology will not take hold.  Impassioned and patriotic Virginians stand united against you, and history’s on our side.

References: 

[1] Bill Morlin, “Extremists’ “Unite the Right,” Rally:  A Possible Historic Alt-Right Showcase?”   Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/08/07/extremists-unite-right-rally-possible-historic-alt-right-showcase, August 7, 2017.   Accessed August 13, 2017.

[2] Chris Suarez, “Faith leaders gather on the eve of 'hate-driven' Unite the Right rally.”  Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/faith-leaders-gather-on-the-eve-of-hate-driven-unite/article_b1f33600-7f02-11e7-9b3c-7308e1924381.html, August 11, 2017.  Accessed August 13, 2017.

[3] Johnathan Lemire, “President Trump Blames 'Many Sides' for Violence in Charlottesville.”  Time, http://time.com/4898272/donald-trump-charlottesville-violence-rally/, August 12, 2017.  Accessed August 13, 2017.

[4] Christina Caron, “Heather Heyer, Charlottesville Victim, Is Recalled as ‘a Strong Woman.’”  MSN, http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/heather-heyer-charlottesville-victim-is-recalled-as-%E2%80%98a-strong-woman%E2%80%99/ar-AAq2fAX?OCID=ansmsnnews11, August 13, 2017.  Accessed August 14, 2017.

[5] Dictionary.com, “Terrorism.”  http://www.dictionary.com/browse/terrorism.  Accessed August 14, 2017.

[6] Charlie Savage and Rebecca R. Ruiz, “Sessions Emerges as Forceful Figure in Condemning Charlottesville Violence,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/14/us/politics/domestic-terrorism-sessions.html?rref=homepage, 14 August, 2017.  Accessed 14 August, 2017.

[7] Hate Watch Staff, “Alleged Charlottesville Driver Who Killed One Rallied With Alt-Right Vanguard America Group,” https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/08/12/alleged-charlottesville-driver-who-killed-one-rallied-alt-right-vanguard-america-group, 12 August, 2017.  Accessed 13 August, 2017.

[8] Adam Serwer,  “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/, 4 June 2017.  Accessed 13 August 2017.