This week will see the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12, 2017. The same people wanted to hold an anniversary rally in Charlottesville but their application for a permit was turned down. But their application to hold a rally in Washington, DC was approved by the National Park Service and they are planning what they call a ‘White Civil Rights Rally’ this weekend in front of the White House. No word yet if Donald Trump has been invited to address the groups, since they clearly see him as a supporter. But a coalition of 18 groups under the umbrella ‘DC Against Hate’ plan a massive counter-protest. This has again reignited the debate as to the best way to deal with hate groups: whether to ignore them and that, starved of attention, they will disappear, or that letting them to do their thing with impunity just emboldens them.
Two nights ago I watched the premiere of the above documentary on PBS TV. It was produced by a collaboration of two investigative journalist outfits ProPublica and Frontline and is based on a series of ProPublica reports led by A. C. Thompson that delves into the neo-Nazi and other white supremacy movements in the US, to find out who its members are, why they joined, and their goals. It is the first of a two-part series with the second part to be released in the fall. You can see the full documentary here. Here’s a taste of what you will see.
It starts with the clashes in Charlottesville last year that were triggered by the arrival in that town of what organizers proudly claimed was the largest gathering of such neo-Nazis, who were protesting the decision to remove a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. You may recall the night time march of mostly young people holding tiki torches and chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” that resulted in violence when they surrounded and assaulted a small group of counter-protestors, followed by bigger clashes the next day that resulted in Heather Heyer being killed and 28 others injured when a neo-Nazi drove through the crowds. The documentary shows the police just standing there while the clashes unfolded, even when a young black man was brutally beaten on the street within yards of them. The police were unmoved by calls from bystanders to ‘do your job’ and stop the assault. As Thompson says:
A horde of white supremacists clad in polo shirts attacked a small group of anti-racist protesters, many of them students. The white supremacists used their flaming torches as weapons, smashing them into the students, again and again.
University police — outnumbered and unprepared — simply watched as the altercation unfolded.
The Police Department’s “lack of intervention was obvious to everyone present,” investigators would later note in an exhaustive 200-page report commissioned by the city of Charlottesville. “It also seems likely that the insufficient police response on Friday night emboldened people who intended to engage in similar acts of violence on Saturday. Anyone who came to Charlottesville to violently confront others was undoubtedly encouraged by what he saw in person or on video at UVA.”
The violence had been escalating all weekend and nobody — not the UVA police, not the Charlottesville police, not the Virginia state police, who had mobilized some 600 officers, not the truckloads of National Guardsmen I’d watched roll into town the day before — had seemed particularly eager to stop it.
This year, even though there is no planned event in Charlottesville, the police have gone to the other extreme and pretty much shut down the entire city center and have created what has been described as similar to martial law.
When Donald Trump later refused to condemn the group and blamed ‘both sides’ for the violence, it was clear that the neo-Nazis felt vindicated and supported by him, with David Duke actually thanking him. It is clear that these groups feel emboldened by Trump and the current climate.
Thompson tracks down some of the groups that make up the white supremacy movement such as RAM (Rise Above Movement), Atomwaffen, and Hammerskin Nation and the people involved, many of whom come from middle-class and upper-middle class backgrounds in places like Orange County in California, long a Republican stronghold. Thompson looks at actions prior to and after Charlottesville that are connected, such as the murder of Blaze Bernstein a gay, Jewish college student. Samuel Woodward, allegedly a member of Atomwaffen and a high school classmate of Bernstein, was charged in February with the murder.
Woodward joined the organization in early 2016 and later traveled to Texas to attend Atomwaffen meetings and a three-day training camp, which involved instruction in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, camping and survival skills, the former member said. ProPublica has obtained photographs of Woodward at an outdoor Atomwaffen meeting in the scrubby Texas countryside. One of the photos depicts Woodward and other members making straight-armed Nazi salutes while wearing skull masks. In other pictures, Woodward is unmasked and easily identifiable.
The young man is proficient with both handguns and assault rifles, according to one person who participated in the Texas training and watched him shoot. That person also said that Woodward helped organize a number of Atomwaffen members in California.
Social media posts and chat logs shared by Woodward’s friends show that he openly described himself as a “National Socialist” or Nazi. He “was as anti-Semitic as you can get,” according to one acquaintance.
You can read more about the Atomwaffen group here.
Another of the white supremacists at these rallies was a doctoral student at UCLA working for defense contractor Northrop Grumman and who held a security clearance. Although made aware of his activities, the company did not do anything about his activities until he was publicly identified by ProPublica in a news story. The next day, the company said he was no longer employed by them. Another was an active-duty member of the US Marine Corps. After his activities were publicized, he has since been court-martialed.
Thompson finds that these groups are seeking to restore ‘purity’ to the US, in the sense of creating a white, Christian, male-dominated, heterosexual country. They train in a paramilitary style to defend ‘white culture’ and, until Antifa came along, they were openly showing their faces and beating counter-protestors with impunity. Now that they are facing repercussions and even direct physical retribution from Antifa and others, they have become more circumspect and realized that while it may be fun to punch others in the face, it is not that much fun to get your own face punched and that while Donald Trump and the Republican party may look on benignly at your actions and find excuses for them, society at large will condemn you and employers are not going to protect you.
UPDATE: You may recall Elle Reeve, the reporter for VICE News, whose superb reporting and video from within the white nationalist movement during Charlottesville last year earned her a Peabody award. She is interviewed on CNN and discusses how the movement has been fractured and demoralized since then.
Vice News' @elspethreeve on the alt-right's state ahead of the deadly Charlottesville rally anniversary: "It's been devastating for them…Of course, they're kicked off social media, but they've also been kicked off payment processors, which means they can't raise money online" pic.twitter.com/DJJxRu1bpD
— New Day (@NewDay) August 9, 2018