On Friday evening at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, minister-in-training Brittany Caine-Conley – also lead organizer of Congregate, an interfaith group of clergy – held an interfaith service for hundreds of participants including Rev. Traci Blackmon and Dr. Cornel West. Weeks before, Congregate had put out a national call to faith leaders, with the intent to organize against the coming influx of pro-Confederacy protesters set to descend on the city. “I feel that my faith tradition, as a believer in Christ, calls me to put my body in spaces to protect my community,” explains Caine-Conley. “As a white faith leader, I feel it is my duty to absorb violence, so that black and brown bodies don’t have to. Black and brown bodies have been absorbing violence since as long as this country has been occupied by white imperialism. White supremacy in and of itself is violent.”
As the service at St. Paul’s drew to a close, a mob of fascist torchbearers encroached upon the church, causing it and its participants to be on lockdown for safety concerns. Kasey Landrum, a social worker involved with HIV-prevention and street outreach in Charlottesville, found herself on impromptu security detail, having had to keep participants inside the church. “There is a general concern that if we all started pouring out in front of the church that we’d get picked off,” she explains. “That we will be a really easy target to harm.” Church security tried to smuggle people out of back doors, but they had to cease the operation after two men across the street were pepper-sprayed and beaten with sticks by marchers in the crowd.
Until now, the alt-right has enjoyed its privileged flirtation with far-right extremism. For years, they used the Internet to troll those it deemed enemies: liberals, SJWs (Social Justice Warriors), feminists. News coverage of the alt-right has been a symbiotic exchange that serves to boost ratings with clickbait and spectacle, for which the networks offer a platform for white nationalists to shill their fevered paranoia and hate speech. After Charlottesville, the discussions regarding the alt-right’s ironic appropriation of fascist imagery and rhetoric – and their PC-be-damned, shock-jock temperament – have been rendered moot.
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In Charlottesville, there has been “one white nationalist rally a month for the last four months.”
After two days of white supremacist violence was meted out against counter protesters, which culminated in the vehicular murder of demonstrator Heather Heyer, the “Unite the Right” rally was successful in two things: First, it forever conflated those that identify as “alt-right” with the growing virus of white supremacy infecting the United States, as broadcasts showed the alt-right unashamedly alongside National Socialist Movement’s and Vanguard America’s neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, white nationalist groups like Traditionalist Workers Party, Identity Europa and neo-Confederate groups like the League of the South. Second, it strengthened solidarity among individuals most vulnerable to victimhood, and their allies. Or as Dr. Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English and African-American literature at the University of Virginia and Black Lives Matter organizer, described, it’s a strengthening of “resolve to continue to stand up against terrorism and racism – from institutional racism to racial slurs on the street.”
Leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally, Charlottesville residents had already seen their town host “one white nationalist rally a month for the last four months,” says BLM activist David Vaughn Straughn. “They became increasingly violent and bloody.” Assorted sects of the alt-right marched together, making up a veritable color guard of the neo-fascist movement in the United States. Why do white supremacists keep returning to Charlottesville? “They are invited by the Jim Crow monuments that act as Civil War participation trophies,” Dr. Woolfork says. “There is a connection between symbols of hate and acts of hate. There is a danger in seeing [white supremacy] as neutral.”
The attacks carried out in Charlottesville stirred the nation, especially those privileged enough not to have to encounter such bigotry on a daily basis. However, it’s dangerously myopic to view what happened as spontaneous or unique. Radical white-nationalists and neo-Nazi groups have ratcheted up the frequency of their terrorist attacks. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted 917 active hate groups operate nationwide in the United States, more than half of them some manifestation of white nationalist, up 17 percent since 2014. In April, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that, “of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent),” according to a report submitted to Congress. Regardless, the Trump administration discontinued $400,000 in grants to fund Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to reform members of hate groups.
“This was not a pep rally,” says one BLM demonstrator. “They came for blood and bodies.”
When Saturday morning saw a continuation of pitched battles between the counter demonstrators and the neo-fascist shock troops of the alt-right, in the form of the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK). Donning helmets and body armor and carrying weaponized flagpoles and bludgeons, it was evident the white nationalist march was more about inflicting damage than it was to preserve the sanctity of a statue. “This was not a pep rally,” Vaughn Straund says. “They came for blood and bodies – and that’s what they did.”
The counter demonstrators, from the clergy-run Congregate, to Antifa (the black-clad antifascists that confront racists head-on), BLM and other groups under the banner of Solidarity C’Ville – have already begun the road to movement and coalition-building. One Charlottesville native, a first-generation immigrant and woman of color who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from white nationalists in the community, said she was eager to join Black Lives Matter because she admired how they “create structures that flip how regular institutions work, where people are willing to sacrifice their privilege in order to be fair for everybody,” she says. “Because ‘normal’ is the Twilight Zone for people of color.
“We must focus on our organizational skills in order to build processes and procedures,” she says. “We need to be able to mobilize more people, [so that] liberals and progressives can do more than just frown at CNN; we have places for them to go, things for them to do.”
Growing up in Charlottesville shaped the trajectory of her activism, she says. Even as a child, it was impossible to ignore “the economic and educational disparity of black people in Charlottesville.” She would ask herself where all the black male students in her AP classes were. “Why is it that my doctors are white and the orderlies are all black?” she says. It was a lifetime of unanswered questions like this that brought her to demonstrate against white supremacy at 35.
Forming a coalition for anti-fascists is vital, seeing as this is exactly the reason for the “Unite the Right” rally. Look beyond its fraternity boy aesthetic, it’s curiously overcompensating display of male dominance and its woman-hating obsession with being cuckolded. Ignore their ornamental Nordic runes, Stars and Bars and cartoon frogs of the alt-right/white nationalist movement, and theirs is a belligerent ideology. “When a group is used to being on top of a hierarchy, equity feels like oppression,” says Dr. Woolfork. “[White nationalists] are organized around the idea that whites are in a diminishing state.” They parade hate speech as free speech and domestic terrorism as patriotism, for there is neither delusion of irony, nor hint of hyperbole.
“When the cops didn’t show up, and the White House didn’t show up,” says one protester, “we realized we are on our own.”
An inclusive, progressive leftist movement is growing, even as the political middle has vanished. The first-generation Charlottesville woman of color urges activists to coalition-build by making in-roads with nonprofits that serve marginalized people. Caine-Conley, the minister-in-training, saw their alliances with Antifa as an invaluable resource to mitigate the threat of violence. Vaughn Straughn “applauded Antifa” and saw them as defenders of Charlottesville, regardless of President Trump drawing a moral equivalency between Antifa and white supremacists at his press conference on Tuesday, a claim Dr. Woolfork cited as a “false equivalency narrative.”
“It is the wrong thing to say,” says Landrum, who had assisted in giving Heather Heyer CPR, and had helped medics lift her into an ambulance. “It is placing blame on people who are literally trying to hold their city together from an invasion of white nationalists that terrorize communities of color and he says ‘on many sides.’ When the cops didn’t show up, and the White House didn’t show up, we realized we are on our fucking own, and that’s really hard, especially after you just saw somebody get murdered.”
By early Saturday evening, Kasey Landrum was back on Water Street, live streaming to her social media followers near the vigils and makeshift memorials, adorned with portraits and flowers. People offered condolences and expressions of love written on the street in colorful chalk, just feet from where Heyer had been murdered in a terrorist attack. There was a line drawn that day in Charlottesville, but not in colorful chalk. In her life, Heyer saw that line clearly and firmly knew on which side she stood. Now, many others see that line, as well.